BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // Regina Sveto, together with two accomplices, allegedly "flew" naked in a traditional African basket one night from Murehwa to Harare, a 120km journey, in order to kill Tobias Zemba, her brother-in-law, using witchcraft. The undertaking was aborted later that night when, on arrival in Harare, Ms Sveto, 21, rejected an order to carry out the killing. Apparently angered by her refusal, her colleagues, Elias and Filda Zemba, her father-in-law and aunt, fled, leaving her stranded in the garden of the would-be victim's home in Highfield.
At sunrise, shocked residents gathered at the house to see a naked and dazed woman wearing beads around her neck, strings around her waist and red, traditional headgear. She was arrested, appeared in court and convicted of practising witchcraft. Ms Sveto became the first person to be tried and convicted in Zimbabwe of practising witchcraft since the 1899 Witchcraft Suppression Act was amended in 2006 to recognise the existence of sorcery.
Belief in witchcraft and the supernatural is widespread in Zimbabwe and this bizarre case has captivated the nation and reignited debate on whether or not witchcraft is real. "Witchcraft exists. As long as you grew up in Zimbabwe, Africa for that matter, you know it exists," said Gordon Chavunduka, a traditional healer. "People are bewitched all the time. They suffered in silence because they were not protected by law. We are happy now that the law recognises this reality and cases can be investigated, suspects tried and punished accordingly."
Europeans colonising Zimbabwe, wary of the witch-hunts that occurred on their own continent during the Middle Ages, made it a criminal offence to accuse someone of being a witch. Mr Chavunduka, also president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers' Association (Zinatha), which campaigned for the amendment, said the 1899 law, like most pieces of colonial legislation, were not relevant to the popular thinking, values and beliefs of black Zimbabweans.
The amended law now says anyone who engages in any practice knowing that it is commonly associated with witchcraft, is "guilty if, having intended thereby to cause harm to any person, such practice inspires in the person against whom it was directed a real fear or belief that harm will occur to that person or any member of his or her family, and be liable to a fine not exceeding level 10 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or both".
Furthermore, it says a magistrate can rely on expert advice in handling cases of witchcraft. Nelson Jambaya, Zinatha's vice president who testified in Ms Sveto's case, said: "If the woman said she flew from Murehwa in a basket, then she is a witch. "Witches do a lot of this and they are known to travel naked at night. It is also possible for witches to travel as far as South Africa during the night for the purposes of witchcraft, flying back as soon as their mission is accomplished."
Zinatha estimates that 75 per cent of Zimbabwe's population of 13 million recognise some aspects of African traditional religion and witchcraft. A pastor at Harvest House International, a Christian church, said the Book of Ephesians acknowledges that witches exist but are powerless before God. "Ephesians 6 verses 12-13, says 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand'," said the pastor, who cannot be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
"When we were growing up, we knew that so and so flies at night or keeps snakes or hyenas. This is the work of the devil but his powers are nothing before God." Mr Chavunduka, a professor of sociology and a former vice chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe, praised the court's handling of Ms Sveto's case, saying it sets a good legal precedent. "The court convicted her and gave a suspended one-year sentence to send a signal that the days when witches did what they want are over," he said.
"At the same time the court played its constructive role by ordering elders in [Ms Sveto's] community to cleanse her of the evil spirit that causes her to practise witchcraft." Christopher Chetsanga, the president of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences and a professor of biochemistry, said he has heard stories about witches but their prowess cannot be confirmed scientifically. "The claim that a spirit can possess someone to kill or cause illness is, from a scientific point of view, where we differ with those who believe in witchcraft," said Prof Chetsanga.
"Culturally I have heard of such stories but you cannot confirm them. We fought two liberation wars against colonialists and if witchcraft was so powerful, we could have sent lightning bolts to kill all of them. So it's difficult to believe." firstname.lastname@example.org