In part 4 of our series on cannibalism and the related social upheavals in Uganda, Robert Atuhairwe focuses on Hoima district, where the Police say they receive a report daily. He also looks at a book about cannibalism in Toro.
On May 7, a mob invaded Lawrence Mugisha’s home in Bukinda parish, Kyangwali. But he was not home, so they hacked his wife, Grace Kabagenyi, to near death.
She was rushed to Hoima Hospital. The couple fled when their semi-permanent family house and crops were destroyed. Mugisha’s family camped at the sub-county headquarters for close to a month. When their lives were threatened, Mugisha moved to Kibaale district.
They were accused of having had a hand in the death of one Annet. She died after a quarrel with Mugisha, who had allegedly predicted her demise. Residents accused Mugisha and his family of cannibalism.
A month later, 33 people were arrested when they stormed Kabwoya Police post to kill another suspected cannibal was in safe custody. The suspect, whose name could not be readily availed, was alleged to be behind the disappearance of a one-year-old baby.
Police and weird stories
On July 7, the Police in Buhimba stormed the home of Boniface Bategeka, following allegations that he had hidden a body in his house. Residents of Kijugunya told the Police that Bategeka, in his 40s, had ‘charmed’ the body out of its grave to eat it, but that it had turned against him, upon reaching home.
The body, residents alleged, demanded a Nokia phone before it could accept to be eaten! And that it would come out of its hiding place into the sitting room during meal time.
The Police could not dismiss the allegation because in the past, it had led to mob justice, with villagers evicting or lynching suspected cannibals.
Led by Godfrey Kyosaba, the officer-in-charge of Buhimba Police post and the LC1 chairman, Dominic Barole, the Police stormed the home of the peasant farmer. When they searched it, they did not find body.
Kyosaba warned residents against mob justice and promised to investigate and punish the source of the rumour.
When Saturday Vision visited Bategeka, he said: “I am a devoted Catholic. I even usher in church. I have been the defence chairman for this village for 10 years. If I were a cannibal, would the people have entrusted me with this responsibility?”
In October 2011, Prof. Heike Behrend and others published a book on cannibalism, based on a long and intensive study in Uganda.
The book, Resurrecting Cannibals; The Catholic Church, Witch-hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda, has witness accounts of how cannibalism is wrecking the social strings that hold communities together.
Behrend, a professor of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Cologne in Germany, also explains the dilemma the Police face when dealing with the problem.
He writes that both the community and the cannibal suspects accuse the Police of failing to protect them from the other.
When villagers bring their ‘suspects’ to the Police, they are asked for evidence. When there is nothing, the accused are released and return home to plan vengeance.
Sometimes, the enraged villagers take the law in their hands and lynch the suspects, burn their homes and expel them from the village.
According to the book, the Police devised a system where all suspected cannibals are locked up till the village rage diminishes. But the anger is sometimes turned on their properties.
In Kijura, for example, the book says, between January and August 2002, about five people were lynched.
In some other areas, local government authorities use democracy to decide whether the person was a cannibal or not. At a village gathering, if the majority declared a suspect a cannibal, he or she was banished without an opportunity to prove innocence.
Cooking pots are taken as proof of cannibalism because many believed that the flesh was boiled only in pots. Sadly, almost all homes have pots.
There's no proof
The Hoima investigations officer, Godson Nimanya, says they receive a complaint about cannibalism everyday.
“I don’t believe it exists because I have not caught anyone red-handed,” he said. “But still, we have to investigate the allegations.”
In Hoima, rumours of cannibalism are in Kyangwali, Kabwoya, upper Buseruka and Kyabigambire sub-counties. Kyangwali and Kabwoya are home to refugees and immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are suspected to have come with the practice.
Kaahwa (the other name withheld on request) from Kyangwali said it was easy to identify a cannibal.
“They easily get annoyed and throw tantrums, get shy when you look them in the eye and are always not open.”
But the Bunyoro Kingdom minister for culture, 77-year-old Peter Ruhyoka, says people are being falsely accused. He has never seen a cannibal.
Why eat people?
Survivors of the 1972 crash in the Andes ate bodies
Experts say cannibalism may be latent in everyone of us. When faced with acute starvation, even the most civilised humans resort to cannibalism to survive.
A famous example is the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes, where some survivors ate dead passengers to survive. It was also recorded during World War II.
Without emergencies, cannibalism in modern society can be explained as a cult, compulsion, possession or ritual.
Experts attribute the habit to many reasons. It is believed to be a form of possession by an irrational spirit that makes the victim want to eat human flesh to appease themselves. Humans are said to get powers to recall the dead from their graves and lead them home, where they are eaten.
In the past, cannibal tribes used it as part of the grieving process, or a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants. Some ancient beliefs hoped that eating a renowned deceased warrior, for example, would give the youth the deceased’s stamina and bravery.
They believed that eating the body endowed the cannibal with some of the characteristics the deceased had.
It was also done as a celebration of victory against a rival tribe. It can also be fuelled by the belief that eating a person’s flesh will stop the victim from unleashing their ghost and that explains many warrior rituals of licking the blood of the victims.
WHAT THEY SAY
Cannibalism suspect speaks
When Saturday Vision visited a cannibalism suspect, he said: “I am a devoted Catholic. I even usher in church. I have been the defence chairman for this village for 10 years. If I were a cannibal, would the people have entrusted me with this responsibility?"
Hoima district investigations officer
"I don’t believe it exists because I have not caught anyone red-handed. But still, we have to investigate allegations.”
Julius Bigirwa, Hoima MP
"Two months ago, a body disappeared from the grave and the suspected cannibals were rounded up and taken to the Police. I was told the suspects were saved by the Police. I will talk to the community and the suspects. If I discover that indeed the body was eaten, we shall sensitise the people against cannibalism."
Elderly woman, quoted in the book on cannibalism
"It was January 2005. I was awakened at about 10:00pm and accused of being a cannibal. The mob leader ordered me to come out and prove my innocence. I called my son who lives next door and told him they were taking me. They beat me and cut my head with a panga.
"They took me to the Police. However, the Police released us because there was no evidence. But we asked to stay at the Police post. They then locked us up at Boma Prisons, where we stayed for four months. When the Police took us back home, I found my house demolished and everything stolen."
Abel Ngomayondi, Rwimi LC3 chief
"Cannibals recruit people into the practice during their dreams. They pound human flesh and mix it with salt, water and food and give it to their unsuspecting neighbours.
"They then follow them with herbs to make them get appetite for human flesh. I am told they do this mostly at parties and funerals. The more they are, the safer their group will be. So, to get large numbers into the practice, they target parties or funerals."
PART 1: Scary cannibal stories exposed in many districts
PART 2: Kibaale, the hub of cannibalism
PART 3: 'I believe my brother was eaten'