Twenty-Three Women Murdered in Uganda, And No One Knows Why
As the police struggles to mount a response to the grisly murders, community activists are determined to keep putting pressure on the authorities.
Jalia Nalule. All photos by Amy Fallon
The body of the first woman was found at a banana plantation in Nansana. A boy collecting sugarcane made the gruesome discovery of a corpse in black leggings and yellow socks, placed in a sitting position near a witch doctor’s shrine. A report from the country’s internal affairs minister revealed that the woman had been strangled.
The two towns of Nansana and Katabi lie in the Ugandan district of Wakiso, about 40 kilometers away from each other. “Life [here] was fine,” says Fatuma Nasanga, a 30-year-old from the nearby village of Bubuli.
That was before her cousin, Jalia Nalule, was found dead in a forest. She had been missing for nine days. Nalule was reportedly the tenth woman to be found dead in Entebbe municipality, which takes in Wakiso, although residents at the time feared there were more victims.
They were right: Over the last five months, police in Nansana and Katabi have discovered the bodies of 23 young women in total. Most women were strangled and sexually assaulted, or vaginally raped with sticks. Some had body parts and organs removed. At least three bodies—including the one found in the banana plantation—have yet to be identified.
According to a 2016 demographic and health survey, more than one in five women in Uganda are victims of sexual abuse. Prior to the murders, however, Wakiso did not experience much crime compared to other places in the country. According to data from Uganda’s 2014 annual crime report, it didn’t even rank among the top 12 districts with the highest crime rate.
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Police do not believe that the murders in both towns are linked, but women in the area—like Nasanga—say they are now living in fear. The FBI has even been called in to assist with the investigation.
“I’m not sure police will ever come up with a killer,” says Nasanga, speaking at the home she shared with her cousin. Before her murder, Nalule had a poorly paying brickmaking job and dreamed of opening a shop. Nasanga says the mother of two was “more like a sister” to her.
The murders have sparked outrage in Uganda over the country’s treatment of women, and the failure of the authorities to seemingly take the murders seriously. (Police have denied this.) Legislators went on strike for two days to pressure police and ministers to take action over the deaths. In September, a protest was organized in Entebbe as part of the Twitter hashtag #notanotherwoman, though it was shut down by police.
Police officials have multiple theories about the murders, including that the women could have fallen prey to a serial killer, or killed as a result of domestic violence or land disputes. They have also said that some of the murders may be linked to ritual sacrifice, involving one’s organs and body parts being given to a witch doctor. (The practice is thought to be common in Uganda, though it normally involves children and not adults.)
Police spokesperson Emilian Kayima describes the slayings to Broadly as “a thorn in our flesh” and says the killing spree is “the first of its kind in Uganda’s history.”
“[There are still] answers we are looking for,” he admits. “Is there a serial killer, are there serial killers? Is it organized crime?”
Both police and local media continue to give conflicting reports about the murders. Broadly approached three separate police spokespersons for exact figures on how many suspects have been arrested and charged, but was told that the number was “many.” According to a local report in Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, over 100 people have been arrested. Some have been charged with murder, aggravated robbery, and terrorism.
The families of victims, however, have questioned whether police are rounding up innocent people. Nasanga says that Nalule’s male cousin was held in jail after police discovered that he was the last person to call her before the disappearance.
“They just charged him because they couldn’t find anybody else,” says Nasanga. He was finally released without charge after six weeks. In response to claims by families of the victims that police were rounding up innocent suspects, Kayima says: “If they believe that these suspects are innocent, court will free them. Those claims they should present in court to enable their loved ones to be set free.”
On September 19, the body of Harriet Nantongo was discovered in a bush in the Wakiso district village of Nkumba. The 38-year-old woman, who collected plastic bags for recycling at a dumping ground, had been missing for six days. She was the 22nd woman to be killed in the district since May.
Both her feet and breasts had been cut off, as well as her right arm. Her hair had been shaved, and she’d also been vaginally assaulted with sticks. The police report suggested that Nantongo had been hit in the head with a blunt object.
Noah Musiba, 38, was Nantongo’s partner for a decade. “This place is known for being safe," says Musiba. "She would always walk to work. She was always home by 7.30 PM.”
He claims that police last updated him on the case on September 15—when Nantongo was still registered as a missing person.
“[The police] never give you any developments,” he says. “They didn’t play any helpful role.”
Police spokesperson Kayima says otherwise. “Families are completely free to access information on our progress of these murders,” he told Broadly.
He maintains that police have working hard to prevent more murders: “Before we [police] get to conclude anything, we have intensified our operations, our presence, our visibility, so that the women and the men and of course everybody are not scared into locking themselves into their houses.”
Uganda’s police chief Kale Kayihura has also suggested that one solution to preventing the murders is to register all women in relationships. “How it will be done I don’t know,” he admitted to the Tower Post, a local publication.
The notion has spawned both criticism and jokes from Ugandans. A spokesperson for local non-profit organization Action for Development (ACFODE), which is campaigning for the government to do more to protect women, said Kayihura’s comment “shows how unserious issues concerning women's safety and security are handled in this country.”
“They [the police] have taken some action but it has not been enough,” ACFODE communications director Sandra Nassali says. “As Ugandan women, we feel that the whole matter has been trivalized and downplayed.”
But Kampala Metropolitan police deputy and spokesperson Luke Owoyesigyire told Broadly that it could be a “good idea,” as he believes that the killings could be linked to men who were cheated on by their partners.
In October, President Yoweri Museveni insisted that Uganda would deal with the spate of killings when he visited one murder scene. Owoyesigyire is less sure. “I cannot promise you that there will not be any more murders,” he admits.
“You’re not seeing any data on this, any in-depth investigation, which just makes me think they just don’t care,” she tells Broadly. “I know from experience and I will swear this, you can put my hand there and cut it off, the police in Uganda don’t give a fuck about what happens to women.”
Playwright and producer Deborah Asiimwe is also skeptical. At the end of October, she organized Not Another Woman—a night of performance, live music, and art in Kampala—to highlight the killings and keep the issue in the public eye.
"There’s no way as women we can keep silent when all these horrible things are happening."
“There’s no way as women we can keep silent when all these horrible things are happening,” Asiimwe says. “We’ve got to say something; we’ve got to do something.”
At Asiimwe’s event, women expressed their feelings about the killings through poems, songs, monologues and art installations.
The most poignant part of the night came when a relative of one victim, sitting in the audience put her hand up after the production, says Asiimwe. “She said, ‘I just wanted to thank all of you for performing these stories.’
Asiimwe isn’t the only one organizing in response to the deaths. In September, Action for Development (ACFODE) held a vigil to remember the victims, calling on the authorities to scale up their investigation process, and to provide more information to the public about it.
“No-one knows what is going on and we wish government was more transparent about the whole process,” Nassali says.
As grisly as the killings are, NGOs like Action for Development are keen to point out that these murders are not happening in a vacuum.
“Sexual violence against women and girls and rape are issues that remain a challenge in the country, and they are mostly perpetuated by negative cultural practices such as widow inheritance [in which a widow is forced to marry her late husband’s relative], and polygamy. Poverty and poor living conditions have added to women's vulnerability to violence,” Nassali says.
In Uganda, a country where over half of women will experience physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner, the killings are a reminder of the dangers that many face on a regular basis.
Women are the ones who “literally keep the fire burning and families together” in many parts of Uganda, Nassali points out. “[But] the physical trauma of violence and sexual assault has left scars and unimaginable emotional damage on many women.”