Humans have had to deal with the threat of snakebites as long as humans have existed. While deaths from snakebites are rare, the outcomes are so severe and the nature of the animal so mysterious, that humans have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with them.
Witchdoctors, or Mganga as they are known in East Africa, are the first line for snakebite treatment here. The Waganga are fairly useless for treating many serious health issues, but they have carved out a niche for themselves for a few public health problems.
Our survey in Western Kenya confirms that nearly 100% of people who have been bitten by a snake visit the Mganga, regardless of whether they visit a formal health facility or not.
I went and sat down with an established Mganga here in Kwale and he was gracious enough to answer all of my questions openly and (mostly) honestly.
Hello, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Is English OK?
No, my English is not very good. Can we do this through a translator?
Of course. So, what happens when a patient comes in for treatment for a snakebite?
When the patient comes in, I first apply the “njiwe na njoka” (lit: snake stone). The stone sucks all the poison out of the wound. When you put it on the bite, it will stick. When the stone has absorbed all the poison, it will fall off.
What do you mean? Like it just sticks to the flesh without tying it?
Yes, if there is poison, the stone will stick to the body. When all the poison is gone, the stone will fall off. After it is done, I take the stone and wash it with milk several times and then use it again for the next patient.
What is the snake stone? Is it like a rock? I’ve seen people use charcoal in the villages. They tie it to the wound, it doesn’t appear to stick on its own.
No, this is different. This is a stone from the snake. The stone is in the skull of the snake, like that of a fish.
(Note: I did not know this, but some species of snakes have otoliths, like most fish. Snakes (and fish) are deaf in the traditional sense. The otolith is a piece of calcium which grows as the animal ages and sit on top of a bed of nerves. When there are vibrations, the otolith vibrates, stimulating the nerve bed so that the animal can “hear” motion around it. Not all snakes have otoliths but some species of burrowing snakes do.)
Where do you get the stone? Can you just buy it in the market?
The snake stones come from the Maasai, from big snakes in Maasai land. My teacher travels to Maasai land to get them and brings them back.
If the wound is fresh, I apply the stone. However, if it has been two or three days since the bite, I can’t use the stone anymore. Then I have to use a special medicine made from herbs and crushed snake heads. I mix it all together, then crush it into a powder and keep in a gourd.
When the patient comes in, I use a new razor blade to make small scratches on the wound. Then I rub the powder in it and bandage the wound. The wound will try to heal over time, so you have to make the scratches to be able to apply the powder.
Do you use the razor blade again?
No, I always use a new blade. (He was emphatic on this point.)
What is the powder made from?
Snakeheads. When we kill a snake, we keep the heads to make the powder. We mix it with roots, bark and leaves from special plants from deep in the forest. My teacher is a security guard in one of the forests and can get them when he can find them.
Wait, so your teacher is a forest ranger? Can’t he get by being an Mganga?
Yes. He is a forest ranger.
So he took the job so that he can get the plants from the forest whenever he needs them.
OK, so how many bites do you see per month?
It depends, some months I get more than others but mostly one every three months or so.
Do you refer them to the health facility for formal treatment?
Yes, I do. I treat them, then they go to the facility, then they come back to me. (I’m suspicious on this point, though the Mganga in question appears more together than most.)
Is there a religious component to this?
Well, there are two kinds of bites, those where the snake just bites and there is no witchcraft and those where someone has used magic to send the snake to bite you.
How do you know the difference?
If the bite heals quickly, there is no witchcraft. But if the bite is treated and does not improve then there is definitely witchcraft involved. At that time, I have to use powerful magic to get rid of the curse.
What do you do?
I send the snake back to the person who applied the curse. When we hear that someone nearby has been bitten, we know who applied the curse.
(Note: this is not uncommon. Witchcraft is often associated with hatred and revenge but the person applying the curse risks becoming cursed themselves. It is possible that snakebites are seen as a never ending battle of malevolent spiritual forces. What this does is sow distrust among people, even families and the Mganga is seen as the only cure. The result is that the Mganga are never without work.)
How did you learn this craft?
