Sayi Mwandu, 56, who had her fingers cut off after she was accused of being a witch, is photographed in her room in Kolandoto, a protective institution in Shinyanga, Tanzania. Mwandu was accused of witchcraft after her eyes turned red from overexposure to smoke from cooking fires. Below is the tale of my thwarted attempt to tell the painful story of Tanzania’s red-eyed women.
A few years ago, when I presented one of my multi media pieces to a photojournalism class at Miami University in Ohio, a woman in the audience told me about the red-eyed women issue in Tanzania. She had just returned from an exchange program there and had been horrified to learn about the persecution of older women whose eyes had turned red from overexposure to cooking fires. Apparently, because of the color of their eyes, these women were believed to be witches and were either threatened, maimed, run out of the village or killed. I’ve always been drawn to projects about women’s issues and immediately started researching the story.
When I finally had the opportunity to pursue the story last year, I made contact with several organizations in the area where the red-eyed women issue was most prevalent. We emailed back and forth over several months and I made arrangements to meet with them when I got to Tanzania. After working on another story in Zanzibar, I headed to north-western Tanzania with a sense of anticipation and perhaps a little clairvoyant trepidation.
I won’t go into the details of what happened over the weeks that followed but to summarize, I found myself confronted with a degree of corruption I had not anticipated. Despite jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops that were presented to me by local authorities, I was blocked over and over again from getting anywhere. I began to suspect that the non-governmental organization I was working with–which proclaimed to provide support for the red-eyed women– was no more invested in changing things or giving me access than the authorities were. I soon felt as if I was caught up in some kind of ancient myth where I was sent to slay a dragon, swing a lion around by its toe three times and find the impossibly small golden key before gaining journalistic access. I soon realized that the bureaucratic blocks I was running into were an attempt to prevent me from working on a story which reflected poorly on local authorities and on the Tanzanian government.
In the process of my frustrating and fantastical experience, I did find out some frightening truths behind the red-eyed women issue. The first thing that surprised me was that the accusations of witchcraft were not solely a product of superstition. Many of the accusations were launched when an older woman was occupying property someone wanted. In Tanzania, when a woman’s husband dies, she does not inherit the land but may live on it as long as she is alive. When she dies, the oldest son or, in the case of no male child, the oldest nephew, automatically inherits the land.
It is not uncommon in Tanzania for older women’s eyes to turn very red from years of exposure to smoke in small enclosed spaces. When one of the family members decides that they want to get rid of the woman to gain access to their inherited land, they begin a rumor in the village about her being a witch. The already present superstition coupled with a culture of misogyny means the accusation is immediately taken seriously. A villager’s death, crop failure, drought or illness provides further support for the accusation. Soon after, a letter is sent to the woman accusing her of being a witch and telling her she must leave the village or be killed. It struck me that there is so little fear of being prosecuted for this crime that the accusers are willing to put a death threat in writing.
Soon after, if she does not leave of her own free will, someone is contracted to threaten the woman (often by maiming her) or kill her. Prosecuting cases of murder related to witchcraft has proven very difficult. The person who actually commits the murder is often brought in from a distant village and few witnesses are willing to testify against him. Powerful cultural beliefs about witches and witchcraft further dissuade community members from coming forward as they don’t want to become the target of witchcraft themselves. There have recently been some efforts made to introduce “smokeless stoves” to prevent women from developing red eyes and supply them with a more convenient way to cook but these efforts are still in their infancy.
After several week of trying to gain access to this story, I realized the forces I was up against were far greater than myself. This was a self-funded project and I had limited time, money and support. I did manage to spend one afternoon at a protective home where several women who had survived the ordeal were housed. Sayi Mwandu, 56 (photographed above), told me her story through a translator. It mirrored almost perfectly the story detailed above. After ignoring the letter she received, a man came into her home and cut off her fingers. She ran away and an organization arranged for her to stay at Kolondoto, an institution originally created to house people with leprosy. She now lives with 42 other people, many of whom are also missing extremities due to their leprosy. Since she no longer cooks in a small, enclosed space, her eyes have returned to their normal color. In the telling of her story, her anger and sadness were very palpable. She felt enormously betrayed by the people she’d known and loved all her life. I left feeling even more urgently that this story needed to be told.
The “red-eyed women” of Tanzania are emblematic of the kind of disempowerment and violence many women in poor communities struggle with all over the world. While I’m not sure when or if I’ll return to this story, I have added my portrait of Sayi Mwandu to my collection of images about women’s lives and the human rights issues that still persist globally. This experience, while difficult and frustrating for me, only strengthened my commitment to focusing on stories about women and their struggle to empower themselves.