Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Malawi frees all ‘witches’ from jail

It is unprecedented. Malawi has freed from jail the last prisoners who were incarcerated for allegedly practicing witchcraft.

Thindwa posing with the two "witches"
Liviness Elifala, 51 and her friend Margaret Jackson who looks 70 of Lodzanyama village, Traditional Authority Ntema in Lilongwe rural, some 40 minutes drive from the Lilongwe City Centre have not been home for the last three years.

The two have been in prison for three years and just returned about two weeks ago following the latest presidential prisoner parole.

Elifala found her house dilapidated, the planting season is past and therefore she has no food now and will still have none after the harvesting season.

“Some children told their parents that we had enrolled them in which craft school, their parents and chiefs ganged up on us accusing us of which craft, we did not want trouble so we admitted doing it though I had no idea what they were talking about, we taken to Kanengo Police where I spent about two weeks in a cell,” said Liviness, who did not flash a small the whole time she talked.

One informant in the village said the two used to magically get children in the village to magical soccer games where the ball was human heads.

And that was the end of the two women; the court found them guilty and sentenced them to five years in prison.

Elifalas belongings she has to start a life with
How a whole court of law  and the police used evidence provided by under-five children who based their cases on what they saw in their dreams in another story, what is known is that an Septuagenarian and her friend were thrown in jail mercilessly.

“We were never harassed in prison, except for one time when my fellow inmates beat me up,” said Elifala.
Key in the release of the two women is The Association of Secular Humanists (ASH) with its leader George Thindwa; ASH is at war with witchcraft and is currently running adverts on local radios to sensitize people against witchcraft violence.

So far ASH has bailed the women out by giving them two bags of maize each, medicine and assorted groceries and it was instrumental influencing the release of the two women by bombarding the state with petitions.

With funding from the Norwegians, ASH engaged Chancellor College Sociologist Dr. Charles Chilimampunga to determine the extent of the witchcraft problem in Malawi and the results indicate that despite the two Lilongwe ladies being freed, there is still a long way before communities let go of their view on witchcraft.

The study, released in April last year, found that 87 percent of sampled communities believe there are witches among them and that witchcraft is on the rise. Most of the accused are older women and the accusers are usually children.

“This study found that some suspected witches are subjected to acts of violence. For example, 11 (73 percent) of the 15 sampled suspects, reported that they were beaten up,” reads the report.

Thindwa hands over maize to start off  post prison life for freed witches
Apart from Physical violence, the suspected witches lose their property through vandalism are socially and psychologically sidelined and some witchdoctors have been reported to have sexually abused some female suspects.

Legally witchcraft is not recognized in Malawi and the Witchcraft Act of 1911 says it is illegal to accuse another of being a witch such that the children that accused the two women were in contradiction with the Act and were supposed to face the law.

Elifala and Jackson however got jailed because they admitted that they are witches and the same Act says it is illegal to pretend to be a witch.

“The means by which witches are identified are very dubious and questionable since they cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny or testing. Revelations by ‘witches’ and children can be misleading since admissions by the accused are sometimes made under duress,” charges the report.

Thindwa pointed at some religious leaders especially from the Pentecostal realm who he said have been blaming things such as financial misfortunes on witches and therefore perpetrating the hooliganism that follows.

As a panacea, the report calls for a nationwide campaign to enlighten masses on what the law says on witchcraft, it also calls on the police to handle the issues of witchcraft accusations without wanton emotions and favouritism

“[there is need to] develop measures that ensure that those accused or mistreated in the name of witchcraft are able to report, come forward and speak out of injustices to police, DCs or relevant NGOs. Establishment of temporary shelter, hotline and legal support would be in order,” suggests the report.

For Elifala and Jackson however, all they hope for is to get back the life they had and to try to ignore the stares that will haunt them and the poverty that prison created for them.

Lodzanyama used to be their village but that changed in a flash when everyone turned against them over a rumour sparked by children who should be in kindergarten learning how to speak, its now just a camp.

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