Tanzanian journalist Vicky Ntetema, 59, is always watching her back
after daring to upset a macabre apple cart. She had to flee her country to escape the ire of ritualistic criminals. After ‘exile’ stints in the United Kingdom and Kenya, she has returned home, but must always be on guard lest those she exposed kill her. Her house is reportedly a fortress.
Investigative journalism has often focused on political and economic issues, with the cultural aspects of society not having gained as much purchase. The case of witchcraft – the superstitious belief in magical powers – is compelling. It is not uncommon for Tanzanian media to report on the vice, including cases of people killing their children and spouses on the advice of witch doctors and in the pursuit of wealth. Because of the underground nature of witchcraft claims and suspicions, law enforcement agencies have often had difficulty arresting and charging alleged perpetrators in modern law courts. Witchcraft is hard to prove, even with evidence such as a witchdoctor’s paraphernalia, unless death or other secondary crimes are involved.
In these circumstances, citizens have often opted for ‘street justice’ in which suspects are summarily killed. Often a claim that someone has bewitched another is enough for a killing to occur. In some cases, the suspicion may be based on as flimsy a ground as someone having red eyes or a strange facial expression.
It is the belief in witchcraft that has brought the targeting for attack of an African minority group, albinos or persons with albinism (PWAs). Sources indicate that attacks on albinos are more pronounced in Africa than elsewhere. Large swathes of eastern and southern Africa report the highest attacks, with Tanzania said to be in the lead.
Albinos lack pigmentation or melanin in their skin, hair and eyes due to hereditary factors. It is a rare condition, but a highly visible one, and this puts albinos in harm’s way (Burke et al, 2014). Besides the stigma, some people also think albinos have special powers, and this is nothing short of deadly. In Tanzania, albinos are referred to as Zeru Zeru, meaning ‘ghosts’.
The belief is that the blood, body parts (hands, legs, bones) and organs (skin, the heart, liver) of the supposed ‘ghosts’ have the power to heal diseases, enrich people, help win elections and earn promotions at work. For these reasons, albinos have been targeted by witchdoctors and their clients as key ingredients in sick rituals. This has led to an underground market for albinos as bringers of good luck in agriculture, fishing, mining, education … just about everything.
Although albinos have been vulnerable to killings for many years, there was a rise in the spate of killings in the mid-2000s. As a journalist working for the BBC, Ntetema, educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, noticed the trend (Wray, 2010). The information she received from police was sketchy. She decided to undertake undercover work with a view to understanding the networks that fuelled the killings. She would uncover a link between witchdoctors and their clients as well as unearth the role that corrupt policemen played in the gruesome mix. The investigative work entailed going to ‘ground’ in the areas where the witchcraft practice was rampant – the Lake Victoria region.
For her work, Ntetema received the 2010 Courage Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation (BBC, 2010). She went on to be honoured with the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2016 (US Dept of State, 2016). This capped a career that started in 1991 as a Swahili translator at the BBC’s London hub. In a write-up to celebrate her achievement, the organisation noted her impact as well as the great risk she faced at the height of her investigations into albinism (Wray, 2010). On some occasions, tape recorders concealed on her body fell to the ground as she went about her investigation. A particularly unlucky incident was when she was busted by a police officer who had links with one of the witchdoctors she was investigating. Her investigation was eventually aired by the BBC, on 21 July 2008. Soon after the broadcast, she was forced to flee first to London and eventually to Kenya as the syndicate of witchdoctors and police officers plotted her death.
As a result of her investigative and campaigning work, a number of people were convicted for crimes against albinos. In 2010, she became executive director of Under The Same Sun (UTSS), an NGO advocating and raising awareness about people living with albinism. She left the position in May 2018 after serving for eight years.
BBC. 2010. ‘Vicky Ntetema wins bravery award for BBC albino report’, 11 May.
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8674440.stm, accessed on 13
Burke, Jean, Theresa J. Kaijage & Johannes jon-Langba. 2014. ‘Media analysis of albino
killings in Tanzania: A social work and human rights perspective’, Ethics and Social
Welfare, 8(2): 117–34.
U.S. Department of State. 2016. ‘Biographies of 2016 award winners. Available at:
https://2009-2017.state.gov/s/gwi/iwoc/2016/bio/index.htm, accessed on
13 August 2018.
Wray, L. 2010. ‘Vicky Ntetema: International Women’s Media Foundation’. Available at:
www.iwmf.org/community/vicky-ntetema/, accessed on 13 August 2018.
