Where witch tag is a death sentence


Kenga Charo Mangi, alias Midzanze, a Kaya elder at Kaya Godoma, speaks to the Sunday Nation. He claims to have powers to identify and cleanse suspected witches. With him are some of the suspected witches, and councillor Teddy Mwambire (second left).

What you need to know:

  • Grey hair in Ganze and Magarini is no longer a sign of wisdom. It no longer attracts respect from the youth.
  • In fact grey-haired men and women in the two constituencies (ranked among the poorest in the country) live in perpetual fear.
  • They are being hunted down like wild dogs and killed over allegations of being witches. And the killers are mostly their sons and other close family members.
  • The Sunday Nation tracked the fleeing old folks to the “village of witches” in Kaya Godoma.
  • We talked to the villagers and interviewed the political and administrative leadership of the areas.
  • The interviews paint a perfect picture of people stuck in traditional beliefs with little hope of redemption.

Mzee Kahindi Charo Ngoka, 69, begged his two sons to spare his life. They had tied him to a tree in his compound with sisal ropes.

He pleaded that he was not a sorcerer as claimed by his wife – the mother of his sons-turned-tormenters. But they would hear none of it.

“I cried like a baby as they hit me,” he told the Sunday Nation.

Four broken upper teeth and lacerations on his body are proof of the severe thrashing he received at the hands of his own flesh and blood that afternoon of January 2 at his home in Kibarani near Kilifi town.

They then trussed him up and locked him in a hut to await nightfall when they planned to burn him to death.

“I gave them life, now they wanted to take mine,” he said, reflecting on the events that have seared his memory.

After they left, he struggled and broke free from his bonds, undid the latch of the rickety door, and made it to a nearby bush from where he found the route to the chief’s office where he reported the matter.

When the police showed up, his sons had already fled. But they found his wife and two daughters who were more than willing to tell the officers why they believed the patriarch of the family was a sorcerer.

The three were arrested as accomplices to attempted murder and are currently being held at the Shimo La Tewa Women’s Prison.

Mzee Ngoka narrated his ordeal to the Sunday Nation at Kaya Godoma, where a refugee camp has been established for those banished by their community on suspicion of practising the dark arts.

The camp hosts 36 elderly people, both male and female, who have all escaped certain death at the hands of close relatives and neighbours.

The hunting down and killing of suspected sorcerers has become endemic in the Coast region.

Police say 20 people have been killed in Malindi alone in the past two years because they were believed to be witches.

They say the number could be higher since some of deaths that occur where there is little government presence are not reported.

But, even then, numbers alone do not tell the story of horrors that suspicion of practising witchcraft has wrought on the people of the region.

Wives have turned on their husbands, setting them up to be killed. Sons have turned on their fathers in what could pass as a fulfilment of the biblical sign of the end times in Matthew 10:21:

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.”

Families are disintegrating at an alarming rate because of suspected witchcraft.

In the case of Mzee Ngoka, it was his wife, Jumwa Kahindi, who first accused him of witchcraft six years ago.

She claimed that he came to her in a dream asking which of their seven sons he should kill in order to increase the potency of his magic.

“I had never been accused of witchcraft before, and I was really surprised that my wife would say such things about me,” said Mzee Ngoka.

“We have our share of marital problems, but that one took me totally by surprise.” They have been married for 49 years and have 14 children together.

But, fully aware of the dire consequences such an accusation could bring, he volunteered to take the traditional test to ascertain whether he was a wizard.

The test involves the accused and the accuser eating a specially prepared strip of pawpaw or mango that is administered by a traditional healer.

Local residents believe that the guilty party will not be able to swallow it — either the jaw will refuse to chew it, or the tongue will pop out or swell.

If one is found to be a sorcerer, the traditional process of cleansing begins in which the suspect loses all his or her powers. If found innocent, the accuser is compelled to pay a fine set by the accused.

Ordinarily, the whole process costs about Sh3,000, an amount that is out of reach of most residents of the poverty-stricken region.

Given that it is a life-and-death issue, Mzee Ngoka decided to sell a portion of his one-acre piece of land to take the test with his wife.

Not a wizard

But, on the appointed day, she fled to her parents’ home where she stayed for six years. In her absence, one of his sons offered to take the test with him.

He was not a wizard, the test revealed, and the matter was put to rest — until his wife came back in January 2011.

“First, she refused to stay with me in the same house. She instead went and lived with one of our daughters in a separate house.

“They refused to cook for me. But, whenever anything went wrong, they blamed me. She set the children up against me.

“I should be enjoying my old age with my grandchildren, but now I am hiding from my family,” he said.

For centuries Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastal region has been the source of a rich trove of stories involving witchcraft.

It is common to hear dramatised stories of how a beautiful girl suddenly changes into a black cat in the middle of the night or how cars of prominent people turn into goats at night and eat grass for fuel.

But the North Coast, home to the Giriama, is the worst-affected by the lynching of suspected sorcerers.

The Sunday Nation crew got the feel of the prevalence of the belief in witchcraft on a visit to chief Paul Mwambire’s office in Marafa location, Magarini constituency, Kilifi County.

As the team awaited their turn to talk to the chief, an old man was brought in by two young men.

Mr Mwambire later said the old man was the father of the two young men who had brought him in on suspicion of being a sorcerer.

“They claimed that he had acknowledged that he is a witch (sic), and they wanted him to officially record the confession.

“They wanted me to be a witness, but I refused. On most occasions these old men are pressured by family members to do so,” he said.

Marafa division has recorded a rise in the murder of suspected sorcerers lately. On the night of January 9, a 70-year-old widowed grandmother was slashed to death on suspicion of practising witchcraft.

Here, virtually everything that goes wrong – death, ailments, poverty, misfortune, failed relationships – is blamed on black magic.

