Malawians are still reeling from the shock of the cold-bloodied murder—Monday last week in Neno—of four elderly persons who were butchered on suspicion of having a hand in the death of a 17-year-old girl who was struck by lightning.
The incident was a latest in a wave of violent crimes reported across the country in the past few weeks where police confirmed the death of several people including the double homicide-and-suicide case in Zingwangwa Township in Blantyre.
While people are still scratching their heads to come around to understand what drove clan members to pounce on the four defenceless elderly people—Eliza Enosi Kanjete (86), Elenefa Kanjete (76), Byson Kanjete (73) and Idesi Julias Kanjete (69), all from Chimbalanga 1 Village in Traditional Authority’s area Dambe in Neno—psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe attributed the situation to a combination of factors.
“Generally, Malawi is a superstitious society where there is high belief in supernatural powers and witchcraft happens to be one of them. What happened in Neno can be explained in two ways. First, it might be a sign of frustration by people because of some socio-economic challenges they are facing. Normally people find an easy target to vent their frustrations and vulnerable groups such as the elderly can be a soft target.
“On the other hand, when people are in a group they lose their sense of individuality and might do things they may not do as individuals. In that process the identity is lost. Hence, a combination of these two factors might have been at play in the Neno scenario,” said Bandawe.
The police, on Wednesday last week, arrested 10 suspects in the case following pressure from various stakeholders such as President Peter Mutharika and the Malawi Law Society (MLS) who condemned the attack.
In his statement, Mutharika was critical of the senseless victimisation of elderly people.
“The elderly people deserve respect and protection at all costs and that my government will not tolerate any victimisation of the elderly people in this country, read the statement in part,” said Mutharika.
The Neno murders are not an isolated case; they are reflective of a national trend where people take the law into their hands on persons, particularly the elderly, suspected of practicing witchcraft.
Gerald Sibu from Balaka feels it is the duty of the police and traditional leaders to take a lead role in sensitising communities on the dangers of mob justice.
“It is sad that some people have no conscience. Why did they have to kill fellow human beings like that for something they had no evidence? I’m not saying witchcraft does not exist, but killing someone on mere suspicion of witchcraft is barbaric and unacceptable. It is high time our parliamentarians reviewed the Witchcraft Act,” says Sibu.
Jemiter Mapulanga of Blantyre says the Neno killings have exposed the threat elderly persons face in the country.
“What happened in Neno should not have happened. How can a human being kill another like a mad dog?
“If someone is suspected of an offence, the right procedure is to take them through the normal process of the law. It is becoming risky out there for the elderly,” he said.
Senior Chief Karonga of Karonga says the Neno incident has opened the eyes of the public to the realities of witchcraft issues and the danger they pose to society if not properly handled.
“As traditional leaders, we need to step up our efforts to ensure that our communities are safe for senior citizens. Issues surrounding witchcraft are not new, but they shouldn’t reach the extent of killing someone.
“That is the reason we banned exorcists in our area. This should never happen again,” says the traditional leader.
Government has reacted swiftly with a warning that it would prosecute anyone who takes the law into their own hands by attacking anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft, especially the elderly.
Principal Secretary for Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Mary Shawa said the ministry is almost ready to introduce a policy on elderly persons.
“We have been working on an old people’s policy. We realise that elderly people in other countries are treated with respect, but it has been a problem here because we had no clear cut policy. We have already presented it to Cabinet but it was sent back for further input,” she said.
Shawa said the policy contains a skills transfer component whereby elderly people with special skills will be required to train the youth who will use the proceeds from various enterprises undertaken to support the elderly.
The Association for Secular Humanism (ASH) has been running a nationwide project on the need to protect the elderly, especially those that have been accused of practicing witchcraft.