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The Lucrative Business Driving Congo's Witchcraft Courts

Article illustrative image Partner logo A file photo of a Mwami

LEMERA - One woman now lives with her daughter in a densely populated neighborhood of the city of Bukavu, in eastern Congo. Six months ago, she had been sentenced to permanent exile from her native village of Lemera, in the South Kivu province, after a tribal court tried and convicted her of using witchcraft to kill her neighbor’s three children. .

Another woman from the same village was also convicted of using witchcraft to kill her husband’s concubine, exiled as well by this tribal court, called a Kihango.

In the Uvira highlands, the Bafuliru tribe holds Kihango court three or four times a month. Men and women who are accused of practicing witchcraft are brought before the court to be tried. When a person is found guilty of being a witch, the typical sentence is forced exile, and at least three weeks doing forced labor for the Mwami – the tribal chief.

“The person must leave the community immediately. This saves them from being lynched,” explains tribal elder Edmond Simba. 

In this remote Congolese region, many people still believe that sickness, death or accidents do not “just happen” – they are caused by individuals, that must be identified and neutralized. This is done through a tribal justice system based on traditional customs and superstition.

To detect signs of witchcraft, the “judge” uses a nylon thread that is “extraordinary and resistant,” explained the tribal elders that we spoke to. The thread is put on a metal plate, which is heated with fire. If the thread breaks, the person on trial is a witch.

Out of the three tribes living in the Uvira highlands, only the Bafuliru people still use Kihango trials, which have been denounced by human rights activists.

The trials were banned in 1994 by the Bafuliru's Mwami, only to be resurrected in 2009, after the Mwami declared that it was a tradition that should be upheld. Going against tradition, he said, would be a serious offense. Even though many elders were against it, they approved the chief’s decision, for fear of losing their position in the tribe.

The neighboring tribe, the Bavira people, banned the practice in 2008. The Kihango trials were replaced by a new judicial process, which their Mwami trusted to deal with local disputes.

A lucrative business

It should be noted that the witchcraft trials are not free, and are an important source of revenue for the tribal chief. Before the dispute can be brought to the court, each party has to pay a mandatory fee of $200 – the price of a cow – whether they can afford it or not.

The headmaster of a primary school situated in Rubanga, 10 kilometers from the village of Lemera, says the witchcraft trials are just a way to exploit the local poor farmers in order to generate revenue for the tribal chief. “It would be naïve to think this is a real test of witchcraft. The tribal judges, who are pawns of the Mwami, are bribed to hand out false verdicts,” he says.

In August 2012, one of the judges admitted that he faked the result of the nylon test so that the woman on trial, the granddaughter of a friend, could be spared.

Vincent Lindalo, a local human rights activist, wants to encourage locals to denounce the trials. The villagers who are found guilty – mostly women – are forced to leave their villages to go live in places they barely know.

"Because they are ignorant of the judicial system and are poor, they believe it is impossible to win a trial against a tribal chief,” says Lindalo. “Many people believe the chief is untouchable, because of his position, or that their ancestors’ wrath will fall on them if they accuse the chief of wrongdoing.”

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