On Saturday, November 6th 2010 I received a call from a reporter from NTV (the same guy who filed this famous story) about how something interesting was about to happen in Kitgum House (a business complex approximately 1km from the centre of Kampala, along Jinja Road). He had received a tip that a witchdoctor was en route to Kitgum House to help a man recover a vehicle of his that was stolen a while ago.
I arrived at the scene at about 2.30pm and I was later joined by Michael Mpagi, with whom I’d previously investigated the Banda case.
We found an engineer called Benedicto Kiwanuka sitting inside his workshop inside the Kitgum House complex. A few mechanics were in there too. After introducing myself I asked about what was going on. He said that in August of this year his car was stolen from the Kitgum House parking area (just outside his workshop), and he promptly reported the theft to the police. As he had feared would be the case, the police were too slow in making any real progress towards the recovery of his vehicle and apprehension of the perpetrators – and because of this, he felt he had to resort to other means. Kiwanuka then contacted a witch-doctor, and arranged to have him visit the scene of the crime in order to help find the missing car, and to catch the one(s) who stole it.
The witch-doctor arrived at about 3:30pm in a small black car, and stayed in it for a while as two young men came to him and appeared to brief him about what was going on. I had not seen these young men when I had first arrived at the scene, so they too must have been waiting somewhere nearby for the witch-doctor to arrive. One of the young men then walked away from the car, and came back moments later with cassava leaves, still on their branches, and presented them to the witchdoctor in the car. The witch-doctor stepped out of the car to inspect them.
The witch-doctor reached into his car and pulled out a handful of leaves of an unknown plant. He handed them over to another young man (identity unknown) and instructed him to place those leaves, together with the cassava leaves, in a mortar and pound them.
The young man was then told to transfer the pounded leaves into a plastic white container, which the witchdoctor had brought with him…
…and was told to add water to it (about 2 litres).
The young man was told to mix it thoroughly…
…and then pour the contents, through a sieve, into a cup.
This all seemed very familiar to me… the cassava leaves, the mineral water…
Curious, Michael and I asked this witchdoctor who he was. He showed us a sheet of paper which he told us was a letter from the Local Council endorsing him and his services.
The witch-doctor’s name was…
DOCTOR OJWANG PETER – yes, the witchdoctor from the recent Banda Saga!
[It turns out that Kiwanuka had seen the NTV news report about a witchdoctor in Banda who had purportedly helped a local businessman to magically recover his missing money, and promptly visited Banda to find out how he could contact the witchdoctor. In Banda today, Peter Ojwang is a hero (thanks to the publicity he received from his most recent case), and many of the residents in that area possess his telephone number. It was therefore not long before Kiwanuka was able to track him down. Peter Ojwang agreed to offer his services to Kiwanuka at a fee, and this was the day in which he was supposed to perform his miracles.]
Naturally, I had many questions I wanted to ask Peter Ojwang pertaining to Banda but I decided I’d ask another time.
Ojwang walked to the middle of the parking yard with his assistant, each of them holding cocks in their hands (you know what I mean, so no laughing here, please! Cocks, as in male chickens); one white, and the other black/brown.
Ojwang’s assistant pressed his white cock to the ground, and held it down as he began murmuring incantations while shaking his bead rattler.
After about a minute he stood up, and the previously lively chicken remained immobile on the ground, as it was under a spell. It seemed as if it was now paralysed.
Ojwang did the same with his black/brown cock.
It, too, lay motionless on the ground, as if in a trance – or paralysed by the incantations.
After they were done with the incantations, the cocks got up and started walking about again. This greatly excited the crowd that had gathered round to watch the spectacle. To them, this was truly spiritual magic at work. There was no other explanation.
Ojwang and his assistant picked up the cocks and carried them to the front of Kiwanuka’s workshop, and placed them on the bonnet of a nearby vehicle. He ordered one of the earlier young men to bring the cassava-leaf mixture. It was now time to nab the car-thieves.
Kiwanuka was made to drink first.
All his co-workers were, one by one, ordered by Ojwang’s handlers on the scene, to drink as well.
