The diamond-mining region of the Lundas in Angola's Northeast spews immense riches into the hands of a favoured few. While this area is heavily controlled by private security and state intelligence, "traditional rulers" still hold significant sway in adjudicating and managing conflict amongst the majority Lunda-Tchokwe ethnic group, guided by a system of animist beliefs (Kimbanda). In this they are advised by high priests (Kimbandeiros) who, as interpreters of orally transmitted beliefs and guardians of knowledge, operate both as diviners and healers.
Angola's government acknowledges these customary leaders and healers, exercising indirect supervision over them through local committees of the ruling MPLA (Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola). For the most part, these civil and customary systems co-exist peacefully, but from time to time they collide; sometimes violently.
Such was the case in Cafunfo last month. Extreme poverty and high levels of infant mortality have resulted in desperate villagers attributing their misfortunes to sorcery and evil spells. The enthronement in January of a new traditional Queen, the "Mwana Cafunfo", delivered an opportunity to enact traditional rituals to drive out the witches blamed for their ill-fortune.
An anti-sorcery campaign was launched. Hundreds of people took to the streets, neighborhood by neighborohood, to witness a committee of around ten Kimbandeiros carry out the Queen's command to rid the town of sorcery. Accompanied by several assistants, their actions were recorded by a video cameraman and a photographer as they forced their way into the homes of those suspected of sorcery.
For onlookers, it was a veritable circus, with the high priests - some of them naked - prancing and muttering incantations as they conducted their rituals. Unfortunately, complainants reported that these rituals also involved illegal acts of violence often on the flimsiest of evidence. These included the crippling beatings of alleged sorcerers, who were stripped naked and forced onto motorcycles to be paraded through the streets of Cafunfo. There were also allegations of rape. At first the police were reluctant to intervene. Eventually, the political administration ordered a halt.
How did things get so out of hand? "Some people took advantage of the opportunity and followed the kimbandas to form a protest (against the pro-MPLA sobas)," complained Soba Alfredo Funete, the local MPLA's Coordinator of the Angolan Forum of Traditional Authorities (FAAT).
Angola's official administrations co-exist uneasily with the sobas (traditional chiefs). On the one hand there are sobas linked to the MPLA who are seen as beneficiaries of undue privilege, often accused of being informers for the regime, particularly if the regime is perceived as oppressive towards local communities.
On the other hand there are chiefs linked to the opposition, or who just keep their distance from the government authorities. Some are then unfairly labeled as sectarian, or as troublemakers who bring harm upon their communities.
Soba Alfredo Funete said he is often targeted because after the death of the former Mwana Cafunfo, seven years ago, he acted as Regent until the investiture of the new sovereign. Thus it was his responsibility for those seven years both to arrange payment of the monthly government stipend to the local chiefs and exercise some control over them.
Witch hunting and the quest for hexes
The Queen Mwana Cafunfo on the day of her enthronement in Cafunfo.
According to MwaCapenda Camulemba, this all began when on January 5, Cafunfo's traditional authorities sought a meeting with the local MPLA administration to put forward a proposal, ahead of the investiture of the new Mwana Cafunfo, to "root out the hexes" (i.e. to exorcise any evil spells).
The MPLA's Municipal Administrator for the Cuango region, Luís Figueiredo Muambongue, questioned the Queen as to whether she had the power to locate and eradicate evil spells. The Queen affirmed that she did. The administrator promptly recused himself from any involvement in the initiative.
"He said he was not going to allow this to stain his record," said soba Funete. "So he left it to the traditional authorities to organise the operation, while warning them that there was to be no violence."
Eleven days later, on January 16th, 49 year-old Teresa Salvador was invested with the powers of the Mwana Cafunfo and the anti-sorcery campaign could begin.
The search got under way shortly after midday on January 17, led by a 'specialized team' of ten Kimbandeiros who appear to have targeted the homes of a number of sobas (amongst them Sobas Malanje, Mwana Kiesse, Kambanguanda, Muhoxi, Mwatxivo, Saiaco, Sakanzenze, Tito Tchibala, Diakamavo and Alfredo Funete himself) perceived to be favoured by the MPLA.
