The Fake Witch Who Saved Dozens of Lives

The African nation of Rwanda is a landlocked country, bordering Uganda to its north, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to its west, Burundi to its south, and Tanzania to the east. (Here’s a map.) It is home to about 12 million people, roughly 85 to 90% of which are members of the Hutu ethnic group. Of the remaining one to two million people, most are members of another ethnic group called the Tutsi. For decades, the two failed to coexist peacefully. From the 1880s through the late 1950s, the region was controlled by European colonialists (Germany through 1919, Belgium thereafter), and the Europeans placed Tutsis into positions of power. In 1959, Hutu-lead Rwandans revolted against their Belgian governors and established the Republic of Rwanda, but the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis did not abate. In 1990, a civil war broke out, and in April of 1994, extremists members of the Hutu began slaughtering Tutsis, Twas (another ethnic minority in the area), and moderate Hutus.

The Rwandan genocide, as it is now known, lasted about three months. During that time period, the Hutu-led government set up checkpoints throughout the nation and encouraged Hutu civilians to form militias and search for Tutsis in their communities. (In the 1930s, the Belgian-backed government issued national ID cards to almost all Rwandans, and those ID cards listed the holder’s ethnic classification. You can see one such ID card here; the person’s ethnicity is on the first line under his photo.) Over the three-month period, these government-sanctioned death squads killed an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis and perhaps as many as a quarter-million others.

That number would have been higher but for Zura Karuhimbi, a Hutu widow who was likely in her late 60s during the genocide. She managed to save about 100 refugees — mostly Tutsis — with one simple trick:

She pretended to be a witch.

Karuhimbi, pictured above, lived in a small two-room house in a tiny village about an hour outside Kigali, the nation’s capital. When the violence came to her community, she didn’t join in — and instead, she began to use the little space she had to hide those in danger. According to the New Times (Rwanda), “she took in an estimated 100 individuals who had fled to her place. Some of the individuals were literally piled up in her small house, while others hid in a deep hole she dug outside her house and covered it with woods. Others, she says, used to lay down outside and covered them with beanstalks.” Some even hid in trees near her home. Even a cursory inspection would have certainly turned up a handful of people taking refuge — and would have put Karuhimbi’s life in danger as well.

But Karuhimbi had a way to keep the militias at bay: superstition, mixed with a little ingenuity. Karuhimbi was a local healer whose parents were also healers. Healers’ ability to ward off illness earned them a reputation of being attached to the supernatural, able to communicate with the dead. Angering a healer could result in the spirit of Nyabinghi, a woman of folklore and legend in the region, also becoming angry. And that was something even armed, genocidal militia members wanted to avoid.

So when the militias showed up at Karuhimbi’s door, she warned them: they could enter her home, but they did so at the risk of angering Nyabinghi. And to help sell the myth, she engaged in a little bit of cosplay witchcraft. As she told the New Times, “to instill fear among the attackers, I would anoint my hands with herbs that cause body irritation and touch them. Because they didn’t know the existence of such herbs, whenever I touched them, they got upset and I used to tell them that it was Nyabingi doing it.” And then, as Quartz reports, she would go” to a bedroom and [began] making noise with casserole dishes and stones, then shouting spell-like words at militia members, who became frightened enough to leave her alone.” She would even enlist those she was hiding in the ruse — she would tell the militia members that the spirits were getting angry, and on that cue, some of those in her care would scream, as if they were voices from the beyond. 

It worked. All of the refugees Karuhimbi protected survived.

In 2006, Karuhimbi was awarded the Campaign Against Genocide Medal for her efforts, one of Rwanda’s highest honors. She passed away in 2016, and in her obituary, the BBC reported that she wore the medial (you can see it above in her left hand) “at all times, stashing it under her pillow for safekeeping when she slept.” But her real reward was the lives she saved; as Quartz reported, Karuhimbi, in recounting her efforts to save lives, stated simply that “if you want to love, you start with your neighbor.”

Bonus fact: If you see a lot of people hanging out in a bar in Kigali, Rwanda, don’t be surprised if they’re all sober — there’s a good chance that they’re not drinking anything alcoholic. In fact, they’re drinking milk. As the BBC explains, as recently as the late 1800s, cow’s milk was rather scarce — families had cows, but the cows often couldn’t produce enough milk as the family would need for a day, and “since the 1600s at the order of King Mibambwe Gisanura, elite families who had cows and milk shared their supply with their poor neighbors.” Selling milk became taboo and remained so until the early 1900s when agriculture improved and the supply of milk skyrocketed. Per the New York Times, “as milk production increased in this landlocked nation, so did the number of people who moved to urban areas for education and employment. And so were born the milk bars, which allowed farmers to sell their surplus milk and let customers drink copious amounts of it to be reminded of home.” The Times estimates that there are now hundreds of milk bars in the nation, with most in Kigali.

From the Archives: A Bag Over Troubled Water: The bonus item is about Rwanda (and would have been accidentally repeated here today had I not realized it in time).