(Michael Mpagi was able to retain a sample of this concoction, by the way – but more on this later)
After they had all drank the concoction, Ojwang asked for everybody’s attention and boldly declared that any of the men who had drunk the concoction (Kiwanuka’s colleagues) that had any connection with the theft of Kiwanuka’s vehicle would later that evening be possessed by evil spirits, and return to the scene of the crime (the Kitgum House parking yard, from which Kiwanuka’s car had been stolen) to confess.
Debates exploded all across the parking yard as onlookers tried to make sense of, or exchanged opinions on, what they had just witnessed.
In one corner of the parking yard, a young man who lives in the workers quarters at the Kitgum House complex was busy trying to convince people that he could do the same trick Ojwang and his assistant had done, with the cocks. I approached him and asked him if he was serious. He said all he needed was a cock in order to demonstrate that he, too, could ‘paralyse’ the cocks, without the use of any magic. According to him, what the cocks did earlier is basically what all cocks do when held to the ground in that position for a few seconds. Basically, he was accusing Ojwang and his assistant of trying to fool them, with regards the cocks, at least. A neighbour of his in the nearby workers’ quarters had a chicken, and after a lot of pleading he lent it to us, for the demonstration.
After holding the chicken down for about twenty seconds, he slowly let go of it, and…
Everyone present, including the NTV news reporter, was shocked at how easy it was to do this trick. I was thrilled to see that ordinary people on the scene, equally skeptical of the purported powers of witchdoctors, going out of their way to publicly demonstrate how easy it was to pull off a confidence trick, such as this one which had just been performed by the visiting witch-doctor. I asked the NTV reporter whether he’d captured this on tape. He said he had. I encouraged him to include it in the news clip he intended to produce for this story, after all, this was the kind of myth-busting sorely missing on typical news reports pertaining to witchcraft.
Michael Mpagi and I left the Kitgum House complex at about 5.30pm and headed to 4 Points, where we were to meet fellow Freethinkers for our usual Saturday drink.
Two hours later, I received a call from the NTV reporter. He told me that one of the mechanics seemed to have gone mad, or had become ‘possessed’.
When I got to Kitgum House, indeed, one of the mechanics I’d seen earlier in the day drinking the witch-doctor’s concoction..
I approached Lwanga, walked straight up to him, and asked him if he was okay. There were large crowds of people around him, all warning me that something bad would happen to me, or that he was completely out of his mind and was in no position to hear or comprehend anything being said to him. I was told that my trying to talk to him was futile, and I should just wait for the witch-doctor to return (to ‘undo this spell’). I disregarded the friendly advice, and kept trying to talk to Lwanga. I didn’t make much progress.
I contemplated a number of possible explanations for Lwanga’s behaviour, such as:
Maybe he was drunk
Maybe he was pretending
Being a believer in witchcraft, maybe he thought he was bewitched
The witch-doctor’s concoction might have contained hallucinogens or other toxic substances, that created the disorientation evident in the man (assuming the disorientation was genuine)
Or maybe he was actually possessed by evil spirits
Everyone present thought he was possessed by evil spirits, and it was going to be hard to investigate the first two possibilities. I didn’t have a breathalyser so I could not check his blood-alcohol levels, in order to see if he was drunk or not. His behaviour was certainly consistent with intoxication.
I decided to try and explore the second possibility, that he was pretending.
I hired a taxi and went to the home of fellow witchcraft skeptic, Henry Ford Mirima (co-author of Unveiling Witchcraft), and brought him to the scene to discuss how we might go about testing this theory. We came up with two ideas.
By the time I had returned to the scene with Mirima, Lwanga was leaning against a stationery car. The owner of the car had been standing around for a while waiting for the man to move away so he could get into his car and drive away. he was, of course, afraid of what would happen to him should he try to drive the car, after all, he was convinced the man had been possessed by evil spirits. Mirima and I successfully convinced him to start the car anyway, and drive away. We told him we were sure the man was pretending, and that nothing would happen to him. the man then entered his car, and started the engine. Lwanga, all of a sudden became alert, and began to fidget about as the car slowly moved forward. Not wanting his hand to be run over by the car, the ‘possessed’ Lwanga quickly yanked it away as the car’s rear tyre got near. Hmm…
About half an hour later, we tried another approach. By this time, he was once again walking around the parking yard, falling over, staggering, murmuring to himself, and now simulating the motion of steering a car with his hands. Mirima walked up to him and said ‘kwata sente’ (which means take this money in the Luganda language) while stretching his arms towards him, as if trying to actually hand him some cash. Again, momentarily, Lwanga regained his alertness and tried to reach out for the money. He then noticed that Mirima was bluffing (i.e. he had no money in his hand) and so he went back into ‘crazy’ mode.
