Accused Elderly Witches in Africa: The Logic of Misfortune

12 Jul


Belief in the spirit world of the ancestors has withstood colonialism, missionaries, organized religion, revolution, independence, and modernization throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa. Common beliefs about witchcraft and witches have been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries and in the countries of Kenya and Tanzania everyone knows that:

Witches use the power of our ancestors against us
Witches have grey hair and red eyes.
Death comes to those who have been bewitched
A young person cannot die unless he/she had been bewitched
Never look a witch in the eye.

But lately these long-held convictions about witches and witchcraft have become particularly evident as village mobs use them to target the elderly and justify killing them in heinous ways from poisoning to burning in order to stop the evil juju (magic) from destroying the village’s good fortune. Daughters and sons as well as immediate family accuse elderly men and women of witchcraft in order to cash in on their inheritances that much sooner. And Africa is not the only continent that had has engaged in the reoccurrence of witch hunts. The countries of New Guinea, India, and Mexico have also killed their fair share of witches in the past few years.

Europe also contended with its own obsession with witches. For three hundred years (1450-1750) countries in Europe did their best to eradicate the presence of witches in their lives by conducting 100,000 witchcraft trials where a good half of these led to the execution of the ‘witch’. Even back then 75 % of all those convicted were women. While in the countries of Hungry Denmark and England 90% were women. Yet in all fairness, 90% were men in Iceland and another 50% were men in Estonia and Finland.

But here is a timeline of recent witch killings in Africa alone and these were only the more sensationalized cases. Remember, for every reported incidence authorities suspect that are at least ten more elderly residents who suddenly go missing and their disappearances are not reported to the local police.

July 5, 2013 – Kenya, police report that at least 20 elderly people killed monthly in Kilifi County on account of witchcraft allegations.
May 10, 2013- Zimbabwe, two elderly women accused as witches die after drinking a potion forced upon them by a local healer
March 30, 2013 – Zambia, two elderly people identified as witches axed to death. Woman (63) axed to death by her nephew and man ( 89) by his son
Feb.12, 2013- Kenya, 11 elderly residents identified as witches burned to death by a Kisii mob
June 2012- Mozambique, 60 cases of violence against elderly connected to witchcraft reported in first quarter of 2012.
June 2011, Mozambique, 20 elderly people identified as witches killed between the years 2010- 2011.
June 2009 – Kenya, 5 elderly suspected of witchcraft (two men and three women) burned to death in Kisii in front of the entire village. (There is a video of this on YouTube.)
March 2009- Gambia, 1,000 villagers most of whom were elderly rounded up by police, army, and President Yahya Jammeh’s personal guard then made to drink potions which made them very ill and several died, all because it was claimed that president’s aunt died on account of witchcraft.
May 2008 – Kenya, killing of 11 elderly suspected of witchcraft ( eight women, three men) in Kisii.
April 2003- Uganda, 1 man beheaded because of suspected witchcraft.
June 2001- DR Congo, 800 alleged witches reported killed in the dry region of the Congo
May 2000- Ghana & South Africa, several hundred woman killed by mobs in refugee camps accused of being witches.
1998-1994- Tanzania, 5,000 people killed in witch hunts over four years ( Amnesty International) 80% were elderly women killed by young men between the ages of 16-35.
1988- 1970- Sukumaland, Tanzania, 3,072 accused witches were killed in Sukumaland more than two-thirds of the total witch killings for Tanzania. Approximately 80% were women between 50 and 60 years of age

Finding witches and removing them for the good of the community was a tribal affair even in colonial Kenya. In the famous Wakamba Witch-killing Trials of 1931-1932 , Mwaiki, a Kamba woman was killed in 1931 by tribal leaders and members of the ruling council of her tribe after they established the fact that she had bewitched another woman in the village. The case was known as Rex v. Kumwaka s/o of Mulumbi and 69 Others, and tried in the Supreme Court of Kenya. Sixty of the original seventy defendants were sentenced to death. Their death sentences were ultimately commuted by the Governor of Kenya but the defendants were sentenced to prison terms instead. In their defense the men maintained that as leaders of the tribe they had the legal right to identify and remove witches for the good of the community by killing them in the traditional way.

 Might this be caused by poverty?

But what is responsible for causing this recent resurgence in the preoccupation with witchcraft and the need to rid the community of witches? According to Jenni Irish in her article, Massacre. Muthi, and Misery: Women and Political Violence (1993), in regions where the belief in witchcraft is entrenched accusations of witchcraft and witch hunts escalate in communities under stress. Communities under threat seem to revert back to long-held superstitions.”

