On Tuesday, October 19th 2010, Nation TV (NTV Uganda) broadcast a story in its prime time news that captured much public interest. In that story, 3 individuals had apparently been ‘immobilised’ by witchcraft for allegedly stealing Ushs. 7 million from a butcher named Ssuna, generating hysteria near Banda trading centre.
According to the NTV news report, after his money went missing on Saturday, and only Ushs. 500,000 left behind, the butcher informed his friends. He then warned ‘whoever had taken the money’ of their ‘consequences’ if they did not own up to the theft. Apparently they did not, and so he hired a witchdoctor from Mayuge district to ‘pin-point the culprits’. The butcher claims the witch-doctor mixed some herbs, which were consumed by all present, and then the thieves were indentified. The thieves in question turned out the be the three young men in the video, who, according to the reporter, seemed barely able to walk the following morning.
The report says that residents claimed that efforts by the police to take the suspects away during the previous night failed because the vehicles failed to start, thanks to the charms that had been planted around the scene by the witchdoctor earlier.
Interesting story, right?
Because I’m known by many as a person intensely interested in witchcraft, I received several calls from people asking me to look into this story. Many were pointing at this story and gloating about how there was now irrefutable evidence of the efficacy of witchcraft – captured on tape – and how I now had to accept that such phenomena were real.
Freethought Kampala’s investigation:
Not satisfied with the way this Banda witchcraft story was covered on television, I, together with Michael Mpagi, decided to look into this matter ourselves, to see what we could find out about the story.
We went to Banda trading centre on Thursday 21st October.
According the area Local Council chairperson (for Banda Zone 2), Fatuma Kitimbo, Nsereko, a butcher, landlord and resident of the area, informed her at 8.30pm on the evening of Saturday 16th October, that Ushs. 7 million had been stolen from his house. There was apparently no sign of forced entry, as the padlock was intact; however, he told Fatuma Kitimbo that his furniture seemed to have been moved about. She advised him to report the matter to the police, but he told her he wouldn’t because he did not think the police would be able to help him. Nsereko then told her that he suspected three people – who happen to be HIS TENANTS – of having been behind the theft of his money. One of the three, Lukyamuzi, is Nsereko’s close friend, and happens to possess the spare key to Nsereko’s residence, according to what he told Kitimbo.
The chairperson (Kitimbo) was called to Nsereko’s house on Sunday evening, where she found Nsereko, three young men (Nsereko’s tenants), a witch-doctor and other on-lookers, including a man called Abdullah Walangalira, as well as Suleiman Kigoro and Henry Ssebuliba, waiting. The witch-doctor was about to perform some rituals and the chairperson of the area was informed that she need to be present as a witness.
The witchdoctor then requested a volunteer to go purchase water from the shops, and mix it with ordinary cassava leaves. Abdullah volunteered. The witchdoctor then requested for 2 red (brown) cocks. Once they were brought, he purportedly placed them on the ground and ‘made them look upwards’. Once Abdullah had returned with the ‘mixture’, everyone present in the room was ordered to drink this mixture.
The witchdoctor informed all present that the ‘culprits’ would be revealed within the next 3-4 hours, and then left Nsereko’s house. He was not seen again.
According to Fatuma Kitimbo and other eye-witnesses, immediately after consuming the mixture, the three men (who were already the main suspects) began to feel disoriented. The chief suspect, Lukyamuzi, is said to have immediately hired a boda-boda to take him to where he wished to consult with his personal witchdoctor in Kayunga District to ‘undo the spell’. It is said that before he could reach his destination, Lukyamuzi passed out (near Kalagi) and had to be brought back in a car (Lukyamuzi denies this happened).
The one of the other suspects, Kyakulaga (a chapati vendor), purportedly climbed up a nearby tree and began crowing like a cock, allegedly possessed by ‘spirits’. The other suspect, Haruna, remained in his house. Nsereko, meanwhile, had also left the scene to find the witchdoctor in order to have him perform a cleansing ritual now that, presumably, the guilt of the three suspects had been established.
