środa, 14 lipca 2010

A quarter-century after

It was 13 July 1985, midday. Thousands of people gathered at the Wembley and JFK Stadiums. Queen started off with the “Bohemian Rapsody” and the crowds went wild. The clapping sequence of “Radio Gaga” left a mark on the history of live music. And so did the multi-venue concert.

Two stadiums –Wembley in London and JFK in Philadelphia were full. An estimated 2 billion viewers from over 60 countries witnessed what was later to be described as the greatest rock concert in history.

It appeared completely innocent and the cause seemed so right. The 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia decimated its inhabitants. Moreover, the success of the Band Aid’s charity single “Do they know it’s Christmas” (it became a number one and sold more than 3.5 million copies in the UK) indicated that such initiatives could gain a lot of attention.

You couldn’t stay indifferent confronted with those images. A video shot by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showing starving and diseased Ethiopian children was broadcast to audiences around the world as well as to the crowds gathered in London and Philadelphia, after which the number of calls to the 300 phone lines manned by the BBC skyrocketed.

Amongst many, on the same stage of London Wembley Stadium performed U2, Dire Straits, Queen, Elthon John, David Bowie, The Who, George Michael, Sade, and Paul Young. On the other Black Sabbath, Santana and Pat Metheny, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, to name just a few.

The clarity of intentions of the superstars involved might be questioned. Many admitted that although an event of this magnitude had sounded improbable, they were eager to take part in it for the sake of the buzz it generated. The image of combining the culture of pop with the philanthropy appeared positive. The era of commercialisation of aid initiatives was on its way. The artistic expression was to serve as means of the protest against the policies of the governments and the consequences of the globalisation.

The initiative has not been without controversy. Although the words of Bono and the lack of transparency in the money allocation initially generated waves of criticism, the aftermaths of the concert were a time bomb. It wasn’t until June 2005 that Fox News television host Bill O’Reilly claimed that large amounts of the funds were siphoned off by Mengisty Haile Mariam and his army.

That critique was followed by another in March this year when Martin Plaut of the BBC reported that vast sums of the fundraised money was spent on weapons by rebels from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front who allegedly posed as merchants (one of the rebel leaders estimated the amount of money diverted for $95 million).

Although Bob Geldof, the founder of Band Aid initially dismissed the claims, documents released by the CIA confirmed aid was “almost certainly being diverted for military purposes”.

Many critics have also underlined that similar events divert the attention of the global north from the trade reforms and put emphasis on uncritical boosting aid.

You can’t question however the undeniable role Live Aid played in the sensitisation of the global community, which ever since has been more critical and cautious than ever.

A quarter-century after Live Aid I invite you to enlist with me in the comments section the lessons that we have learnt during the course of the years.


‘May I come in?’ – ‘You are welcome, muzungu’ – I heard a low and dry voice.
‘So this is what a witch doctor’s ‘office’ looks like’ – I thought and sat in the chair opposite.

Dr. Picho was on a phone explaining the dosage to one of his patients…


If I am being honest, I used to label all the practitioners as witch doctors and believed witchcraft was practiced by primitive people. I had also an impression that both Western doctors and the missionaries didn’t acknowledge the traditional beliefs and considered that by helping the locals wipe them out they would help Africa to take a seat among the civilized nations in the world. I wasn’t sure whose view was right and assumed the truth was somewhere in the middle.

So I treated it more like an experiment. From my fellow Ugandan journalists I got a telephone number to Mama Fiina – the Uganda’s most recognised witch. She didn’t seem to be willing to meet me – her secretary kept on calling off our appointment and I was a little scared by her creaky voice so… I just took a newspaper and looked through the ads.

Most of them showed one direction, Makindye so without further ado I jumped on a boda boda and we rushed through the jam up one of the Kampala hills…


‘So you are a journalist!’ – said doctor Picho, a grandson of two Ugandan kings – ‘I am surprised! You, bazungu, usually come with health issues – there are many Americans visiting us – high blood pressure, diabetes, overweight - all sorts of problems. How did you know how to get here?’

‘I just opened a newspaper.’

‘OK, no problem. If you want, I can also show you the Owino market , cause I need to buy some herbs. Would you like to get some help yourself?’

‘No, thanks’ – I smiled.

This is the result of that first interview (if you use Firefox and can't see the sound click here) :


It was all very confusing – dr. Picho would denominate himself as a herbalist yet what he had in his offer seemed very far from healing popular illnesses. With his help I got to meet mr. Haji Sentamu, the president of the Uganda Medical Practitioners' Association. I was surprised to discover, the practice was legal and there were 250 thousand herbalists registered in 33 million Uganda population, with illegal workers outnumbering the registered ones. As six million Ugandans believe in witchcraft, a well-known healer can earn as much as 3 million Ugandan shillings (over $1300).
I was soon to discover priests and doctors were far from disregarding the achievements of the local healers. In Malawi I talked to some medical students from Ireland working for World Medical Fund, who convinced me about the healing properties of some of the African herbs and acknowledged traditional medicine as equally important as the Western one.


In Zambia I talked to one of the many priests that believe in supernatural powers – Salesian Father Eustace Siame, who considers himself an exorcist.


It also turned out that rich and educated people, among them political leaders make up a large number of the witch doctors customers.


Behind the closed eye

For the next appointment with a healer I didn’t bring any recorder or camera. In fact, I didn’t go to a herbalist. I believed I needed something that would feel like real magic. A witchdoctor, not a herbalist.

I didn’t share it with anybody but a girl who introduced to the ‘sangoma’. In a remote location, in the outskirts of Kampala she showed me the way to the shrine. We sat on plastic chairs and waited, I then paid and we could enter the room. We needed to take our shoes off and kneel down in front of him as soon as we entered.

‘I would like to enchant a man so that he falls in loves with me’ – I uttered. He first inhaled something, then he put his hands above my head and started whispering words. I blacked out. When I woke up I was lying on the carpet. He was seated in his armchair and said he had seen my future and that if I had a man in mind, I should better get him out of my head. He predicted I was soon going back to Poland (at that time I thought I was to stay 2 more years) and that I would have problems with sinusitis.

I left that room convinced witch doctors manipulate reality. I was sure there was no difference between him and doctor Picho. The next day I was at home and while preparing a lunch I opened a drawer. Inside there was a small snake standing and hissing at me. I ran outside and called a boy from the local market, who came with a stick and killed the snake.

‘How on earth could the snake enter the wardrobe?’ – I was pretty emotional – ‘It was in the drawer inside a locked room and I was the only person who would have the keys to either, the drawer had no hole’ – I wondered.

‘Somebody from the neighbourhood has been doing magic’ - the housekeeper shrugged her arms – ‘Such things happen when the witchcraft is involved’.


Sections of The Uganda Witchcraft Act of 1957 state: “Any person who directly or indirectly threatens another with death by witchcraft or by any other supernatural means shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction shall be liable to imprisonment for life”. It adds, “Any person who practices witchcraft or who holds himself out as a witch, whether on one or more occasions, shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.”

Recently, traditional healers petitioned in the Ugandan parliament to amend the act. They felt the vague definition of witchcraft undermined their work.

In fact, I am among many who, quite understandably, tend to confuse healers, because:

a) their scopes of work vary and some, in order to be able to work legally, call themselves herbalists, although they do practice bad magic;

b) witchcraft experience is not necessarily the first thing your Africans friends would share with you, if they know anything about it at all.

One thing we can’t deny is the absolutely vital presence of witchcraft in the society and the role it has played in the African history and the growing number of child sacrifice – something that has to be dealt with immediately.

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