Burning Bodies and Witchcraft in Malawi

Tragedy in Ndirande

Recently, Malawi was rocked with reports of a suicide-arson case in Blantyre’s slum quarter of Ndirande. Details of the case are hazy, but what is known is that one night three sisters, aged 31, 27 and 19 and one brother removed all of the furniture from their home, set it alight and proceeded to jump into the blaze to their deaths. The house caught alight as well, badly burning another brother who died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s burn ward a few days later. One sister survived the incident. The father claims that the sisters acted completely normally until the week previous, when they started performing satanic rituals and began to forcibly perform oral sex on him. The father, a Methodist minister has been accused of casting spells on the children, forcing the children to take the matter into their own hands. A local church has also been implicated in fueling the hysteria which led to the family taking their own lives.

Newspapers and blogs from Malawi point to the dangerous influence of Satanism in Malawi as a root cause for the events in Ndirande. To me, “Satanism” is just a convenient tag with which to avoid asking the hard questions but in Africa, those questions are especially difficult. The father makes grand claims that the daughters forcibly performed oral sex on him the week previous, but a statement like that could very well imply that the father repeatedly sexually molested the daughters, likely over the course of a lifetime. One would think this, but claims from witnesses and community members indicate that the father was indeed repeatedly victimized over the course of the previous week and had sought help from local community leaders. What is interesting about this particular event, is its group nature. One person suffering a nervous event may set one’s house alight and commit suicide, but how do five people do it together, wildly chanting and holding Bible’s to their chests? The surviving mother make claims that a local church figure is to blame and even participated, inviting implications of cult-like activity not unknown to even the United States. The sole surviving sister made a telling statement:

“I was just following what my siblings were doing,” she said. “At first I didn’t believe, but they insisted… I thought they were right because were preaching the word of God.”

Witchcraft in Malawi

Although the event has a strong Christian undertone, witchcraft has been implicated as a cause. Explaining witchcraft in Sub Saharan Africa is no easy undertaking. academics spend a lifetime trying to parse out its roots and implications. Few come to any solid conclusions. Some consider it to be the result of deeply-rooted African superstition. Others theorize that witchcraft accusations occur as a result of repeated illness (e.g. malaria) from birth. Still others, point to the close and intimate nature of African families, living in close quarters under the stress of poverty. It is worth noting that most accusations of witchcraft target elderly widows, who cannot support themselves and young children in large households unable to meet basic needs. Regardless, nearly all witchcraft accusations occur within impoverished families. As Africa’s population swells, communities broken up due to migration into cities, and traditional community support fades, the problem becomes increasingly serious.

Child Witches in Malawi

Articles in the popular American press have unveiled a rash of accusations of witchcraft among children, specifically girls in Nigeria. Similar to Nigeria, accusations against children often occur in poor urban areas and specifically against children orphaned by HIV and forced to move in with relatives. In contrast to other countries, girls in Malawi are prized as they can help around the house and with the raising of younger children. It is not surprising, then, that most accusations in Malawi are against boys. In Malawi, as in most of Africa, the family is a tight and sacred unit. Counsins are like brothers and nephews are like one’s own children. Ejecting a member of the family because of the inability to feed him or her, presents grave social consequences. Thus, it is easier to accuse a child of being a witch and send him or her off to an orphanage, the streets, kill the child or worse, put him or her at the mercy of human traffickers. In addition to the grave human rights situation presented by such baseless accusations, baseless superstitious accusations against a child rip the fabric of community apart, as well as detroying the prospects for a child whose only crime was to be orphaned by AIDS. From a humanist site:

“In Nigeria, in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, children accused of witchcraft are abandoned, beaten, slashed with knives, bathed with acid or lynched by parents, family and community members. Some of these so called child witches are chained and starved, some have been tortured to death by unscrupulous pastors during deliverance ceremonies. Also human rights activists working to defend the rights of those accused of witchcraft have been at risk. They have suffered attacks, threats, intimidation and harassment. “

The Business of Witchcraft

Where there is a social problem, there are those who profit off of it and seek its continuance. Traditional healers, known to have powers that can rid people of and fight witchcraft are the first candidates. While some healers deal in herbs that purportedly heal a number of physical ailments, the most profitable sector of their business is fighting witchcraft. The claim to be able to detect witches, and are often employed by the state to serve as witnesses in witchcraft related cases. Often they are called into communities by local chiefs to root out witches and can receive an incredible sum of money, approximately $100 (US) a head.

Christian pastors, as in the United States, claim the ability to fight witchcraft through the power of God and frequently travel throughout the villages of Malawi, selling their services for donations. Pastors and traditional healers, by promoting their services, provide legitimacy to witchcraft claims, and exacerbate witchcraft accusations among a desperate and scared populace. It has been reported that Angola has been proactive in shutting down witch hunting operations by Christian churches, citing gross human rights violations amongst community members. Clearly, Christian organizations are seen as a community power, and the presence of pastors willing to perform these services legitimizes accusations and abuses against community members, using even the power of the state for their own ends. The rewards are power and money.

Religious Freedom in Malawi

The implications of the event are deeper than one initially assumes. Malawi, after years of enduring a repressive totalitarian government under Kamuzu Banda, now seeks to deal with a young but reasonably well-functioning democracy, despite Malawi having one of the lowest GDP’s in the entire world. One question is the role of religion in Malawi and whether Malawi is a secular or Christian state. The Constitution of Malawi, a wide ranging, progressive document by any standard, makes several allowances for religious freedom including:

“Every person shall have the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, which shall include academic freedom.”

Calls to ban witchcraft legally are being made as I write this. Aside from the questions as to its Constitutionality, a state ban on witchcraft presents two major dilemmas. First, critics worry that a government ban on witchcraft will result in state recognition of it’s existence and legitimize the practice. Second, religious freedom advocates worry that a ban on witchcraft will apply to all animistic religions and create an Abrahamic hegemony, further marginalizing those who do not practice religious such as Christianity or Islam. The populace likely widely supports a legal ban on witchcraft, but the legal implications are immense. Government representatives have even begun to meet with Christian and Islamic church leaders to explore the possibility of creating legislation which sets standards for church activities. Of course, broadly speaking, the implication is that government will be given incredible control over the populace of Malawi, as religious faith is a given to just about everyone there, further reminding one of why the Founding Fathers thought it important enough to exclude religion from American government.

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About Peter Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

4 responses to “Burning Bodies and Witchcraft in Malawi”

  1. Luis-Sama says :

    Interesting as always Pete-Chan. Unrelated, I wonder why the phrase on Academic freedom.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    Likely due the the oppressive Banda regime, which routinely jailed, tortured and killed academics and intellectuals.

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