Evidently the campaign attracted large crowds, particularly when it became clear that the rituals were being performed by naked men.
Pedalé Mungaumwé said that in the case of his brother-in-law, Chief Malanje, "a horn with amulets (fetish charms) was found in a suitcase belonging to his son, apparently intended to bring harm upon his own family."
As part of the ritual, "during daylight hours, the diviners must disrobe and enter naked into the home of the person accused of sorcery, holding nothing in their hands," he explained. (The belief is) that in order to kill people, the sorcerers must perform their rites in the nude, so, for that reason, the Kimbanda also has to be naked."
MwaCapenda Camulemba corroborated this, saying: "the Kimbandeiro has to be naked. It is part of the strategy to overpower and dominate the hex."
The next day, on January 18, a new group of about ten priests or diviners - some naked, some in white robes - went to the home of Assa Ngunza, an elderly lady in her eighties, who also happens to be the mother of Alfredo Funete, the aforementioned MPLA-approved Coordinator of the Angolan Forum of Traditional Authorities in Cafunfo.
According to Chief Alfredo Funete: "The diviners went to my home and broke down the doors. I wasn't there. They then went to my mother's home and threw a container of water over her. When she protested, they threw a second bucket of water over her. My mother asked them where this alleged hex was to be found. At that they slapped her and beat her with sticks. All they could find was some steel wool (for scrubbing pans) which they said was a black magic fetish."
"My siblings went to the police to complain, because the Kimbandas and their followers stole 80,000 kwanzas in cash from my mother's home. They even sat themselves down and helped themselves to an entire crate of soft drinks before destroying the lavatory bowl in her bathroom."
Local activist Jordan Muacabinza admited they forcibly stripped the old lady of all her clothes "to exorcise the black magic". However he said any violence occurred because this act generated a counter-protest on the part of the local MPLA representatives, who turned up "to defend their comrade, Soba Funete, who had gone to the police to complain and to demand the local Administrator suspend the witch hunt".
Signs of Sorcery and Summary Justice
MwaCapenda Camulemba (in black) and Soba Cagia with his amulets, which were later seized.
MwaCapenda Camulemba defended his support of the anti-sorcery campaign, saying: "we had proof of black magic. It really was sorcery". He cited as evidence:
"We found a boa constrictor at the house of Soba [Chief] Mário Kamanguanda. At Soba Muhoxi's house we found a bewitched firearm which would cause a deadly rain to fall and kill people. This gun had already killed three people from the soba's family, " he said.
"I personally witnessed the retrieval of a hex from the houses of Soba Muhoxi, Soba Malanje, from the house of a Protestant pastor, and from Soba Mwana Kiesse. They all belong to the MPLA and had evil charms, now here with me, which were all intended to kill people."
When it came to violence, MwaCapenda didn't beat about the bush: "If the sorcerers resist, they have to be slapped, then after their charms and amulets are confiscated, they are freed. The only intent is to remove the hex. They are not forced to pay a fine."
Soba Alfredo Funete disputed this. He said all the sobas falsely accused of sorcery had to pay 30,000 Kwanzas to be set free. 'This was a massive lack of respect. People were paraded naked on motorcycles throughout the streets," he said.
In addition to his elderly mother, who has been left shaken by the treatment to which she was subjected, Soba Funete cited the cases violent treatment of numerous colleagues, as well as a completely innocent passerby.
"They went to the house of Soba Mrio Kamanguanda, stripped him to his bare skin in front of all the children who were staring at this naked old man; then they put him on the back of a motorcycle and paraded him around the town. He then got a severe beating, leaving him bedridden and unable to walk," he explained. "In addition, the witchdoctors and their followers took two motorbikes belonging to the chief and threw some liquid at his face, which has left him unable to see."
"Soba Alberto Alfeu was also stripped naked, severely beaten and paraded on a motorcycle before being taken before the Queen, who condemned the act. This soba is also bedridden and unable to walk," he said.
He said one of the priests planted evidence at the house of 70 year-old Soba Sakanzenze. He "planted a horn under his bed to incriminate him, then they took him before the Queen who disagreed with the way this elderly man had been treated and ordered that he be taken back home."
