The killing of four elderly people in Neno continues to draw perspectives from various quarters regarding the protection of the people accused of witchcraft, especially the elderly, in the country. Our news analyst EPHRAIM NYONDO sat down with ANDREW KAVALA—chairperson of the Malawi Network for Older Persons Organisation (Manepo)—on what Malawi needs to do to protect people accused of practicing witchcraft especially the elderly who are poor, weak and vulnerable.
What was your immediate reaction to the killing in Neno of four elderly people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft?
Manepo was deeply saddened by the brutal acts of the angry mob. The laws of Malawi are very clear on issues of witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act states that “…calling of witch or witchdoctor is hereby declared to be an illegal calling and every person exercising or pretending to exercise such calling or professionalism shall be guilty of felony and be liable to imprisonment for life”. It is, therefore, the duty of every citizen to observe and uphold the laws.
Manepo will not tolerate any act of abuse and victimisation of the country’s senior citizens. Older persons deserve to be respected just like any citizen of this country.
The 1911 Witchcraft Act makes it clear that accusing a person of practicing witchcraft is a crime. Why is it that we still have cases such as the Neno tragedy despite having the law?
For a long time, older persons have not been accorded the respect they deserve. We are coming from a background where older persons in Malawi and in Africa in general have suffered different forms of abuse and victimisation in silence as they have not been given the dignity appropriate to their age. This explains why there has been an escalation of cases of abuse targeting older persons despite the whole Witchcraft Act in place.
How would you assess the way the police have been enforcing this law?
Manepo has not been comfortable with the way the police have been enforcing this law over the years. There has been a lot of laxity when it comes to enforcing it. This could also be explained as perhaps because of lack of enough sensitisation to the public about the Witchcraft Act. Nevertheless, we are now glad to note that the police and other law enforcers have swiftly moved in to enforce the Act as observed by the recent arrests and subsequent convictions on those who victimised older persons on witchcraft accusations.
There have been cases of people victimising the senior citizens in various parts of the country and, once, it has been reported, the police have taken swift action. We are now moving in a positive direction on this and I would like to encourage the general public, especially older persons themselves, to report those who victimise them to the nearest police unit. I would like also to encourage law enforcers to act with urgency when such issues are reported so that we should end this malpractice
What do you think is the reason elderly people are always suspected of witchcraft?
It is because of stupid and unfounded cultural/traditional beliefs whereby any misfortune that takes place in a society is attributed to the senior citizens as causative agents. It is unfortunate that 50 years in independence, some people still decide to victimise older persons on the basis of beliefs which have no scientific justification at all.
If you go to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, they will provide you with very plausible explanation on what causes lightening. It never ceases to amaze me why on earth that should be attributed to innocent senior citizens who deserve to be respected for the contributions they have made to the social-economic development of this country?
Issues of witchcraft cut across religious, traditional and cultural beliefs. How best can Malawi respond to the problem of torturing people accused of practicing witchcraft especially the elderly?
Time has come for us to do away with traditional and cultural beliefs which are discriminatory in nature. I know it is going to be a slow process as change of attitude and mindset is a gradual process. However, the only way to respond to this problem is through attitude adjustment and change of mindset on beliefs which have no place in this contemporary era.
The elderly in Malawi are among the poorest with no reliable social security team. How best can government respond to this problem?
Government can best respond to this problem by introducing universal social pension for older persons. Universal social pension is the only effective instrument for poverty reduction and broader social economic development for the elderly.
I am aware that government is already implementing various social protection programmes in Malawi such as the social cash transfer. These programmes cut across all age groups who are ultra poor and labour constrained, and of course targeted. Some older persons form part of the beneficiaries for such programmes. However, looking at the existing gaps with such social protection programmes, the only way to ensure older persons have regular, predictable and sustainable income is through universal social pension.
Any other remarks.
I wish to remind fellow Malawians that ageing is not a curse; rather it is the triumph of development. Let us regard older persons as part of the solution to the problems the country might be going through. n