Demon Possession Stories of ‘demonic attacks’ in primary schools have become a staple feature of Ugandan Media in recent years:

Demons attack Kiboga pupils (New Vision, 7th July, 2004):

A primary school in Kiboga district was closed in May after parents reported that their children were being attacked by demons.
Bisika Primary School, located in Butemba sub-county, was later re-opened but the pupils continued to live in fear. Another demon attack was reported on June 29, in the same school.

Bisika, a government-aided day primary school, is located five kilometres from Kiboga town. The well-furnished four-building school has 450 pupils.

The parents accused Isma Sserunkuuma, a man, who lives near the school, of bringing the demons locally known as mayembe. They said Sserunkuma wanted the demons from a witchdoctor to help him acquire wealth.

Acting on the parents’ report, the Kiboga resident district commissioner (rdc), Margaret Kasaija, ordered for the arrest of Sserunkuuma and the closure of the school until the demons would be driven out of the school. Sserunkuuma is still in detention.

“I wonder why people really acquire demons and resort to bewitching others,” Kasaija lamented before she cautioned the public against acquiring demons.
At the time of arrest, Sserunkuuma said he could not afford the demons’ enormous demands. He said the demons demanded for 300 virgin girls and cows to provide them with blood for sustenance.

Sserunkuuma added that when he failed to provide the virgins and cows, he set them (demons) free. They then attacked the pupils. He pleaded that he had no intention of harming the school, but only failed to control the demons.

The demons reportedly affected primary four, five, six and seven pupils below 12 years. When attacked, the pupils gabble and run around the compound. Others undress and foam around their mouths.

They also shake violently as if shocked by an electric current. Parents also said they had to tie their children on pegs with ropes to avoid their disappearance.

The national chairman for traditional healers, Ben Ggulu, performed traditional rituals before the school was re-opened in May. He also healed 15 pupils, whose mental abilities had been affected by the demons.

Ggulu would hold herbs atop the pupils’ heads to invoke the demons out of them. Using traditional charms, Ggulu spoke strange languages causing bark cloth-wound cow’s horn to move around the place, a ritual he said he did to search for the demons.

Demons hit school (New Vision, 4th February, 2008):

OVER 100 pupils of Sir Tito Winyi Primary School Kiziranfumbi sub-county in Hoima district became “hysterical” yesterday, forcing the school to close, in what the authorities described as a demonic attack.

Some victims had undressed.

Hundreds of parents flocked to the school and took their children away.

As the situation seemed to run out of hand, the Rev. Geoffrey Matata of Kiziranfumbi Church took the children for special prayers.

Head teacher Vincent Kitende said 720 pupils had reported for the first term, which opened yesterday. “The situation is bad. About 100 pupils are totally mad. They are chasing everybody including teachers and fellow pupils, throwing stones, banging doors and windows. The situation is difficult to explain.”

The school, named after the late Tito Winyi, the King of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom and father of King Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, is a UPE mixed day school, with a total number of 970 pupils.

Kitende said late last year, a similar incident happened at the school, affecting about 210 pupils. “We do not know what to do. on Sunday, we held special prayers before the pupils reported and assured parents to send their children, knowing there was no cause for alarm. But here we are in a bad situation again.”

Last year, four residents of the area, one of them a Congolese national, were arrested and charged in a Hoima court with casting a spell on the school. However, when the prosecution produced witnesses, court had to adjourn and magistrate George Obong and the prosecutors fled the courtroom after the pupils who were witnesses became hysterical again when they saw the suspects. The suspects reportedly have a land dispute with the school.

Demons in Hoima district? (New Vision, 9th February, 2008):

THE land wrangles in Hoima District have taken on a new dimension. Pupils are suspected to have suffered a demonic attack and their academic future hangs in the balance. Residents are accusing a prominent landowner of provoking the demons. Pascal Kwesiga visited Hoima and now writes.

AS the saying goes, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Juliet Katusabe and Lillian Kwikiriza had just begun the new school term last week when they were hit by severe headaches. Then came sharp pain in their stomachs. And then, darkness. Residents believe the children were attacked by demons, resulting from the land wrangles in Hoima District.

School officials say the girls were among many pupils hit by a demonic attack.

It began when one girl started barking like a dog. Then, others started shouting and pressing their stomachs, saying they felt a burning sensation in their stomachs. Children, both boys and girls, dashed out of their classes. Many were crying. Some fell to the ground and crawled. Others threw stones at people who were rushing to the scene. Adults tied up the affected children and took them to church, where the Rev. Geofrey Matata prayed for them. Eventually, the children got well.

Nakasongola school closes over witchcraft (Daily Monitor, 27th October 2010):

About 2,000 pupils of Nakasongola Junior Academy were yesterday sent home indefinitely after what the school administration described as ‘escalated incidences of evil spirit attacks.

The school is a day and boarding primary school in Migeera Town, Nakasongola District. The attacks have since been attributed to witchcraft. The school administration took the decision over the weekend after numerous consultative meetings with directors.

Pupils injured:

At least 26 pupils are reportedly admitted to Nakasongola Health Centre IV with injuries they say were sustained after being physically attacked by evil spirits.

When contacted yesterday, Mr Francis Ssebitosi, the school headmaster said the school would remain closed for three days as the administration ‘seeks a way forward’. “Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirit for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents,” he said.

And the most recent one…

Kitebi Primary School remains closed over mass hysteria (New Vision, 30th March, 2011):

KITEBI Primary School in Rubaga division has remained closed since Monday after 100 pupils tried to kill a teacher.

The pupils at the Government-aided school reportedly became hysterical and acted as if they were possessed by evil spirits.

Sarah Namutebi, the deputy headmistress, said an unidentified pupil ran berserk during breakfast time. Shaking his body and shouting, the pupil claimed that Naome Wandera, a Primary One teacher had concealed charms in the compound which were disrupting the school programmes. “He attracted other pupils’ attention and many of them became hysterical,” Namutebi narrated.

The situation went out of hand when goons from outside the school joined the pupils. Besides eating the food prepared for pupils, the goons incited the pupils to destroy school property and beat up Wandera.

By the time the Police arrived, the hysterical students had torn Wandera’s clothes.

These stories all follow a predictable pattern:

It will be alleged that a school head-teacher somewhere (or a person he has aggrieved) consulted a witch-doctor to have him request the spirits to intervene in a domestic or business problem… the witch-doctor gives the head-teacher the terms and conditions.. the head-teacher reneges on these terms and conditions (or the aggrieved party fulfils his terms and conditions)… the angered spirits take revenge by taking possession of some of the children at his school… some children, completely disoriented, start ‘barking like dogs’… pandemonium breaks out in the school… clergymen are brought in to pray for the pupils, and cast out the demons… parents scramble to take their children away… school is closed…

..or some variation of this set up.

So what is actually going on in these schools? Are demons and evil spirits actually taking control of the minds of these children?

Most people in Uganda, being highly religious, have no problem declaring these phenomena to be supernatural in origin. The majority, being conservative Christians, are quite happy to accept that it must be evil spirits that are the cause of the strange behaviour of the children in these schools. Add to this the fact that in addition to their conservative Christianity, many whole-heartedly embrace the traditional African spiritual world-view, which includes a belief in the existence of ancestral spirits, who require continuous appeasement in order for good fortune to prevail. (While some Ugandan Christians might denounce the act of communicating with ancestral spirits as ‘Satanic’, and for that reason not partake of it, a sizeable fraction of them are more than happy to practice traditional religion alongside their Christianity, or Islam)

To the average Ugandan, this is not even a matter of debate. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, demons had possessed those children. To them, what is happening in this school is supernatural.

But is that the most likely explanation for these events?

Might there be a plausible NATURAL explanation for these same events?



Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), or Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI), is the other name for Mass Hysteria, and is defined by the Canadian Medial Association as:

..the “rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affectingmembers of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous systemdisturbance involving excitation, loss or alteration of function,whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciouslyhave no corresponding organic aetiology.”It occurs in thecontext of a credible threat that provokes great anxiety, such as a noxious odour in a school amid fears of chemical warfareor bioterrorism. In standard psychiatric nomenclature, masssociogenic illness is subsumed under the general heading ofsomatoform disorder and subcategorized as “conversion disorderhysterical neurosis, conversion type.” In the literature, itis synonymously termed mass psychogenic disorder or epidemichysteria and distinguished from collective delusions by the presence of illness symptoms.

[See: Mass Sociogenic Illness]

They continue:

Part of the difficulty in recognizing outbreaks of mass sociogenicillness has to do with its diverse nature.A historical reviewof these events suggests that the features of mass sociogenicillnesses tend to mirror popular social and cultural preoccupationsthat define distinct eras and reflect unique social beliefs about the nature of the world. Before the 20th century mostreports of mass sociogenic illness involved motor hysteria incubatedby exposure to long-standing religious, academic or workplacediscipline.These produced outbreaks of convulsions, contractures,tremors, paralysis and laughing. In the 20th century and onto the present, strange odours presumed to be an environmentalcontaminant or toxic gas from a bioterrorist or chemical warfareattack have been commonly blamed in episodes of mass hysteria,producing breathlessness, nausea, headache, dizziness and weaknessin affected people.

