Seated at the doorstep of her ramshackle thatched home, Chanadzi Makwiza cast a welcoming smile when her visitors announced their arrival.
It had taken the two visitors about one and a half hours to reach Makwiza in her village of Nkhutche in the mountainous area of Chididi, north-west of Nsanje District near the border with Mozambique.
“Sit down. I have been expecting you all day,” Makwiza told her visitors as she extended a hand to greet them. “Forgive me, my eyesight is failing me. I can barely see you.”
The woman looked a sorry sight. One look at her and the house she lived in with her mentally ill son told you she must have been mired in poverty throughout her life.
Makwiza, who could be in her late 70s and is illiterate, said she was widowed way back before the country became independent and that of the nine children she bore, four are surviving.
One of her sons died late last year in the village. It is what happened to Makwiza after the burial of her son’s body that necessitated the trip to Nkhutche by this writer, accompanied by a paralegal officer.
The trip was also made given the rise in incidents of killings through mob justice of perceived law breakers across the country, including alleged thieves and those accused of practicing witchcraft.
Memories are still fresh of the gruesome murder of seven people who were burnt alive in Nsanje in February this year after they were reportedly found with human parts allegedly for use in witchcraft.
And again this year in January, Chimbalanga Village in Neno District captured the headlines for the wrong reasons when four elderly people were killed after they were accused of killing a teenage girl.
The 17-year-old girl died after being struck by a bolt of lightning, but the locals blamed the four, who were elderly and aged above 60, for her death.
The government, which accords senior citizens great respect for the services they have rendered to the country in various capacities, strongly condemned the killings and instituted investigations.
Narrating her story, Makwiza said she was sitting outside her home with a grandchild one day while still mourning her son’s death when a man identified as Chikoti from the locality of her village visited her.
“I welcomed him warmly, although he was in a drunken state. Suddenly without warning, he started slapping me. He slapped me three times. I asked him to explain the reason he was beating me,” she said.
The man is said to have replied that he saw no reason why Makwiza was still living in the village when her husband died many years ago, and he also allegedly accused her of being a witch.
“He said I was the person killing people in the area through witchcraft,” Makwiza said, on the verge of tears. “He said I was also the one who had killed my son, and had bewitched my mentally ill son.”
To escape further torment, she said she went inside her house, collected her wraparound and decided to go to look for mangoes because she had not eaten for days as there was hunger in the area.
“As I was leaving my home, he followed me and beat me again. I was not related to him in any way and I don’t know why he was beating me,” said Makwiza, who has not remarried after her husband’s death.
She said the truth about her son’s death was that he had Aids, adding that he had been taking Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, but secretly stopped taking the medication that prolongs life.
“When I learnt he had stopped taking the drugs, I took him to hospital but doctors said it was too late,” Makwiza said. “And it is also wrong to suggest I am responsible for the illness of my mentally ill son.”
Chikoti is alleged to have gone to Makwiza’s home again to shout abuse at the almost sightless woman, saying she was a witch who did not deserve to live and had to leave the village immediately.
Locals who were not happy with Chikoti’s behaviour referred Makwiza to Mary Bello, a community-based facilitator of the Malawi CarerCentre for Advice, Research, and Education on Rights).
The NGO Malawi CARER is operating in Nsanje educating people about their various rights, with financial support from the Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP).
The government developed and implemented the DCP with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) following commendable progress the country has made since 1994 in institutionalizing a democratic culture, with the attendant respect for human rights.
DCP aims to create an empowered citizenry that is ready and eager to participate in governance processes, demand good governance and realization of the right to development and hold public bodies accountable.
Bello, a human rights defender whose diminutive figure belies her fearlessness, took the matter to the area’s group village head and asked the chief to summon Makwiza’s alleged abuser without delay.
“The poor old woman came to see me to complain that she was being chased from her village by one Chikoti after he had beaten and grabbed her money, accusing her of being a witch,” Bello said.
She said the woman also revealed that her son who died last year had Aids which he contracted before he returned to the village from the central region where he had settled after retiring from government.
But when the alleged accuser appeared before the chief, he denied ever having harassed Makwiza, and reportedly claimed the complainant was a mad person who was fond of telling lies, according to Bello.
“I told the abuser that he had committed offences if indeed he had beaten her and taken her money,” Bello said. “I told him to apologise to the woman so we could close the matter, but he refused.”
It was then that Bello took the matter to the Malawi CARER office at Nsanje boma before she and the NGO’s district paralegal officer went to report to Nsanje Police Station. That was last December.
Meanwhile as they waited for the police to act, Bello felt obliged as a promoter of human rights in the area to shelter Makwiza in her home each time she fled from her abuser.
“When she came the second time, I kept her for two weeks in my home,” Bello said. “I feared that if she went back to her village, she would be harmed.”
While Makwiza was living with her, Bello one day hired a motorcycle to take her to the district Malawi Carer office. She herself opted to travel to the office on foot, a distance of about 17 km from her home.
Bello said: “We went to the police station for her to record a statement about the abuse.
The police asked her whether she wanted the matter settled out of court, but she chose to go to court.
“Makwiza said she had suffered a lot and had no peace of mind as people were looking at her with contempt and also avoiding her because of the accusation that she was a witch.”
Bello said it was while they were at the police station that a member of the community policing forum from Chididi showed up, and that the police instructed him to go and bring the abuser.
“He promised to apprehend him, but nothing happened for months and people began to speculate that something could have happened. We feared for Makwiza’s life in case people carried out mob justice.”
Bello claimed she had made attempts to meet Nsanje Police Officer-in-Charge, Assistant Commissioner Kirby Kaunga in person more than once over the issue without success.
She said she eventually met the Officer-in-Charge at Chididi when he visited the area while on duty last week and took him to task to explain their inaction on the matter.
“He expressed surprise and asked me why I had not asked for him each time I went to the police station,” Bello said. “I told him I had been prevented from seeing him.”
Malawi Carer District paralegal officer for Nsanje, Gabriel Tengani, corroborated Bello’s words. He said as an office, they had become deeply worried that Nsanje police were taking ages to act on the matter.
And when Mana visited the police station on Monday this week to hear their side of the story, Kaunga conceded that they had not gone to Chididi to bring the alleged abuser sooner for two reasons.
“The first reason is that the man from the Chididi community policing forum promised to bring him, but he let us down. Second, our vehicle was off the road for a long time,” he said.
Kaunga, apparently concerned about the bad publicity the matter was generating, assured that the man would be brought to the police station within the shortest possible time to be questioned.
And true to his word, he did call this writer on Wednesday to announce the arrest of Chikoti who he said had spent the previous night in custody and that he would appear in court soon.
“As I said, we have arrested him and as I am speaking, he is in custody,” Kaunga said.
“He is expected to appear in court this Friday.”
Reacting to the development, Tengani said while it was pleasing that police had finally arrested Chikoti, “it has taken about four months to bring him to book.”
“Our greatest concern was that people would have taken the law into their own hands to harm or even kill Makwiza as has happened elsewhere in the country.
“Besides, delay to pursue the matter meant that the grandmother has had no peace from the time her abuser began tormenting her,” he told Mana.
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