Lust for land: The ceaseless bane of elderly women in Gusiiland

From left: Peter Monari, Geoffrey Ototo, Christopher Mayaka and Samuel Mayaka in Mbanda, Kisii, on February 7, 2024. Their mothers were killed on allegations of witchcraft.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Lynchings under the pretext of witchcraft are a deep-rooted issue intertwined with cultural beliefs, socioeconomic challenges, and gender inequality.
  • Cases are on the rise, despite the interventions of rights organisations.
  • The Kenya Human Rights Commission says about six people face violence monthly on suspicion of witchcraft in Kisii and Nyamira counties.

Kisii County is renowned for its lush greenery and rich agricultural heritage. The region, located in the western part of Kenya, is characterised by rolling hills, fertile valleys, and tea plantations.

As I make my way to one homestead in Mbanda village, I can't help but stop for a few minutes to take in the picturesque highlands. The scenery is breath-taking.

However, amid this beauty lies one of the region’s most inhumane practices: the targeting and brutal killing of elderly women under the veil of witchcraft accusations.

While most cultures revere elderly women as pillars of wisdom, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) says about six people face violence every month on suspicion of witchcraft in Kisii and Nyamira counties.

They are branded as witches and subjected to cruel fates.

Today, I am visiting Geoffrey Ototo, the first born son of Agnes Ototo, a woman who was burned to death on accusations of witchcraft.

Geoffrey Ototo points to a tree that marks the boundary of his family's land in Mbanda, Kisii County, on February 7, 2024. He says conflict over the boundary led to the killing of his mother, Agnes Ototo, who was accused of practicing witchcraft.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

She was murdered alongside three other widows—Sindege Mayaka (88), Jemima Mironga (60) and Rael Sigara (62)—over similar accusations.

I am on a mission to demystify these senseless killings. Does this community simply believe in witchcraft? Or are there deeper factors at play?

“When I received the news of my mother’s death, I was in Kericho working. I had to return to Kisii.

"I felt numb because I had just buried my father the previous month.

"It was shocking to hear that she was accused of witchcraft,” he tells Nation.Africa.

Lonely home

Geoffrey’s family home sits on a fairly large piece of land. Three abandoned huts stand silently amidst overgrown foliage and creeping vines.

The home was once filled with family laughter but is now strangely quiet, with Geoffrey being its only inhabitant.

Within, the walls hold remnants of its former occupants—a line-up of faded photographs of the entire family. At the centre is Agnes’ picture. Geoffrey tells me she was 63 when she lost her life. I study her photograph.

Lines of experience trace Agnes’ gentle face, which is framed by silver hair. So far, I have not seen anything strange in the home.

I learn that Geoffrey’s family has been embroiled in a land-boundary feud spanning years with their neighbours.

His father (Samuel Ototo) died under mysterious circumstances just one month before his mother was murdered. His father would often get arrested for getting into confrontations with their neighbours over conflicts about the boundary.

“My mother was mentally ill and well known in the village because she loved to talk to people. She couldn’t keep secrets. I understand why some people would think she was a threat,” he says.

Both families had involved the local administration to resolve the boundary dispute, but they never settled the matter.

“Since my parents’ deaths, I have tried to get our chief to help us settle the matter, but he has been avoiding me. Our neighbours have since moved their boundary into our land. I am all alone, there is little I can do,” he reveals.

Besides slowly losing their land, the consequences of suspicion of witchcraft have been dire for the Ototos. Hellen Kerubo, a human rights officer working with Utu Coalition, says that were it not for their intervention, Geoffrey’s mother wouldn't have even been buried on her ancestral land.

“Since Agnes had been accused of witchcraft, the community had decided to deny her burial rights. She was to be buried in a public cemetery.

"However, since the killings garnered so much public outage, we were able to convince the community to let her be buried on her land,’’ Hellen reveals.

Geoffrey’s brothers also left Kisii soon after their mother’s burial for Nairobi and Nakuru because no one would employ them at home.

Their sister would have been chased away from her matrimonial home, were it not for Geoffrey visiting and assuring them that their mother-in-law was not a witch.

“My wife and four sons are now under witness protection. I wish to be with them but I will endanger their lives and they will hate me for that. I would rather stay far away from them,” he adds.

Why has he not relocated?

“I know my mother died for this land. Even though I live in fear, I will not leave. I must fight,’’ he answers.

Geoffrey says his efforts to engage local administration to solve the matter of neighbours encroaching on their land, despite his protests, have fallen on deaf ears.

Simeon Omwenga, the local chief who the families approached to solve the conflict, told Nation.Africa that Geoffrey’s neighbours have been uncooperative.

He says he has contacted the Lands office to visit the area and determine the correct position of the boundary.

Land subdivision

Agriculture forms the backbone of Kisii's economy. The primary crops cultivated here include tea, coffee, bananas and maize.

However, the county has a land fragmentation challenge, with most of it being subdivided into undersized units that are too small for cultivation.

In 2021, then Kisii governor James Ongwae expressed concern over the county’s land fragmentation problem.

He advised residents to stop subdividing their land further. It, therefore, follows that land is a valuable asset in Kisii.

