Witchcraft in Malawi Provides Challenges for Journalists

Feb 282011

Editors note: Knight Fellow Edem Djokotoe discusses the challenges and various methods of identifying and prosecuting withcraft.

The witchcraft stories that make the news range from spine-chilling and spooky to downright bizarre to fatally tragic. Take the case of 26-year-old Leticia Wyson from Nkondilile Village in central Malawi, for example. On January 15, villagers say she gave birth to two plastic bags containing a millipede, a snail, two mango seeds and nine small stones instead of a baby. Or the case of 12-year-old Chrispin Kaetano of Lirongwe, who was beaten to death by his uncle and three aunts for allegedly afflicting his cousin with malaria using witchcraft 11 days earlier.

Of course, in a country where, according to a 2010 Gallup survey, 73 per cent of the population believe in witchcraft, such stories are bound to be common. So common that even media coverage of witchcraft has been become equally predictable. But beyond reports of bizarre incidents, the lynching of suspected witches and the tear-jerking tales of their victims, there is nothing else.

So when the chance came to travel to Tukombo to cover the high incidence of witchcraft there, I felt it would provide the perfect opportunity to go beyond the predictable. I felt we could investigate the challenges witchcraft poses for development. In other words, Tukombo would provide a point of departure to examine the sociology of witchcraft against the backdrop of cultural, sociological, legal and human rights issues in rural Malawi, and from there to the broader national stage.

In the seven-hour drive from Blantyre to Tukombo, I shared my thoughts about how the story could be done with Emmanuel Muwamba, the journalist I travelled with. The long drive to Tukombo gave us a good chance to talk and by the time we arrived, we had a clearer idea of how we would proceed with the story. If we were going to pursue the witchcraft story from a development angle, then we might as well frame it against the backdrop of the socio-economic profile of the town. Tukombo is a quaint, picture-postcard fishing town in Nkhata Bay district of northern Malawi, known for its unspoiled white sand beaches. Farming is the second largest economic activity in the area, with cassava, bananas, sweet potatoes and hybrid maize as the crops of choice for most farmers.

Since 2005, agricultural production in the district has been growing marginally, despite the fact both altitude and Lake Malawi collaborate to give the area abundant rainfall from November to March, sometimes extending even to May. But according to Chief Zilakoma of Tukombo , the rainy season does not exactly bring showers of blessing. Apparently, incidence of witchcraft is at its highest during this period.

He explained: “Witchcraft is worse during the rainy season. Villagers bewitch each other constantly because of disputes over land. Farmers whose crops do better than others also become targets of witchcraft. Same goes for fishermen. This breeds a lot of negative feeling in Tukombo, making it difficult for people of this town to progress.”

Chief Zilakoma said because of the increase in cases of witchcraft in the area, he was holding court once every week instead of once a month. His concerns about the prevalence of witchcraft are echoed in the official socio-economic profile of the district published by the municipal authority. The 113-page official document makes this startling revelation: “…fishermen in the district believe in using witchcraft to catch fish, especially usipa. People have been warned not to buy usipa that has traces of blood on it because this is deemed to be man-made through witchcraft.”

The pervasiveness of witchcraft in Tukombo recently prompted a number of townsfolk to hire a witch finder from another village to purge the area of witches. The man they hired is 27-year-old Patrick Tundu who works under the name he says the spirits gave him--Dr. Temakamoza. He prosecutes witches in a public display based on his own brand of spiritual justice. In the one month he has been in town, he has fingered 20 witches.

Apart from cutting up their faces with a razor blade and inserting a mixture of herbs in the fresh wounds to strip them of their evil powers, he fines them 50,000 Malawi Kwacha (about US$325). But the fines he is exacting are far more than they can afford. Those who cannot pay up are detained until they do. Temakamoza keeps five muscle-bound vigilantes on site to ensure that nobody leaves without paying up and to enforce other aspects of his law.

In the two and half days we spent in Tukombo, we spoke to the witch finder, “convicted” witches, child witches, ordinary townsfolk, fishermen, the local chief and victims of witchcraft, documenting their testimonies and their experiences.

One of the confessed witches we spoke to was Tryness Banda, 54. A peasant farmer with three children and four grandchildren, she has been in Temakamoza’s custody for over a month. But why exactly is she there? She grins wickedly and says:. “I am here because I am a witch and killed four people between 2009 and March last year. For me, there’s no real benefit. I kill for fun and when they are dead, I attend their funerals. It’s a form of entertainment.”

Another self-confessed witch on Temakamoza’s roll call of dishonour is a rice farmer called Amos Chipeta, 51. He was found guilty of causing disability using witchcraft. “I touched the right knee of a man who bought rice from me and inserted five needles in it through magic,” he explained. Chipeta says he denied the charge at first until the witch finder removed the needles from the knee of his victim in public, proving his guilt to those present beyond all reasonable doubt.

The witch finder uses two horsetail flywhisks as a radar for detecting the evil vibrations that the presence of witchcraft emits. Once he is convinced that there is a witch present, he takes a walking stick he has coated in a cocktail of herbs and dares the suspect to grab it with both hands. If there is no reaction, the suspect is declared innocent. But if the invisible power in the stick pulls the suspect to the witch finder, then guilt has been established and justice can now be done in accordance with Dr. Temakamoza’s spiritual law.

His methods of establishing witchcraft and proving guilt are described by the Malawian Witchcraft Act of the Penal Code, enacted on 12 March 1911 as “trial by ordeal” and deemed illegal and punishable by life imprisonment. Curiously, the police insist there is no law under which the crime of witchcraft can be prosecuted, even though, according to the Malawi Law Commission, there has been pressure from the public and various interest groups to have the act amended since 1996.

Our efforts to explore the legal, judicial, human rights and development of issues around witchcraft took us beyond the borders of Tukombo to Zomba, the old capital, where Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, is located. One of the experts we spoke to there was Dr. Jubilee Tizifa, a sociologist. He said research in the developing world had long established witchcraft as a social and cultural obstacle to development.

“Witchcraft is part of the peasant thought system that prevents people from taking advantage of opportunities to better their lives. But its effects are real, which is why witchcraft needs to be discussed in the context of development theory, with law and policy reform taking this reality into account,” he said.

But his colleague, Tiyesere M. Chikapa-Jamali, a development scholar, said the effects of witchcraft on development have not been studied as extensively as those caused by poverty and disease. “It’s only now that we are coming out of our shell to openly discuss witchcraft. Only through research can we objectively assess the cost of witchcraft on development so that the findings can subsequently inform development policy in Malawi,” she said.

The Weekend Nation published Muwamba’s report in a three-part series. After the first story ran, the head of the Association of Secular Humanists wrote a letter to the editor in which he noted that it’s a crime in Malawi to accuse anyone of being a witch or practicing witchcraft. The association sent an officer to Tukombo to ask the police to arrest the witch finder noted in the article, and copied the Inspector General in with a request for “appropriate action.” It will be interesting to see what comes of these developments.