Why 'witches' lynching in Kisii needs urgent action

On October 17, four elderly people from Marani were lynched on allegations of witchcraft

In Summary

• Statistics indicate that about six people face violence every month on suspicion of being witches in Gusiiland. 

• Most of the victims are widows whose accusers are relatives from the families of their deceased husbands.

Janet Moraa had just finished making porridge for her elderly and ailing mother when someone knocked on their door.

She opened the door and a man known to her said they had come for her mother. Moraa's mother was hacked to death on October 17.

She was among four elderly people who were lynched by a mob in Marani, Kisii county, on witchcraft claims. The four elderly people were suspected of having bewitched a Form 4 student.

According to police records, the student was unable to speak, prompting the villagers to initiate a process of identifying the alleged witches.

“It was on Sunday morning, and my mother had not even taken her medicine. I asked them what they wanted my sick mother for,” she said.

Moraa said her mother had earlier been admitted to a hospital in Kisii town after she developed complications from stomach ulcers.

“She developed ulcers after the death of my father. After his death, she received so many threats asking her to vacate the land where we stayed,” she said.

She had asked a relative who stays out of the country to help her settle the hospital bill.

“She was too weak to walk when we got back home. I had to help her move around, even go to the toilet."

Although four people suspected of having been involved in the killing of the four elderly people are in custody, Moraa and organisations have called for thorough investigations to ensure all perpetrators are brought to book.

Speaking during a press conference on Thursday, human rights organisations condemned the lynching of the four elderly people in Kisii.

“The killing is an abominable, discriminatory, unjust, dehumanising, and deeply oppressive trend that largely targets old and poor widows in Gusiiland,” Osiea regional director Carol Ageng’o said.

“We must work together to stop this grotesque practice with a fierce sense of urgency,” she said.

Ageng’o said witchcraft accusations and the resulting extreme violence meted out to women suspected of being witches are on the rise in Gusiiland and other parts of the country, including Kilifi.

“This barbaric behaviour is usually sanctioned by some members of the communities where these acts are rampant. There are many reports of very close family members, including women, colluding to instigate this violence, harass, intimidate, maim and even murder widows by hacking them to pieces and/or burning them alive,” she said.

One of the elderly woman who was lynched had buried her husband two weeks before she met her death at the hands of a rowdy, angry and blood-thirsty mob who had labelled her a witch.

Statistics indicate that about six people face violence every month on suspicion of being witches in Gusiiland.

An analysis of most of the 'witch lynching' cases shows a linkage between these horrendous acts and resource conflicts in the social, political, and economic arena.

Most of the victims are widows whose accusers are relatives from the families of their deceased husbands.

Dr Kerubo Abuya said witchcraft accusations against widows are traceable to land scarcity, greed, selfishness and misogyny.

“Even where there was no conflict in the lifetime of the husbands, the accusations arise immediately upon the death of their husbands, with families ganging up against the widows and accusing them of witchcraft, emboldened by the community attitude and social stigma associated with witchcraft,” she said.

Abuya said once these widows are labelled and isolated, they become easy prey.

“As soon as the witchcraft accusation is dangled at them, it is only a matter of time before a 'victim' of their witchcraft is identified and they are lynched," she said.

"Consequences of lynching include the stigmatisation of the family of the 'witch' and forcible removal of the 'witches’ families from the area only for the accusers to appropriate themselves of the land.” 

George Kegoro said the practice of 'witch lynching' has led to slow economic growth that is characterised by unproductive behaviours such as destruction of property, forced migration from rural to urban areas, homelessness, poverty and conflicts among community members.

“Being an old woman, especially a widow with grey hair, is a death sentence in Kisii county,” he said.

Kegoro said that in many cases, when widows with children – especially minors – are murdered, their husbands’ family members disinherit them by grabbing their parents’ land and other resources.

“These children often end up on the streets where they are extremely vulnerable to human rights violations of all kinds, such as human trafficking, child labour, physical, emotional, sexual, other forms of violence and even murder,” he said.

Abuya said the killings that have been happening in Gusiiland for many decades are not a tradition or cultural practice of the Abagusii people but acts of extreme violence driven by greed, selfishness, misogyny and deeply held patriarchal assumptions and values that devalue girls’ and women’s lives.

Traditionally, widows were protected from harm by the Abagusii people.

Edited by A.N