The Nation (Nairobi)

27 February 2012

Kenya: Shame of Witch-Hunts

Atheist Republic is a Canadian organisation that seeks to promote peace, liberty and justice. It has an eclectic Facebook page which is characterised by a very high number of user-generated content.

Its members advocate against teachings that are not based on facts. It is a great page because it is the only one where you can encounter quotes and essays from notable thinkers on the area of disbelief, from Hume to Hitchens, Dawkins to Darwin and Hawkins to Harris. There is always something new for you to read.

A lot of time is also spent lampooning beliefs that are based on Iron Age texts and are incompatible with the world today. It is a little nice community, and, although I rarely post, I am an avid reader.

Recently, they posted the link to a video of suspected witches being burnt. The video was uploaded to YouTube and was said to have been recorded in Kenya.

It was the most distressing thing I have ever seen. You could see images of a woman trying to escape the fire and then getting kicked back.

Their screams are filled with anguish but fall on deaf ears. Another woman who tries to help the group being burnt is dragged by her feet to the inferno, kicking and screaming.

Some have their hands tied and, despite being engulfed in flames, are beaten with twigs by those around them.

Their lynchers are so impatient with the accused that they cannot even wait for the bonfire to take effect. The people in the video speak what, to my untrained ears, sounds like Ekegusii.

Kiswahili is also spoken in the video, which includes the name of the town where this atrocity took place. So a cursory examination of the evidence would intimate that this was, indeed, Kenya.

The perpetrators are shockingly not worried by the camera in their presence; some of their faces are visible in the smoke. Their brazen disregard for an item that could be -- should be -- used to identify them in a court of law is telling.

They aren't, in the least bit, ashamed of what they are doing. This implies one of three things.

One, either the whole video is a fake; in which case it is a master-class of forgery, an elaborate ruse that incorporates the best thespians Kenya has to offer.

The graphics and special effects of the searing flesh and singed skin are so real-looking and point to a budding local film industry.

Or maybe it is real and these men are hardcore lynchers who are not scared of the camera. Maybe they even brought the camera along to record their exploits.

The third possibility is that it is real and the men are driven by a sense of outrage so great that the presence of a camera doesn't worry them because they are on a holy crusade.

The levels of barbarism on display are unequalled. Even Torquemada, the grand inquisitor of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, would have found it uncomfortable. At least the Spanish inquisition allowed you to recant and renounce your heresy.

The only saving grace that I could find from the clip was the fact that the five "witches" being burnt included both men and women, young and old. So the horde can't stand accused of ageism.

Also, viewers of the horrific clip can't think Kenyans -- because most will think that the lynch mob is representative of a majority of Kenyans -- suffer from the misogyny that runs rampant in Africa. We maybe lynchers, but we are equal opportunity lynchers. We offer co-executional services. We do not discriminate those we burn.

Witch killing isn't limited to Kisii County and, as the Sunday Nation recently pointed out, it occurs with alarming frequency at the coast, in places like Magarini and Ganze.

The main culprit is traditional beliefs. In fact it could be argued that the culprit fuelling the fires of witch burning is religion in general since the witches are always said to be in league with the evil god.

Just like in medieval times, the people of Magarini have developed a test for witches, which involves eating a mango. If you can't eat the special fruit, you are a witch, and off you go.

One witch test from medieval Europe involved throwing the accused into a large body of water. If he floated, he was a witch and was burnt. If he sank, he was innocent, but then ran the risk of drowning. That is what I would term as a lose-lose situation.

The previous Constitution had an Act against witchcraft which was an anachronism in a secular country.

It is sad to read that Kenya also has refugee camps for people suspected of being witches by their own communities. All these suspects are usually elderly people who are sometimes in the grip of dementia and their senility is incorrectly attributed as witchcraft.

It is disheartening to think that over a century since the proof of the germ theory, some people still believe disease is caused by old women and demons.

Of course Christianity is also to blame because a literalist belief in religion only fuels the fires of ignorance. The spectacles of "healing" and exorcisms accompanied by faked glossolalia, which occur in crusades and charismatic churches and are sometimes shown on television, make the situation worse.

These witch killings are a stain on the conscience of our society and paint us all as rabid, pitchfork-waving, intolerant yokels from a backwater country.

Witch-hunts are only permissible in the political arena and should never turn physical. They play into deep-seated prejudices present in Western countries.

They have no place in Kenya and should be stamped out with the heavy-handedness that such an image-destroying issue demands.

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