44 die as murderous and puzzling witch hunt frenzy grips western Kenya

August 06, 1993|By Tammerlin Drummond | Tammerlin Drummond,Los Angeles Times

KISII, Kenya -- A fertile oasis nestled in the highlands of western Kenya, Kisii District is a farmer's paradise. Its flourishing countryside boasts seven-foot cornstalks, trees laden with bananas and endless acres of tea plantations.

But beneath the tranquil facade, a phenomenon reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in late 17th-century Massachusetts has plunged the close-knit Gusii tribe into a murderous frenzy.

Since July of last year, 44 men and women accused of practicing witchcraft have been burned to death in Kisii and neighboring Nyamira districts, according to police officials. In most cases, they said, village mobs several hundred strong locked the victims inside thatch-roof houses and set them on fire.

Witchcraft has deep roots in some African societies. Good luck, as well as disease and death, are often attributed to the supernatural. College students, professional athletes and even members of Parliament have been known to consult witch doctors for answers to their physical and metaphysical ills, even though many Kenyans are practicing Christians and Muslims.

Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has denounced the killings and warned that vigilante witch hunters will be prosecuted for murder. He also appealed to Kisii residents to report suspected witches to the police. Under a colonial law still on the books, anyone convicted of using black magic to cause fear or injury can be sentenced to as long as five years in prison.

But despite more than 50 arrests in connection with the burnings, the killings have continued at an average of almost one a week.

"People have become hysterical about it, but they can't give you any concrete reason why except to say that these witches are instilling fear in people," said Kisii District Commissioner Harry Wamubeyi. "Most of the people killed were in their 50s, 60s and 70s who had been living in the community for all these years. So why, all of a sudden, do people think they are witches?"

He and other community leaders have searched in vain for an answer.

Some blame a worsening economy for heightened tensions. The district's growth in population, fast approaching 1 million, has led to land shortages, while at the same time youth unemployment has reached record levels.

But economics alone cannot explain the sudden hysteria that has left dozens of people dead and driven hundreds from their ancestral homes.

One recent victim was Michira Amoro, 25. According to police, he was at home with his wife the night of July 12 when a mob encircled his house and doused it with gasoline. His wife, who police now say is among a dozen suspects in the case, allegedly fled. Then, police said, the attackers set the house ablaze.

Mr. Amoro's father, Zebeyo, 55, insisted that neighbors murdered his son over a business deal that the neighbors had reneged on and which had caused bad feelings among the former business partners ever since.

However, according to police, the arrested suspects asserted he was among a group of witches who abducted a 13-year-old boy on his way to school and bewitched him.

The boy's parents told police that when their son was released several hours later, he was unable to speak. They said they found out what hap

pened when their son drew pictures describing the encounter, police said.

Most of those murdered were harmless elderly people whose only crime appears to have been incurring the jealousy of a family member or neighbor, local officials said. Even close relatives have taken to accusing one another of witchcraft in a deadly payback for past injuries.

"They haven't had any proof at all that these people were witches," said District Police Officer W. S. Ongayo, noting that many of the victims were successful members of the community. "But in the current climate, the only thing someone has to do to activate the village psychology against you is to call you a witch."

In Kisii and coastal areas like Mombasa, beliefs in the supernatural are particularly strong.

"Our people don't believe that someone can die without there being some witchcraft involved," said Father Thomas Menge, head of the Sengere Catholic parish, which has about 15,000 followers.

Sanslaus Anunda, a 99-year-old tribal elder, said that during his youth villagers had a foolproof method for determining guilt. First, he said, the most respected men in the community would call a meeting. Next, they would smear local herbs on the hands of the suspect and that of a second, innocent man.

Both men would be ordered to dip their hands into a pot of boiling water, then return in five days' time, Mr. Anunda said. If the suspect was a witch, burns would appear on his hands. However, Mr. Anunda insists, the innocent man's hands would remain unscarred.

"The witch would then be stoned to death on the spot," Mr. Anunda said. "But nowadays, they're killing people without knowing if the person is a witch or not."

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