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The Spectre of Cannibalism in Sub-Saharan Africa Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Norma, Kenya Sep 24, 2009
HIV/AIDS , Mental Health , Food   Opinions
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The Spectre of Cannibalism in Sub-Saharan Africa The era of AIDS has birthed strange happenings in Kenya and across the sub-Saharan African (SSA) region in general. Earlier during the epidemic, it was rumored that a sexual encounter with a virgin could cure one of HIV/ AIDS. This helped to explain in part the epidemics of rape that became the norm in the region. In Kenya, in particular, this is one of the factors that led to the launching of a special hospital to cater for the needs of the victims. Gradually, it dawned on discerning people that behind these rapes was mental illness: babies were being horribly violated; sometimes the injuries were permanent. Some were violated by their own fathers, or close male relatives.

When ARVs became readily available, there was a sigh of relief. But it soon emerged that “a balanced diet” was necessary for the medicines to work. On a continent where a majority of the population subsists on starvation diets, this was not surprising. Maize and cassava, both poor sources of important nutrients for the immune system are dietary staples across the region. They define the fortunes of the modern African, because of their capacity to underdevelop the bodies of the affected: weak immune systems, socioeconomic stagnation, many emergent diseases, accelerated death rates, and violence among others are the result. Increasingly cannibalistic practices follow, often disguised as "medicinal", "traditional rituals," "violence," "political competition," "business," etc. For some of the very poor, "hunger" is cited (in the popular media) as an important reason to kill and eat vulnerable family members in bizarre incidents. At the greatest risk of being victimized are disabled children, especially albinos.

Most countries across the region have failed to treat the AIDS epidemic as an epidemic that is exacerbated by widespread malnutrition: diseases are simply opportunistic because of the weakened immune systems. Feeding programs by governments are absent, although drugs, mainly funded by donors are readily available. Many poor people have been known to sell their drugs in order to buy food. Famine in the general population has remained a constant since the onset of the epidemic. Occasionally, one hears of sporadic cases of ritual killings, or overt cannibalism. Sometimes, body parts e.g. male genitals, female breasts (said to treat impotence and infertility respectively), have been reported to be "harvested" in parts of Western Kenya. Two boys who were mutilated for this precise reason benefited from the magnanimity of Italian doctors who brought them overseas for reconstructive surgery.

In the Rift Valley Province, a young man was caught red-handed drinking his nephew’s blood; the boy's his head was cooking in a pan. The mother fainted and had to be admitted in a local hospital. In some parts of North Eastern province where famine is common, tales of cannibalism are common. Recently, the problem seems to be escalating: specific body parts are being targeted. In Central Kenya, this problem is complicated by rituals and other violence, often associated with robbery or extortion.

The latest incidents involve taxi drivers, who are abducted from the city centre, and their bodies are dumped later, with missing body parts: “brains,” “tongues,” and “skulls” have been reported missing. Some people have alleged that this is really a prelude to a “Mungiki take over" of the taxi business. Since the Mungiki organization was registered by the current government, they have taken over and control public vehicle transportation in many parts of the country. Macabre rituals, which include the "skinning of victim heads" are common; these are said to be part of a deliberate attempt to instill fear in populations so that they comply with their demands. A spate of abductions, followed by ransom demands have also become common. Emanuel, the now deceased Sudanese school boy whose parents could not raise the required ransom is one of the latest victims. His body was found without his tongue, parts of his jaw, and some people say without his fore-skin.

In neighboring Uganda, “poverty, food shortage, famines, and greed for money” have been blamed for the escalating problem. The poorer Northern part of the country and the Eastern part are said to be most affected. In Nigeria, the problem is said to be rampant and more closely linked to human sacrifice for various causes, including “wealth acquisition.” Some child victims are alleged to have been sold by their parents, or close relatives. One article (2) cites a secret report in which “children were being trafficked into the UK from Africa, and used as human sacrifice.” In Malawi, the human skin is valued highly. Businessmen from the Congo seem to have a ready market for human body parts. One 35-year old man is cited to have tried to sell his 24-year old albino wife for $2,000 in Tanzania.

Tanzania is notorious for the practice of killing albinos for their body parts/ blood. A tale is told of a mother who “sold her albino baby girl to a group of men, who slaughtered her and drunk her blood.” An albino body-part harvesting belt is said to spread from the Eastern coasts, right up to the Western coasts of SSA (a belt that is similar to that of the slaving era). Burundi is an active center for the West coast: in May 2009, "three people were charged for allegedly murdering albinos to sell their body parts. Albino body parts are said to have magical powers which help "attract wealth in a short time." The Southern region has not been spared: in Swaziland for example, ritual killings tend to escalate during “electioneering.”

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I am an African community health worker interested in cultural practices. This is because I have come to believe that culture is a foundation for development. I am especially interested in food culture for the same reasons.
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