In Uganda, experts disagree on the prevalence of human sacrifice, but regardless of the statistics, fear of kidnapping and mutilation haunts parents. To protect their children, some have turned to piercing, circumcision and other body modifications.
WAKISO, UGANDA — Sarah Babirye’s infant daughter was one week old when Babirye pierced her ears. Babirye’s husband wanted to wait until the baby was a year old, but Babirye insisted.
“Now with her ears pierced, I am convinced she is safe from being sacrificed by witch doctors,” she says.
Body modifications are a common safeguard against child sacrifice, a practice that is common enough here to hold parents in fear that their children will be abducted and mutilated. They pierce their daughters’ ears and circumcise their sons with the hope that a witch doctor will not want those body parts because they are not pristine.
But even then, there’s no guarantee that the children are invulnerable.
“Body piercing and male circumcision could work to some extent as a preventive measure, but we have also had cases of circumcised boys and pierced girls sacrificed,” says Peter Sewakiryanga, the Executive Director of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, a charitable organization fighting the practice.
The demand for children’s body parts, including livers, kidneys, tongues and genitals, comes from people, often called witch doctors, who use those organs in rituals believed to treat illnesses, prompt blessings or protection from ancestors, ensure the gender of an unborn child and more. In some cases, the organs are buried. In others, they’re worn or eaten by the person being treated.
According to some reports, human sacrifice is especially common just before elections as some politicians do whatever they can to win or keep office. In Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere, people with albinism are especially vulnerable. (Read our story on albinism and human sacrifice here.)
In Uganda, seven children were killed in sacrifices in 2015, according to an annual report from the Uganda Child Helpline Service, a government agency. That number was corroborated by a separate government report that police officials provided to GPJ. That report also noted that six adults were killed for human sacrifice that year.
In 2016, seven children and two adults were killed for the purpose of human sacrifice, according to the report provided to GPJ. Heads, tongues, blood, ears and hands were targeted in those attacks, the report notes.
But some experts say the number could be much higher.
Researchers with Humane Africa, for work published in a 2013 report, found that 20 mutilations took place in 25 communities in a four-month period in 2012. In one case, a pregnant woman was attacked and the fetus was cut out and mutilated. In total, researchers heard 140 accounts in which the person interviewed had seen a mutilated body or organ separated from a body or even confessed to killing a person for the purpose of removing a body part.
“Generating 140 firsthand interviews during such a short fieldwork period gives an indication of the frequency of attacks on children throughout Uganda,” the report states.
Child sacrifice is a crime in Uganda, punishable by death, says Moses Binoga, police commissioner and coordinator of the human trafficking prevention unit at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
One person was convicted of child sacrifice in 2014, Binoga says. There are child sacrifice cases pending, he says, but declined to provide details.
But even with those cases pending, Binoga disputes the numbers reported by Humane Africa. Nonprofit organizations tend to sensationalize the issue to get donor funding, he says.
Child sacrifices are rumored to occur in other African countries too, but it’s difficult to confirm whether the practice is widespread. Global Press Journal reporters in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo interviewed parents and traditional healers who confirmed common local strategies to protect children from sacrifice, including adding pinprick scars to a child’s skin. In every case, those parents and healers refused to be formally interviewed, citing their fear of witch doctors.
There is plenty of evidence that child sacrifice occurred in ancient times in some parts of the world, but some Ugandans say the phenomenon is relatively new in their country.
“Killing of children for traditional healing has never been part of our culture,” says Ssewaya Kiwanuka, a traditional healer and Secretary General of Uganda N’eddagala N’obuwangwa Bwafe, the National Traditional Healers, Herbalists and Birth Attendants Association.
“Those sacrificing children in the name of culture are fake traditional healers,” he adds, emphasizing that his association condemns child sacrifice.
Some historic writings, however, reference human sacrifice in Uganda, especially those that examine religion and cultural practices. One 2007 book on missionary efforts in Africa, published by Routledge, a major academic publisher, noted instances in which Ugandan “priests” that practiced human sacrifice increased their power in the court of Mutesa, who ruled the kingdom of Buganda during a portion of the 1800s.
Mugema Bogere, a father, points to such historic accounts as justification for having circumcised his two sons. He notes that area’s kings of old used human sacrifice to heal illnesses or hold onto political power.
Kiwanuka agrees that pierced or circumcised body parts are less likely to be targeted.
“If it’s the genitals or the head, and these parts are damaged, then the targeted child will be spared,” he says. “But if the needed parts are the legs, arms, blood [or] fingers, body piercing or circumcision unfortunately may not guarantee safety.”
Babirye is confident that her daughter, who is now 8 months old, is safe because her ears are pierced.
“I can travel away from home assured that I will find her home, not kidnapped and sacrificed by a witch doctor,” she says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the reporter’s country. Nakisanze Segawa is based in Uganda. Global Press Journal regrets this error.