What's the Point of Africa's Macabre Ritual Killings?

Foreign nationals in Zambia flee xenophobic violence
Foreign nationals register with Zambian police after fleeing their homes due to xenophobic violence in Lusaka, April 21. The violence was provoked by a spate of ritual killings, in which the bodies of victims were mutilated. SALIM DAWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Zambia's capital Lusaka was the site of rioting and xenophobic violence in April, with disgruntled locals sabotaging businesses belonging to foreign nationals, including Rwandan refugees.

The riots were ostensibly provoked by ritual killings in the city. At least six people have been murdered in Lusaka since March and have had their body parts—including hearts, ears and genitals—removed.

Rioters blamed the killings on members of the Rwandan diaspora in Lusaka, claiming that body parts had been found in the fridges of foreign nationals, a claim flatly rebuked by Zambian police.

While economic deprivation and high unemployment in Lusaka may have been the real cause of the violence, the unrest shone a light on a macabre practise often associated with primitive and historic religions and belief systems.

But while by no means predominant, cases of ritual killings and human sacrifice have been recorded in a swathe of countries in recent years. In Uganda, six children were reportedly mutilated and murdered in the run-up to February's election—in which President Yoweri Museveni secured a fifth consecutive term—as part of a ritual to bring good luck. On the other side of Africa in Ivory Coast, police set up a special unit to investigate the murder of more than 20 children in early 2015, most of whose bodies showed signs of mutilation, such as having their heads cut off.

So-called muti killings—where victims are murdered and their body parts harvested for use in perverted forms of traditional medicine—have a long history in southern Africa and have even reached British shores: police in London discovered the headless and limbless torso of an African boy in the River Thames in 2001 in an unsolved suspected ritual killing .

According to Mark Faulkner, an expert in African religions at SOAS University of London, ritual killings and human sacrifice is often interpreted as means of exerting control over the spiritual realm, which plays an important role in local religions. "The thing about African religions, as opposed to Christianity or Islam, is that they're eminently practical. If you want to achieve something, even something as simple as passing your driving test, you can manipulate these spirits in order to bring about that," says Faulkner. "Ritual killings are made as a way of manipulating or appeasing these spirits because it allows people to have control."

Spirits—which often belong to family ancestors or other close friends who have died—are understood as centers of causality that can be used to explain mysterious happenings in the human realm, says Faulkner. This often goes hand-in-hand with scientific explanations in a chemistry that is an exemplar of the syncretic nature of many African religions.

Faulkner gives the example of 10 people sleeping in a room, only one of whom is bitten by a mosquito and contracts malaria. "They know it's the Anopheles mosquito [that causes malaria], but why did the mosquito bite that [particular] person?" he says. "Obviously a spirit is doing this."

While children are often attacked due to a belief that they are purer than adults, perpetrators of ritual killings have also persecuted people with albinism , a genetic condition resulting in little or no pigment in the eyes, skin or hair and a fair-skinned complexion. The U.N. expert on albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, warned in April that albinos in Malawi risked "total extinction" after at least 65 attacks were recorded since the end of 2014, many of which resulted in victims having body parts removed for sale to witchdoctors or use as charms. A 2013 U.N. report found that several other myths surround albinism in parts of Africa, including the idea that sexual intercourse with a woman or girl with albinism can cure HIV/AIDS.

Malawian albino child with parents
An albino child sits with his parents in Machinga district, Malawi, April 17, 2015. Albinos in Malawi and other African countries have been persecuted by people who believe their body parts bring good fortune. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Once the body parts of victims are removed, they can be sold to witchdoctors, used as charms or even consumed. One of the most infamous practitioners of ritual killings was Milton Blahyi, also known as General Butt Naked, a rebel commander in Liberia's civil war who entered combat with no clothes on in order to scare off opponents. Blahyi—who has since renounced his past and become a Christian preacher—admitted to having taken part in child sacrifices, where the victim's heart was plucked out, divided into pieces and consumed by fighters in the belief that it would protect them from enemy bullets.

In Zambia, where the recent spate of ritual killings appears to have come to an end, accusations are widespread about who is behind them, with figures from opposition politicians to famous musicians being linked to the murders. According to Knox Chitiyo, a Zambia expert at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, the initial allegations against members of the Rwandan community led to "a real fear of not just prosecution but of possible persecution." While the fears have subsided as Zambian police have insisted that foreign nationals are not to blame for the ritual killings, the murders have left the country in a tense situation.

The unrest in Zambia and the ongoing persecution of albinos in parts of Africa attests to the fact that ritual killings remain a part of life there. In particular, the killings are used to explain incongruous events, where witchcraft or ritual sacrifice can fill in the gaps in rational understanding. In this regard, Faulkner recalls a visit to the affluent Kololo suburb of Kampala 15 years ago, when he and a friend were admiring the houses of residents and wondering what could explain their wealth. "He [the friend] said quite matter-of-factly, 'There's a dead child buried under every one of those houses,'" says Faulkner.