I was sick for a long time with stomach and head problems. I went to the hospital and it never got better so then I went to an Mganga. I improved. The Mganga suggested that I become on and I started training under him.
Thank you very much for your time.
My friend, Gabriel, though, knowing I’m into weirdness, took me to one tonight. By sheer coincidence, we happened to run into him on the way walking with a young gentleman. After a brief exchange, he was kind enough to agree to see us and led us back to his house.
Through Gabriel (my Luo is beyond poor), I asked him what the young man was doing there. The healer told me that someone had stolen some items from the guy. He had come to the healer to ask him to use his magic to reveal the identity of the thief and purchase some medicine with with to curse the man who had stolen his property. I asked him if people came to him often with such troubles. He replied that yes, indeed, many people do.
I tried to be snide and ask him what he would do if the thief came to him to try and get the curse removed and put on the guy that cursed him (fueling a never ending cyclic hell of cursing), but he didn’t really get what I was after.The healer then turned to me and asked me what my troubles were. I tried to tell him my knee hurts (which it does), but he kept insisting that my stomach hurt (it does not). Finally, I had to cave and just tell him that I was suffering from stomach pain. When he was describing the pain, he kindly tried to include the knees.
The healer learned his trade from his parents. He claims that his particular magic is strong because he learned it from his mother (rather than his father). I was told that that was a secret but I guess I’ve let it out. I’m sure it’s still a secret here. (My readership numbers show that it’s a secret anyway.)
He took us back to his house, a shack in a fishing compound on the edge of town, which usually smells of weed. He took us inside and had us sit down on his couch while he started pulling out various bottles and bags of powders. I was sitting next to him. Suddenly he jumped up and insisted that the medicines wanted me to move to the far side of the couch. I asked him if the medicines talked to him to which he replied yes, indeed, they do. I figured out pretty quickly that he’s half deaf and wanted Gabriel closer to him so he could hear.He went about mixing up some medications. The first was a small amount of powder that I thought was going to cure my alleged stomach problems, but instead was intended to get me a job. In fact, this medicine is so powerful, that I will never get fired from the job once I get it. I guess this means I’ll get a tenured faculty position any day now.
Next, he produced a number of bags of what looked like Indian spices and proceed to mix a heaping amount of what could be easily mistaken for garam masala. This medicine is what’s supposed to cure my diarrheal ills (which he also insisted I had). He poured some in my hand and told me to taste some. I hesitated but did it anyway. Definitely chili peppers in there. My mouth immediately went numb and my head started to spin a bit. Could be something like kava, definitely not weed. I have no clue what’s in this stuff, but there’s most certainly some active ingredient in it. I suspect that he produces it to emphasize his powers.He gave me very specific instructions on how to mix it, and when to use it. I am only supposed to use it between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. All of my diarrhea and abdominal pains will immediately disappear. I am to go back to see him after two days (presumably to buy more).
Finally, he recognized that my knee hurts. He asked me if I had time to wait. I said yes, and he left the house to go and get some herbs. We could hear him pounding it into a powder outside. He returned, and said that I should mix the power with Vaseline and cover my entire body with it. I would need a partner to do it. After covering my entire body with the vaseline/powdered grass mixture, I should shake my limbs a bit. After two days, all of my pain would cease. I was to see him again (and again buy more, presumably).
We asked him how much it would be. “This is very expensive. 2,000 Schillings ($24.00).” to which we both balked. Eventually, we talked him down to 500 (about $6.00). Gabriel wanted to talk him down to 100, I just let it go figuring it was a small price to pay for such a weird experience.
Eventually, we had to go. Patients were lined up outside waiting.
I’ve seen people making odd installations out of batteries, stick and radio parts. It’s fairly creepy. Given what I know, I would assume that the people making them would be burned on sight, but it would seem that most people just laugh and shake their heads.
These looked like odd childhood dioramas, but they were far too meticulously created to have been made by kids. Honestly, I really don’t know what to say about them and couldn’t get much out of the people around me. People who speak English are so far removed from regular Kenyans, that they don’t make good sources of information on witchcraft, spellcasters and healers. They speak of it in insidious terms, but are pretty vague on the details.
