Wambui Chege

Kisyesye Village, Tanzania - A cool breeze blows softly through the undulating hills of Mbeya in southern Tanzania. The setting seems perfect, but hidden in the hills lies a dark secret, a gory tale of witchcraft and death.

Fourteen-year-old Leo Kimwegile-Swile had taken his cows grazing on a normal sunny afternoon in June when he was kidnapped.

His captors injected him with a drug that numbed him, then cut off his hands and skinned him alive.

Leo's death was one of four bizarre and grisly deaths in Mbeya region this year which sent a chilling message to the sleepy east African country. The ancient practice of witchcraft was still very much alive.

"It is a shame and embarrassment to the country," Mbeya Regional Police Commissioner Laurian Sanya said.

"Those who did it said they were going to sell the skins for witchcraft purposes," he said.

Sanya said police had arrested nine people so far in connection with the crime, and added the killers had been hired by foreign witchdoctors from neighbouring Malawi and Zambia.

Their mission was to obtain human skin - removed while the victim was still alive - for a fee of between four million shillings (R30 000) and 40 million shillings (R300 000).

According to the suspects, the witchdoctors claimed they had markets for the skins as far afield as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Cameroon where buyers use them in pagan rituals.

Leo's death traumatised Kisyesye village and school attendance in his former school dropped by at least 10 percent.

"There is a lot of fear among the villagers and children. Immediately after the incident, the children refused to go to school or be sent anywhere," said Leo's teacher Aison Kibona.

Belief in the potency of witchcraft is as old as Tanzanian society itself, but was kept in check by the collective wisdom of elders who were the rulers in most communities.

The recent upsurge in the practice in some rural areas has been blamed on the disintegration of communities, poverty, and frightening new diseases such as Aids.

In Mwanza and Shinyanga regions in the northwest near Lake Victoria, witch-hunts are common. Old women with blood-shot eyes from years of cooking over smoky fires are the most vulnerable. Suspected as witches, they end up being maimed or killed.

In Shinyanga region alone, witchcraft-related deaths were estimated at 399 people between 1994 and June 1997, while 43 percent of all murders in the country in the same period were as a result of witchcraft beliefs, according to statistics by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The name of the southern Sumbawanga district, which neighbours Mbeya, literally means "put away witchcraft". Legend has it the name was given by early missionaries and colonial administrators as a warning to members of the native Fipa ethnic group whose culture and mythology centred on witchcraft.

"Skin-hunting is an old practice in our community. I remember I first heard of it in 1977 when at home, people would warn you not to go outside after midnight or people will come for your skin," said Absalom Kibanda, 33, who was brought up in Sumbawanga and now lives in the capital Dar es Salaam.

"And it's not just skin. Even body parts. Sometimes you'd find bodies of people with organs like the heart that had been taken for witchcraft purposes," he said.

Leo's ageing father called a local witchdoctor after the death of his son to perform a cleansing ceremony in his homestead.

"My father is a pagan and so immediately when we buried my brother we invited the witchdoctor to remove the curse and to make sure such a thing never happens in our family again," Leo's brother Laison said.

Missionaries who came to Tanzania before the turn of the century tried to rout out traditional religions and superstitions as they set about spreading the Christian gospel.

Although 50 percent of the country's 30 million people are said to be Christians - and most of the remainder Muslims - superstition and witchcraft remain deeply embedded in popular culture.

And now, riding on the wave of the rising popularity of alternative medicine in the West, traditional healing as practised by witchdoctors is spreading.

"Witchcraft is big in this country. What ruined it was the introduction of modern religions, especially Christianity," Asha Masudi, secretary of the Association of Traditional Healers, Birth Attendants and Herbalists in Mbeya said.

"But now people are discovering there's nothing wrong with traditional medicine. So now more and more people are going to witchdoctors for treatment," she said.

Masudi, who claims to possess supernatural powers, says she prefers being called a traditional healer than a witchdoctor.

She uses herbs, animal's teeth, fish fins and snakes in her treatments while her more "wicked" counterparts will use human organs and demand hefty payments.

"There are three types of witchdoctors. Those who use their powers to heal and help the community, those who bewitch and cast evil spells on others and frauds, who have no power but will do anything for money," Masudi said.

Tanzanian authorities, embarrassed by the negative publicity caused by the skin-hunting incidents, have declared war on witchcraft.

"The laws of the land do not allow people to practise witchcraft. People who practise as natural healers are known and accepted, but we will not allow witchcraft," Police Commissioner Sanya said.

Tanzanian police have expelled some foreign "healers" living in the country and banned others from practising.

Police in Zambia and Malawi have also agreed to cooperate in a crackdown against anyone trading in human skin.

In some villages in Mbeya, villagers in the past have taken the law into their own hands and killed people known in the community as witches, saying they were tired of their evil ways. - Reuters