"Soba Araújo Camoio also got a severe beating, was stripped naked and paraded in the nude. He is already back on his feet and walking," he added.
"Faustino Chikama was an innocent passerby. When he saw the sobas being paraded in the nude he protested; they hit him over the head with a broken bottle, fracturing his skull," he added.
He contrasted this with the 1984 witch hunt campaign by Soba Mwana Caibo, a famous witchdoctor "who collected much sorcery here without having to beat anyone." Yet, Soba Funete said the police remained neutral. "This being a matter involving sorcery, in spite of the violence, the police said they could not get involved and chose to do nothing."
"The campaign was eventually suspended by the local administrator, Figueiredo Muambongue. He said the identification and recovery of magic items could be undertaken respectfully, without having to punish people. Stripping people naked and beating them, he said, was a violation of the law," affirmed Soba Alfredo Funete.
"The people sowing this confusion say that I belong to the MPLA. That is not the case. My allegiance is to the Queen, and it was on her orders that all hexes be recovered - but with proper respect. The question here is one of respect," the chief stressed.
Clash of Cultures
Tens of curious onlookers gathered in front of Soba Malanje's house to see him stripped of his amulets.
MwaCapenda Camulemba blamed all the complaints about the handling of the campaign on "Sobas who belong to the MPLA committee. The majority of the sorcerers are all on that committee, which is why the MPLA is protesting and its administrator ordered the suspension of the campaign."
"Kamanguanda is an MPLA soba. Muhoxi was a Kimbandeiro who became a soba only after getting involved in the MPLA. These are sobas who don't preside over a neighbourhood." He argues these are political appointees, not authentic headmen, implying they don't fully understand the customary laws, practices, and rituals.
MwaCapenda Camulemba further attributed the subsequent political row to the success of the anti-sorcery campaign.
Jordan Mucabinza concurred: "We sent one team to Luremo on January 19, at the invitation of the local administrator, Venâncio Sahunzo. Our Kimbandeiros were accompanied by Soba Samalata, who is also known as the Witchfinder General and they returned to Cafunfo on February 4, successful."
"We also got an invitation from Calonda municipality to carry out a similar campaign; however, we will only go there once we are done here in Cafunfo."
According to the Queen's representative, Mwana Cafunfo has even received requests from leaders in Luanda to send her anti-sorcery campaign to the nation's capital to clean out government offices, so they can free themselves from the weight of jinxes left by their predecessors and opponents.
"The government sponsors witchcraft. Luanda is José Eduardo dos Santos's neighbourhood. How are we going to be able to go there and get rid of witchcraft if he is the soba there and is stronger than all of us put together?" mused MwaCapanda.
In response to the absence of any presumption of innocence when accusations are leveled at alleged sorcerers, MwaCapenda Camulemba underlined that there is no such presumption in traditional judicial systems. "We have kimbandeiros with the gift of second sight who work with the traditional authorities to remove the hexes. They only make an accusation when they have absolute certainty", he said.
Modern Medicine and Necromancy
A kimbandeiro takes a break during the anti-sorcery campaign in Cafunfo.
One of the main battlegrounds between the civil administration and the high priests is the local hospital. Cafunfo hospital serves more than 150,000 residents and relies heavily on medics from Vietnam and North Korea, who hardly speak Portuguese, with no official interpreters. They have their hands full tending to patients at a clinic that in reality is no more than a first aid post, lacking the basics for both adequate medical care and worker health and safety. The result is unnecessary loss of life on a daily basis.
The Queen's witch hunters alleged there were two hexes - in barrels containing the blood of dead people - hidden in the hospital grounds. In their minds, these had transformed the hospital into a morgue for the majority of patients who entered there.
Pedalé Mungaumwé complained that "the local authorities prevented us from locating the hexes and exorcising this sorcery from the hospital, which is of the strongest kind and is killing so many people".
Cafunfo has no paved roads and any highway code is either unknown or ignored. The consequent high number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is also attributed by the kimbandeiros to sorcery:
"There was a spellbound policeman, who was taken out of the Tanque Neighbourhood, who had been making sure that anyone hurt in a motorcycle accident would die immediately. Since they (the Kimbandas) neutralised him, there has been a reduction in the number of deaths", said Jordan Muacabinza.
