GABORONE, Botswana – In 2015, Francine Mirondo* nearly lost her life when her neighbors in Rwigembe village, northwest Tanzania, accused her of practicing witchcraft.
Mirondo, now 80, says she first heard about the rumor when a friend told her that her name had been brought up at a village meeting about witchcraft. Five days later, a group of men entered her hut in the middle of the night. They blindfolded her, bound her hands and feet and dragged her out of her home before beating her. They destroyed her crops and burned down her home. Then they told her to leave the village for good.
“They said, ‘We have shown you mercy and are not killing you today, but you have 24 hours to leave the village or else we will come back and kill you,’” Mirondo said.
That night, she stayed with a neighbor who the next day referred her to the village chairman. He advised her to leave as she had been instructed. “He refused to help me,” she said. “He said if these people found me with him, they would kill me and burn down his house as well.”
Mirondo left just before her 24-hour deadline, walking through the night to a neighboring village where she sought refuge in a church.
She was eventually allowed back into the village after getting help from Kwa Wazee, an organization that supports older people in the region. The group set up a meeting with villagers, the police and the department of social welfare to discuss the accusations against Mirondo. The meeting ended with some of the villagers agreeing to rebuild her house and offering her protection.
Now Mirondo believes her accusers never really thought she was a witch – instead, she says, one of her neighbors started the rumor as a way to run her out of the village and take her land.
Belief in witchcraft is particularly high in Tanzania, where a Pew Research Center poll released in 2012 showed that more than 90 percent of the population are believers. For centuries, witchcraft has been used to explain tragedy and misfortune, such as death, infertility and drought.
Although witchcraft is illegal in Tanzania, many communities still believe dark magic can be used to curse or cure. Either way, it is seen as something to be feared. Three years ago, the country specifically banned witch doctors to try to stem a wave of attacks on people with albinism, whose body parts are thought to bring wealth and power.
Accusing someone of practicing witchcraft is also against the law in Tanzania, but in rural parts of the country, hundreds of elderly people – mostly women – die every year because they are alleged to be witches. Sometimes those allegations are based on nothing more than their appearance.
A report released in July 2017 by the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a Tanzanian human rights organization, says that in the first half of 2017 alone, 115 people accused of witchcraft were killed in Tanzania.
The crime “is still quite prevalent in the rural areas in the Lake [Victoria] region and the western parts of Tanzania where witchcraft is said to be widely practiced,” said Paul Mikongoti, the program officer at the center. “In these areas, we do not have a lot of police or awareness around the issue, and these killings still persist.”
Figures from the charity Help Age Tanzania are even more alarming. Rights program manager Joseph Mbasha says that in 2016, more than 300 people were killed as a result of witchcraft accusations. Almost 80 percent of those victims were older people and 90 percent were women.
“These statistics are only for those that were killed and do not take into account other forms of abuse such as harassment, assault and denial of basic rights and services as a result of these accusations,” he said.
It doesn’t take much for a community to jump to the conclusion that one of their own is a witch. “In some areas, women are considered to be witches if they have bloodshot eyes,” Mikongoti said. “That doesn’t take into account the fact that they spend a lot of time cooking using firewood or cow dung, and this affects their eyes.”
Having a mental health disorder can also get someone branded a witch, especially in rural areas where women have limited or no access to mental healthcare.
“As a country, we do not have a good social security structure, so you find that some of these women are unable to take care of themselves. And when their mental health deteriorates, they become easy targets for such accusations,” Mikongoti said.
Activists say one way to stop the killings is to focus on raising awareness about older people and mental illness.
“Witchcraft is an issue to do with beliefs, with customs and traditions that are really deep-rooted, so awareness is one thing we are trying to push,” Mbasha said.
To that end, the group works on integrating communities that do practice witchcraft with those that don’t. It also lobbies the government to ensure that communities in which witchcraft is still prevalent have access to basic services “such as schools, hospitals and places of worship as part of the community setup, as this can help to change such mindsets,” Mbasha said.
Mirondo has been living peacefully in her village since the attack two years ago. But she says the pain of having her community turn on her still haunts her. “I am not a witch and have never practiced witchcraft,” she said. “Their accusations really hurt me, as they came from people I had been living with for a long time.”
*The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities.
Correction: The teaser of this article previously stated that more than 300 people were killed for being suspected witches in rural Tanzania last year. That figure is from 2016.