Kevin Linderman is a fellow missionary and friend of mine living in Mwanza, Tanzania. He and his team work primarily in the rural areas with the Sukuma people. We intend to begin work in the rural areas surrounding Geita within the next year or so — and this work will also primarily be with the Sukuma people. So the vast experience and knowledge that resides in Kevin and his teammates is of great value to us. Today, Kevin is “guest posting” on my blog with a piece about the Sukuma people and what they’re known for in East Africa. You can find Kevin’s blog here.
This is Wilberforce, a gentle old Luhya man who guided our family through the Kakamega rain forest in Kenya last month.
After learning a great deal from him, sampling wild leaves and berrys, spotting endemic bird species, and identifying local herbal remedies, the conversation turned to our work in Tanzania.
“OOOOH. The Sukuma. We hear that they eat people. Is this true?”
Having lived in Sukumaland for four years, I’ve yet to be eaten.
But he went on to other rumors. “we hear that the Sukuma have magical powers, even to raise people from the dead.”
This, I had to concede, is true (at least in common belief). Traditional Sukuma religion has a strong belief in “the living dead”, aka zombies, and there are countless stories of people being harrassed by zombies.
I asked him what else he knew of the Sukuma. He said that Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania each had one tribe that was known for the strength of their magic and witchcraft. In Tanzania, it is the Sukuma people, and even the corresponding tribes in Kenya and Uganda can’t compare to the Sukuma.
And this isn’t just the talk of old men in the forest. Major research seems to cast light on this issue. The Pew Trust recently released a report compiling research about the status of religion amongst all the nations of Africa.
The results were telling: Tanzania has the strongest incidence of traditional religion on the continent, as defined by the percentage of people that exhibit a majority of these traits:
…belief in reincarnation, witchcraft, evil spirits, the protective power of sacrifices to spirits or ancestors, juju or shrines, “evil eye” or curses, and the protective power of spiritual people as well as possession of traditional African sacred objects, participation in traditional ceremonies to honor ancestors, participation in traditional puberty rituals and use of religious healers.
The study found that 62% of Tanzanians have a strong belief in traditional religion, far exceeding the neighboring countries of Kenya (11%), Uganda (18%), and Rwanda (3%).
If the study focused on the Sukuma tribe, which comprises 15% of the Tanzanian population, the numbers would be much higher, perhaps over 80%.
This is not merely an issue of “religion”, as curses, witchcraft allegations, poison, albino kiilings, and constant fear all stem from this belief system, as does the pervasive suspicion and fatalism that binds this people.
Though Wilberforce was relieved to know that the Sukuma do not eat people, in a similar fashion the Sukuma religious system consumes the hopes, dreams, and future of millions of people.