August 5: Today was a day for attending Mass with the people of this overwhelmingly Catholic community, and also for hearing a more sympathetic account of the Barabaig’s secret religious ceremony. According to this explanation, the recent burning of a secondary school attended by many Barabaig children is widely attributed to the sorcery practiced by a small circle of disgruntled students. In addition, these students, intoxicated by their newfound powers, may be tempted to commit further acts of arson.
However, Tanzania’s rationalist constitution does not concede the existence of witchcraft and therefore cannot prosecute the children. Their sorcery can be challenged by nothing other than an opposing magic spell. This does not resemble the notorious cases in which the Tanzanian government has prosecuted people accused of murdering albinos in order to acquire their body parts for magical purposes. In those cases, something other than the imputation of witchcraft had linked the accused killers to the crimes, and the intention to perform sorcery functioned simply as motive. If it is true that the government cannot prosecute in this case, the reason must be that it has only the imputation of witchcraft. Prosecution would itself be a crime.
In any event, the Barabaig, fearful of losing more schools, have taken it upon themselves to do what their government in principle cannot do. Having heard yesterday that the Barabaig wish for the disappearance of education from their country, today I am told that they are education’s only defense against a peril that has disarmed the Leviathan of the modern state.
I cannot say which of these contradictory stories about the Barabaig is true, if either one is. But it is fascinating to see a beleaguered and poorly understood people, who number only a few thousand, invested with a nation’s hopes for progress and fears for their government’s adequacy to the task of defeating the forces of unreason and reaction.
The Barabaig have become a focus of these hopes and fears precisely at the moment when Tanzanians are attempting to rewrite their constitution. This should be a hopeful time for any nation—yet many Tanzanians worry that the present government’s iron grip on the reform process will reveal the effort to have been a sham.