Kisii's field of witches: Why the name has refused to go

Mwamogesa Dispensary in Kitutu Chache South which was  built by area MP Richard Onyonka in a once open field referred to as Egetii Kia Abarogi. 

Photo credit: Ruth Mbula | Nation Media Group

It is often said that a name can hold great value and meaning and that there is power in it.

For the people of Mwamogesa, near Kisii town, the old name of their village, 'Egetii Kia Abarogi' (field of witches), has refused to go away.

This is despite efforts to adopt the new name, Mwamogesa, and develop the area in efforts to do away with the old name.

Mr Andrew Getoso, 89, a native, says a story is told of a man from the village who went to the Manga ridge but came back late at midnight.

"On his way back, he passed by the open field now referred to as Egetii Kia Abarogi. There, he saw witches dancing and fell down unconscious due to shock. When he recovered, he told villagers the following day what he had seen," he said.

He said witches used the open field as their playing ground, and hence the name, which has stuck in people's minds.

The elder said visitors fear going there when they hear its name.

"Even boda boda riders fear taking their passengers to the point, especially at night. They think they will find witches doing their things there."

Kitutu Chache South MP Richard Onyonka built Mwamogesa Dispensary in the once idle open field using Constituency Development Fund cash in efforts to spur development.

He put up a stone fence around the dispensary, but the notion that the field is still used by witches, despite locals having spotted none, is strong.

Mr Andrew Monda says he doesn’t like it that the name of their village is associated with witches and folks view them with suspicion.

"When you mention that you come from this place, people think you have something to do with the name of the village. You realise things are not good when they start discussing it in low tones."

Though they were born in Egetii Kia Abarogi, he says, they have nothing to do with its name and should not be judged by it.

"The name affects us because we are judged by it."

When he was growing up, children used to be warned not to wander there lest they found witches.

There have been lynchings of elderly people, especially women, in Kisii on suspicion that they were witches.

Last year, four women in the neighbouring Kitutu Chache North constituency were killed.

Sindege Mayaka (83), Jemima Mironga (60), Sigara Onkware (62) and Agnes Ototo (57) lost their lives in a most horrendous manner.

Governor Ongwae's taskforce

Kisii Governor James Ongwae set up a 14-member task force to help unravel the issues surrounding the witchcraft myth in the county.

The governor, while inaugurating the team at the Kisii County headquarters in October last year, said due to the gravity of the situation, it would expedite and prepare its final report in three weeks.

But it has been several months and residents are asking what happened to the report and whether it will be released.

Among the stakeholders who submitted their memorandum to the team was the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and the Abagusii Council of Elders.

In its findings, KNCHR said the belief in the practice was endemic and lynching was being used as an antidote.

The commission urged the state to ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and protected.

Apart from human rights concerns, KNCHR identified certain emerging issues that arose in the aftermath of the killings, top among them the general societal belief in witchcraft.

The commission’s interaction with victims, members of the public and the council of elders established that there is a general belief in the existence of witchcraft.

The Abagusi terms used to describe witchcraft include omoragori (seer); omonyamesira (witch doctor) and omorogi (witch).

The words witch and witchcraft have negative connotations such as wicked, jealous or destroyer and involve ‘supernatural’ powers.

A recurring example of witchcraft that was shared during the mission was where, allegedly, children are unconsciously taken away from their homes at night for a walk and return with no sense of speech.

Community members would then gather and one after the other approach the bewitched child, speak or spit on them and if they begin to talk, the person who last spoke or spat on them would be considered responsible for bewitching them and would not be allowed to defend himself or herself.

However, some members of the public and elders mentioned that scapegoating, animosity and conflict over land and resources are used to label a person a witch.

Examples cited included truant children maliciously accusing a person to avoid punishment, widows with no children and family feuds over land.

Witchcraft has also been used to swindle gullible members of society, especially those who do not believe in natural occurrences such as death or sickness.

According to the Abagusii Council of Elders, lynching humans and burning houses are not cultural practices of the Kisii community and any person involved in such atrocities would be cursed together with his or her family. The elders said the practices are a sub-culture founded on delinquency.

In addition, KNHCR took note of the community’s concerns that the failure of some political leaders to condemn the practices perpetuates them.

The mission established that relationships exist between alleged perpetrators and victims. They included relatives through marriage, neighbours and village mates in the same local administrative units.

KNHCR established that the incidents occurred during the day in the full glare of community members including children, the elderly, youths, victims’ family members and other community members.

The community is still traumatised by the incidents and this has an adverse impact on its well-being. If left unaddressed, the community-level trauma is likely to be transmitted through generations.

KNHCR took note of how the community trauma had disproportionately impacted vulnerable people.

Elderly people spoke about being affected emotionally and fearing sleeping in their homes. KNHCR also heard from parents and children on how these incidents affected young people.