Monday, January 26, 2009

Banning Traditional Healing in Tanzania

Most of the time when murders are associated with witchcraft in Africa they are the result of mob violence directed against individuals often falsely accused by neighbors or relatives. However as I've previously covered, in Tanzania some unscrupulous traditional healers also support the killing of albinos in order to obtain their body parts for use in magical rituals. In addition to being a horrible practice, it's also pretty stupid from a magical perspective. There's no technical reason to think that the melanin content of one's skin has anything to do with the magical efficacy of one's body parts, and furthermore you can do a perfectly effective healing spell without body parts from anyone.

The Tanzanian government has been pledging action on the issue for years with little success, including the mass arrest of 172 people last march and sting operations in an effort to identify the killers. However, despite the mass arrests, I have been unable to track down any information about convictions stemming from them. When you arrest 172 people and fail to convict any of them, it sends the message that law enforcement is either unwilling or unable to seriously investigate these cases. If law enforcement doesn't want these cases solved they won't be and the real problem is internal corruption, whereas if the police are too overwhelmed to launch investigations thorough enough to result in convictions they need to have more resources placed at their disposal.

Last week the government took action, passing legislation banning traditional healing. It sounds tough, but in the end I fear that it will prove misguided. In the United States drug policy is handled this way, and the result is the creation of a criminal underground that becomes even more profitable because of its illegality. The fact is that if a loved one is seriously ill and your options are to seek out an illegal traditional healer or do nothing just about anyone will do the former, ban or no ban.

A spokesman for a traditional healers' association has criticised the ban.

Arusha-based herbalist Haruna Kifimbo told the Citizen newspaper: "We are legally registered, they should be dealing with some state organs who have not done much to stop the wave of albino killings."

He claimed members of his association were offering services to more than 30% of the country's population.

"We have so many patients and clients who depend on us," he told the Citizen. "I believe it would have been better if the PM had consulted us before announcing the ban."

Traditional healing covers a lot more than just magical ceremonies and includes the use of herbal medicines that have been shown to be effective against some illnesses. Western medicine usually works better, but it is also expensive and Tanzania is not a wealthy nation.

In the end the problem remains one of enforcement and this ban just makes it worse. BBC news reports that despite the ban traditional healers in Tanzania are as busy as ever.

Witchdoctors in Tanzania are defying a government ban announced on Friday, intended to stop the killings of people with albinism for ritual medicine.

A BBC correspondent has seen at least 10 witchdoctors are working openly.

Unfortunately, this is not all that surprising. This ban does nothing to deal with corruption in the police force, and if law enforcement is too overwhelmed to effectively investigate the 40 or so albino murders that have happened in the last year, how are they ever going to find the resources to police healers who treat 30% of Tanzania's population? Is there even enough jail space for that many people? Rather than trying to legislate the problem away, Tanzania would do better to identify and weed out corrupt law enforcement officials and at the same time increase funding for investigations. But of course, that's a lot more expensive and time-consuming than just passing a new law and declaring victory.

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suecae_disco said...

Good Banning may lead to short term satisfaction. But as you stated, one only needs to look at the defunct drug laws of the west to recognize that the harm the laws cause are greater then the good it does. Look what happened when they banned alcohol in the United States...

I feel like a quote from the 57'th chapter of the Tao te Ching may be appropriate:

"I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass."

suecae_disco said...

The word "Good" have no place in my above post. :) Strike that one and my first sentence can be more easily understood.

Ananael Qaa said...

Look what happened when they banned alcohol in the United States...

That's exactly what I'm worried about. If 30% of the population of Tanzania really go to traditional healers, then as with Prohibition there is no way that the government can ban them effectively. Patronizing them may simply prove too popular.

Looking at the numbers, only a small percentage of healers could possibly be killing anyone. There were about 40 albino murders in the last year and 17 the year before that. I'm also guessing that these aren't completely isolated incidents, so taking a handful of people off the street might just about stop it - as long as it was the right handful.

Finally, I didn't mention this in the article but one of the links mentions that there is a lot of prejudice against albinos in Tanzanian society. It wouldn't surprise me if at least a few of the murders were simple hate crimes that had nothing to do with harvesting body parts or traditional healers.