Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Vulnerability of Elderly Women to Witchcraft Accusations among the Fipa of Sumbawanga, 1961-2010

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Vulnerability of Elderly Women to Witchcraft Accusations among the Fipa of Sumbawanga, 1961-2010

Article excerpt


The belief in witchcraft and its impacts is widespread in Africa. In the socio-economic sphere as well as among the academic and religious professionals in Tanzania, this belief plays a prominent role. Many people in rural areas of Tanzania including Sumbawanga claim to have magical powers which they can use for their own good and which they can also use to help those who are ready to pay for their services (Beidelman 1963).

Witchcraft practices include belief in magical powers such as the ability to change from a human being into an animal, the power to call up the spirit of a dead man, the ability to diagnose and cure illnesses, and the ability to cause and stop road accidents. The term witchcraft has been used to refer to any influence of an individual possessing magical power on another person's mind, body or property against his or her will. Some people believe that magic users have the power to cause disease in humans, sickness in animals, bad luck, sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes (Malowany 2000: 58).

Witchcraft beliefs cause people to suspect others as witches, which leads to the killings that are directed at the suspected ones. In this case, the vulnerability of elderly women to witchcraft accusations in Tanzania is the product of witchcraft beliefs (Swantz 1995:112). Therefore, the vulnerability of elderly women to witchcraft accusation among the Fipa of Sumbawanga, calls for clarification and awareness.

Witchcraft accusations have been reported in many African nations. In Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe, thousands of elderly women have been killed or driven out of their villages in the recent past because of the suspicion that they are witches (Hayes 2009; BBC 2002).

Witchcraft accusations against elderly women have been recognised by the Tanzanian government as serious problems that cause death and economic decline. Tanzania leads among African nations in killings of elderly women and their sufferings. Tanzania had 3,693 persons killed on suspicion of being witches between 1970 and 1980. There are no reliable data between 1980 and 1990, but between 1990 and 2000 the number rose to 23,000 deaths. 80 percent of those who were accused and killed during these periods were women (Petraitis 2009). Although there is no reliable data on witchcraft accusations in Sumbawanga, the area ranks within the five top killers of elderly women in Tanzania. Other areas include Mwanza, Shinyanga, Mara and Kagera (The Independent 2012).

The Fipa are an ethnic and linguistic group based in the Sumbawanga district of Rukwa region in southwestern Tanzania. The name Sumbawanga literary translates as 'throw away your witchcraft'; Sumba-threw and wanga-witchcraft. It is believed that this came as a warning from local spiritual healers to any bringing in superstitions and practices relating to spiritual healers from other areas (Saiboko 2013).

Theoretical Concerns

This article explains the history of the vulnerability of elderly women to witchcraft accusations in Tanzania. It adopts a political economy perspective to explain the relationship between socio-economic activities and witchcraft accusations. This perspective concentrates upon the relations of production and consumption, differentiation and class structures in explaining witchcraft accusations in a society. It asserts that witchcraft accusations are shaped by the political, social, cultural and economic position of the society. Thus, the way society is organised to perform various economic activities can mould witchcraft beliefs (Stewart & Strathern 2004).

In terms of the political economy perspective, the organization of society forces the emergence of witchcraft beliefs because witchcraft accusations are connected with health and healing of people. People's healing knowledge demonstrates the different forms of organization that dominated each historical era. …

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