A judge in South Africa sentenced a man to four life sentences in prison on Tuesday for the murder of his nieces and nephews – whose ears, he confessed, he planned to sell at a high price to a witch doctor for use in potions.
Southern African countries have spent much of the last decade fighting violence fueled by witch doctor, or traditional herbalist, demands for body parts to use in their ceremonies and potions. In nations like Tanzania and Malawi, the body parts of albino people can fetch as much as $75,000 for a whole body, according to United Nations studies. Tanzania has the largest albino population on the continent.
In South Africa, 32-year-old Ben Zimele Mbhele pleaded guilty to killing his two nieces and two nephews, aged between four and 12, last year after meeting a man who told him that the children’s ears would sell at a high price to a witch doctor that he knew. Mbhele reportedly told police initially that he had to kill the children because they “were haunting him and that it was a satanic act,” according to South Africa’s the Times. His story changed when the court found that Mbhele took out a life insurance policy on the four children shortly before they were found dead, and collected 60,000 South African rand (about $5,000) total on the four children.
The children were found with their left ears cut off and multiple stab wounds in their body. They appear to have lived with their uncle and the rest of the large family, according to South Africa’s News24, and Mbhele was found to have taken out the life insurance money without telling the rest of the family.
The case is the latest in a string of violent crimes reportedly fueled by the witchcraft market in Africa. In Zambia, police recently arrested five men for chopping the arm off of a 20-year-old pregnant albino woman at the behest of a witch doctor. The doctor is among those arrested. The woman survived despite being “left for dead” without an arm, according to police, and the men attempted to travel to Malawi to sell the arm.
In February, a court in Malawi sentenced a man to prison for incest after engaging in sexual activity with his stepdaughter at the behest of a witch doctor. The father, 25, and the stepdaughter, 11, were told that “he was supposed to sleep with an underaged girl and on 2nd February, 2018 he forced his stepdaughter into his bedroom where he had sex with her,” according to Malawi’s Nyasa Times.
“Yasini threatened to kill her if she revealed the act. However, later in the day the girl revealed the matter to her mother who ordered her to reveal again immediately should he sleep with her again,” Police Prosecutor Sub Inspector Wedson Nyondo told the court. The girl and her mother defied him and took the case to police.
The father, identified as Kasito Yasini, was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor.
In Nigeria, far north from where most albino-related witch doctor crimes are documented, police have arrested several men for murder or attempted murder in pursuit of items to sell to herbalists. In February, a group of men found to be associated with the Badoo cult were arrested for allegedly “smashing the heads of a pastor and other family members with a grinding stone,” according to that country’s the Guardian.
In another Nigerian incident, an herbalist was arrested in January for selling babies as part of a scam fertility business. According to police, the witch doctor was “deceiving women into thinking they are pregnant and thereafter giving other people’s babies to them having collected lots of money.”
Tanzania has spearheaded campaigns against violent witch doctor remedies, in part due to its significant albino population. Albino activists began attracting international attention in 2014, arguing that politicians and businessmen were among the worst offenders, as they were the only people in the country with the money to pay the high price of albino body parts and had the motive of using these “remedies” to win elections of score lucrative business deals.
Tanzania banned witch doctors in 2015, but the practice persisted, forcing government officials to issue a special warning to politicians not to practice violent witchcraft months later. The crackdown also fueled a market for albino body parts in neighboring Marawi.
Uganda has also struggled to contain witchcraft-fueled violence, issuing a similar warning against the practice to politicians in 2016. On Wednesday, Uganda’s federal communications watchdog banned over two dozen radio stations from broadcasting programming after ignoring federal regulations for months on accepting advertisements from witch doctors. Uganda had banned witch doctor advertisements on radio in 2014.
Kenya has taken a different approach, recently approving a government task force on “alternative medicine” and, rather than banning witch doctor advertising, legalizing advertising for medical professionals in 2016, so that they are better able to compete for patients with the often more trusted traditional healers.
“The advertisements will mainly be allowing doctors and specialists to make Kenyans aware about the services they offer and not about praising themselves because that will go against professional ethics,” the National Chairman of the Kenyan Medical Association, Dr. Elly Nyaim, said at the time.