News / Africa

    Group Launches Campaign to Help Suspected Witches in Malawi

    FILE - Malawi’s longest-serving witchcraft prisoner Ezereti Kampota walks to freedom from Maula Maximum Security Prison, in Lilongwe after the Association of Secular Humanism and its Executive Director George Thindwa became advocates for her release, May 31, 2011.
    FILE - Malawi’s longest-serving witchcraft prisoner Ezereti Kampota walks to freedom from Maula Maximum Security Prison, in Lilongwe after the Association of Secular Humanism and its Executive Director George Thindwa became advocates for her release, May 31, 2011.
    Lameck Masina
    Malawi has no law outlawing witchcraft, and no legal definition of witchcraft, yet there is continuing persecution of those denounced as witches. 

    Scores of people -- most of them women, children or the elderly -- have been imprisoned after being pressured or beaten into "confessing" they were involved in witchcraft.  However, a new public campaign is under way to help victims ward off such accusations.

    The three-year campaign was recommended in a recent study about witchcraft in Malawi that showed the biggest problem is an increase in violence targeting suspected witches.

    Sociologists from the University of Malawi and members of the Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi found that being labeled a witch brings violent consequences in nearly three-quarters of all cases.  Those consequences include beatings, other physical harassment or worse.

    Once brutalized into confessing, suspected witches lose their property to vandals and thieves.  And after release from prison they are socially and psychologically ostracized.

    There also have been cases where witch doctors -- traditional healers believed to have the power to identify witches and to exorcise evil spirits -- sexually abused female suspects under the pretext of "cleansing" them.

    The government of Norway is funding the campaign to expose false accusations of witchcraft, and the Association of Secular Humanism is championing the program in 11 districts across Malawi.

    “What we want to do is to sensitize people on witchcraft law, because people don’t know what the Witchcraft Act says.  As a result, they take the law in their own hands,” said George Thindwa, the association's executive director. 

    Malawi has a Witchcraft Act dating back to 1911, but it states there is no such thing as witchcraft and makes it a punishable offense even to accuse anyone of being a witch.

    Thindwa says the law and its intent are clear, but that does not stop traditional beliefs and fears from inspiring false charges against innocent people, and violent pressure to win so-called confessions.

    “What actually happens is that they are forced to confess [by their accusers] because that is the only answer which the community wants to hear from them once they accuse them,” he said.

    Thindwa contends the police foster violence against suspected witches by arresting people based on false allegations.

    Police officials deny this. 

    “For those people who have been arrested and convicted of practicing witchcraft, it means that they willfully admitted to be practicing witchcraft," said Kelvin Maigwa, deputy national spokesperson for Malawi's police. "But if the police fail to prove the case -- which is normally very difficult to prove -- that someone is practicing witchcraft, the magistrate has got the powers to turn that case into what we call ‘conduct likely to cause breach of peace.'"

    Prison records indicate that as of mid-2011, more than 60 people were in jail after being convicted of witchcraft-related offenses.

    The nation's secular humanists appealed to then-president Bingu wa Mutharika, who has since died, to grant an amnesty for anyone wrongfully convicted of witchcraft-related offenses.

    “In fact, there is nobody now who is serving a sentence on witchcraft-related offenses.  We had to argue with the state president [to release them] because they received wrong sentences," Thindwa stated. "So all of them were released in May 2011, and the final group of two ladies were released on 21 December 2012.”

    The just-completed study indicates that seven out of eight Malawians believe witches exist, and they reject the 1911 law as an unwanted inheritance from Britain, Malawi's former colonial ruler.
     
    Kingsley Belo, a witchdoctor in Mbayani Township in Blantyre, asserts not only that witchcraft exists, but that witches have used their powers to kill people.

    He says “I would wish if the laws on witchcraft were revisited, and the witchdoctors should be allowed to preside over or be state witnesses on cases involving witchcraft, because the existing laws are in conflict with reality."  Belo adds, "As witchdoctors we can have evidence that someone has killed another person through witchcraft, but he cannot be taken to court because there is no law against that, which means from he can continue killing other people.”

    Thindwa says witchcraft does not exist, and he rejects the notion that witches can fly at night and use their powers to cause harm to others.

    “And I wanted people to prove it [to] me.  I have gone forward and offered a MK 1 million prize [1 million Malawian kwacha, worth about $2,500] for anybody who can bewitch me," he said. "Unfortunately the prize has been there for the past three years and nothing has happened.”

    Malawi's Law Commission is soliciting the general public's views on witchcraft before it decides whether to review the existing Witchcraft Act, or possibly even to make witchcraft a criminal offense.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    NATO to Target Migrant Smugglersi
    X
    Jeff Custer
    February 11, 2016 4:35 PM
    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.