The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: In the Pink Corner - Will Witchcraft Come Into the 21st Century?

If you throw a stone into a random crowd in any part of Uganda, chances are you will hit someone who believes in witchcraft. And it does not matter whether the setting is the dusty taxi park or the parking lot of the spa at a Serena hotel - from all walks of life, this witchcraft business permeates our society, our behaviour and our thinking. It is the solution for all things and the excuse for a host of others.

Just this morning, I was reading a story about two sisters who were abducted for sacrifice, but later returned because they had pierced ears - apparently, the 'gods' don't like sacrifices with holes in them! Last week a man beheaded his wife and son because the 'gods' told him they would give him wealth in exchange for the heads. I suppose this wealth can now buy him loads of cigarettes on death row where he will inevitably end up. My first real brush with witchcraft was in high school. I went to a fairly prestigious girls' boarding school where I even rubbed shoulders with the President's daughters. You would not expect anyone there to take that stuff seriously. However, even amidst the 'cream' were girls brought up to acknowledge the power of witchcraft in shaping their destiny.

I had a friend with whom I shared everything but beliefs. Where I thought you studied to pass exams, she believed there was some powerful 'medicine' that could ensure stellar grades. And she was at least 20 times more Catholic than me, but somehow she found room in her head for the two concepts. I found out thankfully early in my life that if I rested my brain when it demanded rest, I could understand and retain more information later on at my peak hours. This method worked far better for me than spending the night with my feet in a bucket of water and a book on my lap pretending to study in the cold wee hours. I helpfully tried to share this concept with my 'friend', who angrily accused me of not being a good enough friend to share with her the real secret potions I was administering to pass exams. Needless to say, that was the beginning of the end for the friendship.

After that introduction to the witchcraft madness, I began to encounter it everywhere. People believed it could guarantee promotions at work and determine earnings and business success. There are many gruesome tales of the bodies of innocent children, severed heads and the private bits of adults finding their way into the foundations of big buildings in the city. Apparently this ensures the building will be full of tenants and a raving success. As I prepared to get married, there were a few aunts and cousins who tried to 'help' me keep my man permanently in line with some choice spells and rituals meant to be performed on the eve of the wedding. Of course I smiled and pretended to take it all very seriously and then disappeared to a hotel the entire week of the wedding.

Now that I am pregnant, I have to encounter the same daft beliefs. The lobby at the antenatal classes is full of women with alternative ideas. As we wait our turn with the gynae, the women are exchanging birth horror stories and 'recipes' for child rearing and husband-securing. They even go so far as to exchange directions and phone numbers for the most effective 'doctors' to see depending on what problem you are trying to solve. I have heard stories as bizarre as how the co-wife of one woman was responsible for her long and difficult labour - apparently, there is medicine which can 'tie' a woman's baby in her womb. Thankfully, my husband accompanies me on the antenatal visits, and when he joins me in the waiting room, his presence creates a very welcome (pregnant) silence.

The public perception of witchcraft is that it is mostly engaged in by women, although the practitioners mostly seem to be men. You can actually tell where a popular witchdoctor is situated because taxi drivers will refer to the area as 'stage y'abakyala', meaning 'the bus stop where women get off'. People can be in church on Sunday and then clad in their barkcloth to go see a witchdoctor on Monday. Even our President went for ceremonial 'blessings', pre-election. Although some pretend they are participating simply for appearances, how many more centuries will it take for us as a people to turn to some hard work and commitment to ensure success?

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