Before that fateful Monday, January 25 2016, four senior citizens of Neno District had been living peacefully, seeking shelter in their grass-thatched mud huts when night called and tending to their chickens at the crack of day.
Robustly hospitable, they must have looked forward to, one day, dying peacefully in their sleep. Their wrinkles, visible to both the old and new, were inscriptions of their practical journey in life. Indeed, the wrinkles were not just bodily features; they were ‘marks’ of the many times they had been sun-baked in September and October or endured cold weather in June and July.
Until that fateful Monday exactly one year and one hundred and fifty days ago. The four were brutally murdered on suspicion that they killed their 17-year-old granddaughter, Flora Kanjete, who was struck to death by lightning, through witchcraft.
Like a hunted animal run to ground, 86-year-old Eliza Kanjete was the first to be cornered— according to one of the Neno police officers who rushed to the scene.
Branded a ‘witch’ on account of her striking old age, she was not the only one earmarked to die.
One by one, 76-year-old Elenafa Kanjete, 73-year-old Byson Kanjete and 69-year-old Idesi Kanjete (not necessarily in that order, but all from the same family— were chased around their houses by a bloodthirsty mob in a remote corner of Neno.
Too old to run, their energy run out quicker than their will to survive and, shortly thereafter, their legs followed suit by failing them. Terrified, they must have slumped in the dust, whimpered and pleaded for mercy, before being overrun by the anger, and physical force of Group Village Head Chimbalanga’s subjects in Traditional Authority Dambe, Neno.
“The four died due to severe beatings, according to post-mortem results. We, as police, are sure that we will have a clear picture of what happened and decide on the next course of action,” said Neno Police spokesperson, Raphael Kaliati, on Thursday, January 28, 2016.
Granted, death strikes. It is an act of nature.
However, when death is forced— like in the Neno case— nobody understands it; not even Group Village Headman Chimbalanga of Neno.
“As a leader, I am really shocked with the death of these people because it has never happened in the history of this village. Not even once have we had a man killed in this village,” The Daily Times of January 27, 2016 quotes Chimbalanga as saying during the funeral ceremony.
Even Neno Shelter for the Aged Executive Director, Reen Kachere, who once served as Member of Parliament in Neno and minister responsible for the Elderly and People with Disabilities, could not understand how anger boiled to the point of murder. Four murders on a sunny day.
“I, too, cannot understand this. In fact, I am ashamed. This is yet another sad chapter in the history of Neno and we need to understand why what happened happened the way it did, and what we must do to arrest the problem. Among other things, we can establish village committees in order to address such issues,” Kachere said in an interview.
Even the Malawi Law Society (MLS), whose members are known to save a life from the gallows by the simple act of moving their lips this or that way in court, was shocked at the time.
So shocked was MLS with the Neno events that within days, it described the Kanjetes as the “Neno Four”.
“The senseless and heinous murders of the Neno Four is a despicable outrage that the Society condemns without any reservation whatsoever. Such kind of barbaric acts stain our collective conscience and have got absolutely no place in a civilised society.
“They should accordingly be fervently opposed and denounced by all right-thinking Malawians. It is even more saddening to note that it would appear that the Neno Four were principally targeted because of their old age. It reflects extremely poorly on those who were involved in these murders that, instead of protecting these vulnerable people, they turned on them and murdered them,” MLS, in a scathing January 27, 2016 statement issued by then president John Suzi Banda and Honorary Secretary Khumbo Bonzoe Soko, said.
However, as the nation grappled with shock, MLS also found some time to pick out threads of sanity in the confusion. It appealed to reason, as opposed to emotions.
“The Society would like to remind all Malawians that our country is a nation of laws. It is the duty of each and every citizen to observe and uphold these laws. We implore our fellow citizens to report all instances of suspected law breaking to the Malawi Police Service and other government law enforcement agencies for appropriate action to be taken. No severity of our indignation at the sight of illegal behaviour will ever justify the taking of the law into our own hands,” it added.
No real change
Fast-forward to June 24 2017. Nothing, in terms of promoting the living standards of the elderly, has changed.
It is as if lip service has won over action.
Human rights watchdog www.helpage.org, which publishes Global Age Watch Index, indicates in its 2015 index that Malawi is one of the 10 worst places to grow old in the world.
