As part of the Landmines in Africa Blog, I write a monthly round-up of news stories from the Continent. In the January 2013 round-up I wrote the summary below about an incident in Zimbabwe. This was my first exposure (and far too unfortunately, not my last) to red mercury and with each successive incident, my determination to do something has grown, especially as I read about the bystanders who were killed and injured.
The Chitungwiza Incident
What follows is a cautionary tale that includes witchcraft, greed, conmen and landmines. If it were not true, I would never be able to believe it. I have compiled this from several sources (All Africa; All Africa; The Sunday Mail; The New Zimbabwe; All Africa; All Africa; News Day).
On January 21st, a massive explosion ripped through Chitungwiza, a densely populated suburb just south of Harare. Six people were killed by the blast, five instantly including a seven-month-old baby, the sixth succumbed to his wounds several days later. The explosion took place at the home of Speakmore Mandere, a local healer who was known as Sekuru Shumba. Shumba was reputed to be able to perform traditional magic and healing. At the scene, investigators found a clay pot and because of the injuries to a local businessman – he was “torn apart at the waist area” – investigators believed that the clay pot was the source of the blast and at the time of the explosion, the businessman was straddling the pot. Four possible causes of the blast have been identified:
- A local businessman, Clever Kamudzeya, had secured the services of a money-making goblin (through another healer). The goblin helped Kamudzeya grow his business, but the goblin had started to make demands of Kamudzeya and so Kamudzeya went to Shumba to dispose of the goblin. The blast occurred after three days of ceremonies when Kamudzeya brought the goblin to Shumba to be destroyed. The goblin fought back and destroyed itself and 12 houses.
- Shumba manufactured a lightning bolt but the bolt struck its source instead of its intended (and unknown) target.
- Shumba was conducting an enrichment medicine (muti) using a rare rodent-like animal, the sandawana. According to a member of the Zimbabwe Traditional Healers Association, enrichment spells using the sandwana are “very dangerous” and “not recommended to be done in a house” and “usually discharged in the bush” because “it can backfire.”
- Shumba and Kamudzeya were tampering with an anti-tank landmine in an attempt to extract “red mercury” from the mine.
Red mercury does not exist. In a scam that began in the 1970s, conmen would sell red powders to people looking for get-rich-quick schemes and tell them that the powder was rare and used in bomb-making and therefore valuable. In Saudi Arabia, people were convinced that red mercury could be found in and extracted from old Singer sewing machines which raised their price five hundred-fold. More recently, items of unexploded ordnance, including anti-tank mines, have been sold for $300 in Zambia, Angola and Zimbabwe by conmen who tell the buyers that if they can extract the red mercury, the seller could then get thousands of dollars for the non-existent material. The explosion in Chitungwiza is the third known occasion of Zimbabweans trying to extract red mercury from explosives. In the previous events, four people in Waterfalls were injured trying to open a grenade and in Manicaland, two conmen were arrested trying to sell unexploded mortars.
What likely happened was that Clever Kamudzeya bought an anti-tank mine and then approached Sekuru Shumba with the hope that Shumba could enrich or increase the amount of red mercury in the mine through magic. Shumba reported charged Kamudzeya $15,000 for the procedure so Kamudzeya must have believed that the red mercury existed and was very valuable. Both men paid for their belief with the lives and the lives of four others.
Please, please, please do not tamper with landmines or unexploded ordnance.