The power that rests on a pound of flesh

Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho
November 18, 2005

When the tribal and colonial clash, the defenceless are marked out for killing, discovers Alexander McCall Smith

Medicine murder, commonly referred to in southern Africa as muti murder, is a grisly business. It still occurs, even if it is relatively uncommon and, as the authors of this superb book point out, as a source of public anxiety it is now lost in the immense tragedy of the Aids pandemic.

It is nonetheless a matter that causes a degree of shame and embarrassment in the countries in which it occurs. Some feel that for an outsider to raise the issue is tantamount to the making of an allegation of backwardness and primitivism. And this feeling is understandable: every society has its dark side around which there may be strong sensitivities; ritualised killing is by no means just an African phenomenon.

The process of the African medicine murder is very grim indeed.

The murder is often instigated by a person of wealth or power - perhaps a traditional chief - who wishes to be strengthened or assisted in some way by the use of medicine made out of human flesh. The medicine itself is usually concocted by a traditional doctor, who may specify exactly which body parts are needed for his potion. He may also specify what sort of victim is needed. It may be that a twin is called for, or a young child, or somebody from a particular clan or group. Once the victim is identified, he may be lured to a remote place under some promise, he may be dragged out of his home at night, or he may be set upon during a journey. The flesh is then taken, often while the victim is still alive. The body ends up badly mutilated, in some cases the head or entire limbs are removed. The butchery is sickening, described in this book in a couple of pages, which may be quickly passed over by those who find these things too distressing.

In the last two decades during which Lesotho, then Basutoland, formed part of Britain's African empire, there occurred a number of medicine murders.

There was a widespread belief in the country at that time that the number of these murders had increased; indeed so strong was this feeling that the resulting concern amounted to something of a moral panic. In a number of high-profile prosecutions brought against some of the perpetrators of these murders, certain members in the higher echelons of Basotho society were exposed as instigators of these crimes. The conviction of two highly placed chiefs in particular rocked the country. They were hanged, in spite of fervent appeals from within the country for their lives to be spared.

Significantly, their funerals were massively attended and many mourned.

Medicine murders, it appeared, may have revolted some people in Lesotho, but by no means all. All sorts of allegations were made, including elaborate suggestions of conspiracy on the part of the colonial authorities to get rid of those whom they disliked while allowing others to commission murders with impunity. The authorities were concerned and, in one of the more curious footnotes to British colonial history, a Cambridge University anthropologist, G. I. Jones, was sent out to Lesotho to investigate the issue on behalf of the Commonwealth Relations Office.

In producing this painstaking study of a moral crisis in a colonial society, Colin Murray and Peter Sanders have made a major contribution to our knowledge of the history of 20th-century Africa. This is a work of impressive scholarship, written in such a way as to be easily accessible and useful to a variety of disciplines. For its scope, clarity and attention to detail, it must now stand as the definitive work on the subject of medicine murder - a subject that it explains with humanity, tact and understanding. But it is more than a meticulously researched piece of historical and anthropological scholarship, it is an engaging read that paints a vivid picture of a southern African kingdom about which we rarely hear a great deal. It will also be of considerable interest to lawyers interested in the history of the application of Western criminal justice - in this case, Roman-Dutch criminal law - in traditional societies.

At the heart of the book is a study of a number of cases of medicine murder that came before the courts in Lesotho in the 1940s and 1950s. These may have occurred more than 50 years ago, but that is not so long ago as to mean that some of those involved in the murders are not still alive in their mountain villages. The authors succeeded in tracing accomplices and the relatives of both perpetrators and victims, and the conversations they had with these people give a chilling contemporary link to the detailed case studies they present in this book. These are not dry accounts of old crimes; they are poignant stories of brutal deeds that happened only yesterday, in a country known for its enthusiasm for Christianity (principally of the Catholic variety) and for education. Lesotho experienced a high level of missionary activity, and its university at Roma along with its printing press at Morija were early indications of its ambitions. And yet the old beliefs lingered, and those who embraced the promises of modernity could still be tempted by the pre-scientific outlook.

This ambivalence is subjected to close scrutiny by Murray and Sanders, and their treatment of it is one of the book's greatest strengths.

It was not just a pre-scientific world-view that led to these medicine murders and the reaction to them, it was a whole series of events - political, social, administrative - that created the climate of insecurity and fear. One of the problems was the very nature of authority in the colony. The British authorities recognised that the primary focus of loyalty was the institution of chieftainship; yet that institution in Lesotho was not entirely stable. Moreover, the traditional courts and authorities had to work within a framework of colonial administration.

Loyalties were divided and the sense of self, as is pretty much inevitable in any colonial structure, was fragmented.

This fragmentation - or division - became apparent when it came to this sort of traditional practice. Medicine murder requires at least some degree of popular collusion. People who witness things must be prepared to stay silent; there must be willing volunteers to assist the murderers; there must be volunteers prepared to go so far as to use a penknife to cut flesh from a groaning victim, often somebody known to them. If the practice were completely divorced from the culture in which it occured, these requirements simply would not be present. Medicine murder, then, might be seen within the society as a tragic necessity - something that simply has to be tolerated if a village is to avoid hardship or disadvantage, or if one faction is to prevail over its enemies. This integration of medicine murder into the traditional beliefs of the community, as part of a view of the world that accepts the efficacy of human medicine, means that those who are prosecuted for it are not necessarily going to be seen as criminals.

Indeed, Murray and Sanders point out that in Basotho literature a person who commits a medicine murder tends to be seen as the tragic hero - the person who is compelled by fate or beliefs to do something that eventually brings about his downfall.

Politics in Lesotho has long been a complex and highly factionalised business. The survival of chiefly authority during the colonial period meant that issues of succession to chieftainship were always a potential minefield. Relations between the colonial authorities and local chiefs and headmen were reasonably smooth, but on occasion they could be difficult. It was inevitable, then, that attempts by the authorities to eradicate what they saw simply as a particularly brutal form of criminality should have been interpreted by some of the Basotho protagonists as politically inspired. It is true that the colonial authorities might not really have understood the world of the unsettled minor chieftain seeking to consolidate his position through the use of means that he might have regarded as traditionally proper. But it is also true that the Basotho chief accusing the authorities of deliberately prosecuting innocent men had no understanding of the world-view of those who administered justice in places such as colonial Lesotho. Ultimately, of course, there were questions of power involved. The colonial authorities could not tolerate law-breaking because to do so would weaken their power. And the chiefs and headmen were concerned with power, too. On the receiving end were those who had no power at all - the victims of medicine murders - old people, weak people, defenceless children.

The authors of this book have shone a torch into a dark and tragic corner of southern African history and society. The result is a brave, balanced and important book.

Alexander McCall Smith was until recently professor of medical law, Edinburgh University. He is the author of numerous novels, including the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, set in Botswana.

Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho: The Anatomy of a Moral Crisis

Author - Colin Murray and Peter Sanders
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 493
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 7486 2284 5

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