In the shade of the mganga’s clinic, a mud-walled rondavel with two dead kingfishers drying from the eaves, the usual crowd of bedraggled patients waits for the medicine to take hold. Some have been here for weeks undergoing a course of treatment, sleeping on the floor at night in a tin-roofed hut donated by a grateful patient. Others stop by to make an appointment, which the healer logs in an A4 notebook alongside patient records, a menu of services, and a price list.
Dina Charles began to ply her trade as a traditional healer only three years ago, but under the guidance of her now-retired father she has already built a loyal following in her village on the southern shore of Ukerewe, a small island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria. A diminutive, bright-eyed woman in her 50s with a green headscarf and a mobile phone dangling in a plastic orange pouch from her neck, her career began, she tells me, when she went crazy one morning and ran to the top of a nearby hill. After staying on its summit alone for two weeks, she ran down to the lake and immersed herself for a day in its waters. On emerging she climbed another hill, this one topped by a cross commemorating the murder of the island’s first European missionaries in 1877. Under the cross she found a Bible, which she picked up and carried back down the hill to her village to begin her new vocation.
If you are cursed by a witch, the curative abilities of a mganga are your only hope of salvation
The medicine men and women of the Ukerewe archipelago, a group of 28 islands in the south-eastern corner of the world’s second largest lake, are renowned in Tanzania. People come from far and wide in search of cures for disease or help with problems ranging from fertility complications to family disputes or financial difficulties. They also seek protection from curses, or to curse others. For the islands are also famous for witches, destructive forces whose powers you can enlist for a small fee to bring down your enemies. If you are cursed by a witch, the curative abilities of a mganga are your only hope of salvation.
Dina Charles practices traditional healing in a village on the southern shore of Ukerewe. Her patients update her on their progress by calling her mobile phone. Photo: Mark Weston
Dina Charles has treatments for fever, skin infections, malaria, bilharzia, madness, stomach pains, and a variety of other blights. She can help with fertility problems, with difficulties at work, and with ridding your body of evil spirits. Unlike herbalists, who use natural remedies to cure disease but are powerless to help if you have been cursed by witches, she can see into the past and the future and establish who has cursed you and what can be done to lift the hex. Other waganga on the islands can heal scorpion stings, give you amulets to help you hunt hippos, and calm tempests on the lake to protect fishermen. One gave me a porcupine quill to treat a cough and told me to sniff the fumes it produced when burnt over charcoal (on this occasion, my cough proved too stubborn to yield to the quill’s restorative powers). I ask Dina if she ever uses her skills to do harm. (I had heard that some traditional healers, corrupted by money or by gifts of cows or goats, have begun to dabble in sorcery, which was traditionally the preserve of witches.) ‘Only if people have themselves been harmed,’ she replies. ‘If they want revenge I help them.’
A dead, drying kingfisher hangs from the eaves of the mganga’s clinic. Their bones are often used in traditional medicine. Photo: Mark Weston
Witchcraft in Africa is often regarded as a relic of history, but in Ukerewe it may be a surprisingly recent phenomenon. The American historian Gerald Hartwig, who studied the archipelago in the 1960s, was informed by the island’s elders that until the early nineteenth century witchcraft had been unknown in Kerewe society. Extreme events such as drought, disease, and abundant rains and harvests had previously been ascribed to the machinations of chiefs. The disruption caused by long distance trade, however, which brought with it both increased individualism due to competition for foreign goods and devastating new diseases carried by Arab and then European traders, meant that new explanations for good and bad fortune were needed. The chiefs of the mid-nineteenth century proved unable to control this more porous, less stable environment, and sorcery, which was already flourishing on the mainland, was an obvious alternative culprit.
By the time Henry Morton Stanley came to Ukerewe in 1875 in search of canoes for his exploration of Lake Victoria, witchcraft was well established. The island’s king asked Stanley for the secrets of Europe, ‘such as how to transform men into lions and leopards, to cause the rains to fall or cease, to give fruitfulness to women and virility to men.’ Stanley heard of another king, on neighboring Ukara island, who had dispatched his pet crocodile to bring to him the beautiful concubine of a rival chief. When the woman bent to wash in the lake, the crocodile swallowed her and conveyed her alive in its stomach to its waiting master. (The modern-day witches of Ukara are reputedly able to perform similar feats for frustrated lovers.)