Friday, 3 June 2011

Humanist George Thindwa briefly detained and fined as he attempts to stop a witch-hunt in Malawi

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In the current issue of New Humanist, Richard Wilson reports on the work of local humanist campaigners fighting to prevent the persecution of women and children accused of witchcraft in Africa, focusing in particular on the work of George Thindwa in Malawi and Leo Igwe in Nigeria.

We received an email from George this morning, explaining how he was detained and fined by village chiefs as he attempted to prevent a witch-hunt as it happened on Wednesday in the Chimutu area of Malawi. It's an extraordinary story – here's George's account in full:
The crowd at the witch-hunt in Chinoko
On 1st June, I went to deliver N. Kamphata, the oldest elderly woman prisoner at her village at T/A Chumutu, Dowa who was released on a witchcraft offence.

On my way back, I was informed that there was a witch hunt at Chinoko village, T/A Chimutu about 15 kms from Kanengo on Lilongwe-Salima road. I decided to investigate. Indeed, the witch hunt was in full swing with the witch-finder named Boston (25-30 yrs old) doing searches of witchcraft charms. By the time I arrived at the village, the witch finder was at the grave yard. It is alleged that a “witch” by the name of Frazer Kaphanga had hidden his charms at the grave. There were many people at the grave site with drumming and singing.

I managed to join the crowd and take pictures. I went into the graveyard where some people had gone to watch the witch-finder digging the charm of Mr. Frazer. At the grave, I found the witch-finder busy with his act and within a short time; he managed to bring out the charm. He showed it to the crowd claiming that it was a rat that Frazer uses to steal money from other people. Then, Mr. Frazer was detained at the camp smeared with flour all over his face as a witch.

Next, the witch-finder went to the house of an old lady by the name of Kwajere, Ms Mukhalepo Chinsapo (80). I followed and took pictures. At the house the old lady was very disturbed and confused. She was smeared with flour on her face and asked to stand in the middle of a circle so that the witch-finder could search her house for charms. The old lady noticed that my mission was different. She faced in desperation clearly asking me in her heart so that I should her help. I went closer and took her hand and whispered to her that I will indeed rescue her at the appropriate time. I assured her that my mission there was to help such vulnerable people and her request would be answered.

I left and went aside to call the police to come and stop this illegal practice. The police headquarters told me to contact the Kanengo police. The community security men were alerted by the witch finder that my presence there was suspect. He briefly suspended his work and told them to bring me to him. The security men wanted to harass me. I resisted and told them that I had no time to go to the witch finder but to the Group Village man. At this time, I alerted my relations and humanists friends about this unfolding drama.

Three of the women accused of witchcraft
We went to the camp where the Group Village headman, Chinoko Kawenga, was supposed to be. He was not there. But all the chiefs were there. At the camp, there were 10 “witches” by that time, surrounded by people. Kwajere, Ms Chinsapo was dragged to the camp while I was there. One could not help to shed a tear to see live how the people labeled as witches are victimized and mistreated.

Mostly it is the elderly and women. Here are their names:

1. Mr. Kaphanga Frazer - is said to have a charm in the form of a rat for enrichment.
2. Mr. Boswell Kamuseza - the witch doctor was yet to visit his house to find the charms
3. Mr. Nasoni Kacholora - is said to have a charm to steal manhood from others.
4. Ms Naphiri Nabanda - is said to have a charm for tying pregnancies leading to still births.
5. Ms Moneyi Makata - her charm moved and was found to be at someone's house.
6. Ms Mukhalepo Chinsapo-Kwajere - very old woman and her charm was found in the roof of the house. She is a very old woman, possibly 80.
7. Mr. Herbert Kupenga
8. Ms Nankhoma Genitla
9. Ms Anasani Jojo - her charm was said to cause measles to others
10. Ms Angela Mawumusamathe
11. Mr. Kumbali Kamuseza

I was told that once the witch-finder had finished his searches of charms, he would come to the camp to deliver his final verdict on the “witches” in terms of punishment.

The chiefs told me that I was being charged with 3 offences: of taking pictures, of entering the grave yard without permission and attending the witch hunt without permission. I was told to pay a fine of MK 13000 ($85). I negotiated this down to MK 5000 ($32) and paid.

I was determined to stop the witch hunt and to have those in captive released. I went to the captives when I was discharged on my own and greeted them one by one and assured them that their freedom was at hand. I went to Mchezi roadblock at Kanengo and told the police about the witch hunt and they quickly phoned their superior. By 8 pm, the police arrived in full gear and we went to the village. At the village when police presence was noticed, people ran in all the directions. All the chiefs and two lieutenants of the witch-finder were taken for police questioning at Kanengo police. The witch-finder disappeared and he was nowhere to be seen.

George Thindwa with three of the women
following their release
As of 2nd June, 4 chiefs have been arrested and detained at Kanengo police; four lieutenants of the witch-doctor are detained. The arrested chiefs are Kalumbu Byton, Chinoko 2, Nachimbo Chapotela and Kachiundu. The police went back on 2nd June to look for the witch-finder and brought back two of his lieutenants. They did not find the witch-finder.

The so-called witches came to the police to give statements on 2nd June. I was with them. Some due to old age could not make it. I managed to deliver them back to their village, especially the very old. At the village the situation is calm now. Some villagers did thank me for helping them and stopping the witch-hunt.
Richard Wilson also discusses the work of George and Leo Igwe in the latest edition of the New Humanist podcast.
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