The mood is frenzied. Men and women dance vigorously, stamping their feet and shaking their shoulders to the beat of throbbing drums accompanied by a kayamba. The women’s ululations and the cheers of hundreds of spectators fill the air as the dancing party circles in on the kinu (mortar), the focal point of the ritual. The scene is part of a ritual to smoke out witches and wizards in Alidina village in Miritini, Mombasa.
The group dance is performed to put the witchdoctor (whose mission is to counter the work of witches and wizards) into the right mood for exorcising evil spirits. The key player runs up and down agitatedly, spraying the crowd with “treated” water using a flywhisk. He goes into a trance whenever he senses the presence of an evil spell, and at some point appears to be possessed himself when he falls to the ground, gasping for air and writhing as if in pain.
Such scenes have been common lately in Miritini, Mombasa, where a series of mysterious incidents, including deaths, have been attributed to witchcraft.
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Witchcraft, those who claim to understand it say, manifests itself in different ways. According to Omar Magozi, an elder in Alidina, “when cats and goats make funny sounds at night, these sounds are intended to lure specific persons to witches’ traps. Witches also use snakes to subdue their victims”. He adds: “When you note such signs, you realise you have been targeted by a witch.”
Witches are motivated by jealousy and selfishness, asserts Magozi. They are evil people who feel threatened by other people’s development and progress.
So strong is the belief in witchcraft here that many people get charms to ward off evil spirits by consulting waganga (medicine men or witchdoctors). The witchdoctor first diagnoses the problem, a process known in Kiswahili as kupiga ramli, using his supernatural powers, after which he seeks the appropriate remedy.
This may come in the form of a charm to ward off evil spirits, or a process known as kuchanjwa, in which the witchdoctor applies a concoction of herbs to incisions on the “patient’s” skin.
Witchdoctors are also believed to provide charms (tego) that can help catch an errant spouse “in the act”. According to Magozi, in the olden days when there were few hospitals, children suffering from illnesses like flu, malaria and coughs could easily be treated with a boiled concoction of special herbs.
“The herbs were very effective but when the situation got out of control, we knew that the child had been bewitched so we would seek the services of a medicineman,” he explains.
Many locals still hold such beliefs. Miritini residents tell of incidents that might seem far-fetched to others but which they insist are real.
Abdalla Pole, 34, says he never believed in witchcraft until he witnessed it in Kwale six years ago.
“There was a couple that was to wed,” he recalls. “Shortly before they exchanged their vows, the bride collapsed and died. There was confusion and a medicineman was quickly called in. He advised that she be buried immediately.”
That very night, Pole claims, the witchdoctor led the woman’s family through a ritual that saw the groom recover his bride from another man, who had been his love rival. “What we had seen drop dead at the wedding was the spirit of the bride and not the girl herself,” Pole says.
There are also chilling stories of how residents have lost loved ones without trace. These people are said to be held hostage by owners of evil spirits known as “majini”. Further, it is claimed, those possessed by evil spirits suffer mental breakdowns that cannot be treated using conventional medicine.
At Magosi in Miritini, where 23 people were arrested in connection with witchcraft last month, we meet Omari Mzee, 23, who has been ailing for five months.
His family says he became violent, stopped talking, locked himself in the house and kept knives under his mattress. “When our brother fell sick we took him to Port Reitz hospital for treatment, suspecting that he was mentally sick,” says the man’s sister, Sophia. “But after tests by the doctors proved inconclusive, some of them advised us to seek alternative treatment, she says.
At Miritini Dome, a village sandwiched between the railway line and Mombasa/Nairobi highway, residents blame witchcraft for underdevelopment. Walking through the village, you come across a mud-walled hut with a makuti roof caving in. Inside the dilapidated shack, children repeat letters and words after their teacher.
“This is a nursery school that cannot progress due to witchcraft,” says Matano Salim. “We cannot do business in this condition. The only shop we had here has gone under.”
It is against this backdrop that the arrival of witch buster Akiba Bakari late last year was received with joy. Although generally poor, the people of Miritini contributed up to Sh50,000 per village for Akiba’s services, since they believed only he could save them.
“Since Bakari treated our brother, he has improved,” Sophia says.
At Miritini Dome, where Bakari began his exorcism, residents say the witchdoctor’s arrival saw all witches in the village take off. At the centre of the village lies a sack of the witches’ paraphernalia, known as a donga, that the villagers claim had been used to wreak havoc in their lives.
Matano says his brother, Juma Salim, admitted to have been practicing witchcraft, but gave it up after Bakari “treated” him.
Despite the traditionalists’ conviction that witchcraft exists, Muslims and Christians shun it as the work of the devil. The Chief Kadhi, Sheikh Hammad Kassim, says Islam does not recognise anything related to witchcraft. “If anyone is involved in witchcraft, he will harshly be disciplined by God,” he says, quoting a verse from the Quran.
However, Kassim notes that it is possible for witchdoctors to use scripts from the Quran to try to convince people that God helps them. He adds that witchdoctors have made people believe that Islam is associated with witchcraft. “All they are interested in is getting money from desperate Kenyans,” he says.
According to Bishop John Njenga of the Mombasa Catholic Diocese, “there is no place for witchcraft in Christianity and I don’t believe in it.
When the Government put a stop to the exorcism exercise in Miritini, residents pleaded for a reversal of the order. They said that witchcraft was rampant in the area and was responsible for the area’s underdevelopment.
“We know better and that is why we invited Bakari to come and rid us of witches who have become a menace,” says CouncillorHamisi Ndurya.