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Was Rehema a merciless or naive grandma?

By Josaya Wasonga | May 27th 2018
Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison in Mombasa

For Rehema Abdalla, the logic was simple enough.  To save her sickly children,the witchdoctor said that she needed to eliminate the evil one in their midst; even if it happened to be her husband of 40 years. 

 In certain parts of Kenya, witchcraft controls almost all aspects of people’s lives. If, for instance, an illness or a tragedy happens, and it cannot be medically or rationally explained, fingers are pointed at witchcraft.

And in such communities, if one is suspected to be a witch, they can face horrible deaths, even at the hands of once-loving neighbours or family members, who have turned to be judges and executioners.

When Dennis Onsarigo visited Shimo La Tewa Maximum Prison to file a story for his crime and investigation programme, Case Files, he spoke to an elderly woman who confessed to killing her husband because she suspected that he was the witch behind the mysterious deaths of their children. What was worse was that she spoke like she did her family a big favour.

The woman in question was Rehema Abdalla Wanje. She hobbled around with a pronounced limp as she watered the prison’s flowerbeds. From her posture, it seemed like one of her hips had been knocked off its socket.

If you did not know what the circumstances surrounding Rehema’s incarceration were, she would pass off for a harmless kind grandma who couldn’t even pinch her grandchild. Rehema has a round baby face, calm demeanour and her gray hairs give off an aura of a woman who is wise. A woman who can collect her grandchild at her feet and teach them about love and understanding.

But then again, looks can be deceiving.  

Witch doctor calling out a witch

“It happened that, after every five years, one of our children would die under mysterious circumstances … three children died this way,” Rehema told Onsarigo.

“We had 12 children together, and I couldn’t let this happen to our children. I consulted a witch doctor, who told me that, if I we did not stop the witch, another child was bound to die in the fifth year after the death of our last child.”

The witch doctor claimed the person behind the strange illness and deaths was her husband of over 40 years, Abdalla Kazungu Wanje.


Not all witch doctors have the supernatural powers that people ascribe to them. Some are the real McCoy. Others – in fact, most - are charlatans who are out to get rich quick from people’s woes and deepest fears.

In the recent past, there have been reports of persons who exhibited strange phenomenon, after a witch doctor was called in by someone whose property was stolen. When the witch doctor administered his ritual, the thief started eating grass or the item that they stole stuck to their body or the thief turned themselves in to the police.

Real witch doctors move stealthily. So these are PR stunts. Witch doctors organise them to show prospective clients that they are powerful and can, for instance, beat the Scotland Yard at their own game.

But for those like Rehema who believe that witch doctors are the be-all end-all – even if conventional wisdom and common sense point to the contrary - even elaborately staged PR stunts or hit-and-miss diagnosis, like being told that their husband is the culprit will not deter them from taking heed and following through with the witch doctor’s instructions, however absurd.


“The strange illness that had claimed three of our children Hamisi, Juma and Rukia suddenly took hold of our other daughter, Mwanahamisi,” Rehema said. “I feared that the child would die … I tried to force my husband to accompany me to the witchdoctor, but he refused.”

Then, the family lived in Jibana location of Kaloleni District. Rehema says that symptoms of the bizarre illness that had claimed her children’s lives had threatened Mwanahamisi and had defied medical explanations. For three weeks, Mwanahamisi’s belly was swollen. But what she does not say if she sought a second medical opinion.

Rehema goes on to say that, “when I went to the witch doctor, I told him, ‘If I am the one responsible, I will die. But a witch should not be allowed to live in the community. Let me die. If I return as a corpse, my husband will bury me’.”

And when Rehema was told that her husband was the cause, she said, “I told the witch doctor, ‘What will I do now and the cause is their father? Now please help me’.”

One of Rehema’s older children, Saidi Abdalla was also roped into the conspiracy. Saidi knew the agony his mother was going through, and was also convinced that their father had become a wizard and he was the cause of his siblings’ deaths.

By the second week of March 2008, Rehema said she could not hold it any longer. It was either her husband or her daughter.


“Five years are gone … you now want to kill somebody,” Rehema said. “I became angry. This hand had not ever lifted a rock at anyone. But I hit him with a rock on his head.”

Rehema and Saidi killed the elderly man and carried his body for more than 15 kilometres, where they dumped it. They kept quiet about it for more than a month, and they thought they had got away with it.

“I could not carry the lifeless body. And we were just the two of us. I told him to go and look for people to help us carry and dump the body far away from home. His hand was ailing, but he came back with two people.”

Then their 40 days – more like 30 – were up. A month later, a family member who was away returned and asked about the whereabouts of Kazungu. A grandson who had witnessed the murder spilled the beans.

“I was asleep when I heard someone shout, ‘I’m being killed’,” the grandson said. “I woke up and then I saw my uncle Saidi and my grandmother holding down my grandfather. I saw them use a stone to hit him on the head and then they dragged him out of the house.”

After the arrest, the son and mother led the police officers to Chengono Area where they had dumped Kazungu’s remains, whose skull had a gaping hole.


Rehema and Saidi trial lasted for four years, and it was the evidence of the grandson that sent the pair to the gallows. Despite the mother admitting that indeed she was behind the killing of the old man, Saidi says that it all had all to do with the land.

“I was the sole breadwinner of the family, from my parents to all my siblings,” Saidi claimed. “Now how could we commit such a heinous act?”

Rehema and Saidi are incarcerated at the same penal institution; Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison. The mother is held at the Women’s Prison, while her son is in the male wing.

This story is riddled with many ironies. Like how Rehema said that theirs was a quiet marriage, but she had to silence her husband. How she speaks like murder was the most natural thing to do. How could Rehema believe the word of a perfect stranger instead of that of a man who had fathered her 12 children?

But the greatest irony perhaps remains that Rehema’s name in Kiswahili means mercy


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