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Nyasio Alfonsi, a 40 year old Fipa medicine man, caused a stir last Saturday when he threw himself into the Ifuma River, promising to return after three days of visiting the “gates of hell.” Accompanied by the drumming, chants, and dancing of dozens of people from the village of Masigo (also called Masingo in another account), Mr. Alfonsi (or Alfonso) indicated that he would come back “with revelation from the ancestral spirits for the village on planned tribal rituals.”

Four days later, sensing something was amiss, the villagers searched the river and found his body several meters downstream from where he had gone in. Village leaders reported the incident to the authorities. The regional police commander, Daudi Siasi (or Daudi Siadi) said the incident appears to be the first of its type in the area: “We are not aware of such practices although belief in witchcraft is widespread in Rukwa region.”

The report in the Tanzanian Daily News, like a story in the same source last December, wants to blame troubles in the Rukwa region, part of which was traditionally known as Ufipa, on the vestiges of traditional sorcery and witchcraft that persist among the Fipa people. The article on Tuesday this week indicates that witchcraft is generally blamed for notorious murders in which the bodies are mutilated. The horrifying, gratuitous details in the story may represent an attempt to warn Tanzanian readers about the dangers of traditional Fipa beliefs and practices.

More details about this specific incident may come out later, but at the moment the scholarly literature gives better information about the practices of traditional Fipa sorcery and magician doctors than the rumors and innuendos of the Tanzanian press. Kathleen R. Smythe (2006: 22-23) points out that the Fipa today are comfortable with both their Christian practices, especially on Sundays, and their traditional ones which may be more effective the rest of the week. They find elements of each tradition to be attractive.

Roy G. Willis, who studied the Fipa extensively from 1962 to 1966, indicated (1968) that the ideologies of Roman Catholicism destroyed many traditional beliefs and practices, which increased tensions in the Fipa communities. Political polarization, economic conflicts and religious disagreements sometimes foster strife in the villages. The socially integrative functions played by the village headmen and religious leaders have been mostly lost, and their society at times still appears to struggle with the consequences.

Willis ascribed the infrequent periods of communal spirit worship to wars, famines, epidemics, and other crises. He explained that since the Catholic missionaries were able to eliminate Fipa beliefs in ancestral and territorial spirits, “sorcery appears to have assumed an unprecedented importance as an explanatory category in case of sickness and death” (1968a: 145)

We can only speculate about whether the growing AIDS crisis in Tanzania may have had anything to do with the religious gathering for which Mr. Alfonsi’s performance was the central feature. Neither Smythe nor Willis discuss, in the works cited, shamanistic travel, much less the possibility that traditional magician doctors might come back from the dead after three days. However, the syncretistic association with Christian belief is obvious. At least Mr. Alfonsi began his tragic journey on Saturday rather than Sunday.