Macabre trade that makes the flesh creep

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The Independent Online

Those who knew about it kept quiet. Those who heard about it did not like to say anything, for fear of making the rumours real. It is the trade in human skin, and three East African countries have just collectively blown apart the taboo.

Those who knew about it kept quiet. Those who heard about it did not like to say anything, for fear of making the rumours real. It is the trade in human skin, and three East African countries have just collectively blown apart the taboo.

The evidence, shown on Tanzanian television, is incontrovertible: gory scenes of human skins displayed alongside the dismembered bodies from which they had been removed. Price: £200-£300.

Everybody in Dar now seems to be talking about it. Yes, people say, they have heard of children's genitals being used by witchdoctors in magic Aids "cures''. Even the trade in corpses is fairly well-known: smugglers take advantage of border officials' respect for the dead to conceal drugs in bodies.

But what would anyone want with a human skin? Well, apparently they have magical properties. But do not expect the sellers of muti (traditional medicine) to elaborate.

Muti sellers are to Africa what New Age is to the West - but with added credibility. The more reputable offer a variety of unappetising mixtures of roots, bark and leaves. But the mutis' stock rarely extends beyond, say, black mamba skin or hyena nose. You will not find a human skin on display.

The revelation of the trade in human skin - or, rather, the confirmation of what everyone had feared - prompted rapid official action and a parliamentary debate. Now police officials from Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi have together pledged to stamp out this "disgrace''.

"It's the Zaireans again,'' is a favourite comment. The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are always being blamed for the macabre.

Actually, recent revelations point to the trade in human skin being a regional phenomenon, with parochial offshoots - such as the sale of the scalps of bald men, said to impart wisdom when dried and crumbled.

Tanzanian officials have taken a bold decision: to opt for the taboo-busting, high-profile approach. In June, they ordered all foreign witchdoctors to leave the country. Then the arrests started.

First behind bars was 70-year-old Milongoti Milusukwa, accused of beheading Fred Mwapagate, who was last seen staggering home drunk on 2 September. Then Obadia Kajato, 24, and Andyawile Mtafya, 23, were arrested in the Mbeya region as they tried to sell the skin of 14-year-old Jacob Kajange.

Tanzanians were disgusted. "All human skinners will be skinned, too. There will be no mercy,'' said Edison Halinga, an MP for Mbeya. The solution to the problem is, inevitably, not that simple.

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