I first met Harold on my last trip to Malawi. I was shooting footage for a documentary project of mine on atheism in Malawi, as was referred to him as a member of the Malawi Association of Secular Humanists. In fact, he was the vice president of this very small but vocal group. I went to meet him at the Blantyre Sun Bird Hotel on a Monday afternoon. Not knowing what he looked like, I entered the courtyard looking for a Malawian. Instead, a middle aged white man called me over and introduced himself as Harold Williams.
Harold first went to Malawi in the 1950’s to work as a policeman for the Colonial government in Zomba. He instantly fell in love with the country (as everyone does). He met and married a Malawian woman, and signed on to stay after Malawi attained independence in 1963. I asked him why he stayed where many went back to England. He wished to help Malawi create a viable, independent government and help create a brighter future for this struggling country.
Harold eventually attained Malawian citizenship, raised children in Malawi, and created a life for himself in Malawi. He led a life very integrated with the people around him, spoke the language(s) fluently, and became one of Malawi’s most active and vocal advocates. Harold’s citizenship and dedication to Malawi called the very idea of what it is to be a “Malawian” into question, and larger ideas of “citizenship” that all states in the 21st century must face. Harold would enthusiastically discuss these broad but important questions in a manner usually reserved for sequestered academics.
Harold was deeply involved in the political life of Malawi. He participated actively in demonstrations, once even leading a protest against President Muluzi’s efforts to remain in office beyond the number of terms allotted to him in the Constitution, and found himself strong-armed by members of the Malawian military. Harold worked tirelessly for the right of free speech and protest in Malawi, which faces the same sorts of questions of protest and democracy that have recently been the focus of news reports on Egypt, Iran and Libya. Malawi’s small size and lack of resources keep it out of the world news, but its political concerns are really no different nor any less important than that of other, larger states.Harold ran the Malawi Concern Blog, which publicly addressed the problems of the present administration under Bingu, found himself on a watch list of potential political enemies, and even had his blog blocked and suppressed recently. Harold was a vocal critic of Bingu’s Presidency, and regularly called him out on his habit of playing ethnic politics with Malawi, wide human rights abuses and his unapologetic flouting of Malawi’s secular Constitution.
Of course, Harold’s role as an advocate of secular humanism and secular government cannot be forgotten. Harold was an avowed secularist, and perceived fanatical religious belief to be a threat to the peace and welfare of Malawi. Particularly, he fought alongside other Malawi secular humanists to provide advocacy for persons accused of witchcraft related crimes and the economy surrounding it, battled the inclusion of Christianity into government policy, and publicly resisted the widespread and dangerous phenomena of religious opportunists in Malawi. Among other activities, Harold ran the official blog for the group.
Harold was a great guy. If I end up being half the person that Harold was by the time I am his age, I will consider this a life worth having lived. In writing this short, pseudo-obit, I feel as though I am leaving much out, but I think this speaks loads to what kind of person Harold was as a political activist, a human rights advocate and as a human being.
I miss Harold and am so very sorry that I will never have the opportunity to meet him again.
For those not in the know, George is the head of the Malawi Association of Secular Humanists. He works tirelessly as an advocate for people who have been accused (some are even jailed) of withcraft related crimes and as a spokesman for human rights, rationality, atheism and secular government in Malawi.
George’s story is almost unbelievable, but disturbingly real. Please consider donating to help George’s cause. Even the smallest amount of money goes a long way to help pay for legal fees and to provide support for those imprisoned under some of the most horrific conditions imaginable. There is a donation button on the right corner of this page.
WITCH HUNT IN CHINOKO VILLAGE, LILONGWE –STOPPED, CHIEFS ARRESTED. CHIEFS DETAIN AND CHARGE THINDWA, PAYS THE MK 5000 FINE AND RELEASED
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 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 took 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 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 pixies. 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.
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. This is a very old woman possibly 80 see her photo.
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 fined to pay MK 13000 ($85). I negotiated this down to MK 5000($32) and paid.