In his report , Poverty and Witch Killing – 2005, Review of Economic Studies, Edward Miguel, used rainfall variations to estimate the impact of what he called ‘ income shocks’ on murders in rural Tanzania. He found that extreme rainfall ( drought or flood) led to a large increase in the number of witch killings (elderly woman killed by either relatives or mob violence) but no other types of murders. He claims that poverty and violence go hand in hand due to poor harvests and famines and determined that there were twice as many of this type of murder in years with extreme rainfall as in other years. Kenya’s unemployment rate rose to a staggering 40% in 2013 compared to a mere 12% in 2006. As of 2013, 16 million Kenyans had no formal employment and 70% of those who are employed are underpaid. (United Nations Development Program , 2013). According to Mr. Kenneth Kamto deputy governor, Kalifi County there are three reasons why young men kill witches: lack of education, dire poverty, and lack of employment.

 Is  this  a gender issue?

Watch any woman in rural Kenya and you will be exhausted just watching her perform her many duties. Village women build the houses, plant the crops, tend the gardens, cook the meals, care for the children, and operate their own businesses on the side yet are still considered the property of their husbands and any profits they make are turned over to their husbands. There is a wise saying about Kenyan women. “Give a Kenyan man a few shillings and he will piss it away. Give a Kenyan woman the same amount and she will start her own business doubling her money in a week.”

Men have control over women except for widows. Older women living alone, making their own decisions, owning their own homes, controlling their own money and resources may make the men of the village somewhat jealous at first but then their belief in witchcraft could very well taint their logic. It could cause them to think: “ Here is a woman living by herself healthy and prosperous at an age where there are not that many old people alive due to hardship and disease especially the AIDS epidemic.” Now if you were a young man with no one over thirty in your immediate family you might find it odd that here is a woman clearly more than double that age making out better than anyone else in the village. It might make you mad especially if you were not doing all that well yourself. ( 80% of Kenya’s unemployed population is between 15-34 years of age.) And so at some point you would probably ask yourself; What could account her good luck? Remember most of the elderly killed in African witch hunts are women.

And there are not that many older people alive in Kenya to begin with where life expectancy for women throughout the country is 57 years of age (World Bank,2012) especially in the rural villages because they would be the age of the first group of AIDS-related deaths starting in 1981 and prior to the distribution of free anti-retroviral medications. Their loss is very evident in the current demographics for Kenya, 85% of all Kenyans are less than 35 years of age that figure does not leave much room for a large elderly population. (United Nations Development Program , 2013) So even getting to see a very old person in your village might be a rare sight.

Could traditional healers be to blame?

Most village healers cure their patients by placing the blame for the illness or the misfortune on someone else rather than something else and seek retribution or retaliation for their client. They also receive hefty payment for their services? So who is the safest person to blame in this situation certainly not a real witch? Well it’s best if it is someone who would not be able to retaliate and someone who looks the part? Want to make sure your client is satisfied and pays on time- then accuse the elderly. According to statements made by the woman and men currently residing in the few Rescue Centers across East Africa many of them were identified as witches by traditional healers in their villages- some of whom urged the mob to come for them.

And what about the real witches like the ones who live in the mountains above Kitui? The ones none of us mention but everyone knows exist- the ones able to inflict the real damage. No one accuses them of anything or would dare mention their names out loud and no mobs of young boys hunt them down or burn them in the village square. Why not? It’s because these men, and they are all men, have the real power and the knowledge to use it. We all know about them but the real wa’ganga truly scare us and have yet to be mentioned in any articles regarding witchcraft I’ve seen so far. After all the accounts I have read on individual witch burnings not one witch stood up and cursed the people trying to kill her. Now don’t you find that a bit odd if she really was a witch? What would she have to lose? But we all know what the real wa’ganga would do in the same situation and that is why they are left alone.

And then there are religions such as Islam and Christianity who have done an exceptional job of introducing the idea of the devil and evil into the previously neutral idea of African magic (juju) and in creating a lucrative business by charging exorbitant fees to perform exorcisms or cleanse witches. Not only are these victims abused by family and neighbors but exploited by the same religious organizations that profess to love them.

Although police throughout East Africa seem to be trying to stop these witch killings more elderly will die until this craziness has finally been made to stop. Hopefully more Rescue Centers will be opened in all of the rural counties in Kenya and Tanzania giving these poor souls a place to go where they will not be harmed. Imagine defying the odds by living for so long in such a harsh environment only to have your eyes gouged out and your hands chopped off by the very people you once raised only because your hair has turned white and the smoke from the fire caused your eyes to become red- now that is the real tragedy here. I suspect that most elderly men and women accused of witchcraft really die of broken hearts.

Kat Nickerson                                            Kingston, Rhode Island      USA


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