On Monday, January 25, 2016, a sombre mood engulfed Malawi when four old people were killed in cold blood Chimbalanga village in Neno district after being suspected of magically having a hand in the death of their seventeen year old granddaughter, Flora Kanjete. She was struck to death by lightening. The victims were Eliza Kanjete, 86, Elenafa Kanjete, 76, Byson Kanjete, 73 and Idesi Kanjete, 69. This was something unthought-of for Malawi and also the village, as it was said by the village leader on the day of the funerals. Most people were shocked by the horrific act; a group of men who decided to brutally wipe out four of their very own grandparents. The suspected killers have since been arrested and charged with murder. It was a family affair as it can be seen from the surnames of all the dead, including that of the young girl.
People may have spoken with one voice against the act. But the point of division was and will always be on the existence of witchcraft. Does it exist or not? This has been the center of debate from the day of the Neno killings. One group of people says witchcraft exists (or there are indeed witches and wizards), but killing the four grandparents was not the solution. The other group says witchcraft does not exist in practice. It is a mere belief, and entirely dismisses any allegation attached to it. I had a debate with one of my Facebook friends after I posted saying that the killers are not just the ones who did the actual killing, but anyone who believes in its existence. If one believes there is witchcraft, it means he or she believes that there are witches and wizards. The challenge is; if you suspect or ‘caught’ someone of being a witch of a wizard, what are you going to do with him or her? I challenge, your resulting act will either be hate or injury on the suspect. There is a killing potential in you as well.
Musician Charles Nsaku has the reputation of being a hard hitter, when it comes to his lyrics. He is a man who does not mince about with his words. As the dust is settling regarding the Neno killings, and as Malawi is patiently waiting for another similar killing in the future, let us go back to one of Nsaku’s songs on witchcraft. In it he brought about important points on the issue. From the album, Zabvuta in 2004, he had a Nzachabechabe (Not Worthy It) song in which he discussed it all.
He sung, in the first verse:
Ndiri ndi nkhani mu mtimamu (I have some thoughts)
Lero ndani ndilankhule (Today let me share them)
Nkhani za ufiti zimamveka (There are talks of witchcraft)
Mathedwe ake sindiona (How exactly do they end up?)
Timamva munthu amugwira (We hear of a person being caught)
Akutamba, winayo wamwalira (Bewitching someone to death)
Bwanji a Police angoyang’ana osagwira Mfitiyo nkutsekera? (Why is the suspect not arrested?)
The response to the question is simple: The government cannot be handling a case which was happening in ‘another world’, where there is no evidence. The laws of Malawi do not recognize the existence of witchcraft, hence no government action on it. Of course people have been getting arrested in the past as suspects. But that was largely being done as a way of protecting them from the community. Some of the suspects have indeed been convicted after evidence from kids accusing them of teaching them the art. But still, it all happens in ‘another world’ and it is a moral dilemma for our courts sometimes, to either release the person and expose him or her to the anger of the community or have him or her in custody as a way of protecting them.
In the second verse, Nsaku continues:
Mudzi wonse kusokoneza (The whole village gets confused)
Nkhani yake yosamveka (With a story so hard to understand)
Mwana akangoti watentha thupi (When a child gets fever)
Chidani kotero chayambika (Enmity starts)
Anthu mu office akuyoyoka (When people are dying in an office)
Zonsezi mfiti ndi bwanawo (All is blamed on the boss)
Nanga bwanji bola lingoyang’ana (Why is the government just watching)
Wosachotsa munthu woteroyo? (And not firing the suspect?)
Nsaku brings in other issues, but ends up like in the first verse: Why is the government not acting? In what sounds like a prophecy for Neno, he mentions of people starting to hate each other simply because a child is sick. Accusations start flying around on who is responsible. Even at the work place, this happens, as Nsaku sung. When workers are dying at the place people start looking around on who is responsible. The accusation usually rests on someone who is next in line to the dead person. He or she killed his or her boss so that they get into the vacant position.
In the third verse, Nsaku is revealing one of the most puzzling questions in the belief of witchcraft: Why is it that only back people are the ones who so much believe that it is real? With the black community across the world in dire poverty, it can comfortably be suggested that the belief in witchcraft is synonymous to poverty. As races advance, they subsequently drop their beliefs in witchcraft. Europe had its time in the seventeenth century when suspected witches and wizards were killed. But as cultural, social and intellectual progress started coming on them, the belief was abandoned. This exposes the black community as being stuck in the wheels of progress. The reality of witchcraft is not outside of us, but within us. Thus we have the power to either create or destroy it.
Chipsyinjo chotero Mbuye wanga (Why God is this burden of witchcraft)
Munatipatsa tokha akuda? (Only among we black people)
Bwanji anzathu achizungu (Why is it that with the whites)
Nkhani za ufiti sizimveka? (There are no such stories?)
Komanso m’Bible malembo oyera (And in the Holy Bible)
Sitinamvepo za ufiti (We have never heard of witchcraft)
Nanga afiti ena alakwanji? (So why should we suspect others?)