Help Age International’s Global Age Watch Index measures the social and economic welfare of those aged over 60 years in 96 nations.
The study focuses on income security, health and whether someone has access to public transport, social connections as well as their physical safety.
Switzerland tops the list while Afghanistan comes last.
Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda and Uganda are among the bottom 10 countries.
This remains the position of Help Age International because the organisation has taken a break from publishing results this year as it works on developing “a new version of the index”.
Reads a post on the organisation’s website: “With emerging opportunities to work on data collection, Agenda 2030 and the data revolution, we have decided to take a break to develop a new version of the Index. Version 2.0 of the Index will be released in 2018 and will allow us to better measure the well-being of older men and women across more countries.”
Meanwhile, challenges continue to mar the lives of the elderly in Malawi, if sentiments raised by Elderly People Association of Malawi chairperson, Hellen Chasowa, are anything to go by.
Chasowa does not doubt Help Age International’s findings, observing that to grow old in Malawi is to court trouble and, in worst cases, instant death.
She bemoans that the elderly go through hardship but authorities do not seem to pay attention.
For examples, one just has to visit Neno Shelter for the Aged at Chifunga in Neno or Chiwaya Day Care Centre in Chigumula Township, Blantyre, to appreciate how non-governmental organisations are bailing out the elderly without direct support from the government.
“Inadequate food supply and improper housing are some of the challenges aged people are facing in Malawi. Poverty is the main cause of the misery these people are going through. We feel that the elderly suffer from segregation in silence,” Chasowa says.
But government spokesperson, Nicholas Dausi, is of the view that the government has been trying its best, gauging by the success of programmes such as cash transfer and village banking.
Waiting for trouble
Meanwhile, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) that expressed dismay at what happened in Neno have gone on mute, probably waiting for another ‘man-made accident’.
And, yet— before the Kanjetes went in simple coffins draped in zitenje [pieces of cloth] in what could remotely be described as a ‘decent’ burial — the CSOs were vocal in 2016.
In a statement they released on January 27 2016, the CSOs sounded more concerned than Neno residents. Leaders of nine CSOs, one human rights lawyer and a human rights activist condemned the Neno incident in a statement, calling on the government to invest in mass sensitisation exercises in a bid to enlighten the country’s citizens.
The statement, titled ‘Civil Society Statement on the Brutal Killings of Four Elderly People and Escaping Prisoner’, was signed by Timothy Mtambo of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Masauko Thawe of Young Advocates, George Thindwa of Association for Secular Humanism, Gift Trapence of Centre for the Development of People, Robert Mkwezalamba of the Human Rights Consultative Committee.
Others were Victor Mhango of Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance, Mtende Msindama of Lawyers for Human Rights, Charles Kajoloweka of Youth and Society, Darlingtion Harawa of Passion for Women and Children, human rights activist Billy Mayaya and human rights lawyer Chrispine Sibande.
The CSOs argued that the Malawi Witchcraft Act forbids any trial by ordeal.
“In fact, both the Constitution of Malawi and the Penal Code criminalises it. In reference to witchcraft accusations and mob justice against the accused, the Malawi Witchcraft Act – which is part of codified criminal law with prosecutions brought under the Witchcraft Act falling under the jurisdiction of the Magistrate Court— forbids any trial by ordeal that involves “poison, fire, boiling water, or any ordeal which is likely to directly or indirectly result in death or bodily injury to any person”.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recognises witchcraft accusations and brutal killings of the accused as a form of violence against women and has urged many states including Malawi to take action against witchcraft accusations by challenging the “traditional view” about elderly women being witches through investigating torture and killing of suspected witches and prosecute the perpetrators.
In addition, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, in a 2009 report, called upon states to ensure that all killings of alleged witches are treated as murder, and should be investigated, prosecuted and punished accordingly.
While both MLS and the nine CSOs were quick to point at instruments, both local and international, anthropologists observe that the law does not always hold its course.
For example, the 2010 issue of ‘Anthropologist’ Journal [Volume 12 issue Number 4] observes that: “Public opinion dictates public ideas of causation. The logic of quasi-traditional reactions to distress and anxiety are little affected by the narrow limits of Western scientific pragmatism.”
As CSOs, the government and other stakeholders wait for another ‘incident’, the elderly carry their own cross, unsure of what the future holds. All they know is that the light at the end of the tunnel of life is death!
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