One night earlier this year, Elizabeth was asleep in her home in western Tanzania when she realised someone else was in the room. She tried to scream, but the intruder attacked her and slashed her neck. He raped her before escaping.
“He broke into the house naked,” says Elizabeth*, still wearing bandages. “He’d applied oil all over his body. Therefore when you try to touch or grab him you can’t. That’s how he manages to escape. This has happened to many women in the area.”
Sexual violence is a serious problem across the world, but in the last few years, it has taken a particularly strange form in Elizabeth’s home town of Kigoma. In this area, scores of women have similar accounts of rapists breaking into their homes, covered in grease.
The first attacks of this kind reportedly occurred around 2014 and have increased ever since. The attackers – known locally as Teleza, which refers to the fact that they cover themselves in oil – typically break into the homes of women in the night. They are often armed and threaten violence, sometimes leaving the survivors with life-threatening injuries.
“They scare you with machetes and you have no choice but to give in,” says Rosemary.
Annagrace Rwehumbiza, a programme officer for youth engagement organisation TAMASHA, was among the first people to look into the phenomenon. She says it has changed and spread over the years.
“Initially these men only targeted single women, almost like they wanted to punish them for not adhering to the norms of society by getting married,” she says. “At some point this changed. Suddenly even married women were being targeted.”
Today, the attackers appear to have become even more brutal and indiscriminate. Aisha says she was raped in front of her children; a few months later, her pregnant niece was also targeted. Two sisters in their 70s say they have been raped twice.
“These Teleza don’t see how old the women are,” says one of them.
Activists in the area are unable to explain where this worrying trend came from and why it emerged in this part of the country. But Rwehumbiza sees it as fitting into broader dynamics around gender violence and patriarchy in Tanzania.
“While we are unable to determine where this phenomenon has come from, it is very much rooted in a need to control women,” she says. “These men know that the victims will be shunned from society, may be left by their husbands and will lose their livelihoods. These factors seem to be at play here.”
“A second humiliation”
So far, the scores of victims of Teleza attacks have found it difficult to get authorities to act. Many who have reported their rapes to the police have been branded as sex workers and not been taken seriously. It was only when a group of survivors spoke out together in front of the press in 2016 that any action was first taken, though it was only temporary.
“The media, the police and local NGOs were all present,” recalls Rwehumbiza. “Arrests were made, [but] days later the men were set free, leaving the women terrified of retaliatory attacks.”
Because of the Kigoma authorities’ inaction and attitudes regarding rape – a problem reflected nationally – many survivors say they were reluctant to report when assaulted.
“You carry all that shame and then go through a second humiliation through the way they look at you and ask questions,” says one woman.
Furthermore, those that do seek help from the police are often vulnerable to exploitation. Under Tanzanian law, victims of a crime who need medical advice are required to fill in a PF3 Form. Civil society organisations claim that police sometimes ask women to pay to get a copy of the form.
This lack of support has left survivors alone in their trauma and often facing widespread social stigma. A woman who was raped a few weeks ago reportedly committed suicide. Another victim, who was sexually violated in front of her ten-year-old son, recently fled the area, leaving her child in the care of neighbours.
When African Arguments questioned Kigoma Regional Police Commander, Martin Otieno, about the attacks in the area, he was largely dismissive. “There is nothing special with Teleza,” he said. “It is just being exaggerated too much with those NGOs. No rape has been reported, rather just Grievous Bodily Harm.”
The President weighs in
Recently Teleza has become a national talking point. A few weeks ago, opposition leader and Kigoma MP Zitto Kabwe made an impassioned speech in parliament demanding action over the cases.
“Authorities are simply irresponsible,” he said. “I would like to see the culprits punished. Furthermore, we now pushing for community policing as a sustainable solution to end this matter.”
At the same time, civil society organisations have formed a coalition to highlight the issue. The group is lobbying the government to take action and demanding a visit from the Minister for Home Affairs. These actions may have already prompted some action. Mshbaha Mshbaha, coordinator of Change Tanzania, says ten arrests have recently been made.
However, it still seems that Tanzania is a long way off from taking Teleza, and sexual violence against women more widely, as seriously as is necessary. And a general lack of concern among authorities appears to go right to the top.
On 4 June, President John Magufuli finally referred to the Telezain a speech, but only to express his displeasure that the media was focusing on recent arrests regarding the matter rather than the fact that Tanzania had won an award for the Best National Park in Africa.
“Covering a story about a small personal issue like Teleza instead of the Serengeti Park win is nonsense,” he said. “We have to stop focusing on minor issues.”
According to a local activist, who wished to remain anonymous, the president’s attitude is “disgraceful” but “not surprising”.
“The women of Mwanga Kusini are poor and insignificant right now,” she says. “They, like other women in the country, will only gain importance for this government when it’s election time.”
*names have been changed