It is becoming increasingly common in Malawi to hear stories about some people, mostly the elderly, being victims of violent attacks after being accused of practising witchcraft. But as MATTHEWS KASANDA explores, the country is not paying adequate attention to such cases, a situation that leaves potential victims living frightful and miserable lives.
Attacks directed at people accused of practising witchcraft continue to rise despite that the country has laws which clearly prohibit anyone from calling another person a witch.
Apart from facing violent attacks, those accused of practising witchcraft often have their property vandalised too.
The fact that victims of witchcraft accusations and attacks are usually members of society of advanced years seems to imply that there are those who believe growing old should not be part of life.
In fact, prevalent stories about attacks on the elderly after suspecting them of practising witchcraft border on assumptions that such people live long lives because they prey on others through supernatural dark powers.
This has resulted in innocent people being victims of attacks whose origins are sometimes never explained.
In the area of Senior Chief Liwonde in Machinga, a 74-year-old woman has been abandoned by her relatives after being accused of practising witchcraft.
After being chased from her village this year, she went to stay with her distant relation’s married daughter who lives in Zomba.
“While there, a child ‘mysteriously’ died and she was accused of being the one responsible for the death. She was driven out of the home,” says Machinga District Social Welfare Officer, Lawrence Matiti.
After becoming homeless, the elderly woman went back to Machinga where Matiti’s office convinced the villagers to accept her back. They did, but according to Matiti, life has never been the same for her.
He says she is now living in one of the village’s deserted houses whose owner is threatening to evict her apparently because he needs it back.
“She is struggling; she doesn’t have a child or food. It is a very sad case. I once took her to police after she had been homeless,” Matiti adds.
He further says due to lack of care, the old woman now looks very weak and vulnerable. According to the social welfare officer, there are many other elderly people in the district who are struggling with life after being abandoned by their relations.
“Then there are others who are heading homes and keeping grandchildren but lack basic necessities,” Matiti explains.
And it is a problem common in other parts of the country too.
Neno District, which has four Traditional Authorities, records Traditional Authority Dambe as the area with the worst cases and levels of violence against the elderly.
In 2017, four elderly people were killed by a mob on suspicion that they were behind a death which was deemed mysterious.
“Last year [too] three elderly people were hacked to death. Earlier this year, police and the district council officials rescued one elderly person and her grandson who were being targeted for an attack after being suspected of practising witchcraft,” Neno District Social Welfare Officer, Paul Sosono, says.
Nkhata Bay District is not spared. Despite having no cases directly linking older citizens to witchcraft, from January this year to date, the district has recorded five cases of the elderly who complained through the Victim Support Unit of the police that they were being discriminated against by their own families.
“Some of them complained that they lack care and were not being given food,” said the district’s Social Welfare Officer, Lickson Ng’ambi.
Ng’ambi, however, says his office engaged respective family members and managed to include the victims on the beneficiary list of different charity programmes including government’s Social Cash Transfer to minimise their suffering.
He suggests that the government should intensify disseminating information through community leaders about protecting the elderly.
In fact, while many older citizens continue being victims of violent attacks related to witchcraft accusations, the issues are not adequately tackled in communities.
Thus, people who perpetrate the attacks have nothing to fear and continue exacting excruciating pain on others after simply accusing them of practising witchcraft.
Malawi Network for Older People’s Organisation, Executive Director, Andrew Kavala, agrees that not much is being done by relevant authorities to counter attacks on older people.
Kavala says whenever there are cases of people being victimised after being accused of practising witchcraft, reports simply flood the social media before vanishing few moments later without any action by authorities.
“We have so many cases of the elderly being victimised in Malawi, discriminated against and abused on witchcraft allegations. Some have even been killed. The government has not been responsive enough on the needs of older persons,” he explains.
Kavala calls on all stakeholders, including the police and the courts, to do everything within their powers to ensure justice prevails in cases of attacks related to witchcraft accusations and any other attack directed at the elderly.
He wonders why growing old should be a crime in Malawi when elsewhere it is valued and celebrated.
Of course, there are those who argue that it is difficult to completely remove the belief in witchcraft from the face of Africa. Nevertheless, others contend, a belief is not enough to attack someone to death without having established the truth.
Perhaps, revising the Witchcraft Act would also help in protecting the elderly and others from attacks related to practising witchcraft.
Mathews Kasanda is a journalist who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from University of Malawi (The Polytechnic).
In 2015, Media Institute of Southern Africa awarded him the Best Print Media Education Journalist of the Year accolade.
He joined Times Group Newsroom in September 2019.