The law in Malawi punishes any person who accuses another of witchcraft.
But something bizarre is happening in Mzimba, where a witchdoctor is not only cashing in on ‘exorcising’ people accused of witchcraft, but also keeping in custody suspected ‘witches’ who fail to pay a fine, or as part of the healing process, Nation on Sunday can reveal.
The law is not punishing them; the community welcomes it and the police are not acting because they are afraid. Such is the conspiracy that is abetting this crime.
During our investigations in Mzimba Central, Mzimba Solora and Mzimba Hora constituencies, we traced a number of people who have allegedly been exorcised of witchcraft and those under custody of the witchdoctor.
Yet what we found was not necessarily a peculiar occurrence in the area.
In interviews, people in the area revealed that this is a long-standing practice where people pay a witchdoctor to be ‘cleaned’ of witchcraft.
Those that fail to pay the fine are taken into custody, where they do some work for their captor, until the agreed amount is settled either in cash or kind.
But while helping it by not acting on the injustice, community members themselves live in fear. They dread the day they may fall victim of witchcraft accusations as that would potentially land them in the witchdoctor’s ‘jail’.
If lucky—after paying the fine—they may walk to freedom.
But this is freedom only from the witchdoctor’s ‘prison’ because when they return to the community, they have entered into a vast prison—without walls—one in which they languish in scorn and ridicule for the rest of their lives.
Police are fully aware of this criminal enterprise. But they are failing to act because they fear backlashes from the communitywhich strongly believes in witchcraft against the position of the law.
Legal expert Justin Dzonzi, while stressing that what is happening in Mzimba is criminal in nature, does not entirely blame the police for failing to act.
He says this is a manifestation of the weakness of the British-enacted witchcraft law in Malawi, which is detached from reality.
“But the other hand, whether bad or good, the police are duty-bound to enforce it because that’s the law,” argued Dzonzi.
In the area, a Nation on Sunday crew went undercover to track down the Mzimba female witchdoctor Bernadette Tembo—popularly known as Berna—who exorcises people accused of witchcraft at a fee hovering between K200 000 and K300 000, depending on the ‘seriousness’ of the alleged witchcraft, according to our findings.
But, in a telephone interview, Berna denied charging anyone for her services, saying people make own pledges based on their income and the amounts range between K50 000 and K200 000.
She said she provides services only at the invitation of concerned families, “with permission from traditional leaders”.
“I keep some under my custody not because they have failed to pay, but it is for their own safety,” she said.
Asked about the law, Berna said she knows it is illegal to accuse anyone of witchcraft, but said she does so in the interest of the people and the community she is called to save.
We traced victims of witchcraft allegations who have been under Berna’s custody, as well as their family members, some of whom are trumatised but seem to have no choice.
Masquerading as potential clients, as advised by our informants, we visited Berna’s compound in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chindi’s area—about 40 kilometres from Mzimba Boma.
Though located in a secluded place, deep in Chilevu Tembo Village, in group village head Timeya’s area, Berna’s compound is an interesting contrast—two big modern houses stand against several shabby grass-thatched shacks.
One of the big houses, wearing some blue paint on one side, with two satellite dishes and is fully electrified using solar panels, belongs to Berna.
The other one, also electrified, we gathered, belongs to her son.
She also owns two cars and a large field where she grows maize with the help of those under her custody, according to the leader of the inmates who has lived there since 2016.
The windowless shacks, with broken doors and conspicuous life-threatening cracks, are hostels for those that have come to seek help.
We counted 14 single-room shacks, measuring less than four-by-four metres. These accommodate families—husband, wife, and children sometimes.
Four other shacks were relatively bigger than the family ones and this is where ‘inmates’ without spouses stay. And there is another one used as a temple.
There are two bathrooms made from grass and two grass-thatched pit latrines made from burnt bricks.
“In total, those of us seeking help are 34, but if we add families and their children, we are more,” added the leader as we watched some ‘inmates’ prepare meals, some lying on mats while others shared stories to pass time.
Berna, too, symphathises with the condition her inmates live— pleading for support from well-wishers for her “to save better her community”.
