Witchcraft: An illegal practice which continues to thrive in Kenya
When you first meet Mzee Juma, disappointment is what will follow. The man is not even a ‘mzee’ as his name suggests. He is in his early 40s, a bit built, around 6’8 feet tall, light in complexion with curly hair.
One could easily mistake him for a Somali and his dress code is casual smart, a sharp contrast from the shaman stereotype in the mind.
“Finally we meet! Will talk on our way home let’s just walk to the bus station and maybe catch the first matatu. We have a long and tedious journey ahead so cheer up,’’ Mzee Juma tells me.
We board a matatu from town to Mavoko where he reside. In the matatu he sits on the second row at the far end near the window and waits patiently just like the rest of the passengers for the vehicle to get full.
Occasionally, Mzee Juma appears lost in his thoughts with his eyes glued on one place. At times he sings along to the music being played inside the matatu. All this is beyond my expectations.
Mzee Juma is the first passenger to hand the bus conductor his fare and immediately looks away in the opposite direction, maybe to catch a glance of the dusty roads.
On arrival at Mavoko, a white Land Rover is in place for the final journey through tough terrain, approximately 10 km from Mavoko town. The drive seems like a journey of a thousand miles because of the untarmacked road that leads to Juma’s homestead
The journey is not over until we do a final 10 minutes walk in the middle of nowhere with the vehicle left behind because of the thick vegetation.
On arrival at Mzee Juma’s homestead, I notice the number of people going in and out – contrary to the deserted road which leads to the home – all with one aim of consulting the witch doctor.
With witchcraft being an illegal practice in Kenya, one wonders how the business has thrived through the years.
Two years ago, Thomas escaped from his ancestral home for fear of being lynched by the community he had lived with for all his life. Unfortunately, his family was not lucky enough to live to tell the ordeal of that unforgettable day.
They had been accused of crimes they did not commit, a crime impossible to even think about and so their house was set ablaze in the odd hours of the night when everyone was dead asleep.
According to his accusers, Thomas was a sorcerer; he had conspired to murder his neighbours using satanic powers.
His was a narrow escape, a good example of the many tales he has heard about a few times in his life.
“I was woken up by the smell of smoke and to my surprise, the whole house was covered by a cloud of smoke. Immediately I woke my wife up and she ran to where our three children were sleeping,” Thomas recalls.
“At this point, I could hear people outside the house shouting ‘Uwa wote! Wachawi hao! Wametusumbua sana!’ When I peeped through the window I saw what was happening. My house was surrounded by people who were well known to us, some still holding sticks of fire in their hands,” he narrates.
That is all he can remember from that incident. Such a ruthless and disturbing incident which made his neighbuors forget their humanity so easily.
The truth is that witchcraft still has a stronghold in many parts of the country especially Machakos, Kisii, Kitui and the coastal towns.
In recent times, Nairobi has also experienced an increase in the number of witch doctors, with many streets papered with soothsayers’ advertisement.
That is how Juma’s contacts came to hand.
Most of them will demand monetary commitment before agreeing to see someone; this should be done through mobile money transfer prior to the d-day.
In this business, just like any other, we have people from all walks of lives, just trying their luck to make ends meet. Some of them come from across the border in Tanzania while others hail as far as Nigeria.
Back to Mzee Juma’s house. Immediately after talking to a few of his clients, Mzee Juma goes into an inner room where his office is located and changes into his working attire. He replaces the trouser with a leso and puts drapes a skin over his upper torso.
On the far end of the room is where all his paraphernalia are kept.
Some few gourds are on the floor filled with blood, which according to Juma, are from different animals brought to him upon his request.
There is also a large cow skin, which he sits on, and a skull of a cow placed on the wall a couple of inches above his head.
Finally, the Nigerian movie is coming close to reality.
Mzee Juma claims he inherited the practice from his maternal grandfather.
“This is a divine calling. Not everyone can mutter the right incantation. It requires divine intervention from the spirits,” he says.
“My grandfather choose me and not my father because the spirit choose me to be the next in our lineage,” he adds.
According to Juma, not many have the ability to commune with the spirit.
Just Like many in his field, Juma believes in supernatural powers and for years he has helped his clients whom he says keep coming back to him after he successfully helped them out with their problems.
He specializes in incantations, casting spells, performing divination and exorcisms, creating amulets and charms as well as brewing potions and salves.
He is also capable of finding lovers, reading horoscopes, curing erectile dysfunction and barrenness and getting someone a job or a promotion.
A request to meet his client is initially met with outright resentment. But after promising not to reveal the client’s identity, Mzee Juma introduces me to Mueni, a woman who has been his client for many years.
The soothsayer says, he helped Mueni get a job – not just any job but one with a non-governmental organization which pays her a monthly salary of more than Sh150,000.
Mueni came to Juma after some years in search of employment. Being the first born in a family of nine and well educated (university level) her parents had high hopes that she would help them in educating her younger siblings. When this was not forthcoming she sought Mzee Juma’s help.
In some rituals, new beliefs and old beliefs blend together. A good example is funerals rites may have been Christian, but old beliefs concerned with ensuring that the soul would enter paradise are incorporated.
So you find a graveside blessed with holy water and a few prayers followed by the pouring of a little alcohol for the ancestors and a few incantations to make sure the soul departs to a better place.
Pew Research Centre ranked Kenya 15th in Africa in the belief in witchcraft, a few points behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, and way ahead of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia and Rwanda.
“A quarter of Kenyans, both Christians and Muslims, confessed they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets) and that they consult traditional healers,” says the report.
Tanzania leads the pack in believing in the belief in witchcraft and other superstitious objects, with six in every 10 Tanzanians confessing to sacrificing to spirits and dead ancestors.
Rwandans, according to the poll, is the least superstitious country in Africa, with only five out of 100 people interviewed saying they believed in juju.
When it comes to politics in Kenya, witchcraft is not new, for many a time we have heard cases of politicians linked with seeking witch doctors’ intervention to win elective positions.
As Mzee Juma drops names of his client’s, he pointedly mentions prominent politicians, including one senator, five Members of Parliament and severely county representatives.
That said, in some Kenyan communities, witchcraft is frowned upon, with those suspected of practicing it often lynched. But that has not stopped the practice, with many weird stories being reported across the country.
Legally, witchcraft is proscribed in Kenya. The Witchcraft Act, Chapter 67 Laws of Kenya, Article 3 states that: Any person professing a knowledge of so-called witchcraft or the use of charms, who advises any person applying to him how to bewitch or injure persons, animals or other property, or who supplies any person with any article purporting to be a means of witchcraft, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.