A road toward the Rwandan border in northern Burundi, a man with albinism walked along the roadside. A solitary figure in a country where community is everything. He carried neither baggage nor agricultural implement. His expression was disconsolate. “Is he safe?” I asked my Burundian companion.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“There are stories in Tanzania.”
“Witch doctors wanting albino body parts? Yes, I have heard the stories. The witch doctors are still strong.”
My Burundian friend would have been unsurprised at the BBC report of “shock and fear” at stories of cannibalism in South Africa, the report tells of a man confessing to the police and his confession being dismissed until the police discovered eight human ears in a cooking pot at his house. Those my companion would have described as “witch doctors” are described in the BBC report as “traditional healers.”
The horrifying dimension of the South African story, and of the treatment of people with albinism in East Africa, is that people are being murdered for body parts, the horrifying fact is that “traditional healing” in these cases includes cannibalism. The traditional healers themselves are charlatans, making unverifiable claims and gaining personal prestige and wealth through the exploitation of gullible or vulnerable people.
Charlatanism may take extreme forms among the traditional healers, but it is pervasive within the Christian churches. Earlier this month the BBC carried news of Gilbert Deya, the Kenyan pastor who was extradited from London to Nairobi to face charges of trafficking children. Deya claimed to be able to pray and to make possible “miracle babies” for women who were in distress at being unable to have children. The charlatanism of Deya was apparent: lies and manipulation of credulous people allowed him to make hundreds of thousand of pounds a year. Deya is not so far removed from many other Pentecostal and evangelical churches where preachers will make extraordinary claims about healing “miracles” and about religious “experiences.” Listen to stories from within such circles and it is not long before one will encounter people making extraordinary claims about “healings.”
At root, whether it be the traditional healers in rural Africa or the charlatan pastors in Britain, the religion is rooted in a desire to exert power and a desire to attain wealth, desires it shares with most religious traditions. “Cui bono?” seems always the appropriate question, for whose benefit? Whether you are a credulous person going to a witch doctor, or a credulous person going to a pastor, the benefits seem chiefly derived by those who receive payments for such encounters.