One of those being held there is a retired secondary school teacher Hastings Kumwenda, 66, from Chizola Village in Euthini.
He, like others, works, without a salary, as the witchdoctor’s clerk. But Berna said for every piece work the inmates do for her, they are compensated with food and soap.
In July this year, Kumwenda will clock two years at Berna’s ‘prison’. At the time of our visit, we were told that he had accompanied the witchdoctor to a funeral.
Kumwenda’s brother, Tryson, 76, in an interview at his home at Euthini, confirmed that hastings has been at the witchdoctor’s of bewitching to death his other brother’s child. He said they paid K210 000, but do not understand why Berna is refusing to let go of their relation. compound after he was accused
Tryson said Hastings’ house back home is completely deserted and had its windows broken by an irate mob—displeased of his alleged witchcraft. And Berna says she is keeping him for his own security.
But his family is worried of his health after they saw the condition he was living in.
“I miss my brother and I sometimes shed tears when I remember him and what happened to him. He is someone who used to give me emotional support,” lamented Tryson who does not believe his brother could practise witchcraft.
Kumwenda’s fourth-born child, currently teaching in Mzuzu, prays to God for the release of her some day.
But from the inmates’ perspective, escaping Berna’s compound would be risking one’s life, for they feel safer there than at their homes where they can be killed for being ‘witches’ or have other witches kill them.
We met another man, probably in his late 30s, who, according to one of his family members, spent some weeks at Berna’s place before he was released after paying K210 000.
The man, who refused to be named, was accused of bewitching his cousin who lives in South Africa. He appeared traumatised to have been reminded of the ordeal and did not seem willing to share his story.
In an interview, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) acting executive director Michael Kaiyatsa said the practice of naming and shaming those alleged to be practising witchcraft may incite violence and have long–term effects on the victims.
“This practice is bad because of the severe impact it can have on the lives of those accused. In many contexts, the simple act of labeling someone a ‘witch’ triggers rights violations. Accusations may also cause displacement through forced exile or the personal decision to flee from the threat of harm,” observed Kaiyatsa.
Apart from Berna, there are other famous witchdoctors in Mzimba who are not as extreme, according to police in-charge at Euthini, Ernest Chindipha.
Chindipha said they have, in the past, rescued three people who were held hostage at another witchdoctor known as Kanjoka, but they have not confronted Berna yet.
“We know Berna may be committing an offence just like those that go to report to her that someone is a witch or a wizard. Our problem is when we try to arrest those that make the accusations, the community turns against us, for shielding witches. Our parliamentarians must reflect on this law,” said Chindipha, who is also convinced that some of the people under Berna’s custody are ‘witches’.
But Dzonzi said police have an obligation to act on Berna and others who are exploiting accusations of witchcraft.
He said holding people hostage on grounds of witchcraft was another offence because the witchdoctor may not have such powers.
“The witchcraft law may pose a challenge to implement, but from what you have explained, it appears the witchdoctor is knowingly ripping off community members using witchcraft and that is a clear prosecutable offence. The police cannot give as an excuse an anticipated hostile community reaction,” he said.
Dzonzi agrees with calls to review the Witchcraft Act, saying there is need to make it more civil than criminal, except in extreme cases whereby, for example, someone dies after been given concoctions.
On his part, Kaiyatsa thinks the law must continue to criminalise witchcraft allegations and also regulate the conduct of witchdoctors.
“It is a fact that many Malawians believe in witchcraft. This belief, in and of itself, is not the issue. It is the transformation of belief into accusation and subsequent harm that is at issue. So, although the law does not address the question of whether witchcraft exists or not, it should continue to criminalise witchcraft accusations.
While Berna and other community members claimed that her practice has the blessing of chiefs in the area—we could not independently establish this as junior chiefs referred us to T/A Chindi who could not be reached on his mobile.
The Witchcraft Act of 1911 was proposed for review over 10 years ago, but due to funding constraints it remains in the shelves. A joint CHRR–Cedep report issued on December 10 2019, titled ‘Crying out for Justice’ indicates that 18 people were hacked to death in Malawi on witchcraft-related allegations. n
—This story was supported by Platform for Investigative Journalism & IJ Hub.