Where witchcraft still reigns supreme

Wednesday April 21 1999

By MWAKERA MWAJEFA

Visibly exhausted but still holding on, two men playing Kayambas escort a delirious mob which in turn follows a scantily dressed middle aged woman into a room.

Out of this group, one person in a traditional regalia holding mwana wa ndonga (small gourd), keeps on uttering unintelligible words with devilish sounds.

This mumbo jumbo, according to a source who has participated in it, is kuzuza pepo (exorcising spirits) in Giriama. The procession is headed for a nearby muzimu (shrine), for cleansing rites.

The Kayamba of Kilifi district are traditionally used by people to exorcise evil spirits believed to be cast by witches or wizards during their nocturnal meetings in a locality.

Says the source: "Witchcraft is not a strange phenomenon in this area. It has been in existence since the times of ngiriama, a deadly medicine used to protect the community against the Galla of Ethiopia during the migration era.

The source adds that anybody who carried ngiriama pot never lived to tell the tale because at the end of the day, "he will die after handing it over to somebody else to carry."

In Kilifi, mihaso, a type of medicine, is used to cure different types of mental or physical ailments and inadequacies. Such treatment can go for a full day or night, depending on the patients' response or witch-doctors' instruction.

Another common cure in the area is the use of ngoma ya pepo which uses drumming, singing and dancing to treat a possessed victim who then rocks the body gracefully, nods the head rhythmically and gesticulates according to the talking drums.

Belief in witchcraft in Kilifi is as strong and widespread as belief in the Bible. Despite the presence of modern medicine, many communities in the area are obsessed with fear of witchcraft. Everything is interpreted in this light.

Just a mere squint from a stranger, it is believed, can result into a sickness popularly referred to as dege (envy) and a rush "kutsuha mburuga" (consult a divining board) from a medicineman.

A truck driver, Mr Kalume Charo, told the Nation Coast that before the Mijikenda disintegrated into nine closely-related sub-tribes, each took a portion of ngiriama which found its resting place in the Kayas (holy shrines).

Every sub-tribe like the Giriama, Chonyi, Kauma, Rabai, Digo, Jibana, Duruma, Ribe and Kambe have their vigojo (small shrine) where the elders hold tribal rituals.

However, a herbalist from Gongoni in Bahari division who declined to be named claims what goes on in the traditional Kayas "is nothing but witchcraft." Saying he is a witch-buster, the herbalist said when he visited Kaya Chonyi, he discovered it to be a den of witches, wizards, black magicians and evil diviners.

"Traditionally, to enter a Kaya, one has to singa (roughen) his or her hair, wear special traditional regalia with no footwear and be prepared to sit on a human skull," the herbalist said.

The medicine man adds that due to utsai (witchcraft), people in the area do not build permanent or iron-roofed houses for fear of being bewitched.

Witchcraft in Kilifi is art. Famous traditional healers or witch-busters have hailed from there. Among the famed witch-doctors are the early 1960s Kabwere, the late Tsuma Washe Kajiwe and currently "Doctor" Chaumbeya Kaya.

Kabwere of Malindi is believed to have been married to more than 400 women - most of whom were his patients. It is said he kept a register to remember them. By the time Kajiwe died in the early 90s, he had 42 wives.

In fact, due to the number of children he sired, Kijiwe started his own primary school - Kajiwe - at Uwanja wa Ndege along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway to cater for his children's education.

Born in 1960 at Kasidi village of Gongoni in Bahari Division, another medicine man Chaumbeya, claims he went mad at a tender age of 10 because of "wazuka" (ghosts) and had to travel to Sumbawanga, Pemba and Arusha in Tanzania to seek cure .

Back in the country in 1988, aged 28 years, Chaumbeya got into trouble with the local administration after he started to exorcise "jinn" and witchcraft from suspected victims.

His work of exorcising brought him into conflict with sorcerers at Kwa Girigiri and Banda la Salama in Chonyi whom he accused of using a deadly medicine, "utsai wa vula" to kill human beings instantly and eat their flesh.

A 1991 Amref survey report in Kilifi indicates that 84 per cent of mothers prefer traditional healers to doctors for treatment of their children's diseases.

But the sad thing is that when this approach fails, the mothers take their children to hospitals when they are in critical condition, thus explaining the high mortality rate there.

For protection against varied illnesses, many people of the area wear an assortment of charms or amulets to ward off evil spirits or supernatural forces.

For instance, jealous husbands may use "tego" (charm) acquired from Samburu in Kwale district to "lock" their wives against indulging in extra marital sex.

Any woman who goes against this, it is believed, will get "stuck" to her illegal lover until the husband discover them and imputes a certain ritual to separate them.

Other charms like kiraho and fingo are used to protect someone's property or shambas against possible thieves or sorcerers.

The Duruma, on the other hand, have a charm called pufya that enhances somebody's strength and power to deal with any eventuality.

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