Forty-two year old Jonathan Mbulaje from Kanjuli village in the area of Traditional Authority Kamenyagwaza, Dedza, once sacrificed the outer part of his left ear to rumour; now, he struggles to live up to the haunting reality he will never have it back.
It all started as a simple matter one September day in 1999 when, after establishing a flourishing maize mill enterprise that helped save people from the hassles of traveling a sweat-filled seven kilometers to either Bembeke Trading Centre or (Bembeke) Turn-off, he was accused of ‘magically’ killing people and placing them inside his mill. The locals generally believe that, when that happens, the business thrives, generating quick returns.
“The next thing...I was awakened around mid-night by the thunderous roll of people who, first, smashed the window panes of my house and then broke my door. Some of them bit me up and...I don’t really remember what actually happened next but I just felt blood oozing from my left ear;(and) when I touched it, the left part was not there. Where it went, who took it, and for what reason, I will never know," says Mbulaje, adding:
“But that experience shuttered and devastated me, mainly because what they said was not true. In fact, I have never believed that there is witchcraft, that these things are real. I feel the whole belief is merely opium smoke from exhausted brains. We can never develop with this attitude and that’s the reason I left the area a long time ago and am now into cross-border trade, buying things like brankets and shit-beds in South Africa for sale back home,” says Mbulaje.
The father of six adds that when the mob realised that he had lost an ear, they became scared, knowing it would now be a Police case, and disappeared quieter than they came. Some of them were fellow villagers, he says.
Mbulaje must have been fortunate to have escaped with his life as others, like 82-year old Patani Phiri from Nkhota-kota, lost their lives under similar circumstances.
Worse still, there are scores that have been chased from their respective communities- the only people and places they probably ever knew in this life turning their backs on them, as Civil Liberties Committee Executive Director Emmie Chanika observes. Over the years, her organisation has been over-whelmed with requests for shelter and legal aid from individuals suspected by their communities to be practicing witchcraft.
“It’s really becoming nasty and worrisome. Innocent people are being victimized, maimed, even killed –all this for something as nonsense as witchcraft,” says Chanika.
“But, somehow, we still have to do something. Government should stop burying its head in the sand like an ostrich. The thing is, our laws should now recognise the existence of witchcraft, realising that colonialists included a clause in the Witchcraft Act stipulating that anyone who accused another of practicing it was committing a criminal offence simply because it suited their interests. They never wanted mob justice in villages; they never wanted to see people being forced to drink Mchape, as used to happen with our early traditions and, really, it worked.”
According to the human rights activist, her organisation is currently working on a case where a civil servant in Chikwawa (name withheld) is being chased from an area on accusations of practicing witchcraft. Several children have complained that they were being taught witchcraft by the same- accusations the 'accused' denies.
As if to stamp the issues with his authority, the village headman jurisdicting over the area summoned the individual and ruled in his absence that she lives the area. But the suspect never appeared before the village court on grounds that, as a civil servant, she is not under the jurisdiction of the headman, an argument Cilic supports.
“In fact, we have told her not to move out, and we will make sure we get to the dead-end of this issue. Why it is that only women are accused of teaching children witchcraft? Where are the men in all this? I feel it is because, culturally and traditionally, women are looked down upon; they are the easy scape-goat.”
Pastor Willie Chaponda of Mustard Seed Ministries supports the idea of amending the Witchcraft Act, saying, as a church leader, he has received several complaints from people, lamenting about the practice. Witchcraft has reached a crescendo, he says.
Chaponda explains that he has, to date, received over a hundred people asking him to pray for either them or their children because they are “active witches. So,he says, witchcraft is really there and needs to be recognized as such. There must also be clearly-stipulated punishments for those practicing it to bring back sanity in our communities.
He describes as a fallacy assertions to the effect that only those who accept practicing, “rather, the constitution says ‘pretending' to practice”, should be punished because we know it (witchcraft) is there but not everybody can just come forward and say ‘I practice it’”.
