George Thindwa, leader of the Association for Secular Humanism (an IHEU member organization) in the Southern African republic of Malawi, has reported a dramatic encounter with witch hunters last week. Despite his arrest for intervening in a live witch hunt, he was able to send us the following report and photographs of this horrifying event:
On June 1st, I went to deliver N. Kamphata back to her village. She is an elderly woman whom I had helped release from imprisonment on charges of witchcraft. On my way back, I was informed that there was a witch hunt in progress at Chinoko village, T/A Chimutu about 15 kilometers from Kanengo on Lilongwe-Salima road. I decided to investigate. Indeed, the witch hunt was in full swing with the witch finder named Boston (25-30 yrs old) searching for witchcraft charms. By the time I arrived at the village, the witchfinder was at the grave yard. It is alleged that a “witch” by the name of Frazer Kaphanga had hidden his charms at the grave. There were many people at the grave site with drumming and singing.
I managed to join the crowd and take pictures. I went into the graveyard where some people had gone to watch the witchfinder digging for the charm of Mr. Frazer. At the grave, I found the witchfinder busy with his act and within a short time he managed to bring out the charm. He showed it to the crowd claiming that it was a rat that Frazer uses to steal money from other people. Then, Mr. Frazer was detained at the camp smeared with flour all over his face as a witch.
Next, the witchfinder went to the house of an old lady by the name of Kwajere, Ms. Mukhalepo Chinsapo (aged 80). I followed and took pictures. At the house the old lady was very disturbed and confused. She was smeared with flour on her face and asked to stand in the middle of a circle so that the witch-finder could search her house for charms. The old lady noticed that my mission was different. She turned to me in desperation clearly asking me in her heart that I should her help. I went closer and took her hand and whispered to her that I will indeed rescue her at the appropriate time. I assured her that my mission there was to help such vulnerable people and her request would be answered.
I left and went aside to call the police to come and stop this illegal practice. The police headquarters told me to contact the Kanengo police. The community security men were alerted by the witch finder that my presence there was suspect. He briefly suspended his work and told them to bring me to him. The security men wanted to harass me. I resisted and told them that I had no time to go to the witch finder but would go to the Group Village man. At this time, I alerted my relations and humanist friends about this unfolding drama.
We went to the camp where the Group Village headman, Chinoko Kawenga, was supposed to be. He was not there. But all the chiefs were there. At the camp, there were ten “witches” by that time, surrounded by people. Kwajere, Ms. Chinsapo, was dragged to the camp while I was there. One could not help shed a tear to see live how the people labeled as witches are victimized and mistreated.
Mostly it is the elderly and women. Here are their names:
I was told that once the witch-finder had finished his searches for charms, he would come to the camp to deliver his final verdict on the “witches” in terms of punishment.
The chiefs told me that I was being charged with three offences: of taking pictures, of entering the grave yard without permission, and attending the witch hunt without permission. I was told to pay a fine of MK 13000 (US$85). I negotiated this down to MK 5000 (US$32) and paid.
I was determined to stop the witch hunt and to have those in captive released. I went to the captives when I was discharged on my own and greeted them one by one and assured them that their freedom was at hand. I went to Mchezi roadblock at Kanengo and told the police about the witch hunt and they quickly phoned their superior. By 8 pm, the police arrived in full gear and we went to the village. At the village when police presence was noticed, people ran in all the directions. All the chiefs and two lieutenants of the witch-finder were taken for police questioning at Kanengo police. The witch-finder disappeared and he was nowhere to be seen.
As of 2nd June, 4 chiefs have been arrested and detained at Kanengo police; four lieutenants of the witch-doctor are detained. The arrested chiefs are Kalumbu Byton, Chinoko 2, Nachimbo Chapotela and Kachiundu. The police went back on 2nd June to look for the witch-finder and brought back two of his lieutenants. They did not find the witch-finder.
The so-called witches came to the police to give statements on 2nd June. I was with them. Some due to old age could not make it. I managed to deliver them back to their village, especially the very old. At the village the situation is calm now. Some villagers did thank me for helping them and stopping the witch-hunt.