By Ogova Ondego
Published January 2, 2007
More than any other year in the history of Kenya, 2006 brought the East African nation of 34 million closer to the biblical reference of being ‘under principalities and powers of darkness‘ as the population openly dabbled in witchcraft as retired President Daniel arap Moi urged Kenyans to return to God to forestall calamities that have befallen the country since the coming to power in December 2002 of the National Rainbow Coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki. This return-to-God call came two days after Kibaki had led Kenyans in a national day of prayer and repentance.
Although Kenya appears to be the most literate nation in East Africa, Western civilisation here appears to have failed to eradicate belief in witchcraft from the minds of people obsessed with the desire to dominate others.
Ken Onyango is a well-educated business executive with what can be considered a successful and happy family. He not only lives in a prestigious neighbourhood of Nairobi but two of his four children are post-graduate engineering students in North America while the others hold lucrative jobs in Nairobi. Onyango’s wife works with a United Nations agency.
However Onyango neither goes to his rural home nor owns property there for fear of being bewitched.
Having left the ancestral village at the age of 12 when he joined a secondary school in Nairobi, Onyango rarely takes his family ‘home’. And he has discouraged his children and Nairobi-born wife from going there telling them they would die if they were seen in his ancestral home.
Although the plight of Onyango mirrors the lives of many progressive Kenyans: Dr David Githii, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa claims 60%-70% of Kenyan parliamentarians visit witch doctors, yet many people do not admit that witchcraft can affect their lives.
To them, the mention of the word ‘witchcraft’ conjures up images of a dirty, bare-chested elderly man with an animal skin around his waist holding some paraphernalia and chanting what they consider primitive magical words meant to harm people. And this image almost came true in December 2004 when KTN television channel of Nairobi beamed images of witchcraft exorcism in Mombasa in living rooms across the 582,647 sq kilometre horn of Africa nation.
Residents of Miritini Village in Mombasa had hired Akiba Kazungu Bakari, a witch-buster, to assist them in flushing out witches and wizards whom they accused of killing people and abducting their children.
The Bakari-led group combed the village on December 20 and 23, 2004 in search of ‘witches’ and ‘wizards’. They stormed homes of people suspected to be victims of “evil eyes”, killed chickens by biting off their heads and smearing their blood on their own faces; they then stripped their clients naked and daubed their bodies with blood.
Swaying to the tune of kayamba music, Bakari made his subjects drink what was said to be a mixture of urine and a concoction of herbs.
He flushed three apparently terrified old men out of their shanties and went on to “exorcise” the ghosts from them.
The government, through the then Coast Provincial Commissioner, Cyrus Maina, not only condemned the exercise but ordered the arrest of police officers said to have licensed Bakari to exorcise ghosts.
Maina said exorcism was an offence and that any one colluding with the exorcists should be arrested.
While Ali Simba (the Miritini village headman) attributed the underdevelopment of the area to witchcraft, Julius Kalu (Anglican Church of Kenya Bishop in Mombasa) said witchcraft was outdated and retrogressive and urged the largely conservative Miji Kenda community to abandon the practice and seek God’s healing.
Apprehending Bakari in a village that fears (nay, reveres) traditions was a challenge.
When he was finally arrested, he started foaming at the mouth and went into convulsion that saw him confined to a hospital bed and could not be taken to court to plead to any charge, being unconscious.
Saying his condition was beyond the court and modern medicine, magistrate JB Mdivo released the unconscious Bakari on bond. The case was later dropped for what was described as lack of evidence.
In early 2006, retired president, Daniel arap Moi, urged Kenyans to return to God to forestall calamities that have befallen the country since the coming to power in December 2002 of the National Rainbow Coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki. This return-to-God call came two days after Kibaki had led Kenyans in a national day of prayer and repentance.
But soon after this, Citizen Radio of Nairobi reported in June 2006 that Malaba Town Council on the border of Kenya and Uganda had used witch doctors to fight theft; that four people had lapsed into a coma and gone blind after about 60 employees of the council had been made to drink concoctions and jumped over some herbs administered by the witch doctors said to have been hired by the local authority.
Writing on the same incident in Sunday Standard on September 10, 2006, Wafula Khayana reports that these witch doctors from Kamolo and Kaliwa villages of Teso District who were paid Sh50000 (about US$695), were hired by a civic leader, according to Tom Kwasi, the Town Clerk.
As 2006 dashed inexorably towards its end, a man in Bungoma District whose bale of second hand clothes had been stolen and recovered through the service of another witch doctor from Teso, was shown on KTN explaining the efficacy of witchcraft as a seemingly helpless man lay on the ground and a contented witch doctor smiled.
At the time of filing this article, Kenyans were questioning why the government had not taken any action on the matter and if the silence is an indication that the government sanctions witchcraft.
In 1995, Kennedy Kiliku, then Member of Parliament for Changamwe constituency, claimed that cabinet ministers had turned to witchcraft and devil worship. He added that Kenya faced a bleak future as its leaders had turned against God.
A short while before these claims, police had arrested Mary Wanjiru Mwangi, then MP for Kinangop, for allegedly dabbling in witchcraft.
