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People of the evil eye

By | January 31st 2011

By Anthony Ngatia 

It is sunny morning in Ihururu village, Nyeri, in1960 and the mist is clearing above the hills in the distance.

Under a tall fig tree, five men are slaughtering a ram. They will later carry the meat home in the leather bags strung over their backs.

An old man passing by sees the five busy skinning the ram and he extends greetings in the traditional Kikuyu way: "Wanyua?" (How do you do?) Then he asks: "Athuri aya mwagi thinika gukua nyama micii na muticine cia athinji na ngu chi uire haha? (Elders, why do you trouble to carry meat home instead of roasting the slaughterer’s pick first when wood is aplenty here?)

"Where is the wood?" the slaughterers ask in unison.

"And that?" the old man replies pointing up the tree.

"Will you give me meat if I make firewood available?" he asks.

The puzzled men answer in the affirmative. Then he turns his eyes skyward and miraculously, the dry branches drop to the ground and soon there is a load of firewood. The terror stricken men momentarily scamper to safety.

Fast forward to the 1990s, at a sleepy village called Shamata in Nyandarua District. A baby boy is born to peasant parents. But for a permanently clenched fist, he is 99 per cent normal. Despite numerous visits to the local hospitals to seek treatment for the slight abnormality, there is little success in opening the clenched fist.

The parents are referred to Mathari Mission Hospital in Nyeri. A few days before going to the hospital, a bearded elderly man who is well known in the village passes by. Together with the child’s father, the visitor is handed a steaming cup of tea by the baby’s mother.

Old man

Soon, the two men are engaged in chitchat. As they speak, the old man notices the baby’s clenched fist. After examining the fist, he inquires about it and when told the family’s predicament, declares it is not a medical problem but a result of some wicked spirits entering the baby. The old man adds that the child probably is a captive of witches. A traditional healer has to be seen urgently to banish them, he says.

Then he refers the couple to a certain old man he claims has powers to heal the baby. The healer, the old man says, is ‘muru wa ithe’, a brother. After a few days, the disbelieving parents set off for the traditional healer’s home in Nyeri as advised.

Upon arrival at the shaman’s derelict homestead in Mweiga, they explain their mission and who sent them. Then the healer holds the boy’s clenched fist and in a low tone whispers in Kikuyu, "Awa, niki giki wanyita na hinya uu? (Father, what is this that you hold so tightly?)

Voila! The fist unclenches, and there is nothing about it to suggest that it had puzzled a number of highly educated medical doctors.

In a backwater village near Kericho town, not far from Kericho High School, in the 1980s, some schoolboys were treated to free drama. A hawk swooped down on a homestead and picked up the prized cockerel. The bird’s owner is an old man seated in a shade of a tree.

Cowrie shells

He mumbles a few words in Kipsigis and then gets worked up, looking fiercely at the hawk that is now flying high with its prey. Then the unbelievable happens; the hawk drops dead and the cockerel just flaps its wings to celebrate its freedom.

Welcome to the world of ‘men of the black tongue’ or ‘the evil eye’. They may not be your typical African juju men or malicious witches strutting around naked with cowrie shells and snakeskin around their ankles. But they have mysterious supernatural powers that other mortals lack. They are generally regarded as jealous, full of ill will and can invoke a curse if you have something they covet.

And they are to be found in most Kenyan communities. In Kikuyu, they are referred as ‘andu aa gitaa’ or ‘andu a githemengu’ — people of sour or bad saliva or people of the evil eye; among the Luo, they are called ‘jajuok’. The Meru refer to them as ‘laithi’ and the Akamba ‘kyeni’. Among the coastal communities in Kenya, such a person is known as, ‘mtu mwenye jicho hasidi’. This means a person with an evil eye.

Ancient times

According to metaphysics scholars, even European cultures have had such people since ancient times. The Italians, for example, refer to the people of the evil eye as ‘malocchio’; the French call them ‘mauvais oeil’ while the Spanish refer to them as ‘malojo’.

It is claimed they have the ability to just look at a hawk in the sky and it falls dead. Their eyes do harm to anything good they see, be it a baby, a cow in calf or a beautiful woman. For this reason, babies in many Kenyan communities are kept away from strangers.

Cases of cows with bulging udders being hidden from the public are familiar with Kenyans brought up in the rural areas. People with the evil eye may or may not be aware they have such malevolent powers. It is said some of them know about their wicked powers and since they mean no harm, try their best to mitigate them.

According to Maina wa Wanjohi, a self proclaimed expert on the people of the evil eye, "they get a spasm of fear, squirm or get frightened whenever they see something they admire. And since they know that could be the end of the object of their admiration, what they do to pre-empt the harm is to immediately spit on that which they have admired and nothing bad will happen to it."

There are conflicting views as to whether the ‘evil eye’ is a real phenomenon or just a superstition rooted in ancient and primitive cultures.

Susan Wangui hails from Githunguri division, Kiambu County. She swears she has seen a woman with the evil eye in her home village.

"Whenever she hears you have a baby, she comes to see it just like any other woman does according to customs. But if she comments that the baby is good looking, there and then it starts to have lesions and strange diseases. Until she comes back and spits on the baby, no doctor will heal that baby," she says.

"If you happen to have a feast and she comes," Susan says, "and she comments how nice the chapatis are, there and then they become as dry and hard as wood and no one is able to eat them," she says.

Neighbour’s hut

As a result, the people of the village have come up with ways to avoid her.

Maina Biathi, a turnboy in Nyahururu, says he once bore the brunt of his deeply superstitious grandfather when he made the mistake of driving the old man’s flourishing herd of cattle near a certain neighbour’s hut. He was flogged with stinging nettle before being given a lecture about men of the evil eye. "Never display your things to the public as there are evil-eyed ones," he was told. That’s why to this day, his newborns are never exposed to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Pastor Mwangi Kabangu of AIPCEA knows of a number of men who are rumoured to have the evil eye.

According to what he has heard, these people have an eye or tongue more lethal than any snake’s poison. "They get frightened if they see anything nice. They are of two kinds; the malicious and the non-malicious. Those who are malicious do nothing to forestall the damage caused by their unconscious comments or admiration, but those who are harmless just spit in an intelligent, unnoticeable way and the harm is warded off," he says.

Fresh twist

But Pastor Mwangi introduces a fresh twist to the whole issue. "There is a category of these people whose work is to undo the harm done by the malicious ones. The former usually come early in the morning to your homestead with your invitation and what you do is to give them a hot charcoal and when they swallow it, the evil is banished from your home," he says.

Some people have suffered from belief in the evil eye syndrome. James Githongo from Kieni in Nyeri County is one example. As a young boy, James Githongo was squint-eyed. In addition, he was taller than other boys in the village. These features were unfortunately the basis of discrimination. As they were herding cattle and goats, other boys would hide from him in the mistaken belief he had the evil eye. That is why women have shunned him up to now. He is approaching 40.

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