Malawi: Witchcraft in Malawi - a Real Threat for the Elderly

Attacks on the elderly are increasing in Malawi, often under the pretext that witchcraft is at play. Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell her story, but there is a worrying increase in elder abuse.
29 January 2024

The root causes of poverty are complex, but witchcraft is usually not tabled as one. However in East Africa, attacks on senior citizens accused of bringing misfortune on their communities through magic are on the rise.

Just days before Christmas, 78-year-old Eliza Supuni was bludgeoned to death near the town of Mulanje in the Southern Region of Malawi.

Her motionless, bloodied body was rushed to a local health center just as she took her final breath.

Supuni was pronounced dead on arrival.

The perpetrators of the brutal killing were her three grandsons, who reportedly attacked the elderly woman with metal bars and stones, according to local eyewitnesses.

"A post-mortem established the cause of death as internal bleeding as a result of fractured ribs on her right side of the body, secondary to assault," Innocent Moses, the police liaison officer for the district, told DW.

Moses said that the three suspects then tried to flee to neighboring Mozambique, but added that they have been arrested in the month since the gruesome crime. He stressed that on the day of the crime, they allegedly injured two other elderly persons.

"Their age range is between 19 and 23. They will be charged with murder," Moses added, highlighting that the maximum sentence they face is life imprisonment.

But what made the three men murder their own grandmother?

'Witchcraft' as excuse for social ills

There had been a series allegations saying that Supuni had been engaging in witchcraft -- especially since one of her sisters had died earlier in the year during the delivery of her baby through Cesarean section.

Health authorities described the death of Supuni's sister as a "natural death" -- but this did not convince some of the locals in a country were cases of mob killings targeting senior citizens accused of witchcraft are still widespread.

Elderly women and people with albinism are particularly at risk of facing such accusations.

According to Malawian law, raising accusations of witchcraft is a crime punishable by law -- however, that law is hard to enforce in what is one of the poorest nations of the world.

World Bank data from last year shows that 72% of Malawians now have to survive on less than €2 ($2.16) a day -- up from just under 70% in 2019.

Many locals meanwhile associate this growing state of poverty directly with witchcraft: A 2022 Afrobarometer survey found that 74% of Malawians associate witchcraft with suffering misfortune in life, including illness, poverty and untimely death.

Attacks and killings not limited to Malawi

As poverty rates continue to rise, so do the numbers of killings linked to accusations of witchcraft and magic. Records from Malawi's Ministry of Gender, Social Welfare and Community Development show that the number of witchcraft-related attacks and killings targeting elderly persons went up by a quarter from a total of 21 cases in 2022 to 29 in 2023.

But the issue isn't exclusive to Malawi.

Neighboring countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania also have their fare share of violent attacks on the elderly linked to allegations of witchcraft, as do nations in West Africa.

"In Tanzania, the elderly continue to be accused of witchcraft, and constitute the majority of victims of killings over witchcraft suspicions. Elderly persons -- especially those with red eyes -- are repeatedly accused of witchcraft simply because of their age, which is a form of discrimination," says Anna Henga, Executive Director for the Legal and Human Rights Centre, one of the leading human rights bodies in the East African nation.

Henga further says that African countries must do more and take deliberate measures to protect the elderly while also raising awareness about misconceptions.

Felistas Phiri, projects officer at HelpAge Zimbabwe, agrees with Henga's assessment, saying that many people in her country do not understand how certain illnesses that primarily affect the elderly -- such as dementia -- work, and that they tend to interpret the signs and symptoms of such conditions as signs of witchcraft.

"The older persons that were once seen as caretakers, as fountains of wisdom and knowledge are unfortunately now seen as wizards. They are stripped off of their dignity and importance. This is why we must continue to promote sustainable livelihoods for all older people," Phiri told DW.

A 2015 report by the parent charity of HelpAge Zimbabwe, HelpAge International, ranked Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania as the 10 worst countries to grow old in, having measured issues like income security, social connections and the physical safety of the elderly.

No dignity for Malawi's elderly

The Malawi Network of Older Persons' Organizations (MANEPO) recommends that social security schemes, including a universal old persons' pension, should be introduced in the impoverished county.

This would not only provide those having to live under the poverty line with somewhat of a lifeline but would also help proactively to deescalate this rate of killings, as income safety and stability -- especially for senior citizens -- would shield them from being accused of engaging in witchcraft to induce misfortune on others for their own alleged benefit.

MANEPO says that accusations of witchcraft go as far as implicating innocent senior citizens of causing droughts and deluges.

"Lack of appropriate social protection schemes to address poverty in old age, fractured social support systems at family and community levels, and the loss of personal dignity due to poverty make the elderly vulnerable to witchcraft-related accusations," MANEPO notes.

'Legalizing witchcraft'

There are other approaches also being tabled to address Malawi's escalating witch-hunt: In 2022, a Special Law Commission actually made a surprising recommendation after reviewing Malawi's Witchcraft Act -- which is a piece of colonial-era legislation dating back to 1911, still being applied in such cases today.

The committee said the country should begin to recognize witchcraft as something that exists -- in order to allow the law to be the stage to address such accusations rather than allowing for mob justice to take over.

"People's beliefs cannot be suppressed by legislation," said retired Supreme Court Judge Robert Chinangwa, who headed the commission, emphasizing how deeply many communities believe in the existence of witchcraft and sorcery.

Meanwhile, Michael Kaiyatsa, Executive Director for the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), said that continuing to criminalize witchcraft should help curb such attacks, adding that recognizing it as a real phenomenon, as was recommended by the Special Law Commission, would make the issue of delivering the burden of proof in a court of law problematic.

"It is the good practice of law that for someone to be convicted, the prosecution might have [to deliver] proof beyond reasonable doubt. How is that going to be in witchcraft cases, as we know this is [meant to involve] supernatural powers?" Kaiyatsa said.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

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