Then a self-declared witch doctor claimed that two Luyia leaders–among them a former influential cabinet minister, Elijah Wasike Mwangale–consulted him.
The witchdoctor, Elly Khamala Wanyama, said this during the hearing of an election petition against Musikari Kombo (now minister for Local Government) whose election in 1992 as Webuye MP was nullified on claims that he had administered an oath known as eshilulu to voters binding them to elect him.
Asked by defense counsel James Aggrey Orengo why Mwangale, a former powerful minister for Foreign Affairs had lost the election in 1992, Wanyama said it was because the late Mwangale had not consulted him this time round.
Wanyama was not arrested or prosecuted contrary to the witchcraft Act (Chapter 67 of the Laws of Kenya) which stipulates that “Any person who holds himself as a witchdoctor, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years”.
Are Nigerian films like this one leading Kenyans into practising witchcraft?
It was said that Juma Tsuma Washe alias Kajiwe, who died in 1993, had been licensed by the government as a witch-hunter.
Although witchcraft appears to be a world-wide trend as seen through JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, American television programmes like Charmed and prominent people like the late Princess Diana who were said to have dabbled in it, some Kenyans blame the growing interest in it on Nigerian home videos that are screened in Kenyan homes.
“There is a heightened interest in witchcraft and hitherto well educated, progressive Christians no longer frown on notions of consulting witchdoctors, mediums, or medicinemen as was the case before the appearance of Nigerian videos in Kenya,” says Jane Mbiti. “People now admit they are consulting psychics over problems they consider beyond human control.”
Nigerian theologian, Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, writes in Africa Bible Commentary that “Belief in witchcraft in Africa is approaching epidemic proportions” and that it is “widespread among Christians.”
As this happens, the theology professor laments, church leaders and missionaries continue to dismiss witchcraft as mere superstition instead of “developing an adequate understanding of it rooted in the doctrine of evil.”
During her tour of Nairobi in April 2006, Paris-based Beninois diva, Angelique Kidjo, stated that the source of her inspiration is Voodooism, a mystical, ancient practice common in West Africa.
But what is wrong with witchcraft?
Underdevelopment among the Abaluyia, Luo, Gusii, Miji Kenda, and Kamba communities is attributed to their beliefs in witchcraft.
The Taita and the Taveta are said to spend a lot of money in the pursuit of their beliefs in witchcraft. Their local district commissioner, Arthur Mugira, was reported in 2005 as having said that their belief in witchcraft was to blame for underdevelopment in the area.
Although Nyanza province produces some of the best brain doctors, academics, engineers and a horde of other experts; it is one of the most underdeveloped areas of Kenya. All these experts ‘hide’ in Nairobi for fear of dying from witchcraft.
In the Abagusii districts of Kisii, Nyamira, and Gucha, neigbours turn against suspected witches, burning them with their property and banishing their relatives.
And did you know that witchcraft has prevented the police from arresting people who raided Likoni Police Station, stole guns, killed people, destroyed property and threw Kenya’s lucrative tourism sector into disarray in 1997?
It is said that a 73-year-old witchdoctor, Swalehe Salim bin Alfan, had administered an oath to the local people binding them to secrecy and to kill when called upon. The local people, who seem to fear the power of witchcraft more than that of the gun, fled from their villages rather than cooperate with the police in apprehending the attackers.
In 1996, Dr Amukowa Anagwe, then a political scientist at the University of Nairobi, attributed the abject poverty in Western Kenya to witchcraft.
“The Luhyas have run away from their ancestral homes due to the fear of being bewitched. Those people cannot even construct good houses nor purchase vehicles,” he said.
Steven S, a personnel officer with an international non-governmental organisation in Nairobi, concurs: “Although I own a car and operate several businesses in Nairobi, I can’t invest at home because that would be inviting death,” he says. “When I have no choice other than travel home, I dress simply and use public means lest someone bewitches me for showing off my wealth.”
He admits to sleeping in a grass-thatched, mud-walled hut without electricity whenever he is at home ‘in order to be at par with the villagers’.
“Building a permanent house with modern conveniences in the village usually marks the end of someone. So why invest so much in a building you will never live in?” he poses.
The story is similar at Changwithya village in Kitui and Mbiuni in Machakos where people both dread and stand in awe of witchcraft which they consider as ‘protection’ to safeguard one’s property, land, business, status and family.
“The more property one has, the greater the need to protect it,” says 25-year old Alice Mumbua. “Witchcraft gives my people security. Someone can’t venture into any major business or career before seeking protection.”
She says that the Kamba trust the witchcraft of far off lands (Tanzania, Congo-Kinshasa and the Kenyan coast) more than what is available locally.
“If you see any one doing very well, that person has greater protection than his rivals,” she says. “Even prominent church leaders are involved in witchcraft. It is rare to have one excommunicated on the account of dabbling in witchcraft in Ukambani.”
Mohammed Said Abdalla asserts in Kisima Cha Giningi that witchcraft retards development.
But why do modern people believe in witchcraft?
Michael Van Buskirk, the author of Revival In The Cosmic Garden, quotes Los Angeles Times as saying that this is partly due to people’s disillusionment with established religions that lack answers to perplexing human issues while science and technology have also failed to deliver their promise forcing people to lose confidence in pure reason.