Kilifi's land-fuelled inhumanity: Elderly labelled as sorcerers and lynched

Anyeso Kaingu, a victim of violence against the elderly with his wife Kadzo at the Malindi District Cultural Association rescue centre in Malindi. Mr Manyeso survived an attack by a group of youth in Adu area in Magarini sub-County. [File: Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

For many years, elderly people have been killed on suspicion of witchcraft in Kilifi County.

According to reports, up to 200 elderly people, mostly men, are killed across the country each year after being linked to witchcraft. Many others have survived the attacks, albeit with serious injuries.

The attacks have little to do with witchcraft. It is believed that children are planning and carrying out the deaths of their ageing parents to gain control of family property.

Reports that some of the killings are organised by victims’ relatives lend credence to the claim.

Those who managed to flee the attacks have been forced to leave their homes. Those who have been unable to restart their lives elsewhere have ended up in rescue centres.

Some of the rescue centres were specifically established to protect the elderly from extrajudicial killings.

And now, some young people who are outraged by the killings have banded together in the hope of putting an end to the atrocities. They do not want to be associated with those who committed the crimes.

Protecting the elderly

With the assistance of the local administration, youth from various sub-locations in the county launched a campaign to speak for those who are innocent of the crimes while protecting the elderly from such attacks.

“We’ve seen how many elderly people have been killed because they were labelled as sorcerers. It’s tragic because those responsible for the killings don’t even give their victims a chance to defend themselves in a structured cultural or legal manner,” said Justin Mangi, a youth leader from Matsangoni village in Kilifi North.

He continued: “I believe there are better ways to deal with those suspected of witchcraft. If they are found to be guilty, primarily through their own confessions, they can be advised against it and cleansed in accordance with our traditions. Taking someone’s life based on mere allegations is heinous and should be prohibited.”

Mangi continued: “Worse, young people have been accused of murdering the elderly. Never mind that there are those who have no knowledge of these cases. Many of us have been unfairly labelled as such, which is why the campaign to change the narrative is underway.”

Elderly men seek refuge at Kaya Godoma rescue centre in Kilifi County. [File picture/Robert Menza,Standard]

According to him, the killings are motivated by a combination of factors such as unemployment and ignorance because many young people have no jobs.

“We’ve heard of cases where family members hired assassins to kill the elderly, the majority of whom are frail and defenceless.”

Mangi said there is a need to educate and deter young people from carrying out such attacks. “Let us speak with them about culture, religion, and the law, as well as their place in society. They must be informed that murder is illegal and punishable by law.”

Greed and desire for wealth

“Among the youth there are sorcerers. That is why we require public awareness campaigns on the subject. Those found guilty of the vice should be cleansed and reintegrated into society.” Greed and the desire to get rich quickly and without breaking a sweat, according to Mangi, have also contributed to the violence directed at the elderly.

“Some are involved because they believe their parents are taking too long to distribute property. They believe eliminating them will allow them to take the inheritance.”

Cases of family members secretly selling land and other property have also fueled the fire.

“We’ve heard of cases where someone sells a property, then uses witchcraft to kill the buyer and then reclaims it. Greed is also driving some people to practise witchcraft. We do not deny the existence of witchcraft. The point is that there are better ways to handle the situation,” he said.

Mangi cited instances where families of victims of mysterious deaths went to witchdoctors to find out who killed them. “Some people are shocked to learn that a relative was murdered by the person who sold them a property. As a result, retaliatory attacks occur, and lives are lost.”

Many elderly people are being killed in this manner across Kilifi. Some have suffered life-threatening injuries. Thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes, with no prospect of ever returning. As a result, despite efforts to end the attacks, many people live in fear. Local officials said they are being more vigilant to ensure people are not attacked or forced to leave their homes. Anyone accusing another person must use legal or culturally established procedures to resolve issues.

The Kaya Godoma Rescue Centre in Ganza and the Mekatilili wa Menza Resource Centre in Malindi town continue to provide temporary shelter to the elderly whose lives are in danger.

Godama is caring for five people, while Mekatilili wa Menza is caring for 29. The centres are the brainchild of Kaya elders who have been fighting the killings for years.

According to James Randu, who is also involved in the campaign, the deaths are not coincidental. “Members of the victim’s family are usually involved. You can even see how they act when the deaths are reported. Some of them are not even surprised because they know what happened.”

Randu, who is from Chumani village in Kilifi North, said in most cases, family members would refuse to investigate their relatives’ deaths “because they already know what they have done.”

Primary perpetrators

“They even refuse to cooperate with police during investigations. They don’t even seek retribution. In the end, the majority of these cases failed,” Randu said.

He continued: “There is a need to raise awareness among the youth because they are the primary perpetrators. They even murder their own fathers and mothers with their sights set squarely on family property, including land.”

Randu accused some clerics of labelling those living in villages as sorcerers, exposing them to gang attacks.

“Fake evangelists exacerbate the problem in our villages. Some churches have people who were involved in the killings as members. And we recognise them,” Randu said.

“The traditional way to identify a witch is to take a suspect through a traditional oath,” he added. “Usually, the local chief is involved. Those found to be witches are warned and told to change their ways, rather than being killed.”

Patience Dama, Assistant County Commissioner in Matsangoni, said she has mobilised youth from all villages to campaign against the killings after realising that administrative measures alone are insufficient.

“Youth leaders claim that some of their classmates are being used to carry out the killings. Children are murdering their parents in order to gain control of the family estate,” she said.

Among the Mijikenda community, the oldest member of an extended family is usually the custodian of the title deed to the family land and that is why they are singled out.

According to Dama, the campaign will also bring together young people and the elderly in order to defuse tensions in families facing succession battles.

Some religious leaders have also gotten involved. Bishop Thomas Kakala of Malindi’s Jesus Cares Centre said they have been counselling victims and confessed assailants.

Role of the church

“The first thing we do when suspected attackers arrive at the church is to accept them before we even talk to them. However, we are wary because some of them have ended up recruiting some of our members into their killer gangs,” Bishop Kakala said.

Charo Ngonyo, a victim of attacks over allegations of practising witchcraft, has been living at Madca Rescue Centre in Malindi.

“I left Chama for Adu Kamale to do charcoal trading to help pay for my children’s school fees in November last year. One of my sons later followed me there and, much to my surprise, attacked me with a knife. I assumed he had come to support my efforts to provide for the family.”

Neighbours rescued him and took him to the hospital. Ngonyo was later taken to the rescue centre after being advised that returning home would be dangerous. 

“Let the younger generation know that they, too, will grow old,” he added. “The same evils they are committing may also befall them.”