Asing’anganso mwapasula (Witchdoctors, you are also culprits)
Munthu akabwera kuombedza (When people ask for your advice)
Simutha kunena chilungamo (You do not tell them the truth)
Mpakana mugwire wosalakwayo (Until you victimize the innocent)
Mapeto ake ndi chidani. (Ending up into enmity among people)
This is probably what happened in Neno. The pitiless killers did not just think out of nowhere that their grandparents are witches or wizards. They must have first confided in a witchdoctor and it was him who told them who was responsible. As Nsaku says, these witchdoctors always pounce on the innocent. The killed were never heard. They were given the judgment because they were thought to be so. With the killings in people with albinism also happening simultaneously, it has been said that they are witchdoctors who advise their clients that body parts of an albino can bring them wealth, hence the hunting and the killing. It seems witchdoctors are not helping. They are a result of the inhumanity which is haunting our conscience. Why can we not just ban them from practicing?
But Nsaku was wrong when he sung that there is nowhere in the Bible talking about witchcraft. There is. Actually, some people are finding it hard to abandon the belief in witchcraft because the Bible says it exists. They are afraid of going against their infallible book. The same Bible further instructs people to not let a witch or a wizard be alive (Exodus 22 verse 18). According to the Bible, these men did the right thing. They did not allow the four grandparents to remain alive. It exposes the hypocrisy believers have in the Neno case: Their book says the grandparents deserved to die. But they are shocked by their deaths. How else would they have been killed because the state cannot execute a witchcraft suspect?
But it is in the fourth verse where Nsaku is giving the people a clue on where they miss it:
Ana anuwo sayenda bwino (Your children)
Ndi mahule mtaunimu (Are prostitutes in the city)
Pamene mabungwe akuyesetsa (While organizations are trying their best)
Kulangiza matenda kuli AIDS (Advising us against AIDS)
Inu makolo mwatanganidwa (As parents you have no problems)
Kulandira chuma kwa anawo (Taking money from their prostitution trade)
Lero ndiyo mwana angoyoyoka (Today your child is sick)
Mukuti zonse a neighbor wo (And you blame your neighbor for it)
In short, Nsaku is reminding us all that there is a human explanation to every death. There is no death that happens through magic. If there is one, it is only made to appear so because of the beliefs. In the verse, Nsaku is talking about parents allowing their children to be involved in prostitution. When they end up dying from AIDS the same parents start accusing their neighbor of having a magic hand in the death of their children. With references to the Neno killings, lightening kills thousands of people across the world every year. How was it difficult for the grandchildren of the grandparents to understand that the death of their daughter, sister, niece and cousin was natural and normal? The only unfortunate thing was that she died suddenly. That is one of the most painful ways to lose a loved one.
In the chorus, Nsaku doubtfully entertains the thought that witches or wizards are real. He went on to tell them that if they are indeed witches and wizards, what gain will they make from the practice? But he quickly jumps to the position of attacking the masses who believe in the act.
Nzachabechabe (It is not worth it)
Zopanda mnchere (It is totally useless)
Ngatidi uli mfiti (If you are indeed a witch)
Udzapita kuti? (Where will that take you to?)
Malo momapemphera (Instead of being with God)
Ukutchuka nzachabe (You are famous for the wrong reasons)
Chakula pansi pano, kukaikirana (There is a lot of suspicion going on)
Komanso pena umphawi wagawanitsa (Being fuelled by poverty)
Ngaitidi umauluka (If you indeed fly)
Udzapita kuti? (Where will that take you to?)
Nzonsezi ziribe ntchito (Everything is useless)
Tiwope Mulungu (Let us fear God)
It is all about poverty, suspicion and jealousy fuelling this belief in witchcraft. This is what prompted the Neno killers as well. They had the poverty of understanding and suspicion on their grandparents.
After the Neno killings I personally contacted George Thindwa, the Executive Director of the Association of Secular Humanism (ASH) in Malawi. He had a five year project supported by the Norwegian Embassy of fighting against the belief and successfully freed some suspects from the jail. I felt he was in the better position to act on the matter. He has the best moral voice and I urged him and his organization to make a strong stand. He told me that they already had one of their people on the ground. I was delighted. Mr. Thindwa has proved to be one eyed man among the many blind as far as this issue is concerned. He has risked his reputation and name to do a noble cause for people who cannot speak for themselves. These suspects have been condemned by their communities and have nowhere to go. Some have had their houses demolished, and being old, they cannot imagine how they will rebuild their lost lives. Mr. Thindwa and ASH has been there for them. He is a good person, and I personally commended his work when I took time to appreciate his work from his Lilongwe, Area 47 office sometime last year.
But the Malawi society in general is far from changing its stand on this. One would easily expect the young generation to be questioning some of these beliefs. Unfortunately, it is also the one in the forefront, propagating and taking a cold or a mixed stand on the Neno killings. With this, we are assured that in the next coming generation the belief will be as strong as it has always been. There are high chances that such kind of killings will happen again. If we indeed value the progress of our country, let us make sure that this will not happen again. When such horrific acts happen, we should take it as a moment of learning and making sure we once and for all make it right. As I told Mr. Thindwa, the four grandparents in Neno should not die in vain. Their deaths should haunt our consciences. Their cries for mercy as life was being ferociously beaten out of them should echo in our minds, and ask us to do something about it.
*Wonderful Mkhutche is an author, a political scientist and a manuscript developer and editor