A while back, one of my readers who follows a number of Peace Corps blogs mentioned that volunteers tend to update their blogs less and less as time goes on. I think this happens because at the beginning of service, everything in your new country of residence is new and strange. You see something for the first time and can't wait to tell the folks at home. As the newness goes away and you settle in, it gets harder to actually notice what's strange about your country of residence. However, when the subject of witches came up recently over a couple of beers, I was reminded that it's a different world here.
When Rwandans say witch, they really mean someone who poisons people. Witches and poison are widely believed in throughout Rwanda, though Peace Corps staff members (especially the Rwandans) tell us that belief in poisoning is merely the result of the fear of the unknown and provincialism.
I met a good example that illustrates the general paranoia of this country as I was returning from a hike in my first months of service. An old lady stopped me on the way because she was very impressed that I could speak Kinyarwanda and wanted to talk to me (this happens a lot). She asked me where I was coming from and I pointed to the next hill and said the name of that village. She then warned me that I shouldn't go there because the people who live there will poison me.
Accusations of witchcraft can also be used as a way of indirectly changing someone's behavior. My friend Sam once told me that I shouldn't go to the small market too often because the women that sell there are witches and they will learn my routine and be able to poison me. I started asking a lot of questions about witches, and eventually protested, "If I was someone's customer, they wouldn't want to poison me. The other merchants would want to poison me." His reply, "Yes! That is true," led me to believe that his real reason for warning me about the witches was to get me to spend my money in different places and avoid slighting some merchants. He told me about witches because talking about how people around town perceive me would be uncomfortable. If something is uncomfortable to talk about, Rwandans will either say nothing at all or find another way to say it. Or maybe he just doesn't like those women. Maybe he really thinks they're witches. I still don't know.
When witches came up the other day, I asked a lot of questions. To the first one, "Oh come on, who poisons people?" they shook there heads and said "They are so many." So I kept going, partly to see if they weren't ribbing me and partly to get a complete picture of what witchcraft and poisoning entails. There's no verdict on whether the teachers I was with were lying, but the story goes as follows:
There are two kinds of poison that witches use. One can kill within a couple of days, another is slow acting and kills in three to six months. There are a lot of unresolved tensions and personal vendettas in Rwanda due to its history and people can also commit murder out of jealousy. Because poisoning somebody kills them slowly and does not leave evidence of who the murderer is, it's the perfect crime. As long as witches act friendly toward the people they hate (something that's not hard to imagine in Rwandan culture), they can sneak a slow acting poison in the victim's food. Then, when the victim becomes ill and goes to the hospital, doctors are unable to diagnose the illness. If the victim doesn't get help, he or she dies after a few months. Some people spend their whole lives in the same village, poisoning people, and continue to get away with it. There are, however, traditional doctors, who can make a medicine from herbs which makes you vomit the poison up. Sometimes, the poison can rally and build up in your system again, so in some cases people die because they didn't go back to the witchdoctor.
In response to hearing that I don't believe it's as widespread as they say and that Peace Corps tells us that poisoning isn't common, the teachers reasoned that Peace Corps tells us that because they don't want to scare us out of the country. Sam cited a case where a woman from his home town named Therese was tried and convict of poisoning someone. He didn't know the woman's last name and I reserve a healthy amount of doubt. But whether or not it actually happened, the story gets told. And stories like this are told and inevitably repeated and exaggerated to the point where a little old lady may stop someone on the street and tell them to avoid the next village, because of witches.