Bloody, elusive riches:  Ritual killing, myth or reality?

Elliot Ziwira Senior Writer

MYTH or reality? Heartless or evil? Desperation or laziness? Power dynamics or greed? What inner torment makes the human psyche derive excitement from the trauma and grief of fellow beings, particularly where worldly riches are involved?

Since the beginning of time, man has exhibited inclinations towards the gruesome, macabre and brutish in his quest to conquer the world, which ironically, holds a spell over him.

Seemingly shunned by the gods of good fortune, eluded by opportunity and spurned by mother luck, man has been known to extend his hand to anything that appears to be a low-hanging fruit; often taking leave of his senses.

The quest for riches

The lengths to which people go to acquire riches are varied, sometimes bordering on the insane, bizarre, contemptible and hair-raising.

According to Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS), more than 30 percent of the murder cases recorded between January 2021 and November 2022, were attributed to ritual purposes; while the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency reveals that at least 40 percent of the 3 600 murder cases documented in 2022 were alleged ritual killings.

So widespread are incidents of ritual killing that in recent times, barely a fortnight passes without the Zimbabwean media reporting on the heinous act in its various ghastly shades.

Just recently, three-year-old Caroline Makubhwakwa of Mhokwe Village, Mushumbi, Guruve in Mashonaland Central Province was murdered for suspected ritual purposes, and her assailants are still unaccounted for.

Having gone missing on January 17, Caroline’s remains were found in a gully at the foot of Mavhuradona Mountain on January 25, with some of her body parts missing.

Curiously, death appears to have become fashionable in changing people’s lifestyles through money-making sacraments where human blood and choice body parts are concocted to presumed instant riches.

It really is a cause for concern!

I am disturbed: President Mnangagwa

Miffed by it all, President Mnangagwa has consistently condemned the killing of children for ritual purposes, vowing to end violence against them.

“I am disturbed by the loss of young children as a result of heinous and evil actions for rituals and witchcraft purposes. These cold-hearted acts of murder have no place in our country.

“The stakeholders in our criminal justice system must speedily and strongly deal with perpetrators, so that this evil trend is expunged from our society,” said the President during a virtual Junior Cabinet meeting at State House in Harare on September 26, 2020.

The condemnation followed the murder of a seven-year-old Murehwa boy, Tapiwa Makore, for ritual purposes, allegedly by his uncle and namesake assisted by a herdsman.

Tapiwa’s killers, Tapiwa Makore Snr and Tafadzwa Shamba, were condemned to death by High Court Judge, Justice Munamato Mutevedzi, on July 12, 2023.

In his address on the occasion of the National Cultural Commemoration Day that is marked globally on May 21, the President implored chiefs and traditional leaders to discourage citizens from engaging in ritual practices, saying “the killing of our children is not acceptable”.

Biblical, cultural references

In a 2018 paper titled “A Reflection on Ritual Murders in the Biblical Text from an African Perspective”, academics Mogomme Alpheus Masoga and Temba Rugwiji, argue that ritual killing is neither unique to Zimbabwe, as it is prevalent across human communities, nor is it new.

They maintain that during ancient biblical times, as depicted in the Old Testament, it was not uncommon for a father to offer a son on the altar as a sacrifice to the gods.

It is trite that African belief systems are complicated, but the use of the corpse for charms is rife across the world.

Masoga and Rugwiji (2018) point out: “It is this legendary belief of connecting the dead/the supernatural with the living which motivates human societies all over the world to engage in ritual murder in order to gratify the gods who in return would ‘bless’ and enrich the offerer.”

The use of human body parts, particularly those of children as enhancers of business, farming, and other enterprises, has shared hearths with communities in Africa since time immemorial.

Zimbabwe is among African countries that have been found complicit in ritual killing, which include, but not limited to Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and Swaziland.

Persons with albinism are particularly targeted for ritual purposes in Tanzania.

According to the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), nearly 80 persons with albinism were killed between 2000 and 2019. About 265 traditional healers were arrested in a crackdown on the vice during the period.

It is on record that an entire corpse fetches up to US$75 000, while an arm or a leg brings in about US$2 000 for albino predators.

Africans have always been ritualistic in their daily communions between the living and the dead through invocation of gods, or ancestral spirits.

Besides ritual killing as a source of harvest, human body parts were reported to have been ostensibly removed from corpses at mortuaries and funeral parlours.

Because of the prevalence of the wicked practice targeting innocence, parents are usually at pains to keep their children within sight, and caution them to be wary of strangers.

However, many a time they have lost the fight, as children continue to be lured to their deaths through use of one bait or the other, often by people known to them.

As heart-wrenching as it is, children, especially first-born and last-born ones, considered a treasure to their parents, are abducted and killed for their body parts, the belief being that when prepared as charms or muti, they stimulate fledgling businesses and create wealth.

It is believed that for the muti to work potently, the preferred body organs, such as the tongue, heart, eyes and reproductive parts should be harvested while the victim is still frantically kicking. Other targeted parts are eyebrows, nails, voice box, eardrum and fingers.

Kombi-for-a-human head deals of yore

Collective memory recalls that in the early to mid-1990s, there was a flurry of ritual killings reportedly for human heads, which were said to fetch ‘gold’ across the Limpopo. It was widely believed that a single head would earn one a commuter omnibus in South Africa.