Here are the rest of the photos. I’ve included some other pics of our (fortunately fruitless) trip to find mosquitoes.
I’m on my way to Kenya, I’ve only made it to the Amsterdam airport. I’m already surrounded by missionaries on their way to Kenya. It seems that the last hold out for Jesus is on the African continent. I talked to one of them and found out that this particular group visits every year. Activities include:
Printing matching Jesus T-shirts
Taking soccer balls to schools
Buying uniforms for kids
Prayer in the slums
Prayer in the villages
Even more prayer in the prisons.
“We can show the kids what it’s like. Makes them realize how glad they are not to be poor.” Honestly, I didn’t know what to say, but I thought, while I looked at this portly gentleman from Tennessee, “I’m glad I’m not you”.
If prayer had an exchange rate, Africa might be the richest place on earth. Unfortunately, prayer does NOT have an exchange rate which leads me to ask what use these people really are.
Think about it. I estimate there are 50 people in this particular group. Each of them will probably cost approximately $3500 for the flights, accommodations, food and transport. That’s a grand total of $175,000. If there is a group on this particular flight once a week, then that’s $9,100,000 spent yearly carting Jesus to Kenya. I’m positive, however, that there are more missionaries fiying to Kenya every year, and positive that there are more missionaries flying to any of the 53 other African countries.
This total money spent on these groups must total in the hundreds of millions of dollars each and every year. It is the most expensive soccer ball delivery service on the planet.
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 (email@example.com) if you have any questions.
I have written extensively on the problem of witchcraft in Africa, and was excited to see that this film had been made. In 2003, Allison Berg traveled to Ghana to document conditions in the six “witch camps” which operate throughout the rural regions of the country. As in all of Africa, witchcraft related accusations represent a vast social challenge to state and economic development.
The accused are largely elderly women, although men and children are also known to be accused. Women said to be practicing witchcraft are cast out of their villages, sometimes violently and the culture vastly believes that such women should be killed. In Ghana, six camps have been created to house women who have been cast out of their homes, providing spiritual cleansing and rudimentary living quarters.
However, the existence of the camps should not be considered as altruistic. The men which operate the camps do so not out of sympathy for the accused, but out of a belief that these women present a threat to the world. In fact, footage of the camp healer portray him as a barelyh coherent drunk, who clearly harbors deep resentment for the women. In fact, most of the men in the film, including families members of the “witches” and members of the community which waged the accusations are portrayed as barely functional, unreasonable and likely imbalanced.
The films downside suffers from a lack of honest statements from the family members of the accused women. Interviews with the sons and brothers of the “witches” are often done in the presence of male community members, so it is difficult to determine whether the men truly believe the accusations, or whether they are merely parroting wider community values. Indeed, the expressions of these men and the hesitance of delivery might indicate that they also believe the accusations to be unfair and may be troubled by the thought of casting out family members, but there is nothing within the footage from which to concretely support this assertion.
Conversely, the accused women are incredibly lucid. They matter of factly describe their situation in both human and social terms, honestly discuss the difficulty of their present condition and rightfully worry of their families’ futures. Most declare that witchcraft does not exist and clearly harbor vast anger against a society which has brought them to the deplorable conditions of the camps. Despite the state of the witch camps, many appear to want to remain, having nowhere else to go, and having discovered comaradery and community with other women who face the same plight.
The camps themselves were interesting to me. Despite the miserable conditions, the women in the camps are almost an oasis of reason, having cast off the great weight of deep rooted superstition. However, I doubt that anyone could agree that the culture of witchcraft is doing sub-Saharan Africa many favors. It is unlikely that anything will be done to overcome this challenge, rapid urbanization and economic expansion have almost exacerbated the problem, but allow religious opportunists such as Christian faith healers and Pentecostal churches to promulgate. If anything, films like “Witches in Exile” expose the incredible complexities of religion, belief and society, particularly in a region as vastly complex and dynamic and sub-Saharan Africa.