I was destined to stop the witch hunt and to have those in captive released. I went to the captives when I was discharged on my own 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 to dispatch the 997 immediately. By 8 pm, the police arrived in full gear and we went to the village. At the village when police presence was noticed, people run in all the directions. All the chiefs, 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. Up to now he is nowhere.
As at 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 lieutenants of the witch finder. They did not find the witch finder.
The so called witches came to the police to give statement 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.
George Thindwa 2/6/2011
Although this post is vastly overdue, the Mzembes, who I met while I was in Malawi, have had their witchcraft case thrown out of court. I filmed a short interview with Mr. Mzembe which I have attached below. Hopefully, all cases of this nature will be thrown out of court and never heard again.
Subject: Fw: THE WITCHCRAFT CASE OF THE MZEMBES- Mr AND MRS MZEMBE RULINGThe Ruling for the Mzembes case on pretending witchcraft came to court today on 14 April at 11.30 am. As usual Thindwa was in attendance. Magistrate Gomani read his ruling this way:
1- He stated that the Court heard the evidence from the children that the Mzembes were practicing witchcraft. That they fly to America in lichelo where they drink human blood.
2- But the case before this court was on pretending witchcraft which in short, the state witnesses should have shown that the accused by their statements or actions pretended themselves as witches or having powers of witchcraft to the state witnesses or police.
3- the state witnesses did not show any evidence of admission on part of the accused that they pretended witchcraft.
4- there was further no evidence paraded in the court for any statements or actions that the accused pretended witchcraft to the witnesses or the police.
5- the Magistrate said that since there was no evidence shown by the state regarding pretending witchcraft, he concluded that the prosecution failed to demonstrate to the court where it could find the accused with a case to answer and ask them to defend themselves. He therefore found the accused, Mr Mzembe and his wife with NO CASE TO ANSWER! They were acquitted accordingly. The wife and husband were quite happy with madam shedding a tear. Those wishing to appeal his decision were asked to do so within 30 days.
Last September Mr. Mzembe and his wife were accused of killing three people by using witchcraft. They now face a sentence of 5 years in one of the worst prisons on the planet.
You can help them by donating to assist Mr. Mzembe and others who have been imprisoned on these baseless claims.
Mr. Mzembe is a 65 year old retired civil servant from Rumphi, in the Northern Region of Malawi. In September, and unknown woman from Blantyre phoned Mr. Mzembe and his wife and accused them of being witches and visited the couple several times while Mrs. Mzembe was in hospitalized. Mr. Mzembe went to report the harassment to the police who, inexplicably, arrested Mr. Mzembe for being a witch.
The Mzembes were released on bond, and have now been to court more than 15 times, hoping that the Magistrate will eventually dismiss the case entirely. The prosecution has brought forth children, who claim that Mr. Mzembe comes to them in the night and takes them to graveyards and uses his “witchcraft plane” to fly them to South Africa.
I personally spoke with Mr. Mzembe and can verify his claims. I shot a video interview of him telling his story as part of a wider project on Malawian secularism that I’m working on and have posted it below.
Mr. Mzembe’s case will likely be thrown out of court. He is educated, speaks English well and has access to at least some financial means. Others who languish in prisons all around Malawi are not so fortunate and need your help.
It is unconscionable that people are imprisoned for supernatural crimes in any context. Mr. Mzembe does not practice any type of witchcraft. However, this case should be of interest not only to those who believe in basic human rights, but also those who believe in religious freedom and respect for all beliefs, and in the necessity for secular democracies in preserving the rights of all.
If you donate, you will be helping the Malawi Association of Secular Humanism in their efforts to assist those navigating the courts, in bringing food and support for those languishing in prison and in preserving the human rights of all in sub-Saharan Africa. I can attest to the veracity of this organization personally. A little bit goes a very long way.
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions.
The Wisconsin Republican Party was so threatened by a recent blog post and NY Times op-ed from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon, that they filed to recieve copies of all of Cronon’s emails. Cronon detailed connections between the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the present Republican administration in Wisconsin, who seek to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, and ultimately reduce them to the status of poorly paid interns.
