Malawi is one of the countries in Africa where witch persecution is pervasive. Alleged witches suffer egregious human rights abuses including stoning, lynching and murder. In the late 2000s, courts jailed alleged witches. And some court officials claimed that the imprisonment was for their safety. Local humanist and human rights activists campaigned and helped release many alleged witches from state prisons. But recent news suggests that little has changed regarding the plight of alleged witches in the country. Accused persons are still taken into custody but this time by the Sing’anga, as traditional priests/priestesses and witch hunters are called in the country.
Witch hunts in Mzimba
On May 31, 2020, an AFAW associate in Malawi drew attention to a story on the Sunday edition of The Nation (Malawi), “30 ‘Witches Held Hostage in Mzimba”. The story recounted how a local priestess and witchcraft exorcist, Bernadette Tembo, popularly known as Berna detained many alleged witches in her compound in Northern Malawi.
The report acknowledged that witchcraft accusation was against the law in Malawi. But it attributed the witch-hunting activities of Berna to lack of law enforcement. Berna detain alleged witches from various constituencies who are unable to pay her fine. And the police do not intervene to rescue victims. In Malawi, those who suspect witchcraft invite witch hunters to come and exorcise and cleanse their communities. And in return for her ‘service’, Berna fines alleged witches the equivalent of 200 to 300 US dollars, and those who are unable to pay the fine are abducted and detained at her compound.
Police inaction and witchcraft act
The report noted that the police in the area knew about these criminal activities but did not intervene to stop them because they feared a backlash from the communities. The report noted that a legal expert blamed the situation on a British colonial law that was not into tune with reality. The report did not explain what this legal expert meant by “not in tune with reality”. Malawi had its independence in1964 and has had ample opportunities to revise the law but did not use them. In Malawi and some African countries, there has been agitation to enact legislation that recognizes the reality of witchcraft. It is pertinent to note that there is nothing wrong with the witchcraft act that legislates against witchcraft allegations and pretensions to having magical powers. The major problem in Malawi and other African countries where this provision applies is mixing religion and politics and lack of necessary and enabling educational and social structures that are compatible with the spirit of this provision.
The journalist from The Nation newspaper went undercover and interviewed witch exorcist, Berna. She denied fining alleged witches. Berna stated that she was providing “services” at the invitation of families and communities and with the permission of local leaders. She claimed that she kept some of the alleged witches in her compound for their safety. Incidentally, the police have advanced the same reason for keeping alleged witches in custody in the past. Judges have used the same excuse to sentence alleged witches to prison.
This safety narrative has been used and abused over the years and needs to be unpacked. The place that alleged witches are safe is not in the custody of witchfinders or at the police stations or at state prisons. The place that alleged witches are safe is at their cultural homes and efforts must be made to ensure their safety in their communities. More importantly, efforts must be made to dismantle structures that threaten and endanger their lives and help bring to justice those who undermine the safety of alleged witches in the communities.
After reading the story, I rang up the office of The Nation in Lilongwe, and through a staff member, I got through the person who covered the story. He recounted how challenging it was to report stories on witch persecution. He noted that journalists preferred political stories to witchcraft related reports. This journalist traveled down to Mzimba He met with one of the alleged witches who was abducted but later released after he paid the ransom. He also met with families of another victim who is still held captive by the Sing’nga. Here are stories of these two persons, Yembe and Kundi (not their real names) as recounted by the journalist.
In the case of Yembe, 35, the cousin in South Africa complained that he was bewitching him; that Yembe used to appear in his dream threatening to kill him. Family members consulted Berna, the most powerful Sing’anga in the area. Berna said that Yembe was not a witch, that witches were using his face for their operations and his house for their meetings and conferences.
The elders agreed that the Sing’anga should come and perform an exorcism and cleanse the community of witchcraft. Berna arrived with her battalion of assistants. They beat the drums and later broke into the house of Yembe. They removed the witchcraft paraphernalia. Yembe asked if they could disclose the names of the people who were using his face to perform witchcraft but the Sing’anga declined. She asked Yembe to pay an equivalent of 200-300 US dollars. But Yembe could not afford the fine. The Sing’anga abducted and detained him in her compound for three weeks until the relatives came and paid the fine and he was released. The journalist said Yembe was still traumatized at the time of the interview.
The journalist noted that Yembe was fortunate to have been released. Other alleged witches were still trapped at the compound of Berna due to their inability to pay the fines. The journalist visited the family home of another victim, Kundi. A family member told him that Kundi’s nephew died and the family consulted the Sing’anga. The Sing’anga stated that Kundi was responsible for the death. Family members reported the matter to the chief. They sort and got approval from the chief for Berna to come and cleanse the community.
The Sing’anga arrived with her team of witch-finders and broken into the house of Kundi. Sing’anga removed all the items in the apartment that witches allegedly used for their meetings and operations in the house. She fined Kundi an equivalent of 200 US dollars. Again, Kundi could not afford it. Berna confiscated Kundi’s cupboard which was valued at a hundred dollars. Kundi also has a maize farm and the Sing’anga asked that Kundi’s maize be harvested and used in settling the outstanding bill. Berna’s assistants took Kundi away after beating him. The Sing’anga said that Kundi was not completely free of witchcraft and could destroy the community if left behind. According to the journalist Kundi has been working as a clerk for the Sing’anga for the past two years. As the journalist noted this practice has been going on for years. And Berna was not the only Sing’anga perpetrating these criminal activities in the region.
The journalist contacted the police in the area and they claimed to be aware of the activities of Berna and other Sing’anga. The officers noted that the police were ill-equipped to stop them. There was a limited police presence in the communities. In fact, at one police post, there were only six officers on duty. The police claimed that if they tried to stop these criminal activities of the Sing’anga, the community members would attack and sack them.
Meanwhile, AFAW associate in Malawi also drew attention to another incident of witch persecution in Dowa. An angry mob killed three suspected witches and burnt down their houses. The victims, which included the village head were accused of being responsible for the death of a boy in the community.
Condemns witch-hunting activities and other human rights abuses linked to the belief in witchcraft in Malawi
Calls on the police and government of Malawi to arrest and prosecute Bernadette Tembo and others involved in witch-hunting activities including assault, abduction, extortion, kidnapping, and hostage-taking of alleged witches in Mzimba and other regions in Malawi
Appeals to the government to convene a meeting of Sing’anga and community leaders in Malawi and get them to commit to stopping witch finding activities nationwide
Suggests that the government of Malawi organizes training sessions for judges, magistrates and police officers on the enforcement and interpretation of the Witchcraft Act and other relevant provisions
Urges the government of Malawi to increase police presence in the communities especially in areas prone to witch persecution and murder
Asks the government of Malawi to establish community clinics/health centers that provide evidence-based diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and put in place health education programs that provide evidence-based explanations of dreams, diseases, and deaths.
Requests the government of Malawi to compensate and rehabilitate victims of witch persecution in the country.
AFAW reminds the government of Malawi that it is their primary responsibility to protect the lives and property of Malawians and end rampant cases of witch persecution and killing in the country.
AFAW is of the view that there is nothing wrong with the Witchcraft Act as contained in the criminal code of Malawi and other African countries. Authorities in Malawi need to muster the political will to enforce this important provision and use it to tackle crimes linked to the belief in witchcraft. AFAW is committed to working with the government of Malawi and other relevant agencies to stamp out witch persecution and related abuses before 2030