July 27, 2005

Witch Finder

Robert and I took one of the Toyota pick- ups from work and drove two hours and quite a long way from the forest that Sunday. We were supposed to be scouting for wild mushrooms, which people in Europe paid big money to eat in upscale restaurants, but he had begged me to help him . He was in an agony of fear and horror, his sister had phoned to tell him his three year old niece had gone missing. The family feared the worst, that she had been kidnapped and was probably dead by now, or soon would be.
There had been several people around their district who had vanished over the past five or six years. Each one had been found several days later mutilated , with certain body parts hacked off, lips and genitals, tongues , ears and eyes usually, though sometimes internal organs had been taken. All had bled to death and then were dumped , still tied hand and foot, wrapped in newspaper and old plastic fertilizer bags.
Everybody knew it was the old Muti murder horror , using human body parts for potions and charms to give powerful people an edge over their rivals, for promotion in Government or business, financial success or luck in ( it’s just a word ) Love. Everybody knew who was involved too, there were often big shiny cars parked at a certain isolated homestead, where the cattle were fat from grazing other people’s crops, and the old man had a surprising number of young wives. Ten years ago he had been an object of scorn, ragged and shiftless, perennially drunk and his children always hungry, often in trouble for fighting or petty theft, a seller of weak medicines and doubtful spells, whose customers usually couldn’t afford the bus fare to the Government hospital or else didn’t want their husbands to know they were trying to abort their eighth child, or who were quarrelling with a co-wife and hoped to have her burn herself at the cooking fire.
We talked during the drive, of course, and he told me all this, though no names or other identifying information, at my request. I was going to try and get some sort of objective proof somehow, something that could justify certain low-ranking police going over the heads of their Station Commander and the District Commissioner to make arrests and do more than a token investigation. My reputation as some kind of crime investigator and communer with the spirits was rather flimsily based on the luck I had finding wild mushrooms in commercially viable concentrations and keeping track of the misdeeds of several rambunctious drivers and about a hundred young co-ed mushroom pickers out in the forest. Oh yeah, plus I had long hair and a raggedy beard, which proved the craziness required of any worthy Witch-finder.
Traditionally, I knew , the process used iin these parts involved getting suspects and innocents together and working the atmosphere up into a sort of humming tension of expectation and fear, then sorting out putative culprits from the gathered crowd by use of the sense of smell. Chaka, the great Zulu leader, had a favourite Witch-finder , an old woman, who was probably more feared than he was. She was said to have “smelt out “ hundreds of evil men and women , conveniently often people that Chaka wanted to dispose of , simply by moving among an assembled crowd with her eyes closed, sniffing at people’s bodies.
We drove off the main road through the hills for several hot and bumpy miles along tracks more often used by oxen and tractors than by anything without low range gears and four wheel drive. We went slowly with the windows open , enjoying the vista of green hills dotted with grazing cattle and dark clumps of trees , corn tall and lush on the flatter land near each of the widely separated homesteads. We passed a few people walking in groups of four or five together and then one old man striding along alone , carrying a plastic supermarket bag . As we eased carefully past him, a stench of rotting meat wafted in the window,. “ Hey that guy’s lunch is a little past its “best by” date “ I joked. Robert just stared solemnly back and responded “ Mr. Dube eats some strange things.”
Today the neighbours were all gathering again at Robert’s sister’s place, after searching the countryside over the past three days. She lived as second wife of the eldest son of the extended family. The missing girl, Emilia , was her third child, and had been playing with other toddlers of the family under the care of her eldest sister, who was nine, while the adults and older children hoed weeds in the nearby corn field. When Zanele, her mother, came to eat lunch with the kids, she found Emilia gone and her sister shaking and crying , while the other little ones wept in sympathy. She told me this while seated at her mother-in -law’s table in the thatch roofed house at the centre of the compound. I had the privilege of sitting at ease sipping tea , playing the role of a mysterious and powerful investigator while the gathering waited silently outside. We three, Constable Simelane, Henrietta Zuma ( Emilia’s grandmother), and I were trying to find some detail that might have been overlooked in the first panic and turmoil of the disappearance.
All that Grace could say was “ She’s gone, I don’t know what happened, i went to Elphas, he fell and hurt his knee and it was bleeding and he was crying, so I washed his knee and told him to sit there by the tree in the shade and then I came back and she was gone . But I looked and looked and I dont see.” She was speaking English to me, quite fluently and with a slight American accent, probably her English teacher was a Peace Corps worker, and somehow that last sentence had an odd ring. I said, “ Pardon Grace, do you mean you didn’t see where she went ? “ She promptly burst into loud sobs and hiccupped “ No, no I can’t say , I can’t say . Oh my poor sister .” Her mother hugged her tightly and patted her back while glaring at me. “ What do you think, of course that’s what she meant, are you trying to torture her ? Whats the matter with you ?”
