Nairobi — Kenya has had a tumultuous relationship with witchcraft throughout the years. On one hand it is now illegal, its practitioners facing jail sentences and hefty fines, and on the other, there are deeply held superstitions and beliefs that have simply melded with other aspects of life ranging from the promise of good exam results to cured impotence.
Thomas Mawara's face was like that of many men in his village. Heavily lined and pockmarked. It was the face of a man who had resisted hardship and more than one famine, watching a hard life defeat the feeble as he persisted year after year. In Magarini Constituency, hunger always squats in the horizon, carefully arranging its papers, watching and biding time, waiting to move in.
February last year, a mob in Magarini set this man ablaze. He was accused of crimes he did not commit. He was accused of crimes impossible to commit. He had confessed, under the sway of violence and beatings, that he conspired to commit murder using otherwordly powers. He was a sorcerer, according to his accusers.
His family stood by as he was torched and his screams did not appeal to them or any affection they may have felt. Those who could help did not, pity might be misconstrued as admission to a co-conspirator's role. There was going to be a death in the family, no need to turn one grave into a mass grave, to make angry mob think that sorcery was the family business. So they remained silent.
There's no right way to conduct your defence when the pitchforks and torches are at your door. Denials invite beatings and acceptance might be signing your own death certificate. The old man knew he was done for when the tinder arrived. Kerosene is always mysteriously available for immolation. He met a fiery end, its brutality dismissed with the belief that sorcerers can feel no pain, or feel it differently than ordinary mortals.
It's a ruthless and disturbing scene, and it's hard to imagine what could make people forget their humanity so easily, but the truth is that witchcraft and the rituals surrounding it still have several strongholds in Kenya - namely Machakos, Kisii, Kitui and on the coast. These areas, however, do not simply attribute their misfortune to the occult - were that the case it would be more difficult for them to turn on their families and neighbours. Here, life is dictated by superstition and the supernatural characters that come in two varieties: the evil mchawi, a witch or sorcerer, and the good mganga, a healer or witchdoctor.
Into the Shaman's Lair
Mombasa, a vacationing paradise for local and international tourists, is home to numerous witchdoctors. I am purposely here in search of one, and as luck would have it the streets are papered with soothsayer fliers advertising their services. Many of them want a monetary commitment, sent via a mobile money transfer service, before agreeing to a meet. Some flat out refuse interview requests.
A witchdoctor from Nigeria - with an accent from the Western part of Kenya - asks that I send enough money to buy several farm animals for sacrifices before even hearing me out. Kenya is also filled with occult expatriates from Tanzania's Tanga, Dar es Salaam and Pemba. It would seem the trade that has most embraced the spirit of East African integration is diviners. Since witchcraft is illegal in Kenya, one wonders how such a great number of Tanzanian and Nigerian 'professionals' are able to get work permits.
Eventually I find a witchdoctor, Musa 'from Tanga', who is willing to see me. We agree to meet at his office in Bamburi, a short distance up the coast from the town centre. I find my way there, imagining what I might find, and, though I have thought through a few options, his office still surprises me when I arrive.
Musa is in his late 40s. He has an athletic build and is missing a front tooth. No skin markings or other trappings of the colourful shaman stereotype reinforced in so many Nigerian movies. The man standing in front of me is ordinary. He is dressed the same as I am, in a shirt and trousers - a bit disappointing. I'd thought part of the mystique of occult practitioners lay in sartorial otherness.
A poster in one corner of the office has a list of services he offers.The rest of the space is filled with paraphernalia you would associate with witchcraft - finally something my imaginings have gotten right. He claims his tools come from many sources. Some are given by the spirits. There are gourds on the floor, which he says are filled with exotic blood. I see the horned skull of, I think, a large cow in a corner. There is also a charm tied in knots, an artefact he claims could be used for sinister intentions.
There are two mirrors on the wall and a chest of drawers pressed into the wall to their left.
