Of justice on the margins and multiplication of victims

Can justice be served on the margins? Apparently, residents of Sunuka village in Uvinza district in Kigoma thought that this is possible. These villagers ‘imported’ nearly a dozen ‘witch-doctors’ from Sumbawanga, Rukwa to hunt down villagers who they accuse of being behind a string of unexplained deaths, especially of young men in the village.

The villagers even succeeded in blocking their newly-appointed district commissioner from reaching their village, for fear that she will put an end to their ‘operation’ of cleansing their village from witchcraft.  Some of the residents who spoke at a public meeting with the district commissioner in a neighbouring village, told stories of crocodiles which weren’t crocodiles. Others claimed their children have been doing poorly in school because of witchcraft.

The district commissioner was out of her depth at the public meeting, but had regained her resolve later, in another village where she declared the ‘witch-doctors’ as persona non-grata in her district and ordered the ‘operation’ to hunt down alleged witches be brought to an end.

Some surveys put the belief in witchcraft at an astonishing 93 per cent, in a country where the majority of its people identify themselves as belonging to established religions and the literacy level is put at 81.8 per cent as of 2021, some may struggle to understand these contradictions.

However, these contradictions are part of daily life.

To Sunuka villagers, their ‘operation’ against alleged witches and witchcraft serves a practical, functional purpose of establishing a certain degree of authority in what they find difficult or cannot explain in their lives.

It is the same thing throughout the country where there are reports of murders of alleged witchcraft practitioners. A report by the Legal and Human Rights Centre in 2017 put the number of deaths linked to witchcraft in the first six months of that year at a truly disturbing 479, with the majority of these deaths occurring in the country’s biggest commercial city. Reports from previous years on the issue made for equally depressing reads.

This misguided belief that justice can be dispensed on the margins is not limited to alleged cases of witchcraft. There are many cases of the so-called angry mob taking matters into their own hands and killing those who are accused of petty theft in many towns across the country. The endgame is the same, that those murdering alleged thieves think that their actions will restore some sense in their lives and prevent any would be thieves by showing the tragic consequences of it.

One of the very problematic aspect of this avenue for ‘justice’ is that there no appeals.

The accused have their fate sealed the moment their names are associated with the unexplained events in their societies. The moment one’s name is mentioned they are condemned. It could be through a public meeting in their village. It could be through rumours. It could be through alleged consultations done by the victims of alleged witchcraft to powerful ‘witch-doctors’.

‘Evidence’ is then found in all sorts of things to link the individuals accused of witchcraft to their alleged crimes. It could be red-eyes. It could be their old age. It could be their sex. It could be claims about one’s family being linked with alleged powerful witches. It could be some obscure link of their arrival to a new village with deaths, poor harvests, dry spells, diseases, or instances of madness or disappearances.

The voices of the condemned are no longer heard.

That, these accusations may be plots to dispossess some of the accused of their lands is irrelevant. That it is possible these yet to be explained misfortunes could have perfect explanations is irrelevant.

Some studies have pointed to education as a way to solve the problem. Others say, accessibility to health services is key to saving a society from itself; to save it from its worst impulses. Others point to strengthening state authorities as an answer. All these certainly play a part in solving this problem.

With flawed processes which multiply victims, justice cannot be served on the margins. It is driven by fear and anxieties of the unknown.

On the margins even the society itself becomes a victim.