Mzee Karisa Ngoa Mwaringa, a village elder in Kaguguta village, Magarini, believes witchcraft exists.

“Our people strongly believe in it. You cannot just wake up and tell them witchcraft is some sort of fancy imagination.

“It is here with us. Even the most educated – those working in Nairobi and elsewhere – believe in it. So how will it disappear overnight?” he asked.

But the killing of suspected witches is a new phenomenon, he said, shaking his head, then gazing silently into the distance, perhaps in silent reflection that, at his age, the same fate could easily befall him should one of his family members turn against him.

“A special ceremony was performed in which they were deprived of their powers,” the chief said suddenly picking up the conversation.

“This killing is a new thing. We were once revered elders; now we are hunted like dogs by our own children.”

Recently, he rescued a fellow elder in the village who had been accused by his family of being a sorcerer.

One of his granddaughters had accused the old man of burying juju in their compound.

On closer inspection, Mzee Mwaringa discovered it was just a fresh anthill. But still the family was not convinced.

“I had to strongly warn them that the law would be applied should anything happen to him.”

The reason for the strong caution, the chief said, was that the old man had become a marked man.

An accusation often has little to do with witchcraft; it has become a way of settling scores.

“If you dig deeper you will find there were family issues behind these killings,” said chief Mwambire.

Mzee Ngoka says his wife just developed hatred towards him after he discovered she was unfaithful.

“She even conceived by my brother’s eldest son,” he claimed, adding that she miscarried, and he forgave her. “But she was never the same.”

But most of the killings have an economic connection, especially where land is concerned.

“We had an old man who was accused by his sons of practising witchcraft. When the old man decided to leave the homestead, the sons sub-divided the land among themselves,” said Mzee Mwaringa.

Even small disputes are known to elicit accusations of witchcraft.

Mzee Said Karisa Masha, a 61-year-old charcoal dealer, says a regular customer accused him of being a sorcerer when he went to collect money she owed him.

“She shouted that I had bewitched a neighbour who had been having health issues. It was near a marketplace and people chased me with stones and machetes.

“I was lucky the police rescued me in time,” he said. He said his accuser has refused to take the traditional test with him.

Some people in these villages have lost their lives on accusations that simply sound surreal to an outsider.

For example, on the night of February 12, 2010, Mzee Kahindi Kombe Nzai was hacked to death while he slept with his wife.

He had long been accused by neighbours and close family members, including some of his daughters, of metamorphosing into a spirit in order to sexually abuse girls at a nearby primary school.
No one has ever been convicted for his murder although two suspects were arrested and later released. Neighbours say this, too, was an inside job.

But his case is not unique. In the sparsely populated dry bushlands of Shononeka village, Sidi Bitoya Wanzau, about 80, was killed last September while tending her garden of chilli peppers. An unknown assailant slit her throat.

Although the motive of the attack is unknown, her eldest son, Mr Karisa Katana Kitsao, suspects it is related to suspicions of being a witch.

She had survived a severe attack in 2001 on the same suspicions which left her left arm paralysed.

“She was ready after this to take the test, but no one came to accuse her. So we thought that the matter had been settled, but it is obvious that somebody still bore a grudge against her,” he said.

He disclosed that his mother was first suspected of practising sorcery in the late 1980s when one of her sons died in a road accident.
“Some people said that she was not proud of her son’s success and bewitched him to die.”
No one has been arrested for the attack, although neighbours suspect a close family member was responsible.
“Whoever is daring enough to come and attack during daytime knows the movements and routines of his intended victim very well,” said a neighbour who did not wish to be named.

Kilifi district commissioner Benjamin Gachichio introduced a more sinister aspect to the killings.

“We have discovered that children kill their aged parents in order to avoid supporting them.

“This region receives little rainfall and, therefore, food is hard to find. Old people are seen as a burden,” he said.

The belief in witchcraft and the attendant killings of suspected witches present a sharp contrast to the international commercial image of Malindi and Kilifi.

Both towns are better known for their enchanting beaches that attract thousands of tourists every year.

Little Milan

There is such a significant settlement of Italian migrants in the two towns that Malindi is now referred to by the locals as “Little Milan”.

Formula One multi-billionaire Flavio Briatore has built a luxurious holiday hotel there called the Lion in the Sun and is constructing another one to be aptly named the Billionaires Club.

But when one moves inland from the pristine beaches of “Little Milan” and the opulence of some of its residences, the shocking reality that unfolds is that of a people lost deep in the abyss of poverty.

Ganze is a backwater constituency lacking in amenities such as piped water and accessible roads.

Neighbouring Magarini is ranked as one of the poorest constituencies in the country, and education standards in both areas are among the lowest in Kenya.

In fact, of the country’s 47 counties, the five in the Coast region – Kilifi, Lamu, Taita Taveta, Kwale and Tana River – held the bottom five positions in last year’s KCPE examination results.

It is under these grim circumstances that age-old superstition thrives.

“Poverty is increasing with each day, and people are looking for excuses to explain all the bad things around them,” said chief Mwambire.

Ordinarily, religion has played a key role in societies that have successfully fought the practice. But, though both Christianity and Islam are practised here, religion has had little impact on the local belief system.

“Whenever I go to these meetings, I usually go with a priest and an imam, but the locals just dismiss them as talking heads,” said Mr Gachichio.

And, in any case, a 2010 report by the Pew Research Centre, a US-based organisation that surveys major aspects of daily life in the United States and elsewhere, found that most Kenyans, both Christian and Muslim, still harbour a strong belief in witchcraft.

Florence Jaoko, the former chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, says the killings should be treated as criminal offences.

“There are no two ways about it. There is no justification for taking another person’s life whatsoever,” she said.