Samuel Mayaka, whose mother (Sidenge Mayaka), was also killed on suspicion of witchcraft, says land conflicts are common in Mbanda.

Samuel Mayaka stands next to the grave of his mother, Sidenge Mayaka, an 88-year-old woman who was killed on allegations of witchcraft in Mbanda village, Kisii County, on February 7, 2024.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

“Land is everything. It is almost as important as God,’’ he states, “so many [people] have been killed in Omokuna clan because of land.”

He recounts the events leading to her death amid self-reflective pauses.

“My mother was suffering from arthritis, which made her knees hurt. On the day before her death, she had sold a cow for Sh22,000 and was supposed to use the money for treatment,” he says.

However, Sidenge would not make the trip to hospital as the following day, a gang of men brandishing axes, machetes and rungus approached her home and whisked her away to her death. They were accompanied by a 17-year-old boy who claimed the widow had bewitched him.

Christopher Mayaka, his brother, tried to defend his mother but the gang subdued him by attacking him with a machete.

Looking back, Samuel wonders how his mother could have possibly lured the boy from his home and bewitched him when she could not even walk without assistance.

Christopher says a couple of weeks back, she had got into a row with a neighbour because her cows wandered onto their farm and ate their crop.

“According to our traditions, when such an incident happens, the farm owner should fine the cattle owner an amount that covers the damage done by the cows. Our neighbour never did that,” Christopher shares.

So when the gang was walking around Mbanda village, waging war against supposed witches, Christopher says their neighbour accused his mother of being one. That is how she was dragged to her death.

An eyewitness, who requested anonymity for fear of his life, says witch-hunts are common in Omokuna clan.

A couple of years ago, he stopped a mob that had tied three women to a tree, ready to set them on fire.

“I told them they should not kill the women in broad daylight but wait for night time. When they left, I helped the women to leave the village.

"They stayed away from Kisii for several years before they returned,” he says.

When Samuel’s mother was being killed three years ago, he also stepped forward to help the woman but was unsuccessful.

“I tried to stop them. I told them what they were doing was wrong, but they wanted to burn me too, so I fled the scene,” he says.

The eyewitness also tells us that Evans Nyabiba, the local assistant chief, was present during the killings but did not lift a finger to stop the men.

The three sons accuse the local administration of knowing the plot to kill their mothers but doing nothing to forestall them.

Peter Monari – the son of Rael Sigara, who was also killed on accusations of witchcraft – adds that the police were present when she was being burnt to death.

“There was a group of almost 50 men surrounding my mother. The police simply stood by and waited for her to die before they put her body in their Land Cruiser. I felt so helpless,’’ Peter says.

Vigilante group

He claims most perpetrators are members of the notorious criminal gang known as Sungusungu.

They are said to carry out vigilante justice in the community and are even feared by the local administration.

In 2011, the KHRC, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission jointly investigated the group.

They found that despite being outlawed, the groups’ criminal activities were still prevalent across Gusiiland.

They also found that Sungusungu overstepped community policing mandates by murdering suspected ‘criminals’ and assaulting people based on false accusations and set-ups.

Nation.Africa spoke with Mr Nyabiba, the assistant chief who was accused of laxity. He denied ever being at a crime scene, despite several eyewitnesses placing him there.

He also denied having knowledge of Sungusungu members plotting to kill the women.

This far, my investigation has revealed a pattern of four factors: the existence of a land conflict; criminal activity tolerated by local administration; deep-seated witchcraft beliefs; and vulnerable women caught in the web of it all.

As for why people believe in witchcraft in Kisii, social anthropologist Ferdinand Okwaro says most African societies have some concept of witchcraft.

This means they believe some people have power in them to cause afflictions such as diseases and accidents.

“However, criminal elements can take advantage of such beliefs to settle scores. Remember African women are married into other communities.

“So it could be a case of inheritance such that once the husband dies, their brothers want to kick the woman out, so they use the excuse of witchcraft to do so,” he explains.

But why are such women labelled ‘witches’?

“It’s not every widow who is targeted. Most women who are accused of witchcraft are elderly, above 60, who perhaps never had children.

"Maybe they’re poor in the community in relation to other people, so it’s easy to root them out and benefit from their land or property,” Dr Okwaro explains.

Women’s rights organisations say ‘witch’ burning incidents are a result of deep patriarchal norms held by people who believe women and girls should not inherit, use, or own land or property.

“An analysis of most of these incidents (witch burning) show linkage between the horrendous acts and resource conflicts in the social, political and economic arena.

“Most of the victims are widows whose accusers are relatives from the families of the husbands.

“Witchcraft accusations against widows are traceable to land scarcity, greed and selfishness,” the Federation of Women Lawyers said in a statement after the killing of four widows in Kisii.

Is there hope for elderly women living in such communities?

Dr Okwaro says a combination of modernity, Christianity, education and dislocation from areas where such beliefs are prevalent could work.

“However, the main point for me is neither Christianity nor education, but dislocation. This is because you still find Christians and even pastors believing in witchcraft. Some well-educated people also believe in witchcraft.

“So, it’s either a person removes themselves from such environments, or waits for passage of time, say in 50 to 100 years, when such beliefs will be forgotten,” he concludes.