In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where many people believe in witchcraft, allegations occasionally flare into violence and death.
OYAM, UGANDA — On the morning of March 4, at the invitation of her grandchildren, Albina Okoi attended services at a makeshift church different from the one she usually attends. When the prayers continued for longer than she expected, Okoi, 71, excused herself and went home to have tea.
By the time it was ready, there was a mob at her doorstep, led by the pastor and two of her own grandchildren.
“You are a witch,” they shouted, echoing an accusation the pastor made during the service. “You are using charms,” they shouted, asking why children she cared for were more successful than others.
Her grandsons tied her legs with rope and caned her. She was pulled through the dirt streets, head to the ground, for 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), says her son, Ogwang Ongoda, a mathematics teacher. “She was screaming, crying, bleeding, and kept saying, ‘It is better to kill me than to keep doing this — finish me,’” he says, recounting the story as it was later told to him. “But no one listened.”
Once she was dead, the crowd scattered. Her body was left by the roadside. Ongoda says he, too, would have been killed if he had attended church that day. “I only survived because I was too busy with exam preparations.”
Accusations spilling into mob violence
Belief in witchcraft is common in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with accusations occasionally flaring into vigilante killings. According to a 2010 survey across 18 African countries by Gallup, an international polling firm, 55% of respondents believed in witchcraft, although the number was lower in Uganda (15%) than elsewhere. It’s not uncommon to attribute misfortune to malevolent forces; according to the Gallup survey, there appeared to be a correlation between people who believed in witchcraft and those who were less satisfied with their lives.
In Uganda, practicing witchcraft is punishable with up to five years of imprisonment under the colonial-era Witchcraft Act of 1957. But prosecutions are rare. Patrick Okema, police spokesperson for the North Kyoga police jurisdiction, says allegations of witchcraft are often reported to authorities. “There is, however, nothing to do because these cases are not prosecuted,” he says. “It is difficult to prove.”
This may be one reason accusations can spill into mob violence: Unable to make a case before the police or in a court of law, accusers take matters into their own hands.
Moreover, according to Kampala-based legal researcher Rukundo Solomon, most people believe imprisonment will do little to curtail supernatural powers. “A witch in prison may still be as dangerous as a witch out in public,” he says. “Victims may therefore prefer to attack the witch directly.” In 2020, according to police data, of 540 mob-instigated killings across Uganda, 21 stemmed from witchcraft accusations.
Accused witches are exiled
Francis Okello, a clan leader in Oyam district in northern Uganda, says he settles about six witchcraft-related cases every month. In cases that appear to be teetering toward violence, he summons the police. “Witchcraft creates a lot of tension within the community,” he says. “It is a big challenge, with little help from the government and police.”
Accused witches are often excommunicated. Sometimes, fearing for their lives, they leave of their own accord. Scovia, a 53-year-old traditional healer who asked to be identified only by her first name for safety reasons, recently fled her home, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Okoi’s residence in Ajaca village, after neighbors accused her of witchcraft. “I bought a friend a drink; a few days later, he got a throat infection,” she says. “People came to my house, saying I had bewitched him, and threatened my life. I had no choice but to leave so that the situation cools down.” The friend in question, businessman Olugu Lawrence, 37, says he complained to police but was not taken seriously. He insists Scovia bewitched him.
Ongoda, too, has been forced to uproot his life, moving from place to place due to the lingering threat to his life, he says. Police have arrested one person in connection with Okoi’s death, spokesperson Okema says. “The pastor is on the run, and we are tracking him. Once arrested, he will be charged with murder.”
When religion gets in the way
Some blame religious institutions, such as the church where the mob that killed Okoi first coalesced. “Unfortunately, Ugandans are exploited in some of these cults fronting as churches,” says John Baptist Nambeshe, a member of Parliament for Manjiya County in eastern Uganda who introduced legislation in 2019 aimed at regulating religious organizations.
Rogers Atwebembeire, a director at the Africa Centre for Apologetics Research, a religious organization that monitors cults in the region, agrees on the need for oversight. “We need a regulatory body specifically dedicated to identifying the minimum standard of what a church should look like.”
Pentecostal church leaders often encourage belief in witchcraft
Nambeshe’s bill was ultimately unsuccessful. He says he faced great resistance from religious groups, especially Pentecostal churches, which considered his efforts an existential attack. Pentecostal church leaders often encourage belief in witchcraft, Solomon says, because the resulting fear leads to increased church offerings for prayers of protection and exorcism. “Pentecostal churches that peddle belief in witchcraft may not contribute to violence, per se, but they are doing little to stop it,” he says. “They can, however, function as an outlet for victims of witchcraft seeking a spiritual remedy to the problem.” It’s also common in Pentecostal services, Solomon notes, for self-declared former witches to give dramatic testimonies. Pentecostal church leaders didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Time for change
Following further consultations, Nambeshe plans on reintroducing the bill in Parliament. As for Okoi’s family, they are still reeling from the cataclysmic events of March. Ongoda, who continues to switch locations every few days, is now accusing his wife of witchcraft, claiming she poisoned their children against him and their grandmother. Meanwhile, Arac Benedict, one of his sons, is wracked with guilt. A medical officer whose studies were supported by Okoi, he fears his professional success fed village whispers about her being a witch. As a result, he can’t help but blame himself for what happened.
“My grandmother was no witch,” he says. “She was just good at realizing the potential in us and working and sacrificing to realize our goals. It was her time to realize the fruits of her labor. The death was pointless.”