ALEC receives funding from a wide range of shady groups including the American Nuclear Energy Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Coors Brewing Company, Texaco, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, VISA, Exxon Mobil, the National Rifle Association, Amway, and, of course, the infamous Koch Brothers.One would assume, of course, that upon recieving the emails, smear professionals will scan the entire data base for scandalous tibdits that, when taken out of context, will ruin Cronon’s credibility. The results of this Republican led data mining experiment will be used to generate a case to fire him as a state employee or, at the very least, publicly make his life completely miserable and unlivable.
Cronon is like anyone who might read this blog. Given that many associated with this blog are at least in some way connected to either academic institutions or free thought and expression, I believe that we all have much to worry about.
Cronon’s recent experience reminds me of the recent arrest of political science professor, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga of Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi. Dr. Chinsinga, referring to the at that time recent political uprisings in Egypt, pointed out that Malawi’s ongoing problems with fuel shortages, food insecurity and the lack of foreign exchange could one day prompt similar uprisings in his country. Word reached the office of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who had Dr. Chinsinga arrested at his home, detained and questioned for hours.
The state has little to no legal grounds on which to prosecute Dr. Chinsinga. However, his arrest and detention are clearly intended to intimidate, defame and publicly humiliate a potential critic of an political group determined to hold on to power.
Rather than sow the seeds of true democracy, Mr. Mutharika and the Wisconsin Republican Party have sowed the seeds of totalitarianism, taking points directly from the playbooks of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. Those three are certainly extreme examples. It is doubtful that the WRP will send Cronon for reeducation, nor have Cronon killed. However, the precedent is already there. Given the ugly, extreme and polarizing nature of modern day American politics, if intimidation of public citizens is to be accepted as fair political game, then it is only a matter of time before intimidation turns to true retaliation.
In contrast to the United States, faculty at Chancellor have gone on strike to protest Dr. Chinsinga’s detention. Malawian students have taken to the streets to demonstrate in favor of academic freedom and the public expression of criticism and independent thought. Students at Chancellor College have endured violent repression by police, multiple riots have ensued and arrests plentiful. To my knowledge, American students, like many Americans, are disturbingly quiet on the subject of political suppression of written dissent.
In Africa, western medicine often has to compete with it’s indigenous counterpart. Traditional herbalists have long offered medical services to the ill, treating a variety of physical ailments and offering help to the injured and sick. Some merely offer herbal services, but others offer assist in the treatment of spiritual illnesses. Diagnosis of disease however, is a holistic matter, where practitioners look into the spiritual nature of the patient to discover answers to the type of ailment and the strategy of treatment. If ones looks hard enough, one can find herbalists on the outskirts of public markets. Often though, they wait by the entrance to standard hospitals, offering there products to anyone who passes by. Where western medicine fails, herbalists readily provide.
Many readily discredit herbalists and traditional medicine, but its my view that the characterization of fraudsters and hacks are undeserved. Herbalists often come from a long blood line of traditional doctors, and recipes are handed down and modified from father to son. Both of the herbalists I spoke with indicated that they first learned their trades from their parents or relatives.
Herbalists in Malawi are licensed to practice by the Malawian government and their legitimacy formally preserved. The Malawi Medical Practitioners and Dentists Act of 1987 protects the rights of traditional healers and herbalists to practice their trades in Malawi, assuming that life is not threatened:
“Nothing contained in this act will be construed to prohibit or prevent the practice of any African system of therapeutics by such persons in Malawi, provided that nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize performance by a person practising any African system of therapeutics of any act which is dangerous to life.”