The symptoms of MSI, as per the above description, are noteworthy: outbreaks of convulsions, contractures,tremors, paralysis and laughing. These are precisely the symptoms exhibited by people commonly described as being ‘demon-possessed’ by most Ugandans. This is strong evidence that it is mass hysteria is at play when scores of children in a school environment convulse and ‘bark like dogs’ as is typically reported.

This statement is also significant:

…A historical reviewof these events suggests that the features of mass sociogenicillnesses tend to mirror popular social and cultural preoccupationsthat define distinct eras and reflect unique social beliefs about the nature of the world. Before the 20th century mostreports of mass sociogenic illness involved motor hysteria incubatedby exposure to long-standing religious, academic or workplacediscipline..

It is significant because:

  • Uganda is an extremely religious country. In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of Pentecostal Christianity here. Pentecostalism is notorious for its emphasis on ‘spiritual warfare’ (see: The Christian Obsession with Satan and Demons). In many of their churches, demons are blamed for causing everything from sickness, poverty, unemployment, barrenness, failure to get married, failure to get visas to travel to the UK, and even HIV-AIDS. Mental illness and neurological disorders are typically attributed to demon possession (probably taking this from various episodes in the gospels in which Jesus encounters people suffering from epileptic seizures, and heals them by casting demons out of them).
  • With three 24-hour a day terrestrial Christian channels showing exorcisms, sermons about how ‘Satan’ and his demons/evil spirits conspire to cause us all manner of sickness and socio-economic ills – and hundreds of evangelical Christian radios warning millions of Ugandans of the same – the religious landscape of Uganda today is one that is steeped in anxiety and uncertainty. Even leading political figures in Uganda, such as the First Lady,  often attribute the country’s problems to the devil and spiritual curses, and promote increased spirituality and religiosity as a way of solving them.
  • A recent Pew Forum survey shows that twenty seven percent (27%) of Ugandans believe in the protective powers of sacrifices to spirits or ancestors. I believe the numbers are actually much, much higher than this, given that I hardly know of anyone in this country (who is not an atheist) who doesn’t believe that witchcraft is efficacious. Even college-educated Ugandans believe that witchcraft works (mostly because their religious beliefs require them to do so).

It is therefore understandable that while in highly industrialised countries, incidences of MSI might spring up from anxieties about toxic chemicals (where such anxieties are pervasive), in lesser developed, highly religious societies, the incidences if MSI will spring up from anxieties associated with pervasive religious or cultural beliefs (where those religious and cultural beliefs include particular ways of looking at the nature of the world).

Ugandan society is one where most believe that all events are manifestations of unseen spiritual forces acting in the world, and the dominant religious and cultural views promote the idea that these spiritual forces are constantly conspiring to ruin their lives. Because of this, there is much anxiety among most Ugandans about the degree to which he, she or their loved ones might be susceptible to misfortune, illness and personal calamity as a result of attacks by demons or evil spirits.

Thus, it is not surprising that where episodes of MSI have occurred, they have tended to mirror these very anxieties fuelled by these beliefs.

In his paper, Mass Psychogenic Illness: Role of the Individual Physician, Timothy F. Jones, M.D, writes:

Mass psychogenic illness is characterized by symptoms, occurring among a group of persons with shared beliefs regarding those symptoms, that suggest organic illness but have no identifiable environmental cause and little clinical or laboratory evidence of disease. Mass psychogenic illness typically affects adolescents or children, groups under stress and females disproportionately more than males. Symptoms often follow an environmental trigger or illness in an index case. They can spread rapidly by apparent visual transmission, may be aggravated by a prominent emergency or media response, and frequently resolve after patients are separated from each other and removed from the environment in which the outbreak began. Physicians should consider this diagnosis when faced with a cluster of unexplained acute illness.

Interesting points are raised in this abstract:

  1. Occurring among a group of persons with shared beliefs regarding those symptoms
  2. Typically affects adolescents or children, groups under stress and females disproportionately more than males
  3. Spread rapidly by apparent visual transmission
  4. May be aggravated by a prominent emergency or media response
  5. Frequently resolve after patients are separated from each other and removed from the environment in which the outbreak began

Now let me compare this with what we came to learn upon visiting a primary school where the most recent (aforementioned) ‘demonic attack’ took place.

Kitebi Day & Boarding, Nursery & Primary School:


On Tuesday, 29th March 2011, I, accompanied by Michael Mpagi visited Kitebi Day & Boarding Nursery & Primary School following media reports that children there had been possessed by evil spirits.