He has ‘proof’: “I once went to minister at a funeral in Chiradzulu and was bewildered that, upon my arrival, children who had been there since morning started to disperse one by one. When I enquired as to what the matter was, I was told that the children had heard that I exorcise people of witchcraft through prayer, and were afraid that I would do the same to them. Here, we see children who practiced witchcraft running away on their own, showing that the practice is there.”
Chaponda even adds that witchcraft varies with the extent of years in practice, it has degrees. It is difficult to pray for someone who has practiced for a long time, and it takes time to exorcise them completely. To some extent, people even vomit such things as snakes, frogs and centipedes, he reveals.
Elizabeth Divala, Blantyre Police Spokesperson- while acknowledging that her office has received as many as 20 cases of witchcraft, with six convictions of self-confessed practitioners (the law says pretenders)- argues that the issue is made complicated by lack of enabling legislation, as the current Act does not recognize witchcraft.
She says the Victim Support Unit (VSU) refers cases of witchcraft back to traditional leaders or the clergy, and that there have been some cases of success in that area, especially with people who are willing to be helped and thus confess.
“These are more-less like spiritual issues because they are mainly perceptions to do with the mind; we are talking about something people say is there but cannot point out (its) form. The only time it works with us is when individuals confess, and we open a file under the charges of pretending to practice witchcraft. Apart from that, we seek the help of religious leaders who seem to be helping us a lot,” says Divala.
Grant Chipangula, Traditional Healers Association of Malawi president, adds his voice to the hot-potato issue. He says any legislation dealing with witchcraft should first be handled by traditional doctors because they are the only ‘experts’ on the issue and, to that effect, more likely to find a remedy over the witchcraft jig-saw.
“Only us,traditional doctors and healers, can providing a lasting solution to this. The problem is that policy makers tend to over-look us, thinking we are less educated to grasp issues they treat as technical. But in our area, and the issue of witchcraft is a very good example, we are our own experts," says Chipangula.
His words could be sober and worth considering, it seems. What with African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN)-Malawi Chapter Executive Director, Ken Williams Mhango, claiming there is even a school drilling children in the practice in Salima district.
The organisation conducted a survey between January and February this year in Machinga. Among other findings, children who confessed to practing the same complained that those who refused t learn the 'trade' from parents or relatives suffered various kinds of abuse.
"Around 60 of the children we interviewed complained that they were subjected to physical assaults as well as food deprivation, so you can see that there is a relationship between child abuse and witchcraft. In fact, the issue also touches on other areas of development such as education, as most children end up sleeping in class instead of being attentive simply because they had been busy all night," says Mhango.
And in Salima, he adds, they established that there was a school training children in witchcraft. 'Around 1000 children are said to be in attendance, and 50 graduate every month".
"These things are real; let us look back into the law. A law that betrays the wishes of the people is not a law, it is a flaw."
Inside the law
Studies conducted by the Association for Secular Humanism indicate that up to 87 percent of Malawians believe in witchcraft.
This is despite he existence of a Witchcraft Act that renders it an offence (Section 4) to accuse any person of practicing witchcraft or being a witch. Those who perpetuate such an offence attract a fine of K25, 000 and up to a prison sentence of five years with hard labour.
That is not all, though. Section 5 makes it an offence to employ a sing’anga, sangoma (witchdoctor) to name-call or identify witches in a community. In that case, the personage is liable to a fine of K 25,000 and to imprisonment for five years if found guilty by the court.
And, as if taking cognisance of the fact that traditional leaders are sometimes in the lead, when it comes to accusing some of their subjects of practicing witchcraft, Section 7 stops chiefs from allowing witch-hunting in their communities.
‘Disobedient’ chiefs pay heavily- by local standards- for their role, as they are liable to a fine of K 25,000 and to imprisonment for five years.
Section 8 of the Witchcraft Act then caps it all by implicitly declaring that the calling of witch- finders or witchdoctors is illegal and that every person pretending to exercise such calling commits a crime and is liable to imprisonment for life.
Lastly, Section 3 stipulates that those who avail themselves, or participate in witch-hunting practices shall be liable to a fine of K5, 000 and serve one year in prison.