Medications are intended for a variety of conditions, a few of which I list here. These were the medications which appeared in the short video I shot below:
1. Kuthenta Mapadzi – Medication for aching joints and feet
2. Mauka – for pain in urination, likely due to urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted infections
3. Konjzela Mphamvu – an aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement medication
4. High blood pressure medication
5. Back pain
6. Burns on the hands or body
7. Any type of problems at all, it appears to be an aspirin like medication
8. Chibayo – for kidney problems
9. Kudya Kanzanza – medication for diarrhea
10. Eye problems
11. Njohka – for cases of intestinal wormsNot surprisingly, most of these medications are for chronic conditions associated with aging. Medical service in Malawi, being as rudimentary as it is, likely cannot accommodate more serious chronic diseases. Thus, herbalists provide some level of relief for desperate patients. I asked the gentleman if he treats malaria, a disease readily treatable with western pharmaceuticals. He readily said no, that when patients come to him with malaria, he sends them to the local health facility. With the exception of basic pain killers and some anti-helminthic meds, none of his treatments were for commonly treatable conditions.
This is not to say that herbalist medications do not work. In fact, I am positive that at least some of them do. In contrast to more ambiguous forms of care, such as spiritual healing, traditional medicines cannot be completley ineffective. The ingredients in at least some of the medications are likely the same ingredients of more expensive factory produced meds. Studies of traditional medicines have been performed in the past, but it has only been recently that western practitioners have begun to take them seriously. The anit-helminthic and anti-diarrheal meds likely work to some level. I know that marijuana is commonly used throughout Malawi as a means of controlling nasuea during malaria episodes in adults. By probably no coincidence at all, traditional herbal meds to treat malaria in Tanzania contain cannabis.
My conversations with both of these men revealed immensely proud and professional medical practitioners. Both of them readily and openly discussed their craft with me as clinicians and not as charlatans. Neither one attempted to sell me any type of medication. Perhaps if I had gone to one complaining of some physical ailment, one might have. As with western doctors, there is no sense in treating those who are not ill.
Interesting to me was the method of packaging and sales, which follows a western paradigm. Medications are packed at pills, given at particular dosages from clearly marked containers. While the methods of pharmaceautical creation and diagnostic strategies may be as they were before Colonialization, the practice has clearly been absorbed into a standard western paradigm of licenses and packaging. In my experience, most things in Africa, from medicine to music to religion, are a fascinating reinvented mix of indigenous and western, producing something new and old at the same time in contrast to merely adapting new ideas to sell to a local population. Malawians, while in some ways very conservative, are in other ways a very curious and inquisitive people, eager to explore and integrate new ideas into everyday life.
Below is a short video I made while conversing with an herbalist in the Limbe Market last month.
On a free Saturday, I travelled to Limbe, a place I was told never to go, from downtown Blantyre. A series of minibus changes took me in the true market center of Malawi, where miles upon miles of jury-rigged stands sell just about everything you could ever want, at least within the confines of what can be bought in Malawi. The public transportation system here is a complex network of private mini-bus owners, who all have their own routes which they travel daily. I cannot express more my enthusiasm for the African mini-bus.
In true African fashion, there is no set bus schedule; you just wait somewhere and one will show up. Business is so brisk that countless bus owners will drive the same route, meaning that your wait-time usually doesn’t exceed more than 30 seconds. Where the Brits failed to institute a true public transportation infrastructure, the Malawians (and all of Sub-Saharan Africa) have stepped up themselves to create an efficient and working transportation network that, despite its haggard and ramshackle appearance, works incredibly well, almost better than anything comparable in the US.
Despite the apparent chaos of the mini-bus “system”, there is a method to this madness. Buses must line up at “stations” where people transfer routes. Buses are not allowed to leave until those who came first have already embarked. It’s a self-policing system. Bus drivers who attempt to leave out of turn are summarily scolded by other drivers on break and told to wait. Most important is respecting order on “the line.” Buses congregate in main hubs such as in Limbe or Blantyre, enter the queue and wait their turn to begin making their routes. Line managers are present to make sure that order is maintained and that no bus exits out of turn. Walking through these areas is harrowing. Buses lurch and move everywhere. You can get lost in the middle of this densely packed mass of white minibuses.