In hiding for exposing Tanzania witchdoctors
Vicky Ntetema, BBC News, 24 July 2008
I am living in hiding after I received threats because of my undercover work exposing the threat from witchdoctors to albinos living in Tanzania. This year, at least 25 people with albinism have been killed, mostly in the Lake Victoria Zone, especially the Mwanza, Shinyanga and Mara areas. They are being killed because local witchdoctors say their body parts provide the potent ingredient for magic charms, which many local people use to bring success in business and love. The bodies are left limbless and sometimes with a huge hole in the neck, from where blood would have been drained. Families not only grieve because of the loss of their loved ones but are also shocked at the state in which the bodies are left by these murderers.
As if that is not enough, they have to bury their dead in the house, guard the graves on their farm and or build them with stones, metal bars and cement to prevent the killers from stealing the body parts. So I posed as a businesswoman who wanted to get rich and ‘consulted’ 10 witchdoctors. The consultations included talking to a hedge and telling my problems to a chicken. Once, albinos used to seek shelter from the sun. Now they have gone into hiding simply to survive, after a series of killings linked to witchcraft. These (the albinos) are regarded as intermediaries between the witchdoctor, their ancestors and the spirits, or ‘jinns’. They used old German and English coins with holes in the middle, cowry shells, pebbles, nails, nuts and bolts, screws, crosses with the little figure representing Jesus, and beads which they would shake in a red or white cloth and throw on the ground, while incense burned from all around.
Sticky green stems or old money notes are put between pages from the Koran. Then the witchdoctors would speak in Arabic and the local Sukuma language and translate or use an interpreter to get the message through to me. I presented the same case to all of them and got different solutions. The consultation fee ranged from $20 to $100 per session, with a promise of returning for a further problem-solving process. All of them gave me different suggestions of who my enemies were – not by name but by description. None got anything right, most importantly my true mission. But that did not stop me from praying for my safety, as that was the only defence I had. Never in my life had it occurred to me that I would one day be sitting in front of a witchdoctor, also known as sangomas or voodoo priests and priestesses.
This man condemned the way ‘conmen and foreign witchdoctors’ lured locals into trusting them, before hiring murderers to organise raids on homes of albinos just after sunset. Two witchdoctors promised to get me a magic concoction mixed with ground albino organs. The starting price was $2000 for the vital organs. Another told me that the police were among his customers and that he could make a special potion mixed with ground male and female private parts to enable people to commit armed robbery without being caught. The encounter with witchdoctor number three was in a village called Gambusi, the most feared area in the region. The compound had about eight huts around the outside, with a more elaborate structure in the middle. Here a man in his forties wearing a white T-shirt and khaki trousers with a mobile phone on his belt asked me whether I had brought a chicken.
chicken. A gang of men went round the small town where we had stayed, searching all the guest houses. ‘What for?’ I asked. He laughed and said that I was forgiven because he realised that I was a novice in the business. He demanded $2 for a tiny three-week-old chicken and $3 for the fortune-telling. I was then told to get out of the compound, face south-east where I hail from – Dar es Salaam – spit on the bird’s head, back, tail and on my hand, and have a heart-to-heart talk with the chick revealing all my problems. He asked for $200 for the consultations and said I should spend two nights there before completing the process. But when I told him that I had only $30 he told me to go away and return when I had the full amount. When I went back with other BBC colleagues, his nephew was there to receive me. He said he knew what I wanted and said he would find me albino blood, hair, leg and palms for $2000.
I found the last witchdoctor in Lamadi, a tiny rural town which lies at the junction of the roads leading to Kenya and Uganda. He charged me $100 for the first session and said he would give me the magic potion with albino and other human organs for a price. While I was there, a man came for a consultation – the witchdoctor said he was a police officer but he was wearing civilian clothes. However, he was made to wait until my session was over and, I later learned, told the witchdoctor that I was involved in a sting operation. Shortly afterwards, the threatening phone calls started. And a gang of men went round the small town of Magu, where we had briefly stayed, searching all the guest houses. Luckily, we had already moved on to the nearest city, Mwanza. One particularly chilling message came on my mobile phone: ‘What have you done now? Watch your back.’ The witchdoctor had boasted of working with a powerful network across East Africa, which included police officers and armed robbers.