Even as Uganda is working towards establishing itself as a 'modern state', people are confronted with the very real threat of human sacrifices. Parents are rushing their boys to the nearest hospitals for circumcision and getting their daughters' ears pierced. They hope that this will stand as insurance against witchdoctors looking for unblemished children to sacrifice to ensure their clients' prosperity and good health.
The urgency to protect kids gathered momentum with the murder of a 13-year-old boy in July 2006. The police found his body dumped in Natete, a suburb just outside Kampala, with some organs missing. Not far from where the body was found, the police found a mob ready to lynch five men, including a witchdoctor. A search of the persons of these five yielded several organs, including the tongue and genitals of the little boy.
According to police estimates, in the first nine months of 2006 alone, there were 25 such deaths. While any witchdoctor caught in the act - or even on mere suspicion - is in for some serious trouble, they are not deterred. One of the provisions in the Witchcraft Act enacted during the colonial period in Uganda is that any person who commits an act of witchcraft or divination to disturb public order or harm another in his person shall be punished with imprisonment ranging from two to 10 years.
Shamim Senyonjo's son, Sula Kisule, 13, was kidnapped for sacrifice. But the witchdoctor discovered that he was circumcised and let him go. It was a narrow escape. "Witchdoctors consider a boy unworthy if he has shed blood, so circumcised boys are safe," she says.
Anxious parents have been rushing their children to hospitals. The Muslim-run Kibuli Hospital in a Kampala suburb is registering an average of 25 patients a day. "Sixty per cent of these are non-Muslims, and those below 10 years of age constitute 80 per cent," says Siraje Mbulambuga, the hospital administrator, adding, "We believe that human sacrifices have driven many parents to come."
Kampala International Hospital, Uganda's most expensive hospital, and Mulago, the government-owned (and Uganda's largest) hospital, tell the same story. "Our records show that between 2003 and 2006, an average of five parents would bring their children in for circumcision every month. Now, we have 15-20 circumcisions daily" says Dr Moses Galukande, consultant surgeon at Kampala International Hospital.
Uganda has been reporting incidents of human sacrifices for a long time. Not a month passes without the report of at least one such incident, especially in the vernacular press. However, these incidents have been largely confined to remote areas. The panic that has flared up now is a reaction to these crimes taking place in urban and suburban areas. Increased media vigilance and the arrival of a large number of foreign witchdoctors are other reasons.
For Uganda, this trend is a setback at a time when it is set firmly on the development track. According to Makerere University figures, a massive education campaign in the country has put seven million kids in universal primary education as of 2006 - a huge increase from two million in 1999. There are also 60,000 students in universities now, as opposed to a mere 2,000 in 1990. Economic changes have brought about an entrepreneurial spirit, and the availability of microfinance services has become a source of hope for many.
Through all this progress, witchdoctors continue to hold sway over the popular imagination - even among the educated. Many people attribute any misfortune, whether in business or love, to being bewitched.
In a society where 60 per cent of the population is illiterate (UNICEF, 2005), and social and economic circumstances have become difficult, witchdoctors thrive. Many of them are rich, live in mansions and drive posh cars. UNICEF's report 'State of Children and Women in Uganda', 2001, says 60 per cent of Ugandans visit witchdoctors. The lack of access to modern facilities is a big contributing factor, the report says.
Politicians, too, are only too keen to exploit the popularity of witchdoctors. Vice-President Dr Gilbert Bukenya, for instance, was photographed visiting a witchdoctor's shrine.
The State, though, has a novel plan up its sleeve. "The police is trying to establish contacts with good traditional doctors in order to track down both the bad witchdoctors and the criminals who visit them for post-crime cleansing rituals," says Sam Nsubuga, spokesperson for the police department.
Besides, not all witchdoctors approve of human sacrifices. Sarah Namutebi, a popular witchdoctor who heads a 100,000 strong Uganda Herbalists and Healers Association - an association of herbalists, some of who also practice witchcraft - says that human sacrifices are alien to Ugandan culture. She is glad that the police are reaching out to people like her to track down the "bad apples among witchdoctors".
"None of us allow blood to be shed anywhere near our shrines, and most of those who perform these sacrifices are foreigners. It is a taboo in Uganda; we only sanction animal sacrifices," she says. The Herbalists Association alleges that witchdoctors coming in from Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania are the ones practicing human sacrifices.
All the same, public health authorities are happy with the trend of rushing children for circumcision. For sometime now, they have been advocating this as a way of minimizing HIV risk!