Uganda: The Man Behind RACHO

A healer (Photo: Marco Vernaschi)

A healer (Photo: Marco Vernaschi)

Marco Vernaschi, for the Pulitzer Center
Kampala, Uganda

Job opportunities were low in Kampala so when a friend offered Paul Odida a job in South Africa the prospect of some money was encouraging. He sold his car, left Kampala on a bus, and headed for Johannesburg. What Paul didn't know was that the job was to work as a "traditional healer". Ugandan traditional healers are renowned throughout much of Africa as experts, but Paul had no idea of what the work was about. He was introduced to some "witchdoctors" and he was taught all the tricks of this craft -- including how to fill eggs with dead animals and how to talk in different voices. Once the training was completed, he started his activity. For some time, his shrine was busy with clients, from men looking for ways to attract women to sick children looking for a cure. The money was good but Paul soon realized that cheating people was wrong.

So he went to the police, denouncing himself and other "traditional healers". The police decided to let him go and he headed back to Uganda, with a mission: to start campaigning and make his people aware that traditional healers are often a fraud. So he started to give interviews on TV, to radio outlets and newspapers, and he also decided to found a small non-profit organization called RACHO (for "Restoring African Culture Harmony Organization").

The choice cost him dearly, at least at first. After exposing some healers and other people connected to them during a live interview on TV, Paul was arrested by a group of soldiers, who then released him upon intercession of the chief of the police. On another occasion he says he was threatened with a gun. He continued his campaign, however, and by 2008 succeeded in persuading Ugandan authorities to issue a paper documenting RACHO's work in efforts to eradicate child sacrifice, one of the worst abuses associated with the fraudulent healers.

Paul is a very pragmatic person: He thinks the best way to make people aware of the fraud behind traditional healing is to perform the most common tricks on stage, explaining how they work. So he started to organize meetings and he told his story. He likes to perform a particular trick, showing how healers turn an old newspaper into a ball of fire, and he's an expert on filling eggs with cow's teeth. But what he likes most is to speak with the voices "of the ancestors". When traditional healers start their rituals, in most cases, they fall in "trance" and speak with weird voices that are supposed to be spirits. Most people get easily impressed, and they are scared to death. These voices determine whether a child should be sacrificed, what is the best cure according to each case as well as how much the client should pay.

Beside opening the curtains on the world behind the fake "traditional healers", Paul is putting all his energies in trying to find solutions for the families of victims. Psychological counseling first, then medical attention to those children who were mutilated, and he has planned an informative program for schools. In this and other tasks Paul is not alone. He employed other volunteers such as Benjamin, Twaha, Robert, Beatrice, and Bena, who is the daughter of Moses Binoga, the chief of the Ugandan Anti Human Sacrifice Department. The RACHO staff work is coordinated by Connie Flude, the director of the organization, who is based in the United Kingdom.

RACHO is a young NGO with limited funds, but despite all the difficulties is struggling to offer the best to the families of victims. A typical case is that of Allan, a sweet 7 year-old boy who was brutally attacked during a ritual sacrifice. His genitals were irreparably damaged in the attempt to cut them off; then they tried to hack his brain, with a machete, leaving him subject to epilepsy. The child suffers seizures at least three times a week. He is unaware of his surroundings for long periods of time, and suffers from repeat bleeding from his nose and mouth. RACHO provided Allan's family with the money to pay for medical expenses, and is following the child through physiotherapy to help him regain the use of his left arm and leg, that were rendered immobile as a result of the attacks on his head.

Much of RACHO's time and energies go to make people aware of the false healers and keep them safe from frauds. Dora, a resident in Kyebando, was almost conned out of 42 million Ugandan shillings, about $22.000. The "traditional healer" had coerced her into selling her own house on the advice that it was infested with evil spirits. She then had to give the full cost of her house to the witchdoctor, in order to pay for his services in removing the "ghosts". While looking for buyers Dorah heard Paul on the radio as he was explaining that often healers commit fraud, such as the one she was stuck in. After Dorah got in touch with Paul, RACHO managed to stop her from losing a vast amount of money.

But Paul and RACHO have been also very important for this story. It was thanks to Paul's knowledge of the underworld surrounding the healers and their dark shrines that we managed to have access to some rituals performed on children. He introduced us as anthropologists who very conducting a study on African cultures; I was initially skeptical but the deception worked every time. After every ritual, Paul explained us the tricks behind the apparent "miracles" and he always made sure to contact the victims of the fraud we were witnessing, after we left the shrines. In one case, we had to run away, jumping in the car and driving away quickly after a healer started to ask us for money. I was afraid that the witchdoctor might try to take revenge on Paul. He said he was unconcerned. "To me, there is no problem. If he comes I'll use my stick".