In 1998, Edzai Rushambwa, a 30-year-old woman living in Mount Darwin, Northern Zimbabwe, was complaining that she had failed to successfully remarry after her first husband died four years previously. She believed she was the victim of “Runyoka,” a traditional African Juju charm common among certain ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, which is used to prevent a spouse from committing infidelity.
The enchantment was supposedly placed on Rushambwa by her late husband, who had died without removing it.
At her rural village home, Rushambwa recounted how powerful the charm used on her had been. After the death of her first husband, she had married three times and each time the man died soon afterwards. She said she had consulted several traditional healers, desperately hoping to be rid of the enchantment, but had had no luck.
Asked what caused the deaths of the three men, Rushambwa said it was because of some sickness, but she could not be drawn to specify what sickness. “I have sought help but have had no success. I will keep on trying,” she said.
The Mount Darwin secretary for the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association, Benson Kaseke, said that although Runyoka is not approved by traditional healers, it is widespread in the Mukumbura area of Mount Darwin, on the border of Mozambique.
Runyoka is typically used by people who suspect their spouses of playing away from home, he explained. “No one wants to live with an unfaithful partner, hence the need for Runyoka.”
He went on to say Rushambwa consulted him over her problem and that it was consistent with Runyoka. He admits there are some traditional healers in Zimbabwe who specialise in such sorcery.
One of the most common methods of administering Runyoka is to secretly spike a partner’s food. But there are more blatant methods. One in particular is known in the local Shona vernacular as “Rwebanga,” or knife.
A husband buys a new knife, sprinkles it with some traditional herbs, puts the open knife at the doorstep of his bedroom and then summons his wife into the room.
The wife walks in and strides over the open knife and thereafter the husband asks her to pick it up and snap it shut before handing it back to him. The husband then hides the knife in a place where it is unlikely to be found by anyone else.
This is supposed to prevent the wife from indulging in extramarital sex. But if she does dare to have an affair, the adulterous pair risk the humiliation of being caught in the act by the husband, as they supposedly would be unable to uncouple themselves because of the power of the magic charm.
“They can only be freed when the husband opens the knife,” says Benson Kaseke.
Married women of the Tavara tribe, in the Mukumbura area of Mount Darwin, who have been enchanted in this way, do not shake hands with men they are introduced to, for fear that the medicine would affect them.
If a man does shake an enchanted woman’s hand, he is said to feel numb and weak and only regains his strength after the hand is withdrawn.
Kaseke says in some cases daughters are given Runyoka by their parents so they cannot engage in premarital sex. To undo the enchantment, the girl is requested to take her boyfriend to her parents’ home where he is given the same medicine so he is not affected by it when they have sex.