The first person we spoke to was one of the school cooks, who told us that:

  • the first ‘demonic attacks’ had occurred a week before (and was reported about, in the media, and sensationalised in Bukedde TV)
  • out of the 8 pupils who had become possessed, 7 were girls
  • they got ‘well’ soon afterwards, at which time the school administration recruited priests, pastors and sheiks to engage the school in prayer rituals
  • these pupils, as well as some others, got possessed by evil spirits on Monday, 28th March, 2011
  • one of the ‘possessed’ pupils claimed (speaking as the ‘evil spirit’) that a Primary One teacher called Naome Wandera planted charms under the giant mango tree in the corner of the school
  • this led to pupils wanting to beat up the said teacher, which got many of the other pupils excited. They all began shouting hysterically and headed for Naome Wandera
  • villagers from the surrounding area poured into the school once they heard what was going on, leading to total chaos
  • police came and rescued Naome Wandera from the mob, and she was taken into custody for safety

We also talked to the deputy head-teacher, Sarah Namutebi. She is a hard-core Pentecostal Christian who believes that the events that transpired in her school was the work of ‘Satan’ and his demonic minions.  In addition to reiterating the story we heard from the cook, she told us a few things that we found significant:

  • the school is currently in the examination period
  • the school is observing the Lent period by fasting, so the school has not been serving lunch to its pupils since 9th March
  • the pupils have prayers every weekday morning at 7am, and also for an hour from 12pm to 1pm on Fridays

Juxtaposing these facts with what are considered typical features of cases of Mass Psychogenic Illness as per the Jones paper, we see that, indeed:

  1. The strange behaviour ‘occurred among a group of persons with shared beliefs regarding those symptoms’. (The children come from a religious and cultural background that predisposes them towards believing that evil spirits are lurking about, ready to cause them harm at any time)
  2. The ‘victims’ were children, and under tremendous stress (with examinations and not eating lunch).
  3. The those thought to be ‘possessed’ were predominantly females
  4. The hysteria spread rapidly among pupils in a confined area (school) and by apparent visual transmission (all the pupils were in close proximity to each other)
  5. The situation was aggravated by a prominent emergency or media response. Prior to the Monday fiasco, there had been media coverage of the first outbreak of dissociative behaviour a week before, followed by the school declaring a state of emergency and enlisting the help of clergymen and pastors to engage in protracted, and intensive, prayer rituals intended to ‘rid the school of evil spirits’

(The details of how the situation was resolved could not be reliably ascertained)

The features of the events that unfolded at the Kitebi School are consistent with those attributable to Mass Psychogenic Illness (or Mass Hysteria/Sociogenic Illness).

The Jones paper also highlights other interesting facts:

From 1973 to 1993, one half of reported outbreaks of psychogenic illness occurred in schools, followed by factories (29 percent), towns and villages (10 percent), families and other institutions. Outbreaks often occur in groups experiencing physical or emotional stress.

In Uganda, most reported outbreaks of mass ‘spirit possession’ have been in primary boarding schools, and often during the examination period. There are many other stress triggers in Ugandan primary boarding schools, including an insufficient (and sub-standard) diet, poor living conditions, neglect, bullying, physically and sexually abusive teachers, etc.

This adds further credence to Mass Hysteria (Mass Psychogenic Illness/Mass Sociogenic Illness), as the most plausible and likely explanation for outbreaks of the pandemonium described as ‘demonic attacks’, or ‘possession by evil spirits’ brought on by witchcraft, in Ugandan schools.

Similar things have happened in Tanzania:

In 2004 Maendeleo Primary School in Tanzania was forced to close for three days after 18 female students fainted in one day. Four years later, 20 girls fainted while taking their final year exams at Ali Hassan Mwinyi School (also in Tanzania). Of course, most of the locals, and the parents of the girls in question all thought they were victims of witchcraft, and blamed the teachers for bewitching their daughters.

Of these events, science writer and historian John Waller wrote, in the Guardian:

Epidemics of hysteria such as those in Tanzania rely on the power of suggestion, but they are nourished by fear, sadness and anxiety. Victims tend to be subject to severe psychological strain over the preceding weeks or months. One or more then develop a psychosomatic symptom, and those made suggestible by pent-up anxiety quickly follow suit. Before long, dozens are vomiting, fainting and screaming. The strain of exams is a common trigger. Reports suggest that in many Central African schools pupils are placed under such extreme pressure that mass hysteria has become virtually endemic.

