Malindi elders live in fear of witch-hunt killers

Friday February 6 2009

Some of the elders in Magarini, Malindi District who have accused the government of doing nothing as they are killed on claims of witchcraft. Photo/DANIEL NYASSY

Some of the elders in Magarini, Malindi District who have accused the government of doing nothing as they are killed on claims of witchcraft. Photo/DANIEL NYASSY 

By DANIEL NYASSY

A fresh outcry has been sounded over a wave of killings in Malindi targeting grey-haired elders that has claimed seven in the past two months.


This past week elders in Magarini, Malindi District, including those in the picture above, accused the government of doing nothing as they were killed on claims of witchcraft. They petitioned the government to intervene and protect “anybody with grey hair”.


The elders spoke at Gongoni DO’s office while preparing to travel to Malindi district hospital mortuary to collect the body of Shomela sub-location assistant chief Albert Pendo, another elderly man killed last Monday on suspicion of practising witchcraft. (Malindi is the second largest coastal town of Kenya and is 120 kilometres northeast of Mombasa. Tourism is the major industry in Malindi which is a popular destination site for Italian tourists.)


“I can confirm that seven elderly people have been lynched on suspicion of practising witchcraft in my Gongoni Location in a relatively short time,” said district officer Patrick ole Ntutu.


According to statistics from the local police station, at least 14 elderly people had been killed between last year and January in Magarini constituency alone.

The alarm was first sounded during the homecoming party of East African Community minister Amarson Jeffa Kingi at Kiembeni village in Magarini two months ago.


Before the large gathering, Mzee Abdalla Salim, 60, a retired sub-chief, shook with rage as he spoke of the danger grey-haired elders faced.


“The old generation, Mr minister, is endangered. When one grows grey hair, one starts to count his days on earth for sooner or later, he will be killed on suspicion of practising witchcraft,” he added.


His profound fear could be justified. In just two months, five elderly people have been hacked to death by gangs of youths purporting to be cleansing the villages of witchcraft.


Malindi County Council chairlady Elina Mbaru says elders in her Magarini West ward have turned to using chemicals to hide their age.

‘‘Instead of grey hair being a source of joy, a symbol of old age and wisdom, old people in my ward have turned to using chemicals to dye their hair fearing to be branded as witch doctors,’’ she said.


Speaking at her farewell party at the local Members Club recently before leaving Malindi, Mumias district commissioner Anne Ngetich appealed to the local leaders to find a solution to the murders.

‘‘Belief in witchcraft is deep-rooted in the local community. It has seriously affected development and caused the deaths of many innocent people. A solution should be found,’’ she pleaded.


Her successor, Mr Arthur Mugira, has painstakingly tried to tackle the problem since he came to office late last year. But there is no end in sight for the problem.

In the latest such incident on January 26, Mr Pendo, 50, was found dead 50 metres from his house.


Malindi police chief Peter Kattam said: ‘‘We have arrested four suspects in connection with the assistant chief’s murder.’’


The four are close relatives of the deceased. ‘‘According to reports we received, a relative of the assistant chief died a few days earlier. The suspects went to a traditional seer and were told that he bewitched the relative so they took revenge.’’


Mr Pendo was found in a thicket near his house with deep panga cuts to his head. He was attacked as he headed home from Gongoni trading centre where he had watched a soccer match.


Mr Ntutu says the belief in witchcraft is hard to rout out of the Mijikenda community.


‘‘Fighting it is fighting culture. It is like fighting religion. It is so deeply rooted. Most of the suspects are killed by own relatives. These are usually family issues,’’ he says.


Several suspected killers have been charged in court with murder. Mr Ntutu promises intensified crackdown on the killers.


The gang either cuts its victims with pangas or burns them alive in their homes as the sleep, said a Marafa village elder, Mr Gunda Mwachiro.


Witchcraft has always existed. But the trend has terribly changed these days where any grey-haired person becomes an automatic target. This is wrong, said 80-year-old Mzee Kitsao Masha from Kagombani village in Magarini.


‘‘Today, elders are targeted and killed only because they have grey hair. There is no proof of their involvement in witchcraft,’’ said Mzee Masha.


And 75-year-old Mzee Charo Masha Dena says the young generation has completely lost respect for the elderly.


A villager at Kibao cha Fundisa where a number of the murders have taken place, Mrs Jumwa Mwagandi, 60, says elderly people are killed without any proof that they practice witchcraft.

A youth, Mr Robert Fondo, 23, said some of those killed were guilty of witchcraft. Ms Elina Zawadi, 26, from Gongoni concurs with Fondo and calls on the Government to intervene.


Kaya elders have joined the fray and opposed the killings. There are traditional ways of dealing with the problem, says Kaya Giriama chairman Mzee Charo Menza Tuva.