This sign welcomed me this morning to a meeting of roughly 1000 basawo b’ekinansi (doctors of native medicine) at the Mengo Social Centre, home of Uganda’s oldest association for native healers.
Many people dread meetings at work. They go in knowing they’re either going to be under the gun with some project their boss is expecting results on or so bored that Snood on the BlackBerry can’t compete with the latent urge to turn that tiny stylus into an instrument of suicide. I’m lucky. The meetings I attend are at least interesting, and even when they’re not I can still occupy myself with real-time translation (the meetings are usually held in Luganda). During the past week I’ve attended two such challenging affairs, both involving large groups of basawo. Both meetings addressed the same topic, which has sparked growing concern among the Ugandan public: why are people performing ritual murders or human sacrifice? More important to these groups of healers, why are some of those people calling themselves traditional healers and what can be done to separate legitimate physicians from charlatans?
The first meeting was at the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development (i.e. Ministry of Culture). This meeting had been called once before, but on that day President Museveni spontaneously decided to call the Minister to the State House in Entebbe because he wanted to meet with her about it before she met with practitioners about it. That day was an exercise in the gross inefficiency of Ugandan bureaucracy that slaps citizens in the face daily. Now square with the Prez, the minister was kind enough to show up nearly an hour late for the re-convening of these hard-working homeopaths. Nice.
For the next five hours, we listened to a variety of people present their views on the situation. Madame Minister started out by noting the laws on the matter. In Uganda’s Penal Code, the Witchcraft Act says that anyone who kills via witchcraft or supernatural means can be sentenced to life in prison. That explains why the ministry is interested in calling together these basawo (not that actual witches (baloggo) would be likely to arrive and announce their most violent forms of witchcraft). She further noted that sacrificing a human, no matter what the purpose, is still murder and as such warrants the death sentence. If the others present at the meeting hadn’t already been completely alientated, they were now.
Some raised concerns about how dangerous the “witch-hunt” atmostphere on the radio is right now. Others noted that it was legitimate Ugandan homeopaths who first reported ritual crimes. Still others preached to this choir by saying that newspapers and television stations are uncovering murders and blaming them on “ritual sacrifice,” witch doctors,” or “traditional healers” automatically. The problem with a stigma is that it doesn’t matter whether its foundation is fact or fiction; the stigma sticks.
The bottom line at this meeting and the one I attended today is that Ugandan Traditional Medical Practitioners (henceforth TMPs) are angry. They are being blamed for things they haven’t done and they are being associated with charlatans who ruin honest work for all of them. A picture of the main singer from today’s performing group captures the emotionally charged atmosphere of both gatherings: what the hell is going on here?
Well, one thing that’s going on, as noted at the Ministry of Culture meeting, is a witch hunt. People are so desperate for a scapegoat that they’ll pin nearly anything on “traditional healers” and cast them out as witch doctors or worse before they have any facts. Newspapers and television stations are milking this for all it’s worth and then some. One of the healers present brought forward a plastic bag for a disturbing illustration of how far the media are willing to go to sensationalize this human sacrifice phenomenon.
What you see on the ground in this picture is bread soggied with an excess of red berry jam. The man who brought it forward collected the sample from the scene of a local “news” story that one of the local television stations had been shooting when he arrived there (I won’t say which station, though he didn’t hesitate to out them). They made this concoction to look like butchered remains of a sacrificed person. Whatever they were covering, whether a real murder or not, they had decided to sensationalize it with this manufactured gore. I’m not sure what’s more sick: sacrificing a human being to get riches or power or whatever else people ask for, or fabricating stories about such sacrifices to make the evening news more interesting. Mama Fina, the president of Uganda n’eddagala Lyayo (Uganda and its Medicines) looked on with contempt as her bemused colleagues laughed to keep from crying:
This problem plaguing Uganda’s native homeopaths and general public touches literally every person I come into contact with in my research. I’ve hesitated to comment on it because it has little to do with music. However, on top of the stigma of quackery that these healers already have to fight, now they have another thing to worry about. For groups who make music about TMPs and their practices (musical and otherwise), this is one more reason to keep singing.