News of the alleged works of the witchdoctor spread like wildfire in the community, and soon there was a big crowd of people gathered at the area of Banda trading centre just next to the local National Social Security Fund branch. (Fatuma Kitimbo, Nsereko, Lukyamuzi, and the 2 other suspects live around this area).
Late that Sunday night Kampala’s Central Police Station (C.P.S.) received a call to its emergency (999) number from a ‘concerned citizen’ that a lynching of some suspected thieves was in progress. Kampala C.P.S, through its Mobile Police Patrol Unit (M.P.P.U.), despatched 2 vehicles to the scene, to rescue the suspects from the mob. According to the Deputy Commander of the M.P.P.U, Echiru, the crowd was so large that their cars could not get through to the actual scene and locate the suspects. There was also a heated argument in progress, between those who wanted the suspects to be taken away by the police, and those who insisted that Nsereko had to return with the ‘antidote’ to reverse the effect of the witchcraft on the suspects before they were taken anywhere (residents had been warned that none of the suspects should be taken away before the ‘spells’ were broken). This impasse led the officers on the scene to radio headquarters and report to Echiru. Believing that the suspects will remain relatively safe, he ordered the vehicles back, and issued instructions to the District Police Commander (D.P.C.) of Jinja Road Police Station to visit the scene in the morning and bring the suspects in. If the D.P.C. was unable to attend to it for any reason, then the Officer in Charge (O/C) of Criminal Investigations Department (C.I.D.) was to follow it up.
Next morning, a police vehicle was despatched from Jinja Road Police Station to Banda Trading Centre, and the three suspects, Lukyamuzi, Haruna and Kyakulaga, were taken into police custody. They were taken to Jinja Road police station, where they made statements to the O/C C.I.D, Herbert Wanyoto. According to Wanyoto, only one of the men in custody appeared to him to be slightly disoriented, though not obviously so. They each were able to issue statements that were recorded by the police. Attempts to summon Nsereko while the three suspects were in custody failed. According to Wanyoto, because none of the ‘suspects’ admitted to having stolen anyone’s money, and there was no one present to lodge a formal complaint, they were released with no charge.
Nsereko has, up to now, not filed a complaint with the police about his allegedly stolen money.
About the police cars..
We asked the M.P.P.U. officials whether there was any truth to the claims that the 2 vehicles initially despatched had been immobilised by witchcraft, as was alleged by onlookers in the news report, and also reiterated by the witnesses we spoke to. Deputy Commander Echiru informed us that this was absolutely not the case. The vehicles had simply been prevented by the crowd from proceeding to the actual scene upon arrival, and it was he himself that ordered them to turn back. None of the vehicles experienced any mechanical problems on the scene.
Commander Arinaitwe, on the other hand, informed us that all officers in the field are required by procedure to immediately radio headquarters in case their vehicles experience mechanical difficulty of any kind while they are on duty. No such communication was received by headquarters during the night in question.
The alleged magic spells…
There is no evidence to show that the three main suspects were ever paralysed, or immobilised.
Stories from the residents range from the suspects allegedly falling totally unconscious, the suspects climbing trees, to the suspects defecating on themselves – after consuming the witchdoctor’s concoction. The accounts of the various witnesses we spoke to pertaining to the state of the suspects are contradictory.
Lukyamuzi, for one, denies losing consciousness at all throughout the ordeal, and also denies hiring a boda boda to leave the scene to consult anyone.
Kyakulaga – who was unwilling to discuss the issue with us at length – claims he doesn’t remember what happened that day.
While in custody at Jinja Road Police station no medical or psychological tests were performed to ascertain the physical or mental health of the three men. Interestingly, all were of sufficiently sound mind to make written statements in which they denied stealing Nsereko’s money.
On Saturday 23rd October 2010 we tried to reach the witch-doctor in question, who goes by the name of Professor Peter Ojwang.
At first he told us he was too busy meeting clients in Kampala to meet us. Then he told us that to speak to him we’d have to find him in Butaleja district in eastern Uganda, near Mbale.