Locally in Blantyre, travelling by minibus is exceedingly cheap and efficient although frequent trips to the gas station slow one down. They mostly operate on the “cup of gas” philosophy of Pilipino guerilla director Kimlat Tahimik. Bus drivers get enough gas to get them through their route, make some more money, and then get a little more, stopping at dedicated petrol stations which cater almost exclusively to minibuses. In the event of the frequent gas shortages which plague Malawi, public transportation grinds to a screeching halt and the money ceases to flow.
Bus routes in the United States are created by planners, whose goals often do not include actual demands by ridership, but rather cater to the broad and self-interested political goals of planners and developers. In Malawi, although roads and highways were created by governmental administrative powers, the lack of transportation planning has resulted in market driven network of convenient routes, fueled by rider demand and actual connections between residential area and market centers. Minibus operators will quickly respond to changes within the market, creating new routes on the fly. Everyone is in search of new opportunities to make money and will respond accordingly.
People on the street are well familiar with the routes, and can tell you the series of changes you need to make to get to whatever destination throughout the country. It’s a free-marketers dream, though governmental bodies have stepped in to control gridlock by restricting minibus transport through certain areas. Responding to a series of grisly accidents, the Malawian government has instituted rules guaranteeing that minibuses respect a maximum of 28 people per bus. Police regularly enforce passenger limits. Police checkpoints are common throughout Malawi and minibuses are common targets.
Prices may have settled to an optimal equilibrium based on what locals will pay, but it doesn’t appear that there is any bidding for jobs. Standards set by the Malawi Minibus Association insure that all buses offer standard prices, but almost all drivers offer the exact same discounted price to insure that fares don’t start walking instead. Competition through extra services is non-existent. There are no air conditioned minibuses, no special sound systems, you don’t pay extra for a bus that doesn’t spew black smoke into the cab. Most of all there is no competition through aesthetics. Every bus retains its original boring white delivery style, or the markings of whatever Japanese old folks home it served in a previous life.
The minibus system is an entirely privately run, minimally regulated, independent contractor based capitalist system, similar to the ways that taxi companies run in the United States. Entrepreneurs own a fleet of buses, and drivers pay a flat daily rate for each bus. They get to keep everything they make beyond the daily rental fee. While there are a limited number of minibus entrepreneurs, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of competition. Resources such as gasoline may be limited, but customers are not. The concept of a “market share” is almost unheard of here but the minibus industry in Malawi is exclusively Malawian. While every other business in Malawi is foreign owned, there are a few that are rabidly protected. It was told to me that if a foreigner were to start a minibus company, no one would ride it, the buses would be vandalized and the operators would likely become the victims of violence.
It’s been said that Americans are the most entrepreneurial people on the planet. This is, of course, absolute nonsense. Nearly 95% of Americans work for someone else for a fixed hourly wage or a steady paycheck. More than 90% of Africans on the other hand, are self-employed. People will create goods on a scale unheard of in the states for sale at local market centers or along the highway systems. People will sell just about anything that can be sold, and offer whatever services they can, to capitalize on unmet market demands. Malawians will work 24 hours a day if they have to; poverty dictates that no job is to be turned down, as another might never come again. Even a call to a sleeping taxi driver at 4 a.m. will result in not a single complaint and a dependable ride at a regular price.
Most notable is the important role that the minibus plays in keeping Malawi’s economy and culture moving. Not only does the minibus connect people all over the country with markets, work opportunities and general transportation, but the very fabric of Malawian social and family connections are tightly woven through the routes of the minibus transportation system. Goods are happily delivered to family members and friends through the help of minibus drivers, who often are on first name bases with their passengers. Drivers will go out of their way to deliver some charcoal to the grandmother of a random passenger, sometime at great personal loss. Messages and social connections are secured through the constant contact drivers and passengers have with friends and family at the hundreds of stops littered throughout the country. It may not be the fastest means of transport for long distances, and the roughshod driving of minibus operators may be the bane of regular highway drivers, but the importance of the minibus cannot be denied.
Here’s a short video I made about the Malawian minibus: