by Pilirani Semu-Banda
Sixty-three year old Gladys Kasito, in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, only has one wish – to die peacefully, preferably in her sleep. Kasito says she feels trapped and threatened in her own country. Her community, including her own family, has disowned her. She says everyone is baying for her blood. Kasito has been labeled a witch.
Her face is heavily scarred, she walks with a limp, and has no front teeth. Kasito is recovering from the wounds she sustained when her neighbors demolished her house early one February morning and beat her up. A few passers-by rescued her and took her to hospital.
“All I want is to die, but peacefully. I no longer want to go through the mental and physical ordeal that I was subjected to. They call me a witch just because I am old and no longer pretty,” worries Kasito.
She now sleeps in a shack in what used to be her kitchen. Only rubble remains where her house once stood. Kasito was attacked by her neighbors after a seven year old boy woke up with a swollen leg and told his parents that he was pushed off a witchcraft plane by the old woman after he had refused to bewitch his sisters.
“My three children say I embarrass them and they have nothing to do with me. My neighbors run away from me and I am just destitute. I have nothing to live for,” Kasito says in an interview.
In Malawi, witches and wizards are believed to be cannibals who have supernatural powers that they use to make people sick and even kill them; it is commonly believed that the witches prey on the meat of the dead. A typical witch or wizard in Malawi is said to have the ability to fly, especially at night, and to have powers that help them change their appearances; they can become invisible, go through walls or turn into animals such as cats, owls and hyenas.
Most Malawians believe that witchdoctors are the experts on witchcraft and that they alone can protect people from being killed through magic. Witchdoctors use herbal concoctions to cleanse and remove witchcraft from those that practice it and those that may have been bewitched unknowingly. Communities will often help perform a ceremony to rid children and witches of witchcraft led by the witchdoctor.
Once labeled as witches or wizards, the accused have very little chance of leading a normal life since they are stigmatized, rejected by society and rarely protected by the law. On numerous occasions, the Malawi police has arrested and brought suspected witches before the court, where in most cases, the suspects are sent to prison.
Malita Khoviwa, 54, a teacher in the southern district of Mulanje has just finished serving a three-month jail term. She was convicted in January for causing the temporary disappearance of a 14 year old girl in her neighborhood.
Khoviwa was arrested after the girl’s parents consulted a witchdoctor who led them to the teacher’s house. Khoviwa explains in an interview that the girl had run away from home because she was poorly treated by her parents.
She came to my house to seek refuge but they accused me of witchcraft and the court convicted me. I am hated around my village because I make more money as a teacher. Most people in the village haven’t been to school and they are poor,” says Khoviwa.
But it is not only illiterate Malawians who believe in witchcraft. Both Kasito and Khoviwa have well educated children who have rejected them.
Khoviwa’s eldest son, Mylos, says that his father died mysteriously in 2005. “He just stopped talking and died the next day. My mother has failed to explain to any of us the circumstances surrounding his death and the whole family strongly thinks that she bewitched him.”
Most of the witch-hunting activities are occurring in towns and cities where most people are educated. A lot of people, literate or not, also consult witchdoctors every time they don’t feel well. They believe that they have been bewitched and the witchdoctors usually provide them with herbs and a talisman for protection against witchcraft.
Recently, Alesi Yosefe, 60, from Malawi’s central district of Mchinji was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment after people in her area complained that she was “flying around a market place using a witchcraft plane and disturbing peace.”
Police prosecutor Julion Mtotela told the court that some people in Yosefe’s community said that their children were always exhausted in the morning. The children would tell their parents that that they had been practicing witchcraft throughout the night with Yosefe.
For whatever reason, Yosefe plead guilty. The magistrate, Steven Chifomboti, convicted her based on her own plea but also used Malawi’s laws Chapter 7.02, Section 6, of the Witchcraft Act to send her to jail.
The Witchcraft Act states that “any person, who by his statement or actions represents himself to be a wizard or witch or exercising the power of witchcraft, shall be liable to a fine of 50 British Pounds and to imprisonment for 10 years.”
The Act is 107 years old and was put in place by Malawi’s colonial power, Britain, in 1901. Back then, the British rulers in Malawi had negotiated treaties with indigenous rulers resulting in the formal laws now governing the country.
Chikumbutso Mponda is serving a five-year jail term after being convicted on allegations that his magic plane crashed while he was traveling in it. The police told the court that Mponda fell from the magic plane after it flew over a house, which was also magically protected. Magistrate Hends Kantchere, who convicted Mponda, explained that he imposed such a tough sentence based on the Witchcraft Act.
“Innocent people are being affected directly or indirectly [by witchcraft], especially children who are being taught without their knowledge,” says Kantchere.
But another purported wizard, Medson Kachilika, is not going down without a fight. He is challenging the outdated Witchcraft Act after being arrested and taken to court when he was accused of teaching witchcraft to children. He applied to the country’s Constitution Court to have the act invalidated and argues that the law violates the people’s right to freedom of consciousness, religion, belief and thought.
The Constitution Court has yet to hear the case.
Just recently, on May 4th, an angry mob apprehended 50 year old Veronica Vincent and her 65 year old mother in Malawi’s university town of Zomba and took them to witchdoctor, Jimmy Mustafa, 42, after four children, ages six to eight, claimed that the women were teaching them witchcraft. Vincent died of poisoning after Mustafa administered an herbal concoction to cleanse her of witchcraft.
Police public relations officer in Zomba, Thomeck Nyaude, said the witchdoctor forced Vincent to drink a brew he concocted and that the woman started throwing up soon after taking the mixture of herbs.
“Vincent died just a few hours [later]. Her mother escaped death because the witchdoctor did not administer it to her after seeing what had happened to Vincent,” said Nyaude.
The police officer said Mustafa has since been arrested but has plead “not guilty” to charges of murder claiming that he had previously administered the same potions to many other witchcraft suspects and none of them had died.
No statistics exist on the number of people serving sentences for practicing witchcraft in Malawi prisons, but NGOs and churches decry the increase in witchcraft cases throughout the country. (In Malawi, little research is generally done since the country is poor.)
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church, which is the biggest and most influential denomination in Malawi with a following of 4 million out of the country’s 13 million people, says witchcraft is real in the country.
Reverend Father Stanislaus Chinguo, chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in the Blantyre Archdiocese, said in an interview that the church is working on solutions to witchcraft for its followers.
“[Witchcraft] is a real challenge to the church and we have to face it head on. We are looking at a number of solutions and one of those is exorcism,” says Chinguo. The priest says the Catholic Church in Malawi has lost some of its members to other churches because it has failed to accept the existence of witchcraft thereby failing to help the Christians “that have been haunted by it.”
The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), a non-governmental organization that works on the promotion and protection of human rights in Malawi is lobbying for a proper “normative legal position” on witchcraft.
“The time has come for Malawians to accept reality and stop burying our heads in the sand. The reported incidents of witchcraft across the country have reached alarming levels, warranting urgent attention. We have in the recent past witnessed violent incidents involving suspected witchcraft practitioners and communities,” states a report by HRCC Chairperson Justin Dzonzi.
Dzonzi states that there is need for the country to carry out a rational process to address the issues that, he says, cannot be ignored any longer.
Another prominent human rights organization, Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) has asked government to come up with a bill that would protect witchcraft suspects. No steps have yet been taken to review or invalidate the Witchcraft Act.
Meanwhile, communities in the country continue to terrorize suspected witches and wizards, and old women continue to be the easiest targets.