We contacted him by telephone on the morning of Monday 25th September 2010. He said he was in Kotido district.
Efforts to arrange a meeting with him on his next visit to Kampala have not been successful. He is intentionally evasive about when he will be able to speak to us, and refuses to answer questions about the case over the phone.
It is difficult to confirm his present whereabouts at present.
One only has to look at a map of Uganda to see how unlikely it is that he is being honest about his travel movements.
About the money..
According to the area Local Council I Chairperson, Fatuma Kitimbo, Nsereko told her he had received his money back on Monday morning soon after the suspects were taken to Jinja Road Police Station.
We spoke to Lukyamuzi, the chief suspect on Saturday by telephone, and he told us he knew nothing about the money. He said a lot of what happened was just a fabrication (he refused to elaborate). He says he did not take any money from Nsereko, and neither did he give any back to him. ALL ‘SUSPECTS’ deny any knowledge about the money.
On the same day, we spoke to Nsereko. He refused to tell us who, out of the three suspects, had actually stolen his money. Since he had claimed he had received his money back that Monday morning, we asked him to tell us from who he had received it. Who paid him back the missing money? He has, to this day, refused to tell us.
There is simply no way to establish whether there was any cash in the first place, let alone Ushs. 7 million, in Nsereko’s possession prior to these events – and no way to establish whether he got any cash back from the alleged perpetrators afterwards. No one physically saw the cash before, or saw it after.
According to the area Local council chairperson, Fatuma Kitimbo, Nsereko and the three ‘suspects’ are currently getting along just fine – as if nothing happened. As of Saturday the 23rd of October, Nsereko was out on business together with Lukyamuzi.
All three suspects are still Nsereko’s tenants to this day.
This story has all the hallmarks of an elaborate scam.
We suspect that the witchdoctor is working in collusion with Nsereko and his tenants to advertise his ‘services’ to the community where the events discussed took place. The entire episode was a fabricated dramatic ploy intended to hoodwink unsuspecting members of the Banda community. There is plenty of justification for this view, given that local witchdoctors, and their collaborators, have given us plenty of reason to question their honesty.
In addition to this, one of our members, Joseph Bombokka, recalls hearing a story very similar to this from Mukono town (the area where he stays and runs his business) three months ago. In the story he heard, suspects were required to drink a concoction made with water and cassava leaves, 2 red cocks were procured for the ritual, and afterwards the suspects began clucking like chicken, to the bafflement of bystanders.
Its basically the same type of scam!
If ‘Professor’ Peter Ojwang disagrees with our assessment and insists that he does indeed possess magic powers that can supernaturally disorient people subjected to it, or do any other supernatural works , he should contact me personally and collect Ushs. 2 million upon a successful public demonstration of his so called black-magic under controlled conditions.
Nsereko and his 3 tenants can also come forward and provide honest answers to questions we have about the money that allegedly went ‘missing’.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in the case of this Banda story that ran in the news, is that no attempt was made by the reporter to contact the witch-doctor in question – to find out who he is, and what his track record is. The reporter was not able to speak to the alleged ‘bewitched’ suspects to find out what was really going on, or whether it was really true that they had been ‘bewitched’. Were they credible? The reporter also did not seek corroboration from the police as far as the dubious claim of stalled vehicles was concerned. And where were the scientists who could have been brought in to shed light on psychological and other factors that could explain what we saw in the clip? Why was no skeptic interviewed? Instead, what went on the air was a sensational story based on the hearsay of highly superstitious people.
As harmless as running such news stories may appear, they are very effective in reinforcing superstitious thinking among the general Ugandan public. People will consult witchdoctors for solutions to their problems, after all, even reputed media houses like NTV Uganda are running news stories in prime time called “Witch’s Magic Formula delivers Banda Thieves.” Reinforcing these beliefs perpetuates such horrors as ritual child sacrifice, because people are being led to believe by the local news media that witchcraft is efficacious.
Going forward, it is clear that we must initiate discussions with people in the media on how best to approach stories pertaining to witchcraft.