Demon Possession as a form of Psychosis:

Incidences of mass hysteria usually kick off after a handful of people begin exhibiting certain psychosomatic symptoms which then rapidly spread across people in a relatively confined area through the power of suggestion.

As we’ve already seen, beliefs and anxieties pervasive in a society play a great role in determining what symptoms the episodes of hysteria within a group might consist of. Given Ugandan society’s anxiety about demons and evil spirits, it is not surprising that episodes of hysteria consist of symptoms that correspond with this anxiety, i.e. demon/spirit possession.

The most common symptoms exhibited by individuals claimed to be possessed by evil spirits/demons are remarkably similar to those arising from psychosis.

Psychosis is…

…a symptom of mental illness characterized by a radical change in personality and a distorted or diminished sense of objective reality.


Psychosis appears as a symptom of a number of mental disorders, including mood and personality disorders , schizophrenia, delusional disorder , and substance abuse. It is also the defining feature of the psychotic disorders (i.e., brief psychotic disorder , shared psychotic disorder , psychotic disorder due to a general medical condition, and substance-induced psychotic disorder ).

Patients suffering from psychosis are unable to distinguish the real from the unreal. They experience hallucinationsand/or delusions that they believe are real, and they typically behave in an inappropriate and confused manner.

A mental illness can exhibited through various forms of psychosis, such as:

  • Delusions. An unshakable and irrational belief in something untrue. Delusions defy normal reasoning, and remain firm even when overwhelming proof is presented to disprove them.
  • Hallucinations. Psychosis causes false or distorted sensory experience that appear to be real. Psychotic patients often see, hear, smell, taste, or feel things that aren’t there.
  • Disorganized speech. Psychotic patients often speak incoherently, using noises instead of words and “talking” in unintelligible speech patterns.
  • Disorganized or catatonic behavior. Behavior that is completely inappropriate to the situation or environment. Catatonic patients have either a complete lack of or inappropriate excess of motor activity. They can be completely rigid and unable to move (vegetative), or in constant motion. Disorganized behavior is unpredictable and inappropriate for a situation (such as screaming obscenities in the middle of class).

[From: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders]


John Lwanga, a man who was said to be ‘possessed by evil spirits’ recently. (Full story at WOO TAKEDOWN # 002 – Ojwang Strikes Again)

In October 2010 we encountered John Lwanga (above) at Kitgum House in Kampala while tracking down the activities of Peter Ojwang, a local witchdoctor. Lwanga appeared to be completely disoriented, unaware about where he was (and who he was). He crawled around, flailed his arms, and grunted (like an animal)while mumbling incoherently. This happened shortly after him consuming a herbal concoction prepared by the witchdoctor that was supposed to make the culprit of the car-theft confess to the crime. We spoke to Lwanga the a few days later and he told us he had no recollection of what had happened that evening. Everything he experienced is consistent with what would be expected in a psychotic episode.

The following are known psychiatric causes of psychosis:

  • brain tumors
  • drug abuse amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol among others
  • brain damage
  • schizophrenia, schizophreniform disorder, schizoaffective disorder, brief psychotic disorder
  • bipolar disorder (manic depression)
  • severe clinical depression
  • severe psychosocial stress
  • sleep deprivation
  • some focal epileptic disorders especially if the temporal lobe is affected
  • exposure to some traumatic event (violent death, etc.)
  • abrupt or over-rapid withdrawal from certain recreational or prescribed drugs

Studies have shown that high levels of clinical depression exist in Uganda.  Pervasive anxieties based on fear of spirit possession can lead to severe psychological stress. Many people in Uganda are known to be victims of severe childhood trauma (through physical, psychological and sexual abuse; surviving a life-threatening illness; witnessing death of close family members), with more than half the adult population of northern Uganda today suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In other words, many of the ingredients necessary to trigger a psychotic episode in a person are present in the life of the average Ugandan.

boarding school dorm A typical boarding school dormitory

Once a number of people from such a background are placed in a confined area (e.g. a boarding school) and subjected to a lot of psychological stress (e.g during, or in preparation for, exams) and anxiety (about the possibility of being ‘possessed by evil spirits’), and one or a more of them experience a psychotic episode, with enough suggestion and exposure to audio-visual cues (due to close proximity to the initial instigators), it should not come as a surprise if others in that vicinity also begin to exhibit those same psychosomatic symptoms, resulting in an outbreak of Mass Hysteria (MPI/MSI).


Among most Ugandans, there is a serious lack of familiarity with what we’ve come to learn from psychology, psychiatry and related sciences about the nature of human behaviour – and this ignorance is what is allowing many superstitions to flourish, including the belief that demons or evil spirits attack children in schools.

Related Posts: