Liviness Elifala and her friend Margaret Jackson, of Lodzanyama Village, Traditional Authority Ntema in Lilongwe, have not been home for the last three years.
The two have been in prison and returned home three weeks ago following the latest presidential prisoner parole.
This means for the first time, there are no prisoners in Malawi who were jailed for practising witchcraft. The development comes at a time the Witchcraft Act, which does not recognise the existence of witchcraft, is under review.
Elifala found her house dilapidated, the planting season is gone and, therefore, she has no food now and will still have none after the harvest season.
“Some children told their parents that we had enrolled them in a witchcraft school. The parents and chiefs ganged up against us, accusing us of practising witchcraft. We did not want trouble, so we admitted doing it although I had no idea what they were talking about.
“We were taken to Kanengo Police where I spent about two weeks in a cell,” said Elifala, who did not flash a smile the whole time she talked.
One informant in the village said the two used to get children to magical soccer games using human heads as balls.
And that was the end of the two women; the court found them guilty and sentenced them to five years in prison.
“We were never harassed in prison, except for one time when my fellow inmates beat me up,” said Elifala.
Key in the release of the two women is the Association for Secular Humanists (ASH) with its executive director George Thindwa. ASH is at war with witchcraft and is currently running adverts on local radios to sensitise people against witchcraft-related violence.
In the lead-up to the release of the two women, it bombarded the State with petitions to free all witchcraft convicts from the country’s prisons.
So far, the organisation has bailed the women out by giving them two bags of maize each, medicine and assorted groceries.
With funding from the Norwegian government, ASH engaged Chancellor College sociologist Dr Charles Chilimampunga to determine the extent of the witchcraft problem in Malawi.
Results of the study indicate that despite the two Lilongwe women being free, there is still a long way before communities let go of their view on witchcraft.
The study, released in April last year, found that 87 percent of sampled communities believe there are witches among them and that witchcraft is on the rise. Most of the accused are older women and the accusers are usually children.
“This study found that some suspected witches are subjected to acts of violence. For example, 11 (73 percent) of the 15 sampled suspects, reported that they were beaten up,” reads the report.
Apart from physical violence, the suspected witches lose their property through vandalism, they are socially and psychologically sidelined and some witchdoctors have been reported to have sexually abused female suspects.
Legally, witchcraft is not recognised in Malawi. The Witchcraft Act of 1911 says it is illegal to accuse somebody of being a witch, meaning that the children who accused the two women violated the law.
But Elifala and Jackson were jailed because they admitted that they are witches. According to the witchcraft law, it is illegal to say you are a witch.
In a country where the belief in witchcraft is pervasive regardless of levels of education and social status, to most people the law reads like an alien novel whose narrative is not rooted in society.
“The means by which witches are identified are very dubious and questionable since they cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny or testing. Revelations by ‘witches’ and children can be misleading since admissions by the accused are sometimes made under duress,” says the report on the witchcraft study.
Thindwa pointed at some religious leaders, especially from the Pentecostal hue, who he said have been blaming things such as financial misfortunes on witches.
This, he said, incites hooliganism against witchcraft suspects.
To deal with the problem, the report calls for a nationwide campaign to enlighten the masses on what the law says on witchcraft. It also calls on the police to handle witchcraft accusations without emotions and favouritism
“[There is need to] develop measures that ensure that those accused or mistreated in the name of witchcraft are able to report, come forward and speak out of injustices to police, DCs or relevant NGOs. Establishment of temporary shelter, hot-line and legal support would be in order,” says the report.
For Elifala and Jackson, however, all they hope for is to get back the life they lost and try to ignore the stares that will haunt them and the poverty that prison created for them.
Lodzanyama used to be their home, but that changed in a flash when everyone turned against them.
Now the village is just a camp for them.