Don’t be fooled by his quiet demeanor. This sleepy rural village of 700 souls on the sandy shores of Lake Malawi, hides a dark secret. Three years ago, the day after Christmasan angry mob unleashed by rumors of witchcraft, hunted down and lynched a grieving family, a murderous incident characteristic of the violence that the country is now trying to contain. “Hundreds of villagers came to our house from everywhere to attack us”says Walinaye Mwanguphiri, 36, who escaped them but lost his brother and his parents.
Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Malawione of the poorest countries in the world, where nearly three out of four people live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.
At least 75 people suspected of black magic have been killed there by vengeful mobs since 2019, according to the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a local NGO. Just last week, villagers in Dedza, in the center of the country, killed a traditional chief accusing him of witchcraft, local press reported.
And in 2017, rumors of blood-sucking vampires swept through the south of the country, killing seven people and forcing authorities to impose a nighttime curfew and the UN to withdraw its personnel from the area.
Should magic be criminalized in Malawi?
NGOs and authorities, however, cannot agree on what should be done. In December, a special commission charged with formulating proposals recommended… that we recognize the existence of magic. Currently in Malawi, accusing someone of being a Wizard is a misdemeanor. The commission found that this law, developed under British colonial rule, assumes that witchcraft does not exist, which goes against the beliefs of most Malawians.
“Beliefs cannot be denied by law”, writes Robert Chinangwa, a retired Supreme Court justice. “The Commission therefore recommends that the law recognize the existence of witchcraft but criminalize its practice.“
Criminalizing witchcraft could help calm vigilantes by punishing those they suspect of being so, says CHRR director Michael Kaiyatsa. But securing convictions could prove as difficult as finding hard evidence of witchcraft. Giving more resources to the police would reduce the feeling of impunity linked to the scarcity of arrests and prosecutions, he argues.
Beaten to death for being accused of witchcraft
But in Lupembe, 560 km north of the capital Lilongwe, Walinaye Mwanguphiri has no illusions. On the shores of the lake, life goes on. Men bask in the sun, waiting for their catch from the day before to dry, women wash dishes and laundry. In his mud house covered with thatch, he painstakingly recounts the tragic sequence that made him an orphan.
His cousin’s son had died the day before from illness, and the family had gathered at the cemetery to bury him when the mob attacked. “(They) accused us of having killed him by witchcraft”. In the tumult that followed, the thirty-year-old managed to escape. “I survived by a hair”, he said. The assailants beat to death his parents, his brother, his aunt, and destroyed several houses before dispersing.
The police arrest a few villagers, who are quickly released. She did not wish to respond to requests from AFP about this case. The survivor still does not understand what triggered the accusations of witchcraft. He has returned to the village, where he takes care of his brother’s five children. “It’s hard to live here after what happened”he said. “But this is the only home we have, we have nowhere else to go”.
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In Malawi, witchcraft and black magic kill
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