Saturday, 2 March 2013


by Martin Walsh

When I get round to writing a book on the urban (and rural) legends of East Africa -- yes, I can see you all pointing to the pigs in the sky -- it will definitely include a section on crash-landing flying wizards. Last night I was sifting through a pile of press cuttings made in Tanzania a decade and more ago, and came across the three items that are the subject of this post. Witchcraft and sorcery can be a serious and deadly business, and many of the cuttings that I made at the time were about the ongoing witchcraft killings in Sukumaland (cf. Mesaki 1994) and the moral panic surrounding rumours of a transnational trade in human skins (cf. Sanders 2001). Recent attention has rightly focused on the killing and mutilation of albinos for their body parts, a very real horror that has forced many Tanzanian albinos to seek refuge or go into hiding. By contrast the reports and exchange reproduced below are a reminder that not only is there widespread scepticism about some beliefs in the occult, but that witchcraft narratives can also be the butt of good humour.

The first two items, shown here side-by-side, are the original reports published on Monday 6th January 2003 in The Guardian and Nipashe newspapers. Both articles were evidently written by the same correspondent, Mary Edward, working in Dodoma for Press Services Tanzania (PST), a news agency owned, like the two newspapers, by Reginald Mengi's IPP Media. They are about the same incident involving a flying "wizard" or witch who was alleged to have fallen to the ground, landing near-naked amidst a group of Christian worshippers in Kongwa in Dodoma Region. The reporter herself claims to have been in the congregation and witnessed the incident, though whether she actually saw him fall to earth before hearing his subsequent confession is left unsaid. The Swahili article includes some details not given in the English version. Its title makes it clear that the wizard's "flying saucer" was a circular winnowing basket (ungo), the favoured mode of witches' transport in mainland Tanzania. And the scene of the incident is identified as the yard of an Evangelistic Assemblies of God Tanzania (EAGT) church. This is an important detail, because the fallen wizard's confession is just the kind of testimony that can be heard during conversion to pentecostalism.

Readers can judge for themselves whether or not these articles were written and published tongue-in-cheek. The response on the "Opinion" page of The Guardian two days later (on Wednesday 8th January 2003) certainly was. It comprised a letter to the editor from an "Earthbound regular Guardian reader" in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, and was accompanied by a cartoon drawn for the page by David Chikoko:

At the beginning of this well-crafted lampoon, the writer alludes to the fact that belief in "flying wizards" is widespread in Tanzania, and cites a case of alleged naked night-flying in Muleba District in Kagera Region. This is clearly a hazardous pursuit, and I remember seeing other articles in the Tanzanian popular press announcing winnowing basket accidents. Some reports are from further afield and predate the 2003 story, like the 2001 Pan African News Agency article 'Zambians traumatised by crash-landing flying wizards', which related that "More than 30 stark naked people suspected to be wizards "crash-landed" on rooftops of houses owned by families, institutions and filling stations in Zambia last year, leaving the population puzzled." (Landing on the roofs of petrol stations has a certain logic, if not in terms of the need to refuel, at least in view of the large flat area they might offer to wizards descending in an emergency.)

It is quite likely that published narratives such as these have influenced reporting, both by people claiming to know of incidents and by journalists reporting on or inventing these reports in turn. A quick search on the internet suggests that stories of occult flying and its failure are now circulating more readily than ever via Tanzania's rapidly growing blogosphere. One favourite from last year was the tale of an old hag from Mwanza who was said to have crashed, quite literally, into the funeral of the actor Steven Kanumba. Given that the funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners, it is perhaps not surprising that narratives of this kind should emerge. What is more disturbing, though, is the fact that these beliefs can also generate violence, and result in the death of people suspected to be witches who have crashed to earth. There's a distressing video on YouTube of a naked man killed by a mob in Kimara, Dar es Salaam, for just this reason. It was uploaded in May 2010 (I won't link to it), and the attached description notes that the alleged witch was rumoured to be en route to the Seychelles for a witches' convention. It's easy to find humour in fictions like this, but not in such tragic consequences.


Anon. 2003a. 'Wizard' drops from heaven. The Guardian (Dar es Salaam), Monday 6 January 2003: 3.

Anon. 2003b. Teach widely wizard's flying skills. Letter to the editor, The Guardian (Dar es Salaam), Wednesday 8 January 2001: 6.

Edward, Mary. 2003. Adaiwa 'kusafiri kwa ungo'. Nipashe (Dar es Salaam), Monday 6 January 2003: 3.

Mesaki, Simeon 1994. Witch-killing in Sukumaland. In Ray Abrahams (ed.) Witchcraft in Contemporary Tanzania. Cambridge: African Studies Centre. 47-60.

Mulenga, Mildred 2001. Zambians traumatised by crash-landing flying wizards. Pan African News Agency (Dakar). Online at [no, I can't see the full text either...]

Sanders, Todd 2001. Save our skins: structural adjustment, morality and the occult in Tanzania. In Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders (eds.) Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. London and New York: Routledge. 160-183.

1 comment: