columnBy Omar Kalinge Nnyago
Kampala — On Wednesday September 26, 2007, Kampalans woke up to a shocking banner: "56 Bodies Stolen From Kayunga Graveyards" (Daily Monitor, September 26, 2007). Their shock, however, was nothing compared to that of the people of Kayunga itself, an hour's drive to the east of Kampala, who stood on the Sunday before to the sight of dug graves of their beloved ones.
The tomb raiders took only human skulls, leaving behind other remains. Police and local leaders suspect that the bodies could have been exhumed by traditional healers.
According to the Busaana Sub-county Chairman, 37 graves were dug from his sub-county alone. Police have arrested one suspect, a traditional healer, who was found with a human skull in his house.
It was not clear whether it was one of those exhumed over the weekend. Residents were so angry. It was the police who saved the man from being lynched by the mob.
This is not the first time graves have been desecrated in the district. In June 2005, similar but less dramatic cases were reported. One person was arrested but was later released for lack of evidence. Now the sleepy Kayunga District of Uganda could be singled out as a weird outpost with a penchant for witchcraft and possibly an exaggerated love for money.
It is believed that parts of exhumed skeletons are sold in a 'neighboring country' at "good prices" for use as "powerful items" in witchcraft.
Thousands of miles from Kayunga, in the southern municipal cemetery in Caracas, South America, robbers armed with crow bars and stogie hammers shattered the tomb's concrete vault and the granite that read: "To our dear wife and mother in heaven, Maria de la Cruz Aguero". Then they lifted the coffin lid and stole leg bones and the skull of a woman. They sold the bones for $20 each, the skull for as much as $300, said Father Atilio Gonzalez, the cemetery's resident Roman Catholic priest.
According to this Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service report, quoted in the Gulf Times, the buyers of the bones are paleros, the practitioners of a black magic cult related to Santeria, whose rise in popularity is fuelled by a brew of faith and politics.
Santeria which combines Catholicism and African and indigenous spiritualism is said to have been brought to South America by slaves from Africa centuries ago and still thrives in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and increasingly, in Venezuela. It is also popular with regions in the United States with strong Caribbean immigrant communities - South Florida, Washington and Los Angeles.
Although most Santeria followers steer clear of the use of human remains and Satanism, the paleros embrace them. They use bones in black magic rituals in which the objective is to 'cast evil spells on enemies'.
Beyond magic and twisted spiritualism, others see politics at work. Father Manuel Diaz is quoted in the same LA times report as accusing the leftist government of Hugo Chavez of encouraging the rise of Santeria to counter the authority of the Catholic Church, which Chavez has traditionally viewed as his enemy.
In a letter to his parishioners in August this year, Diaz said the government had a "concrete objective to undermine the authority of the church and align its faithful with certain ideologies". The letter also claimed that the leaders of the Santeria movement were coming from an unnamed "Caribbean country", presumably Cuba, to discredit the church.
In Uganda, there has not been a political motive yet ascribed to the grave robberies. It is still believed that the phenomenon is fueled by a strange combination of greed for money and the growing trend of witchcraft that has swept Uganda since 1986 when NRM came to power.
The period has seen an unprecedented assertiveness of witchdoctors, black magicians, miracle spiritualists and revival "tricknologists" some of whom have been arrested with gadgets used to electrify unsuspecting miracle seekers, in the name of Jesus.
Other weird practices like child sacrifice have been widely reported in the Ugandan press in the past decade. Witchdoctors in Uganda are now such a strong lobby, they are pressing for official recognition as a religion of its own, which should be allowed time to pray at national functions.
It will be interesting to see how the dead body robbery trend unfolds in Uganda, especially now that we know a skull can fetch as high as 300 dollars in Caracas. What is certain is that stealing dead bodies is cool, and global business. Increasingly, the world is shrinking in its darkest of beliefs. Kayunga in Uganda suddenly becomes so near to Caracas in Venezuela in their love for dead people's parts.
It seems globalisation will not stop at seeking recognition of only homosexual rights, but perhaps grave robbers will also soon ask for their rights too as they increasingly become a global phenomenon.
As our homosexuals find it easier to seek asylum in the west on account of their persecution, the suspected skeleton robbers that were arrested in Kayunga, now out on bail, may soon also seek refuge in the capitals of our 'more developed' world. This is the era of rights, you see.