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Witchcraft: A diehards’ myth in Rukwa

THE nation was baffled and even dismayed recently when it came to light that seven families in Myunga village in Rukwa Region had fled their homes shortly after midnight when unknown arsonists set their grass thatched houses on fire. No one died in the attack.

Regional Police Commander George Kwando said that the Police Force is hunting for the arsonists who, allegedly, accused the victims of arson of witchcraft. The charges included allegations that some of the burned house owners were adulterous.

The atrocity caused mayhem in the village. Nearly 700 residents emerged from their houses in a hurry to witness the chaos. Some of the victims of arson stormed out of the burning houses in the nude. They virtually lost all property in the inferno.

One of the victims, Ms Agnes Mwenekete, said she lost everything in the fire. She and her three children escaped death by a whisker. They were asleep when the arsonists set their house on fire. It is claimed that some of the victims were men who stole other men’s wives.

It is not our intention to prejudice the course of investigation or the consequent criminal litigation. However, it is imperative to point out here that thorough investigation should be made and the suspected criminals apprehended. And legal procedures should follow.

Superstition remains an unfortunate canker in this country. Rukwa Region appears to lead in the number of people who believe in witchcraft. It is widely believed in Rukwa Region that the Wafipa lead in superstition, witchcraft and intrigue. In Rukwa, it is believed that witchcraft makers, mostly elderly Wafipa men, can even make rain.

The same miraclemakers can dispel or delay the onset of rains, according to Ms Wamweru Kataushanga, a former rain-maker who has now laid down her tools. The Wafipa are widely believed to be “very generous” people. However, some Wafipa men can be unforgiving if you steal or vandalise their property especially farm produce.

Wife-stealing is a cardinal sin that is punished most severely. An adulterous man who steals another man’s wife is, in some cases, hit by a thunderbolt. The ominous signs of such an attack start with an insignificant gathering of rain clouds.

The resulting drizzle is said to be accompanied by thunder strikes one of which hits the wife-thief with pinpoint precision, killing him instantly. Normally, the victim of such harsh punishment is one who has defied repeated warnings from the aggrieved husband.

This belief is widespread and those whose homes are struck by thunder are considered to be sinners. On the bright side of life, the Wafipa have a delightful dance called Nsimba. Ms, Nakama Nachirima (64) a former dancer, says music tools comprise two or three pots that vary in size; three-legged stools (one for each pot), a whistle and small stringed bells that are worn round the ankles.

The pots are placed on the ground upside down, resting on their lids. The stools are placed on top of each upended pot. Skilled music makers twitch the stools in such a way that their legs tap on the pots producing a scintillating rhythmical sound.

Each pot produces a different melodious sound, depending on its size. Women, mostly in kitenge or khanga uniform, shake their shoulders, nod their heads and stomp their feet on the ground in tempo to the rhythm. In the heat of the moment, men join the fray.

The Wadende, who inhabit a portion of Mpanda district, are another tribal setting who have confounding culture. The Wadende are largely hunters and gatherers. They mainly thrive on meat, fruits and honey. The Cultural Officer for Sumbawanga Rural district, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the Wadende are blamed for game hunting.

“They mainly target small hoofed animals such as antelopes and gazelles, he says. The Wadende live on the fringes of Katavi National Park where they hunt almost with impunity. Among the Wadende, each household owns a homemade gun. The Wadende are also skilled users of poison-tip arrows and spears.

They till the land albeit at a small scale growing maize and beans but their consumption of stiff porridge (ugali) is minimal. They also happen to inhabit mineral rich land so some are small-scale miners. The Wadende are also skilled beekeepers. It is uncommon to find a Wandende household that does not have a pot or calabash full of honey.

Rukwa region came into being in 1974 when parts of Mbeya and Tabora regions were split to form a new region. Such weird punishments are believed to be meted out most prevalently in Nkasi district. Mr Tuseko says the man who suffered a similar fate was a police officer who had annoyed village elders.

Mr Tuseko says the officer made frequent unwelcome visits on the fringes of Sumbawanga where he harassed villagers demanding favours corruptly, exacting torture and making arbitrary arrests. He was, consequently, struck by lightning as he watched a game of soccer at a stadium.

The bizarre aspect in this attack was that although the victim was seated in the middle of a thick crowd of spectators, he was the only one who was singled out for death. Those seated close to him suffered minor burns and recovered after a few days. Rukwa Region has a wealth of cultural diversity.

Apart from the confounding history of the region, especially that of Sumbawanga Township, the cultural diversity among the residents of Rukwa can be intriguing. Sumbawanga, the name of the administrative capital of Rukwa Region, has a stunning history. Though scanty and even hard to come by, available documentation dates back to 1914.

Equally strange is the culture of the dominant tribe in Rukwa Region – the Wafipa. Before 1914 present-day Sumbawanga was called Sumbu Wanga, which translates loosely to “discard your amulets” or “do not come here with fetishes of witchcraft”, in the dialect of the highly superstitious Wafipa of the time. A history booklet shows that the general fear among the Wafipa at that time was that some strangers could be better-skilled witchdoctors or magicians who could commit heinous atrocities given the chance.

The settlement’s name appeared to warn strangers who had the temerity to come to Sumbu Wanga against taking the ‘offensive and diabolical’ tools of their trade with them, lest they tangle with equally dangerous local magicians.

By 1929 the name of the settlement (Sumba Wanga) was adopted as the name of the administrative capital of the then Native African Authority. In 1950, the Ufipa District Council was installed. However, as years rolled on, Sumbu Wanga changed to Sumbawanga, the corruption mainly coming from newcomers.

By 1982 Sumbawanga Town became a Township through Act. No. 8 of the Local Government Authorities (LGAs). The township had a population of 61,223 residents by then. Today, the Rukwa Region has a population of more than a million residents.

The major languages spoken in Rukwa include Kiswahili, Kifipa, Kimambwe, Kilungu, Kikonongo and Kinyamwanga. With the exception of Kiswahili, the other spoken languages are vernacular. Other tribal settings in Rukwa include Wandende and Wapimbwe.

The main regional staple foods are mainly maize, rice and beans. In some parts of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Rukwa, cassava, fish and rice are the main source of food. Other food crops widely available include groundnuts, fingermillet and sweet potatoes.

The list of foods also includes round potatoes, sorghum, wheat and sugarcane. Meat is easily available from the pastoral communities that traditionally keep varieties of domestic animals such as cattle, goats, chicken, rabbits and pigeons.

But rats and mice are also a favoured delicacy in some areas in Mpanda District. The Wafipa, the largest tribal setting in Rukwa region, still have intriguing cultural norms and tenets of behaviour. Most Wafipa eat stiff porridge (ugali) cooked from finger-millet flour. Invariably, the ugali goes with beans or an occasional snack of rat or mouse meat popularly known as “koe.”

The Wafipa are hardworking farmers, who also grow maize, rice, groundnuts and sunflowers. Bumper harvests of maize and rice are a normal occurrence here. Nearly all Wafipa families use oxen-drawn ploughs to till the land. Mr James Tuseko (71) an elderly Mfipa, says most households in his community raise an average of 12 head of cattle.

However, most Wafipa, he says, do not drink milk. All milk if fed to dogs and housecats.

WE can’t develop into middle-income ...

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Author: SOSTHENES MWITA

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