I swallowed a sip of tea to help my suddenly dry mouth and throat to articulate my next words gently “ Please ma’am, can you let us talk with her a little more, we have to get every detail we can , she might have seen someone nearby before the child, before Emilia that is, went missing .” Grandmother Henrietta suddenly frowned and spoke “ Zanele, let her sit here a while, I will see that she answers properly. You go and see to the other guests, there is beer for the men, everyone should be here by now. “ she turned to me “ Ask. I will see that she answers “
Grandmother was evidently ruler in this homestead, because the sobbing child gathered herself with an effort and whispered to me “ I saw him , he said he would help to find her , but I musn’t say that I saw him or she will die .” The adults leaned forward listening intently “ We can only help your sister if you tell us everything “ I said, “ Can you trust the person who told you to be quiet ? Is this a person who could lie to you ? ”
“ No, no , I musn’t think bad things about people, the minister at church told me I musn’t , I must be a good girl and pray to Lord Jesus and everything will be fine , he said.”
“ Well you know , Grace, sometimes people are bad and say things that just aren’t true and break their promises. You should trust your family and be polite , but don’t always believe everything people say “ said Grandmother “ Now tell us, child, who was there, who did you see that day ? “
“ But he said he could only help to save her if no-one knew he was nearby If I told anyone he wouldn’t be able to help and she would die, and it would be my fault . “ She wailed. Grandmother waited grimly until she quieted again and then spoke , “ Tell us. Who .Was . There . “
“ Johannes Dube “ she whispered. “ When I didnt see her I looked by the gate, and there were some people running away, carrying a sack, then Mr Dube was standing there ,and he said he would help to find my sister when I asked if he’d seen her”
With that name I suddenly realised what we had to do. “ Listen Grace, you can help us, you know. I want you to go out among the people and help your mother to look after the guests, take them food and drink . While you are doing that, I want you to use your nose. If you smell bad meat , I want you to try and find where the smell is coming from, without anybody noticing what you are doing. Come back here and tell us if you think somebody is carrying anything that smells like that, perhaps something in their pocket or on a string around their neck . “ She nodded solemly and looked at her grandmother for approval.
In a few minutes she was back , and whispered to her grandmother, who wrote on a piece of paper and passed it to me. Johannes Dube . Plastic bag and something on a string around his neck. Mandla Zwane , something in his right pants pocket, Dorothy Hlope, something smelly in her purse. We looked at one another silently. “ Right then, lets call in Dube first “ I said . ”See what he has to say. If these guys believe their magic will protect them , they have to carry the Muti they’ve made with them to get the benefit. Which means if we get a look at what they are carrying we will probably find all the evidence we need for the Constable to arrest them.”
The old man swaggered in and sat down, taking the teapot and pouring himself a cup , which he proceeded to slurp noisily. “So what do you want, Henrietta? I told you, if you pay me two cows I can use my magic powers to find your granddaughter. Send this fool away first though, before I do anything .” He spoke SiSwati, not realising I understood him, then turned to me and spoke English “ How do you do , very good of you to come help our poor people .”
I played along “ Mr. Dube, if we all work together we will learn from one another and I’m sure we can accomplish a lot . I am so happy to be able to help the great people of your beautiful country . I am so curious about your customs you know, tell me, what are you carrying there, is it your lunch ?”
“ Oh you know, just some of our traditional food that it is our custom I must eat you know , to make myself strong . “ He replied casually.
“ I just love to try your traditional food you know .” Before he could react I grabbed the bag from his hand and dumped the contents on the table.
Two ears and some other body parts , covered in red ochre and bits of plant matter , and pierced by thongs , ready to be strung around someone’s neck, but still plainly and unmistakably enough to tie him to the missing girl. Constable Simelane rose grimly to his full 5ft 6 and took him firmly by the arm. “ Well now, what do we have here ? “ he intoned, in his best British Bobby style . “ I think you had better come along to the station so that we can pursue our enquiries. Who is in it with you then ?”
“ No, no, you dont understand, it’s Zwane, him and that Hlope woman and Esther Dlamini, they did it, they threatened me , but I was going to tell you anyway .” whined Dube.
I didn’t hear any more , as I bolted outside to the fresh air and heaved my guts up , to the mute astonishment of the gathering. This actually was just the right thing to do, as vomiting and extreme agitation are regarded as signs of spirit possession . As believers in magic powers and the influence of spirits on the mundane, our targets were likely to believe that I was picking out suspects with this kind of help . Shakily, I went back in and we called in each person “smelt out “ by Grace or implicated by others , and questioned them, and each blamed others, each was carrying some sort of charm with human body parts as one of its components, and each in turn was formally arrested and locked in a separate room , pending the arrival of reinforcements and transport from the police station in town.
Eventually six people were convicted of ritual murder and sentenced to death. Since Swaziland did not have an executioner, they waited in prison quite a while and for all I know they are still there.

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