There are two low stools close to the back wall and one larger one that he sits on. He tells me that he was chosen byhis maternal grandmother for the job. Though the name "witchcraft" implies a craft that anyone can learn with patience, persistence and muttering the right incantations, Musa claims that only a few have the ability to commune with spirits. There is also a belief that witchcraft can be performed using animal surrogates. I ask him whether the cat I just saw in the corridor is one of his charges. He laughs and jokes that it's a trade secret. Can he metamorphose? He smiles again but does not answer.
I shift my questioning to his services. He specialises in incantations, casting spells, performing divinations and exorcisms, creating amulets and charms as well as brewing potions and salves. Musa is also capable of finding lovers, reading horoscopes, curing erectile dysfunction and barrenness, and getting someone a job or a promotion. Most of his customers come for the three E's: employment, elections and examinations.
The market for witchcraft in Kenya spans a meter from supernatural miracles to herbal products. Curses can be cast or lifted. Spirits can be cleansed or sought for advice. Live sacrifices can invoke the powers of darkness or light. Futures and fortunes are told and changed.
A lot of people who practice sorcery, especially in Mombasa, wear charms.
"If you ask many people to strip you will find them with hirizis," (charms worn around the waist to protect the wearer) Musa tells me. He refuses my requests to get in touch with his clients, citing witchdoctor-patient confidentiality. With a bit ofpushing, however, he agrees. After a small fee is negotiated.
He asks me to meet him after his office hours, at 5 o'clock.
Meeting the Clientele
My foray begins with a journey to Barisheba, a simple place which is filled with Swahili houses. Here, Musa promises to introduce me to a woman who has been his client for several years. Her name is Sidi.
The soothsayer tells me that he helped Sidi get a child. Sidi believes that she was unable to conceive because of an ancient curse. Story upon story of witchcraft and its attendant evils unspool from her. Bad things had happened in the past to female members of her family after a long feud started by life in a polygamous household. The co-wives were jealous - one was thought to be a witch, one was jealous of the other's fecundity.
Sidi's grandmother would hear and see strange things in the house. At night, the widow felt her house shake. Similarly, Sidi's mother would hear voices calling her. Often her mother used to hear footsteps running outside in the dead of night. Once her mother found an odd object on her farm during a drought year. She said that their farm in Lunga Lunga, Kwale County, has always had poor harvests compared to their neighbours. It also bore the brunt of pests and diseases. Finding peculiar objects and charms in the farm was proof of an outsider's evil intentions, and though her mother tried to cleanse the farm using a local healer, the problems persisted.
Now, three generations into the curse, Sidi says prayers were inadequate and doctors could not help her when she experienced migraines and her hand shook involuntarily as she was growing up. Eventually, she resorted to an 'expert'. She regularly burns incense from Musa to keep away the evil spirits.
Human physiology is not entirely divorced from human psychology. People who believe they are cursed could interpret any illness afflicting them as a manifestation of the curse. They get sick because they believe that they should be sick. When I put it to Musa that she might be extrapolating the curse, he gets very upset and the interview with Sidi immediately ends.
As we prepare to leave, a young child comes running inside asking for his mother. I assume this is the miracle baby. The boy is young - under 5 years old - eager and jumpy, and only stops to scan the new face he's never seen before. Sidi takes him away to an inner room.
Before Musa departs, I request an impromptu manifestation of unearthly powers, which he blatantly refuses, saying that I should come for a proper consultation where all my problems and questions will be solved. There will be no conjurations.
Witchcraft, Religion and Tradition
I meet with Ssemakula, the leader of Freethinkers Initiative Kenya, a group dedicated to promoting logic and reason, to ask him about witchcraft. He considers it a quaint superstition. "These beliefs are rooted deeply among a people's psyche. They are blended closely together with theology, magic and folklore. All tribes have their myths of ancient medicine men or leaders who had supernatural powers." He adds that in traditional societies, witchcraft is used as an explanation for misfortunes that happen. The bad eye can cause anything from miscarriages to unemployment to a straying husband. It is an acceptable crutch used to explain and understand calamity. Those who believe a misfortune is more than happenstance often seek means to thwart it.
