When a head- and limbless body of a boy was found floating down the Thames in London in 2001, it sparked widespread international interest. Not only due to the gruesome details of the murder – but also because his stomach contained an extract of the calabar bean, a fruit whose components effectively work like a nerve gas: leaving the body of the victim paralysed, while still being able to feel pain. The fruit is used in voodoo magic in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, ritual murder was deemed the most likely explanation for the killing. The heinous crime reminded the world once again that human sacrifices and medicinal killings, i.e. murder in order to harvest organs for medicinal use, are still a reality today.
Commonly associated with the bloody excesses of the Aztecs and cheap tribal exploitation films from the 1980s, human sacrifices are an often overlooked issue in nowadays’ world. In India, quite a few cases have emerged in recent years, most notoriously that of P. R. Palanichamy, the head of the country’s largest granite export firm, in which it was alleged that he had ordered the killing of four people for personal gain. In another case, a 10-year-old boy was killed by a man in Nepal, hoping to cure his ill son as a result.
However, human sacrifices mainly occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In early 2016, amidst an election that was criticised by the international community, it was alleged that six children had been mutilated and sacrificed in rural Uganda, in order to win the favour of mystical beings and to thus boost election results. The allegations were made by the charity Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, which provides education for children in Uganda and cares for survivors of child sacrifice. It is reported that a veritable industry builds on ritual murders. In exchange for money, the rich and powerful can order the ritual killing of children, who are often kidnapped or trafficked for this very purpose.
Reports indicate that the practice is still alive and well in Botswana, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Uganda. While ritual killings are considered murder in all of these countries, the laws are hard to enforce, as ritual killings often go unreported, due to the secret nature of these murders and the common complicity of relatives of the victims, which are often especially vulnerable: children, women, and disabled people are most commonly targeted. It is also worth noting that these problems do not only persist in countries where most people still adhere to traditional beliefs, but also in countries that are largely Christian or Muslim.
While some of the sacrifices are performed for purely spiritual reasons, most of them are done for personal gain, be it in the form of material wealth, health or power. It is also proven that some of the deeds are committed out of fear of repercussions if the sacrifice was not to be performed as planned, be it in the form of peer pressure or doom brought about by vengeful spirits. Closely connected to the ritual murders are medicinal killings, in which the body parts of the victims are harvested for later use in traditional medicine. Especially Albinos, often considered unnatural by superstitious and uneducated populations, are at great risk of being abducted and murdered for their body parts, which are then used as medicinal ingredients or powerful charms.
When looking at these crimes, it becomes apparent that they all have a common themes: the murders are always perpetrated by or at the advice of witch doctors, gurus, and other spiritual leaders. Why is that so? In sub-Saharan Africa, witch doctors still have a very eminent position in society. They foretell the future, record traditions and the oral history of their communities, and are said to be able to cure all kinds of sicknesses that are commonly believed to be a result of witchcraft or moody ancestors. In countries that often have less than one doctor in 8,000 people, witch doctors are the persons to call on for whatever ailment might befall one. Due to their role as shamans and traditional niche in society, it is easy for them to ensnare superstitious populations in their charlatanry.
Many government measures aimed at stopping human sacrifices and medicinal murders thus target witch doctors, either through the regulation of their work or through education campaigns. Only one year ago, Tanzania made the headlines when more than 200 witch doctors were arrested in order to prevent further killings of Tanzanian albinos. In Uganda, the problem of human sacrifice has become so rampant that a special Anti-Human Sacrifice and Trafficking Task Force has been set up in order to tackle the problem. While official figures only show about twenty to thirty cases a year in Uganda, the real figure is likely way higher.
In the end, however, change will have to come about from within the communities. While increased accessibility of education and medical services will surely aid in decreasing the amount of human sacrifices and medicinal murders, it is peoples’ minds that need to change.
By Michael Schätzlein
Picture 1: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library, in the Public Domain
Picture 2: ViktorDobai, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0