Trying to establish whether or not he might have simply thought he was bewitched would have required us to talk to this man, which, under the circumstances, did not seem possible. I resolved that I would try to contact him after a few days and speak with him.
[UPDATE 4/4/11: I am now strongly inclined to believe Lwanga was experiencing a psychotic episode.]
We left at about 10:00pm, and I decided I’d follow up on Monday to see what had transpired, and take the sample of the witchdoctor’s concoction I had collected for analysis in a forensic laboratory. I kept this sample refrigerated until Monday.
I got to Kitgum House at about midday on Monday 8th November, and went to Benedicto Kiwanuka’s workshop. he wasn’t there, but his workers were. They were mostly uncooperative, and refused to say much. I was not able to learn from them what had happened to the man who was thought to be “possessed” by evil spirits. All I was able to learn from them was that he did not make any confession, and that the stolen car had not yet been recovered.
As mentioned earlier, during the mayhem of Saturday Michael Mpagi had managed to collect for me a sample of the concoction that was consumed by Kiwanuka and his men. Having been a hot day, I had arrived to Kitgum House that afternoon with a bottle of water. By the time the proceedings were underway, it was empty so I asked Michael to pour some of the witchdoctors concoction into it (when no one was looking). I took it home and stored it in my refrigerator – hoping to have it analysed later.
After my unproductive visit to Kitgum House this Monday morning, I went back to my office, picked the bottle, and took it to the Government Analytical Laboratory (the only functioning forensic lab in the country) and placed a request for it to be analysed for toxic substances or hallucinogens.
They are supposed to contact me when they are done analysing the sample.
As of this writing, it has been over two weeks since submitting the sample and according to them, its going to take some more time. They want to compare my sample with another sample of a different witch-doctor’s concoction consumed by some people in Masaka recently, that led to two deaths. They want to see if there is a connection.
I am awaiting their feedback.
The Arrest of Peter Ojwang:
On Wednesday 10th November, the mechanics that drank the witch-doctor’s concoction, including John Lwanga, reported their boss Benedicto Kiwanuka to the police, complaining of general poor health. This complaint was filed at Jinja Road Police station, after which Kiwanuka was brought in for questioning. Kiwanuka was told that he had the option of either taking responsibility for the complaints, or helping police to bring Peter Ojwang in for questioning. Kiwanuka agreed to cooperate, and baited Ojwang with an offer of more business. Ojwang was then nabbed by the police and detained at Jinja road Police Station for two and a half days.
According to the O/C C.I.D. Jinja road Police Station, Herbert Wanyoto, the mechanics were unwilling to undergo medical examinations to establish the validity of the claims they were making with regards to their ill-health which allegedly resulted from drinking the witch-doctor’s concoction. Without an official medical report to corroborate their claims there could be no charges pressed against Ojwang.
Peter Ojwang was therefore released from custody on Friday 12th November.
On Friday 19th November, we were finally able to speak to John Lwanga – the man who was believed to be possessed by evil spirits on that fateful night.
He insists that he was not pretending that night, and said there must have been a substance such as chloroform in the concoction he drank. He does not believe he was ‘bewitched’ or ‘possessed’ in any way. He recalls that immediately after consuming the concoction he began feeling dizzy, until that point in the evening when he claims he completely lost his sense of awareness.
He added that he was bed-ridden for several days afterwards, prompting him to report Benedicto Kiwanuka to the police. According to him, all his other colleagues suffered various forms of illness as a result of drinking the witch-doctor’s concoction.
He denies having anything to do with the disappearance of Kiwanuka’s vehicle.
To date, Kiwanuka has not recovered his vehicle, and does not know who stole it.
NTV Uganda chose not to broadcast this story
This post will be updated as and when new information pertaining to this case emerges.