What the heads would be used for remained a mystery, save for speculations that they would be used as baits in shark fishing. The sharks were said to swallow diamond pieces; thus, their bellies were purported to be caches of wealth.

This writer shares a memory with his rural community involving one businesswoman (name withheld) from Murehwa, Mashonaland East Province, who died by suicide after she was ostensibly caught with three human heads in her luggage, which she intended to smuggle to South Africa, and was subsequently arrested at Beitbridge Border Post.

She was known to possess remarkable business acumen, which saw her establishing a thriving shopping centre that still holds sway, but she tainted her legacy because of her supposed links to ritual killing.

Flourishing human body parts trade

There was a time also, in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the horrifying trade in human body parts flourished, with police in Harare busting an organised ring of peddlers at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals mortuary, which supposedly sold human body parts to traditional healers.

As The Sunday Mail reported on February 12, 1995, three employees were arrested and two and a half human hearts were recovered, prompting a public outcry as bereaved families feared for the worst.

In June 2003, as reported by Chronicle (June 23, 2003), 8-year-old Tulange Mudenda from Nangalanga Village under Chief Siabuwa’s domain of Binga, Matabeleland North Province, was killed and her body was later found under a bridge on the Binga-Karoi Road with some parts missing.

Tulange’s throat was slit open, and her tongue and reproductive organs were missing.

Milos Sinamwenda Mudenda was the prime suspect.

In another chilling case of ritual intent, reported in May, 2003, two teenage boys from Mbare, Harare cheated the funeral dirge when they were kidnapped by four men along Zata Street as they headed to a friend’s place.

Grant Chaniwa and Edward Severi were saved by their age when the man on whose instruction their abductors were working said the boys were too old. Chaniwa said there was another boy in the cold room they were thrown into.

“There was no sign of people or dogs at the house, until late at night when a certain man came to the room.

“The man said ‘you have brought me older boys. I need younger ones so that the medicine will make my business thrive for a long time,’” Chaniwa told The Herald then.

Since they were brought to the house blindfolded, the boys could not tell where they were. For that reason, and on the insistence of the businessman, the teenagers, along with the other 10-year-old boy, were later abandoned in Msasa around 11pm.

The year 2013 was particularly spine-tingling for villagers and learners in Mhondoro-Mubaira, Mashonaland West Province, following a spate of ritual killings stretching over some months.

The attacks on children were reported in Murowa Village under Chief Nyamweda in December 2013 when 16-year-old Moreblessing Murove was axed to death and her body was mutilated.

As The Herald reported on March 3, 2014, Moreblessing left home for school on a Wednesday, but did not return. Pants lowered, her body was later found in a ditch the following day with three deep wounds on the face, an eye gouged out, an index finger and one of the ears cut off.

Sharon Chimatira (9) from the same village escaped with deep wounds on her throat after her alleged attacker, Ronald Mugari, fled when he noticed that people had seen him.

Fingers point at n’angas

Although cases of ritual killing have spiked in recent times, with n’angas being implicated, nothing appears to be done to censure traditional healers who supposedly engage in such practices.

The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha) president, Mr George Kandiero, said the practice of using human body parts as charms, particularly those of children or blood relatives, to enhance riches, was not new.

He, however, insisted that the practice did not originate in Zimbabwe, since it was a foreign concept from neighbouring and other countries, particularly in West Africa, where the belief is widespread.

“Ritual killing does not only exist in black societies. It is also prevalent in white or Asian communities as depicted in movies. The idea behind use of innocent children as sacrificial lambs is derived from having body parts which are clean or pure; free from abuse.

“Mostly, we hear about them using the brains, private organs, palm, and skull. Although we are not sure how exactly they use them, these are the most common parts they use on the human body,” Mr Kandiero said.

He highlighted that their association was against the practice, although he could not rule out malefactors. He argued that it was preposterous to blame traditional healers for the surge in ritual murders, saying communities have always brazenly partaken in the practice.

“I wouldn’t want to pinpoint that n’angas influence people to engage in ritual practices for wealth. What I have picked from the grapevine is that people are enticed to dabble in such practices due to peer-pressure within their social circles.

“If you were to go to our social media pages, you would realise that we have always advocated that people should desist from these practices,” he said.

Mr Kandiero said there are much cleaner ways in which one can enhance one’s business, without resorting to money-making rituals, maintaining that one’s ancestors are responsible for bequeathing talents, and protecting one against bad spirits.

He pointed out that even in churches there are some pastors and prophets who openly claim on social media to have been involved in prosperity rituals. He affirmed that the starting point should be identifying the people behind such practices without pointing fingers at traditional practitioners.

“In any case, the word n’anga itself is derogatory. We are practitioners who help people in need, and not sorcerers,” he said. “Most of the people involved in these rituals are not even local traditional practitioners, but individuals well-versed in such practices, with links outside the country.

“There is a need, therefore, to define what a n’anga or traditional practitioner is.”

Whether the heinous practice is old or new; whether it should be blamed on n’angas, pastors, prophets or peer-pressure within social circles, the killing of innocent children or ill-fated adults for ritual purposes must stop.

As President Mnangagwa underlined, it simply has no place in modern societies.

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