A seemingly bizarre news story about a predatory traditional healer emerged from rural Tanzania last week. According to the Sunday Citizen, an attack by the healer sent the manager of a guesthouse where he was staying and four of his other guests to a local hospital.
The healer was staying at the Annudo Guesthouse and Bar in the village of Buyagu, Geita District of the Mwanza Region in northern Tanzania. The healer, who was not named by the newspaper, was from Sumbawanga, an important city in southwestern Tanzania—presumably someone of Fipa ancestry.
One of the victims, Lucia Patrick, told authorities that the healer had bragged the night of the crime that he could make them rich before morning. They would have to leave their doors open during the night so he could administer medicine to them that would make them millionaires. Ms. Patrick told the press, “he said the medicine would boost our fortunes and our enterprises would attract very many customers.”
The healer was sharing a room for the week with one of the victims, Elizabeth Lucas. The other two affected guests in the house that evening were Khadija Kangero and Sofia John, both presumably also women. Around 11:00 PM, he went from room to room in the guesthouse, incising the skin of his victims and smearing traditional medicines into the bloody cuts.
“The traditional healer finally arrived in my room with a plate that had black medicine which he smeared on my incised skin,” Ms. Lucas recalled. She was not clear what else may have happened, because the next thing she knew, she awoke in the district hospital in the city of Geita.
A passerby in the morning saw the doors of the guesthouse wide open, walked in to investigate, and found the manager, Massanja Annudo, plus his guests all unconscious and naked. He alerted the executive officer of the village. The healer had made off with his victims’ cash, their cell phones, and the guesthouse money.
The doctor treating the victims at the hospital, Dr. Cassian Kabuche, confirmed that he had received the victims and said that he had taken blood samples from them. He felt that the medicines the healer had smeared onto their incised skin had poisoned them, causing them to lose consciousness. They could have died if they had not been taken to the hospital, the news story claimed. Police in Geita were searching for the traditional healer, and were interrogating further his lover during the week, Ms. Lucas.
The connection to the Fipa people is not clear, other than the fact that the healer was from Sumbawanga, the major city of Ufipa. A scholarly article by Willis (1968a) helps clear up some of the cultural implications of the strange crime. At the time Willis studied the Fipa, in the 1960s, traditional healers were quite common in Ufipa. He had the good fortune to befriend an elderly healer named Matiya Masangawale. Willis observed him in his trance states, making his medicinal preparations, and practicing his healing. The man administered medicines he deemed appropriate for each illness primarily by making incisions in the skin of his patients and rubbing in the preparations.
At the time he was there, in 1964, Willis discovered traditional healers in virtually every village. The senior medical officer at the regional hospital in Sumbawanga told him that the Fipa used the modern medical facilities. But he could always tell where patients had problems by the locations on their bodies of the cuts by the traditional healers.
Willis felt that the Fipa were ambivalent about patronizing traditional healers versus practitioners of modern, Western medicine. Apparently the people would go to either western or traditional healers, whichever proved to be the more effective, but they suspected sorcery would be practiced by both types.
The Fipa denied that sorcery was really practiced in the modern era of the mid-1960s, but as he got to know them better, he discovered that people talked about it constantly. His new friends warned him frequently to be extremely careful about everything he ate and drank, since he should suspect everyone, his hosts on all occasions, of wanting to poison him. Hosts would take a sip from a bowl of millet beer before handing it to him, but even then he should be suspicious. The person intent on killing him could conceal a bit of poison under his or her thumb nail and dip it into the beer bowl after taking a sip.
Willis argues that the declining belief in witchcraft and sorcery, commonly articulated by the village people, seemed to correspond with a poisoning psychosis. He noted in his field diary four moths after he arrived, “Everyone believes that the next man (or woman) is only waiting for a chance to slip a fatal dose into one’s beer (p.148).”
Ten years later, Willis wrote another article (1978) which amplified his analysis of the actual medical practices of the traditional healers. He described, for instance, ingredients that his healer friend gathered in the bush and he related in some detail the ways he processed them into his preparations by mixing, burning, and combining the ashes.
The healer then made tiny incisions, called innkalo, by holding folds of the patient’s skin between the first finger of his left hand and his thumb, and barely cutting into the skin with his razor. He made a pattern of parallel cuts over the site of the ailment before rubbing in the black, burnt powder.
Ms. Patrick had mentioned to the reporter last week that the “medicine” the healer administered was black, probably from its having been burned in the traditional fashion. Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to expect a newspaper article to follow up on a story about a minor crime with more interesting cultural details. Exactly how were the incisions made, why did the guests all submit to the treatment, was any analysis made of the residue of the “medicine” on the patients’ skin? The story does provide intriguing hints about the continuation of traditional Fipa healing and the potential dangers of poisoning in their culture.