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Sunday Nation writer TOM MOSOBA’s search for the link between politics and witchcraft in Kenya takes him to the dark rooms in Nairobi where sorcerers promise solutions to all problems, and charge an arm and a leg
Wednesday, June 13, 2012. I make my way up the staircase to Room 21 on the second floor of a building on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi.
I had learnt about Room 21 from one of the curious posters dotting the walls and streetlight posts in the city advertising miracle-winning ways for people who want to vie for various seats in the next elections.
“I want to become a county ward representative in Nairobi,” I tell the man in his early 30s as we sit face to face on a mat inside the stuffy and dimly lit room he calls his office.
“Only that?” he asks. “Yes, it is all I care for now that the General Election is looming. It is my dream to become a politician in the city,” I say.
He looks me straight in the eye and lets out a sigh. “That is easy,” he proclaims. “You are in the right place and I can see a bright future ahead of you already.”
The clean-shaven man in a checked shirt and a pair of black jeans shorts introduces himself as Doctor Ashimu. He says he is a medicine man, a traditional healer and a fortune teller from the Busoga people of Uganda.
He seeks to assure me that by the spirits of his forefathers, which he says are revered in Uganda for the ability to release a magic wand as well as cast an evil spell, he will prescribe powerful charms to hand me the post of MP, senator or governor.
Doctor Ashimu is, however, surprised at my lack of ambition. “Why not become the governor of the whole of Nairobi? Why settle for less yet your stars are bright?” he asks.
“My charms will make the people trample on each other at your sight. They will echo words from your mouth to thousands of others and, together, they will be beholden to you for as long as you live.
“A small sacrifice will guarantee you the post you are seeking but my gods tell me your star is primed for a higher prize only if you please them.”
Apparently convinced that I am a difficult customer, Doctor Ashimu proceeds to give a quotation for the initial phase of what looks like an extensive campaign consultancy job.
To start off my dream to become the county representative for Starehe Ward, I will need to buy him two cows, two goats, two sheep, two chicken and a five-metre white piece of cloth to facilitate his trip to Uganda to consult with his forefathers.
Alternatively, I could pay Sh40,000 in cash to spare me the trouble of having to procure the items myself.
In my estimation, the next phases would set me back hundreds of thousands of shillings in impromptu “offerings”, including funding a budget for a homecoming ceremony to be attended by Busoga clan members.
We parted ways with a promise to come back with the bundle of notes to lay the road for my victory in the impending election.
But that would be our last encounter. I hastily exited Room 21 leaving behind an air of heavy burning scent in the dark room also boasting a small radio, TV and a two-seater sofa.
As the early campaign season for the next General Election opens, smart self-styled witchdoctors like Doctor Ashimu have expanded their portfolio of services to include solutions for Siasa (political problems).
They also promise help with finding a lover, recovering from erectile dysfunction among men, catching thieves, earning a job promotion, striking it rich, and business growth among other services.
The many public notices in Nairobi and other towns across the country announcing the services of Mganga so and so – mainly from Tanzania, Nigeria and occasionally a few other countries in West and Southern Africa – do not tell the whole story.
A number of the witchdoctors interviewed claimed that their clients include some renowned Kenyan and Tanzanian politicians.
“I have moved my base to Kenya due to high demand for my services,” said Doctor Ashimu, who is married to a Kenyan and has been in the trade for 15 years.
Efforts to contact some of those mentioned, including a controversial Nairobi MP, and a self-styled Tanzanian healer-turned-politician, were futile.
The Tanzanian plied his trade from Nairobi for many years and is believed to have accumulated immense wealth through his political friends.
His name featured in a recent case where family members of a deceased former MP were fighting over his wealth.
While it is difficult to prove the allegations of involvement by politicians in witchcraft, the practice is fairly common in East Africa, a region described in a global report as leading in worship of alternative gods — witchcraft, evil spirits, and sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers and reincarnation.
The report by a US-based organisation involved in religious research last year listed countries in the region, among them Kenya, as notorious for belief in witchcraft.
According to the survey by The Pew Research Centre, a quarter of Kenyans believe in witchcraft even though they are deeply religious.
The survey was carried between December 2008 and April 2009 in 19 countries under the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project.
The research ranked Kenya 11th in Africa and 16th in the world as the most religious people, with nearly nine in every 10 people stating that religion plays an important role in their lives.
But it ranked Kenya 15th in Africa in its people’s belief in witchcraft, a few points behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, and way ahead of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia and Rwanda.
A quarter of Kenyans, both Christians and Muslims, confessed they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets) and that they consult traditional healers.
A number admitted to revering their dead ancestors and treasuring animal skins and skulls or knowing of friends or relatives who identify with these beliefs.
Tanzania, said to be home to most of the witchdoctors, led the pack in believing in juju and other superstitious objects, with six in every 10 nationals confessing to sacrificing to spirits and dead ancestors, according to the survey.
The Rwandese are the least superstitious people in Africa, with only five out of 100 people interviewed saying they believed in juju. Many other studies have alluded to the intertwined nature of politics, religion and magic.
Dr Babere K. Chacha, a senior history lecturer at the Laikipia University College, says that for many years sorcery has been publicly depicted as the most common way to achieve personal success, wealth, and prestige.
The habit appears to intensify as opportunities for economic and social prosperity shrink. “One of the enduring memories in 2007 were the stories of prominent Kenyan politicians reported as visiting witchdoctors in Tanzania, Nigeria and Zanzibar,” he wrote in Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transitions.
The book features scholarly articles reviewing the country’s last General Election.
“It is a symptom that the population is instinctively aware that the country is profoundly flawed, but feels powerless to identify the cause of the problem or how far they can go to resolve it,” Dr Chacha argued.
In a telephone interview with the Sunday Nation on Thursday, Dr Chacha, the college’s director for external linkages, said he would not be surprised if it were established that politicians were quietly consulting witchdoctors in preparation for the next elections expected in 2013.
But perhaps the death in May 2003 of then newly-elected Yatta MP James Mutiso brought the debate of politics and witchcraft into the limelight in such a dramatic way.
The MP died hours into a grand party to celebrate his victory in the elections that ended Kanu’s reign for 38 consecutive years.
The MP drowned when the car he was driving in was swept away by flash floods. He died together with his driver and a woman healer he had ferried from Kayole in Nairobi to “help prepare traditional Kamba dishes” for his guests.
Suspected witchcraft materials were reportedly found near the scene of the accident. Police termed “bizarre” items found concealed in a travelling bag at the scene on Mbakoni River.
The woman healer’s presence in the MP’s car has for years remained the subject of rumours among villagers who initially pointed at “evil spirits unleashed to destroy their MP”.
Former Cabinet minister Musikari Kombo famously lost his Webuye parliamentary seat in November 1994 over allegations that he engaged in witchcraft practices during his election campaign in 1992.
Mr Kombo, currently a nominated MP, lost an election petition filed by Joseph Maloma Elima who accused him of paying Sh70,000 to two witchdoctors to administer an oath on voters in the 1992 General Election.
Even though Mr Kombo denied the allegations, a three-judge bench found him guilty of an election offence for administering witchcraft to voters in an oath called khulia silulu (“eating the bitter thing”) in his Bukusu dialect.
Judges Emmanuel O’Kubasu, Gideon P. Mbito and John W. Mwera additionally barred him from running in any election for five years.
However, he escaped in 1997 through an Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group pact, which changed the law so that election offenders are barred from contesting only during the life of that particular Parliament.