A jinx in the womb
Amid this political power struggle between traditional leaders and politicians, sexual domination enters the equation.
Jordan Muacabinza claimed there was a case of a man in Tanque neighborhood (name purposely withheld) who was forced by the witch-hunters to rape his own daughter "to eliminate the hex from her womb."
Maka Angola questioned traditional representative MwaCapenda Camulemba about this allegation that forcible sexual intercourse could "cure" women accused of having bewitched wombs. Maka Angola also asked him about the seemingly gendered nature of this "cure": What about men? Could they also carry hexes or jinxes in their bodies? What would have happened if the accused were a man?
MwaCapenda Camulemba stated, "There are people who swallow hexes; therefore, it is necessary for there to be sexual relations to extract the hex from their insides," answered the representative. He went on to name a local soba (Maka Angola is withholding the soba's name and that of his village), "A kimbandeiro had to have sex with him to remove the hex from his stomach".
A "mestre Tamoda" petition
Meanwhile, more than a hundred people signed a petition handed to the local administrator Luís Figueiredo Muangombe on February 1, demanding that he acknowledge the legitimacy of the Mwana Cafunfo and MwaCapenda Camulemba, that he allow the continuation of the hex quest, and also that he act against those "privileged sorcerers" alleged to be under the protection of the authorities.
The language used by the signatories, in the style of 'Mestre Tamoda' (an Angolan literary character) uses bombastic and convoluted language to make their point, including a scattering of words in Latin ("facticius") or French ("fetiche"), with recourse to sermons inspired by the books of Samuel and Revelations, in their attempt to convince the administrator of the merits of their cause, that is their appeal for the anti-hex campaign to be allowed to continue.
"We come transversally from grieving, before you, due to the fact of your having suspended the campaign to remove these evil spells which here in this municipality (Cuango) kill more people than firearms," reads the petition.
"The reasons given by the administrator for suspending the campaign - of acting to suppress violence and nudity in a public place - are not convincing. The diviners, who know the secrets of the occult sciences, say that in order to unmask a sorcerer it is necessary to unclothe them, in accordance with the rituals of the Tchokwe nation, to which Your Excellency also belongs."
The signatories cite two examples to support their argument: "that on January 29 in the town of Cafunfo, a naked witch was discovered having the intent to cast an evil spell on someone. The counter-attack required that the exorcist also be naked."
"Further, we can cite the more visible example of the Highest Ruler in the Republic (referring to President José Eduardo dos Santos) who attended the coronation of Miss Angola during the pageant finale in which all the contestants paraded naked (apart from their underpants) and were applauded for so doing, with the ceremony even shown on national television. That is a ritual and people respect that!"
The authors of the petition accused the MPLA administrator, Luís Figueiredo Muambongue, of discrimination. "We have come to the conclusion that the administrator was moved to suspend the campaign because it meddled with the spells of the privileged ones." "Or could it be that the Administrator believes that black magic does not exist?"
They ended by threatening that any negative response from the administrator would result in a protest, because "people are prepared to take to the streets" and that Luís Figueiredo Muambongue would be fully responsible for any consequences.
The MPLA has not allowed protest marches in Cafunfo since June 15, 2013, when more than 15,000 protestors took to the streets forcing the direct intervention of the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) to break up the demonstration.
The stage is thus set for a further collision in an area still bruised by the memory of previous heavy-handed actions by the police and military.
* African animist belief systems are holistic, so the inheritance of expertise in both divinity and healing e.g. through the use of plants and herbs was often thought "magical" leading to the misnomer "witchdoctor". Practitioners are also sometimes called priests or high priests, diviners, medicine men or women, herbalists, witches, magicians and so on.
*Kimbanda is sometimes used for the belief system and sometimes for the priests/diviners; kimbandeiro is used both for the priests/diviners and their acolytes.
*Benevolent or benign use of special expertise or powers is associated with words such as witchcraft, magic, enchantment, bewitching, charms, incantations or spells, herbalists, curers, healers, priests, high priests, diviners and so on.
* Malign practises or intents are associated with words such as: sorcery, black magic, dark arts, hex, evil eye, devilry, necromancy, jinx and similar.