Inside the dark world of witchdoctors

If you think being an undertaker is the hardest job on the planet, try journalism. When I was assigned by my editor to hunt for a witchdoctor and test whether their dark arts worked, I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. 
The  writer waiting to see  a witch doctor. All photos  / Martin Bishop.
The writer waiting to see a witch doctor. All photos / Martin Bishop.

If you think being an undertaker is the hardest job on the planet, try journalism. When I was assigned by my editor to hunt for a witchdoctor and test whether their dark arts worked, I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. 

Well, I fabricated all kinds of excuses to avoid this assignment but all in vain, I even confessed that I’m the world’s worst coward but it didn’t work either! “You either do it or you do it,” insisted the boss.

“Forgive me father for the sin I’m about to commit,” I prayed.

My first challenge was to find a witchdoctor.  Not an easy task, for you see, the majority of people in Rwanda either shun witchcraft or keep their liaisons with these people under key and lock. The first person I asked about their whereabouts asked angrily,  “do I look like I believe in witchcrafts?”

Rwandans are reserved and generally not ‘talkers ‘. Many people, even those who knew where I could find the people I wanted to meet, shied away for fear of being labeled  ‘witchcraft worshipers’.

“If you want to know where to find witches, ask women” my teen niece volunteered, “why women?”  I asked. “Duh, don’t you watch Nigerian movies, she asked, rolling her eyes.

I finally managed to trace my ‘target’, Emerithe Nsekambabaye, living in Masaka Sector of Gasabo District.  This discovery both excited and made me nervous.

Without wasting time, I boarded a Masaka-bound taxi. Reaching Cumi Nicyenda stage, we turned to a bumpy, muddy road and after what seemed like eternity, we reached the Masaka trading centre. I asked the first moto rider if he knew where to find Mr. Kilagi. Without another word, he signalled me to hop on the bike. Apparently the witch was a well-known figure in the community.

On the ride, people kept shouting “Kilagi” at me, accusingly. The moto fellow informed me that whenever locals see a well-dressed person, they automatically know they are heading to the witch’s domicile. “This is the way they indirectly protest the witches existence on their village.”

By the time we reached our destination, my fast pumping heart was threatening to jump out of my chest.

When I asked the rider to wait for me he baulked. I bet he was thinking, “I don’t want your blood on my hands come Judgment Day”. I paid him and watched him disappear.

Although the thought of turning back was becoming more and more tempting, I soldiered on citing a muted Lord’s Prayer.  Looking into the compound I found many clients mutely seated with their heads bowed down.  Like my niece had presumed, the majority of the patrons were women, wearing veils on their heads. The men wore baseball -caps.

I was ushered by a bare-footed man dressed in tatters and bare feet, caked in mud. His forehead was deeply lined and although he was probably in his fifties, death seemed on his doorstep.

Wordlessly, he signalled me to sit. Amid the silence, I finally realised why this place was referred to as  ‘ni kwaKilagi (at Kilagi’s home). ‘Kilagi’ is harsh way to refer to a person who has hearing-impairement. The ‘usher’ was deaf and mute.

No sooner had I sat down that he appeared with a bottle of Chivas Regal.  Only, this bottle was filled with local brew. I refused to drink it saying, “I don’t drink”.

The man refused to budge. He kept insisting and was joined by a lady sitting next to me, who nudged me with her elbow. I grudgingly did and only then did the man smile, revealing rotting teeth and gums.

After watching me for a while, the lady asked me if this was my first time to consult the gods. I nodded in affirmative. “Well, the gods would be offended if you didn’t take the drink,” she informed me.  “Don’t worry, that man is not the muganga (doctor).  He is just the husband,” she revealed.

Although my new friend seemed to be in her late twenties, she said she had visited this place a couple of times. “I owe my life to this doctor; I first came here when my rival (co wife) bewitched me,” she narrated as we waited.

Aisha, which was her name I learnt, had travelled all the way from Nyamirambo. She was on a revenge mission because she blamed her husband for bringing another woman to their home.

According to Imam Butare Al-Quraafi Said of Gikondo mosque, witchcraft is real and the person against whom it is directed can die. “Witchcraft causes people to be sick or to feel depressed.  It can make them love or hate and many people have experienced what it can do to them,” the Imam confirmed.

His Christian counterpart Pastor Akayezu of the Faith Centre Church of Kanombe couldn’t agree more. ”The Scriptures condemn all sorcery. In Galatians 5:20, witchcraft is listed as being one of the acts of the sinful nature.” said the pastor.

I don’t know how long I sat waiting but a light tap on my shoulder startled me from my reverie. Lifting my eyes I met the sorcerer’s!  She had one ugly hand on her waist and another holding a tobacco pipe between her bone-dry lips.

She blew tobacco smoke in my face and pulled me to follow her.

I entered what seemed like a normal room but inside was another pitch-dark grass thatched room. I entered the darker room, cursing my boss.

After what seemed like an eternity my eyes adjusted to the light. The room smelt like dead animals and rotten wood. I sat on a worn-out mat and in front of me were two equally ancient baskets.

“Put in the money you have and say what brought you here”, the sorcerer commanded. “How much”, I asked in shaky tone. “What kind of silly question is that? Do you think you are the only one I have to attend to today”, she replied. 

 I practically emptied all my pockets into the basket. That’s when I remembered I hadn’t chosen a reason for my visit. I found myself blurting out “It’s my boss!”  “He is the one you want to be fixed”, the voice asked.  I nodded yes. 

So, as you read this, either my boss is ‘fixed’ or the witch conned me.


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