British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Robert Greenshields
(Administrative Officer, Tanganyika, 1958-61)
A Tanganyika Smeller-out of Witches
Tanganyika Standard
In August 1960 I was the junior of two District Officers in Kigoma District in Western Tanganyika (Kigoma was at the end of the Central Railway and had a small harbour on Lake Tanganyika). We were all drawing breath after coping throughout July with hundreds of refugees fleeing across the Lake from the Belgian Congo and also with the election, which established the final stage of self government prior to Independence: the DC was therefore taking well-earned leave during what looked like a quieter spell. It was not to be!

My colleague, Michael Beardmore, was Acting DC and was contacted in mid-August by the Father Superior of the local White Fathers Mission, who reported that a seeker-out of witches was operating close to Kigoma (no word of which had come to us from the local chiefs or headmen). Some of his congregation had told him of their anxiety, as they were devout Christians and did not believe in witchcraft, but feared for their safety from the way that the supposed witch-finder was acting.

Belief in witchcraft in Tanganyika was traditional and the majority of Africans believed that little untoward happened without a spell from a witch being behind it (it is of course not so long ago that many in our country entertained similar fears). The Government had enacted a Witchcraft Ordnance to deal with overt criminal offences or disturbances which were a result of witchcraft and with the right of a court to restrict or expel anyone involved with witchcraft.

We soon discovered that the witch-finder had come up from Northern Rhodesia and was known colloquially as Kamchape (in Swahili - one who marks out people). He was accompanied by a few young assistants. His procedure was to visit a village and, having put his assistants into trances, to send them round the village with bottles in their hands, which contained a liquid mixture of extracts of particular roots and barks. When the bottle began to shake it was an indication that an item of witchcraft was near and if it then shook violently a search was made in the hut so indicated. Items included bottles of "poison", a bushbuck's horn, animal bones, or any other unusual items between the top of the wall and the thatch. The owner of the hut was then persuaded to come out and sit in the centre of the village gathering, whilst Kamchape shaved away a part of the "witch's" hair above the forehead and the "witch" had to drink the potion in the bottle and sit in the sun till sunset. After that Kamchape pronounced them "cured".

Kamchape's assistants were warned by the Acting DC (Michael) that they were not to enter anyone's house without permission, nor were people to be molested in any way. One case was subsequently brought to court, but that was all for a couple of weeks. Kamchape had until then restricted his activities to two villages. He then applied to the Local Authority of Ujiji (famed as the meeting place of Livingstone and Stanley) for their permission to operate there. Ujiji was an old Arab slave-centre with a population of 15,000, the only township in the District apart from the much smaller Kigoma, and partly as a result of its history was a mixture of Africans of different tribes. It was also, not surprisingly, the most troublesome place in the District. The partially-elected Local Authority readily agreed, but wrote to the acting DC for his agreement to Kamchape's request. He replied that this was granted only if it was understood that the law must be observed. Elections at every level in Tanganyika were overwhelmingly won by the Nationalist Party, TANU, and so Michael visited the Ujiji office of TANU to ensure that their District Secretary would co-operate in the maintenance of the law. He assured Michael that TANU in Ujiji would do so and that their own askaris, and TANU as a whole, would do all in their power to prevent the law being broken (1st September).

A week later two separate violent incidents occurred involving two women, one an Asian/African and the other an Asian, both of whom were pronounced to be witches and were dragged from their houses, thrown to the ground, and had their clothes ripped before being made to go through the de-witching process. The leaders of the Asian community in the District visited Michael at his home after dark to report both incidents. The following day Michael saw Kamchape and his assistants and tried to get their agreement that those who rejected the belief in witchcraft should not be molested - even if the assistants claimed to have found what they considered to be articles of witchcraft on them or in their houses. This was rejected by Kamchape and Co., as, they said, following such a request would mean that witches could remain in business. And despite further argument they could not be persuaded otherwise.

Michael and I then discussed what should be done, and we agreed that we could not leave Kamchape to carry on as he was, now in open defiance of the law, but we had insufficient police strength should there be a mob from Ujiji marching on the District Office This had happened twice in previous months, but the DC had skilfully defused the situation on each occasion. This was, however, a totally different scenario.

A Tanganyika Smeller-out of Witches
Kigoma Train Station
Michael rang the Deputy Provincial Commissioner (the PC being in Dar es Salaam at a meeting) and talked through the situation (on Friday 9th September), asking for reinforcements to cope with any disturbances that might arise if Kamchape was removed. The DPC agreed to his arrest and removal and to send a platoon of the Field Force from Provincial Headquarters in Tabora by train (an over-night journey of 250 miles). The situation in Ujiji was meanwhile becoming ever tenser and we expected trouble, as the Field Force would not leave Tabora until the Saturday evening and arrive around 6am on the Sunday morning. We assumed that news of what was intended would leak out fairly quickly.

I can remember clearly sitting in Michael's car in the dawn light halfway to Ujiji watching for any sign of a march assembling: to our relief nothing stirred and there were no further reports of violence (the most sensitive potential targets, apart from Asian and Arab shops, was a White Sisters Mission with several European nuns).

After the Field Force assembled at Kigoma Station they moved to a strategic position on the Ujiji road, ready to confront any mob which tried to gather. Kamchape meanwhile had been arrested under the terms of the Witchcraft Ordnance and was safely in Kigoma Jail. On the Monday morning Kamchape was escorted to our small boat, the Kibisi, on Lake Tanganyika under police escort and was deported on it from Tanganyika Territory to Northern Rhodesia, from where he had originally come. No march came from Ujiji and small protests in Kigoma were dispersed without difficulty by the police.

The matter became a political one, however, as the local TANU office appealed to the relevant (TANU) Minister in Dar es Salaam. We wondered whether he would intervene and reverse the decision and so undermine the Administration's authority and also be seen to be siding with witchcraft against the law's edict. He, however, did not support the local TANU appeal and so we at last relaxed and the Field Force were in due course sent back to Tabora. We neither saw nor heard of Kamchape again.

News of the Administration's action quickly spread in the District and no doubt beyond. It had been superbly and calmly handled by Michael. Finally, I have the letter I wrote to my parents, describing, inter alia, the Kamchape incident (which I note I refer to as a "minor crisis" - it didn't seem so at the time!)

However, I was on safari a few weeks later in a riverside village a mile or two from the Lake. The local chief reported that one of his court messengers had been attacked by a large crocodile, which was a most unusual occurrence, as they were supposed to have been largely shot out some years previously. "You see, Bwana, this is what comes from expelling Kamchape!"

Colonial Map
Map of Western Tanganyika, 1949
Colony Profile
White Fathers in Kigoma
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


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