While this may seem like a joke, the police chief reasons it’s the simplest means of protection in a place where five bald men have been killed in the previous two months alone.
“Their motivations come from superstition and culture,” a police spokesman said at an early June press conference. “The local community thinks bald individuals are rich.”
Specifically, local witch doctors and healers believe the heads of bald men contain gold, and that by performing rituals with their body parts, they can bestow those riches upon their patients and clients.
“This is the first I’ve heard of going after bald men for money-magic or money-medicine in Africa, but it’s part of the broader phenomenon that characterizes forms of mystifying neoliberal economic developments in Africa beginning in the 1990s, and draws on traditional cultural models of witchcraft and sorcery,” explains Andrew Apter, director of the African Studies Center at UCLA, who says murdering bald men to harvest body parts is related to “the occult economy” in East Africa.
In the early 1990s, Apter says, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — the two of the biggest lenders to Africa — instituted reforms that set prices for goods and services by the open market rather than by African governments artificially. “This included the elimination of state projects, trade tariffs and public subsidies,” Apter explains, “which led to massive unemployment in rural areas.”
Ever since, Mozambique, which until 1990 had a fairly successful socialist model, has experienced massive economic changes that have favored the rich and hurt the poor. By 2000, 69 percent of Mozambicans lived below the poverty line, according to the U.N. And in 1998, former Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi told donors, “Poverty is an atrocious reality, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of the population lives.”
“Those in the cities are believed to be profiting at the expense of the rural youth, whose condition has worsened,” Apter explains. “From the perspective of the rural peasantry, there’s been a new class of very wealthy entrepreneurs whose wealth is ‘mysterious’ because it doesn’t seem to be related to visible labor or hard work, as in currency speculation or trading in futures.”
The pervasive rural explanation then is that these people — mostly men, many of whom shave their heads to follow style trends, believing they look better bald — are wealthy because they engage in Satanic practices. In turn, witch doctors are advising rural peasants in pursuit of money-making magic that it can be found within the hairless domes of this nouveau riche professional class.
Says Apter, “The modern bald style of men in Africa is very different — it’s associated with a certain kind of urbanity and cosmopolitanism, drawing on global youth culture and style as well as that of accomplished professionals and bankers.”
The most recent killings of bald men occurred in Zambezia, the same province where albino people have traditionally been targeted in similar rituals. Their body parts are believed to contain minerals and bring good luck.
“As outrageous as it seems,” says Oscar Duke, a British doctor with albinism who traveled to East Africa earlier this year to film a documentary on the subject of ritual killings, “the belief that minerals from an albino’s body bring wealth has led the rural poor to kill or mutilate 170 people in recent years, many of whom are children.”
Like Festo, a 15-year-old boy featured in the documentary who was attacked at age 7 by a group of men storming into his house with machetes. They knocked out his teeth and cut off his fingers while his mother was cooking dinner. “They think they will get money from our body parts,” the fingerless boy explains to Duke in the film. That’s because witch doctors pay top dollar for body parts of “abnormal” humans since magic “medicine” made from them is sold at a premium.
Beyond albinos, Apter says such “abnormalities” include “virgins because they’re ‘pure’ and bald men because they’re ‘magically rich.’”
So for now, all three groups remain on high alert.
Or as one British tabloid breathlessly put it: “Superstars like Bruce Willis and Jason Statham warned to stay away from Africa — because baldies are being targeted by WITCH DOCTORS for use in magic potions”