Residents in the city of Buéa, Cameroon, burn cult objects. Amateur photo taken by Mathias Mouendé Ngamo.
Residents have gone on the rampage in a so-called 'witch-hunt' in the south western Cameroonian town of Buéa. The rioters destroyed homes and burnt cars in the city's neighbourhood of Tolé, accusing the district's residents of being witches and members of a 'cult' that they say is behind several recent deaths.
Fewer than 50,000 people live in Buéa, which is located around 80 kilometres from the country's second largest city of Douala. The violence began on the night of January 3 and lasted for roughly one week, when residents set fire to several shops and homes in Tolé.
Belief in sorcery and witchcraft is strong in several regions of sub-Saharan Africa, where human misfortunes such as death, poverty and disease can be wrongly blamed on witchcraft. According to human rights organisations, those beliefs can lead to widespread human rights violations including torture and killings.
“The residents’ fury is based on unverified rumours”
Mathias Mouendé Ngamo is a blogger from Douala and a reporter for 'Le Jour', a daily newspaper. He arrived at the scene a day after the violence began.
16 homes and 10 shops were destroyed. There were also the shells of burnt-out cars on the streets. By talking to the residents, I collected a few amateur photos of the night of violence. We could see that there were around 100 people burning things under the eyes of police officers and the sub-prefect, who were completely overwhelmed by what was happening.People told me that, among the objects recovered from the homes, there was tree bark, sanitary napkins wrapped in plastic, a mirror ‘with bizarre symbols’ and other cult objects that they say are proof of witchcraft.
The rioters accuse some Tolé residents of poisoning a teenage girl with a potion on the night of New Year’s Day [editor’s note: medical sources say the 16-year old girl died after drinking a chemical product for abortion]. The day before her death, someone on the streets of Buéa said that residents in the Tolé neighbourhood were part of a cult that made human sacrifices. That was all it took for people to attack alleged cult members. But thanks to the intervention by the security forces, no one was killed or injured.The residents’ fury was based on unverified rumours. We know absolutely nothing about this alleged cult. Besides, among the people whose homes were burnt was a rich Nigerian who made his fortune in the banana trade. It’s therefore possible that simple jealousy could be at the heart of the violence.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, Buéa’s sub-prefect, Paul Ouakam, said he regretted that “unfounded rumours" had "caused the displacement of a dozen families who can’t return to their homes”. He said that those families have launched legal proceedings, and that a judicial inquiry has been opened. He added that the town was relatively calm but “in some neighbourhoods, youths with nothing to do tried to attack other homes in the neighbourhood on Thursday.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Buéa, Patrick Ekema, explained that an extra police station has been opened at a village near Tolé. He has called on people to stay calm and hopes to organise a crisis meeting.
Last November, another rumour over the death of a female student in a hotel unleashed a wave of anger among residents of Buéa. On social media, some users said she had been swallowed by a man she met at a hotel. They then said that the man had turned into a python. Residents then tried to attack the building in order to lynch the 'sorcerer'. Hotel managers eventually had to let local journalists visit every room in the hotel to convince people that there was not a grain of truth in the rumours.
On November 9, several hundred people gathered in front of a hotel in Buéa. They believed that a 'man-python' sorcerer was inside.Photo @mambenandje.
“The problem is that Cameroonian sites pass on rumours about witchcraft”
According to several local bloggers, many Cameroonians believe in the existence of a type of witchcraft called 'Mboma', which allegedly involves eating humans to gain physical strength. Sorcerers or witches are said to transform into animals, often a serpent, at the moment of sacrifice.
Matthias Mouendé blames certain internet sites for spreading these rumours:
People there made a link between these two ‘events’. Some even showed photos where a woman is seen being swallowed by a serpent, taking it as proof that this was what happened in November. The problem is that these photos and information were being passed around Cameroonian web sites, in French and in English, as if they were real. This reinforced disinformation. However, a simple Google search would have revealed that the photos had nothing to do with Buéa.