Witchcraft is an attempt to understand the bad things that happen. It not only allows understanding, it permits those who practice it or seek solace in it to influence events. Witchery occurs where rational knowledge fails.
For example, if you leave the granary door open and find rats inside then it is obviously your fault. But, if you lock the granary and still find common vermin then it is obviously the work of the spirits.
For its believers, the mystery of long illnesses, death and disease are considered the province of witchdoctors. There is no inconsistency between those who visit doctors and witchdoctors. The first treats outside symptoms of a malady and the second could be used to find the root cause of the disease.
"Christian faith and pagan beliefs may seem at odds with each other, but often locals combine them in an effort to have greater influence in their lives. [To them] the two are not mutually exclusive. In one context it may be alright to have a crucifix and in the next an amulet is allowed," says Ssemakula.
In some rituals, new beliefs and old beliefs blend together. The burial of the King of the Wanga in Western Province is a prime example. The funeral rights may have been Christian, but old beliefs concerned with ensuring that the soul of the king would enter paradise were incorporated. So you find a gravesite blessed with holy water and a few prayers followed by the pouring of a bit of alcohol for the ancestors and a few incantations to make sure the soul departs to a better place.
Belief in witchcraft supplements divine beliefs. Witches are seamlessly fit into various religious narratives and they are viewed as human collaborators of devils. To such people, the difference between incantations and prayers is just the level of certainty attached to them. While many Kenyans would likely prefer to pin this way of thinking on a few specific areas and groups, superstition has not yet been fully expunged from national discourse. According to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Centre, 25 percent of Kenyans believe in witchcraft and the occult. Kenya ranks 15th in the continent for belief in dark magic, behind regional neighbour Tanzania.
Witchcraft and Politics
Kenyan politicians have always been rumoured to use occult powers to further their careers. Musikari Kombo, a former local government minister, lost an election petition after claims that he had used witchcraft to win the 1992 elections. Kombo is said to have used witchdoctors to administer oaths to compel voters to vote him in.
In 2003, former Yatta MP James Mutiso died after his car was swept away in flash floods. With him in the car he had a traditional healer and several charms. Police reports claim "bizarre" items were found at the scene.
Musa relates a rather colourful report of his exploits helping clients win seats in the 2013 elections. "All politicians at the Coast use whatever methods they have at their disposal to make their message more popular with the public." He adds that their enemies constantly wish them harm and so they always have to protect themselves with charms and amulets.
When it comes to questions of his present and former clients he drops more names than a telephone directory: two senators, several MPs and numerous county representatives.
Of course, as with any superstition, the degree to which people believe in witchcraft varies. For many of these politicians, a successful election will be attributed to their campaigns, and the mganga is simply a box to be checked off, just in case. But in areas where these witchdoctors and the supernatural is a part of every day life, matters become deadly serious.
Musa, being a practitioner himself, is of the opinion that those found engaging in witchcraft, even that which aims to harm others, should not be killed. All witches who are evil, the mchawi, can be reformed. Musa believes that the majority of witches are good and can be converted. The very powerful evil ones can be dangerous to confront alone, he warns.
In Magarini, communities are deeply wracked with suspicions of witchcraft.
There were 20 witch burnings in two weeks last year in the constituency. It is one of the poorest areas in Kenya and lies at the bottom of many economic indicators. Low literacy, high unemployment and severe drug abuse are prevalent in the county.
Child mortality, usually higher in these deprived areas, is considered the work of night runners. Senility, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and any suspicious behaviour brought on by advanced age is interpreted as witchcraft. Here, the supernatural is the culprit behind almost every conceivable societal malaise.
The people of Magarini Constituency have a trial to test alleged witches that involves eating a specially prepared mango, which any witch would be unable to consume. Failure to successfully perform the test or any hesitancy in taking the test is latched upon as proof of occultism. Public confessions of witchcraft elicit violence, not forgiveness.
