By Alick Ponje:
A small trench dug out across a tough earth road prevents any car from proceeding into an abandoned farm whose owners escaped lynching by a whisker.
After the ditch, a tree with its branches still intact, has been set on the dirt road seemingly to amplify the plan that no one should go beyond that section.
A car cruises into the village, kicking up a bowl of dust in its trail, and that attracts the attention of young men who, like sentries patrolling a porous border, rush to check whether someone is attempting to enter the wrecked homestead.
They begin to gather a few yards from the barrier, their hard-eyed looks warning anyone against proceeding to the old crime scene.
“Let them kill me if they want. They have already finished me,” says Maria Tembo of Enyizini, an area some 18 kilometres west of Ekwendeni Trading Centre, in Mzimba.
She has taken us to her former home, which now lies in ruins, after her village-mates torched houses, a car and two uninstalled maize mills.
Standing at a distance, Tembo shakes her head in disbelief as she gazes at the neatly prepared crop fields around the burnt-down property and a razed-down brick kiln with a pile of firewood strewn by its side.
Her family was driven out of the village and left everything behind for a mob to decimate it.
Having finally gathered her thoughts, she decides we should not proceed to the place.
“I don’t want you to be victims of my misfortune. I don’t want them to hurt you. It is me they are accusing of being a witch, not you,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
In the meantime, the vehicle we are travelling in has already been pursued out of the village by the gang that has now scattered into all directions to make sure we have really abandoned our mission of documenting what is now left of a once prosperous farming household.
The small home is now a ghost place with no one visiting it—only the hissing of wind blowing through the burnt car’s chassis and birds flying from one tree to another.
Even while others have given up on us, one man continues calling his colleagues on his mobile phone, inviting them to block our exit.
“Place a big log just after the bridge so that their car should not pass,” the unidentified youth says as he heavily drags on the trodden footpath out of Enyizini area his dust-covered feet in scanty flip-flops.
His colleagues ostensibly ignore his instructions.
At the time of our visit, reports indicate no one has been arrested for the arson which brought Tembo’s family to its knees.
But lawyer Christon Ghambi wants the government to compensate the victims of the attack, apparently because police officers failed to respond in time even after being tipped off about the assailants’ plans.
They accused Tembo’s family of being behind the murder of her in-law who got killed by robbers as he attempted to ward them off from stealing his goats.
“After the thieves murdered my in-law, my husband was accused of having orchestrated the whole thing. The accusers said since we had bought two maize mills, we were looking for human souls for running the machines,” Tembo says.
The husband, Linda Mvula, was picked by the police but got released a few days later, a development that infuriated some people in his village, who accused his wife of using charms to bend the court to her will.
They then ran riot and destroyed everything the family owned, driving them into a small rented house in a village several kilometres from their home
“We lost literally everything except clothes we wore on the fateful day. Children cannot even go to school because uniforms and writing materials were destroyed in the fire,” Mvula says.
Apparently, the family bought a car in 2018 using money realised from farming before purchasing the maize mills after selling tobacco in the 2019-20 growing season.
Tembo says they managed to pay back the farm inputs loan they had acquired from a tobacco-buying company, with 14 100-kilogramme bales and made huge profits from the remaining 30 bales.
“Our success was our curse. We thought we were doing people in our area a favour by bringing maize mills, which are not found anywhere nearby, not knowing we were inviting trouble to ourselves,” she laments.
Today, the land they had already prepared for this growing season lies abandoned, and might eternally remain so.
Tembo’s family bought it in 2011. She says they had tried their best to put it to good use in growing the green gold, beans, maize and groundnuts.
“It really hurts that something we have so passionately worked to build got damaged in the blink of an eye. Our own people turned against us,” Mvula says, standing in front of his new home amid strangers, a distant look registering in his glazed eyes.
A letter to the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police, by Ghambi, says Tembo’s family reported the imminent criminal act to Enyizini, Ekwendeni and even Mzuzu Police Station without being assisted.
Ghambi accuses police of having failed in their duty and that they deserve prosecution.
“The families even went in person to Mzuzu Police Station to inform them about what was happening but the police went to the scene hours after the incident,” the letter states.
According to the Witchcraft Act, it is a crime to call somebody a witch or calling a witchdoctor to condemn witches anywhere in Malawi.
But around what used to be Tembo and Mvula’s home, unforgiving gangs of youthful men roam around every time anyone attempts to visit the place to document what happened.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje