Last October, along with a small group of Christian leaders, I was visiting Msuka, one the most isolated outstations of Kanyanga Parish in Eastern Zambia where I work. We wanted to meet the families and then to celebrate the Eucharist with the local community at the end of the day. These visits are one way to encourage and strengthen in faith those communities that live far from the parish church, and thus receive only an occasional visit during the year. On that particular day, no one seemed to be home. We found them all gathered in the small square at the centre of the main village, having been called by Anya Gondwe – a witch hunter from Malawi – who was cleansing the village from witches (ufwiti).
Ms Gondwe had been contacted by the head man and the chief of the area when a family aired its suspicions that a witch was hiding amongst the neighbours. The head man had to pay a call out charge of 250,000 Kwacha (£25), a goat (£15) and two chickens (£4) beforehand to Ms Gondwe.
We returned to the village the following day, to find that everyone had been summoned yet again by the witch hunter. Several people had been accused of witchcraft and were charged to pay compensation in the form of a cow or a goat. All of them denied keeping nyanga – charms believed to be used by witches to harm people – yet they accepted the charges. When I enquired further, they told me it was better to accept the accusation or “the witch hunter might use her powers to harm our lives or send some misfortune upon our families”. We also realized that though Ms Gondwe imposed ‘traditional’ sanctions, she much preferred cash to the actual animals.
Once a witch hunter is called in, she searches houses looking for nyanga. Once evidence is found – as it always is – the ‘witches’ are cut several times to make them bleed, told to leave their homes until the purification has been completed, but on no account are they to leave the village, on peril of death. Some of the people I met were bleeding badly. A Mr Beshy told me he was waiting for his turn and that he had already been told that plenty of nyanga was to be found in his home. When I asked him more, he denied being a witch and said “I will accept the charges because I fear for my life… I have no other option…”
I was shocked and told the people they had an option. They could report these events to the police: the Witchcraft Act (Chapter 145 of the Laws of Zambia) condemns such practices. Mr Beshy was genuinely surprised and agreed to go to the police. Others were not so keen to challenge the witch hunter. At the police station, the officer did not accept to record Mr Beshy’s complaint since he had neither been injured nor paid out any fine. The officer said he would record complaints only from victims. All 24 victims refused to testify.
A member of the local Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace suggested we report Ms Gondwe to the Immigration Officer at the Lundazi District Head Courts. The immigration police agreed with our statement and detained Ms Gondwe and her assistants on the grounds that they had crossed into Zambia at the Lusuntha Boarder Post declaring that they were visiting friends and curing people and they were now found to engage in forbidden activities. The case against Anya Gondwe was to be heard a few days later but it came to nothing. Potential witnesses refused to appear, and the police claimed that there were only two officer lawyers dealing with cases such as this in the whole country: one of them was on duty in Ndola and the other was in Lusaka and so they were unable to help the victims. They also said that “the witch finder was fined and given seven days to leave the country”. In reality, the police were also afraid to deal with this case. A few weeks later, the witch hunter was back in Zambia in a neighbouring parish, once again accusing people of witchcraft and inflicting hefty fines.
Traditionally, witch hunters hold great sway over people. They are often called in to cleanse villages, find witches, and restore harmony – all at a price. However, they leave in their wake people reduced to poverty, abused and unjustly accused of evil practices. Instead of bringing harmony, they sow the seeds of further division. It is not uncommon for witch hunting to be used to settle long standing rivalries and jealousies. Our Justice and Peace Committees try to make people aware of their rights, explaining the laws and the role government officers should play. It is a difficult task, for many are truly scared by witch hunters and their spiritual powers. Still, it is important to help people understand their rights and support them in challenging a situation used by a few to terrorize others and profit from them.
Rodolfo Coaquira Hilaje