Witch hunters are also commonplace in these areas. One famous ghost buster in Mombasa is Achiba Bakari. Bakari claims to have come back from the dead, after a stint in the mortuary. A wealthy man whose riches are a result of his unique skill set, Bakari specialises in hunting witches who use their powers for evil. He tears off the heads of chickens with his bare teeth and he performs exorcisms, acts which have landed him before a judge, accused of practising witchcraft.
In 2009, four men from Kwale were sentenced to a 50-year jail term each for killing Mohammed Rumba, who they suspected to be a witch. Conviction in most cases is hard, as whole communitiesare involved and do not speak out against each other. In this case however, Rumba's wife had watched her husband be hacked apart by a machete and served as a key witness. The severe sentencing was meant to be a warning, but the practice still persists.
Kisii town is notorious for killings, and 2009 was one of the most brutal in Kenya's modern history in terms of witch murders. Villagers in the region were so brazen that Joseph Odhiambo, a journalist for the BBC, witnessed mob 'justice' whilst standing with a village elder. Odhiambo recounts the commotion as residents of the area walked up a hill, smoke clouding the air.
A woman unexpectedly broke away from the crowd, screaming and terrified, but she was unceremoniously brought back amidst blows and kicks. When he realised what was happening, it was too late. He helplessly watched as they burned her alive.
What's most shocking about Odhiambo's account is the youth taking part in this and how justified they felt about the punishment awarded. One is quoted as saying, "In other communities, there are witches all round but in Kisii we have come up with a new method, we want to kill these people using our own hands."
Another woman in the town was brutalised, left alive but disabled. "They shone a light in my face. I thought - what is happening? What can I do? That was when I felt the first cut into my body. I looked down and saw my hand was cut right off. Then they cut into the right one and it was hanging. Then I felt a blow against my head and I lost consciousness," Sato Magdalena Ndela said, speaking to The Independent after her ordeal.
Usually all it takes is an accusation, though it seems there are economic benefits to this apparent madness. In drier areas of Coast Province, where food is scarce, the aged are considered a burden. The elderly are resented as they are too weak to work. They are accused of sorcery and murdered, then their land is subdivided into portions among their survivors. One woman, who had reached 100 years of age, owned 12 acres of beachfront property in Kilifi. Her own family accused her of being a witch, and shortly after investors arrived to ask about availability of the plot. She was only spared immolation with the interference of a local councillor.
In Kilifi County, there is a rescue centre for the elderly people fleeing accusations of sorcery. It features counsellors for traumatised victims and health facilities for those with deteriorating conditions. A report in The Sunday Nation detailed how an elderly man in Kilifi County sought refuge in a chief's camp after his sons and wife planned to kill him.
Throughout Kilifi, travelling witch hunters go from village to village exposing offenders. They devise tests that can indicate whether one is a witch, and purportedly possess special powers that allow them to sense these evil persons. Sometimes the alleged occultist is expelled from the community and sometimes the end is more tragic.
The End of Witchcraft?
Modern technology has, of course, stamped its influence on superstition. In 2011, a video was uploaded to YouTube showing five 'witches' being lynched in Kisii County. The victims were tied up and beaten with sticks as the flames engulfed them. It's a shocking and sickening minute, but it's also a rare look into the darkest parts of superstition - for outsiders and believers.
Witches have been accorded such great powers that local populations who are one failed harvest from starvation find it a necessity to kill them before they finish the whole community. Coincidence does not exist and every misfortune is the result of enemy agents. The 'convicts' are family members, lovers and neighbours, but they are guilty.
The Witchcraft Act in Kenya carries a 10-year prison sentence, but it's often hard to prosecute those found guilty due to its low priority and a lack of co-operation in the community. Drive for 30 minutes down a Kenyan road and you're bound to see at least one placard for some mganga offering relationship and impotence assistance. To most they're harmless, even a punch line, but the truth is even these seemingly innocuous characters are reinforcing the credence that allows innocents to be burned.
While these beliefs are blended with tradition and culture, it's time to let go of the practices that maim and kill.