'Witch' Burnings Haunt Kenyan Tribe Eleven people suspected of witchcraft were killed in May, but questions linger over whether neighbors believed the victims were witches. The belief in witchcraft thrives in the Kisii tribe, and reprisals are becoming increasingly violent.

'Witch' Burnings Haunt Kenyan Tribe

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Back now with Day to Day. Across Africa, superstition runs high, and that can be dangerous. Last month in the Democratic Republic of Congo, accusations of black magic started a riot that left 13 dead. In Kenya, the belief in witchcraft led to the murders of 11 people. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has that story.

GWEN THOMPKINS: This story is not about what you believe or what I believe. It's about what the people here in the green, green hills of southwestern Kenya were thinking when they killed 11 of their neighbors last May and set their homes on fire. What happened was a witch burning, and it's happened before. Maybe that's part of the reason why James Gitau (ph) keeps an open Bible on his desk.

Mr. JAMES GITAU (District Police Officer, Marani, Kenya): Because the Bible doesn't go against the law, and in most cases, it assists us to know the law better.

THOMPKINS: Gitau is the district officer and highest ranking law-enforcement authority in a farming area called Marani. He's not from here, but he must sort out the difficulties of the people who are. Their tribe is called Kisii, and they are known to believe more deeply in the power of witchcraft than any other tribe in Kenya. Witchcraft is against the law in this country, and Gitau says God doesn't like it one bit.

Mr. GITAU: Witchcraft is just a sin like any other, something that is contrary to God's will.

THOMPKINS: Back in May, Gitau was here when a suspicious notebook was found at a local school. It appeared to be a kind of witch log. The notebook reportedly contained a roll of all the local witches and checkmarks by the names of residents they'd allegedly killed.

Mr. GITAU: We realized that this a security threat.

THOMPKINS: So, Gitau called a town meeting under the area's soaring blue gum trees, and about 3,000 people showed up. Even the Luo, the next tribe to the west, came. They were armed with machetes, which folks here call pengas (ph), and they wanted the authorities to name names.

Mr. GITAU: They are going to lynch them. They want to lynch them in front there. They want to do it there. In fact, they had pengas. They had stones. You see, they had thrown some stones. In fact, it was a very tense meeting.

THOMPKINS: There's a belief among the Kisii and Luo tribes that death is never inevitable. Instead, people say that death comes to those who've been bewitched. Hence, the morbid dread of witches. Solomon Monyenye is a 64-year-old Kisii and teaches philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He says the reprisals against witchcraft have gotten nastier.

Dr. SOLOMON MONYENYE (Philosophy, University of Nairobi): I do remember women being accused of being witches. But during those days, there was no that kind of punishment. What happened in May, it was never there.

THOMPKINS: Monyenye is an avid nonbeliever, and when asked, most Kenyans say they don't believe either. But give the conversation a little time, and soon you'll be hearing tales of things that go bump in the night.

Reverend ENOCH OBIERO: I don't believe in the witches, that is why I never thought that things could turn out as serious as such.

THOMPKINS: Enoch Obiero is a Pentecostal minister who lives along a sun-blessed road in a place called Ogembo. He says that if you believe in Christianity, witchcraft has no effect on you. But he is wrong, because on May 21st, a mob slit his wife's throat, cut off her hands and legs, and torched her body. Then they looted his house and burned it to the ground. Ebisiba Obiero was a 55-year-old retired schoolteacher.

Rev. OBIERO: Why they cut and took her legs, we don't know. She was chested (ph) there without legs.

THOMPKINS: Obiero is rebuilding his house in the very same spot, near the shade of an old guava tree. His wife is buried by the front door. He says he never saw the notebook found at the school, but after some reflection, he claims that a jealous brother and sister-in-law paid the mob to come to his door.

Rev. OBIERO: You see, they never even came to the funeral. It is not easy to forgive someone who has done you such a terrible thing.

THOMPKINS: Local authorities say that some witch hunts do have an element of petty opportunism. Some people cry witch for revenge, or maybe to eliminate a person who has become burdensome to a family. Most of those killed in May, for instance, were elderly. Again, Solomon Monyenye.

Dr. MONYENYE: These are nothing other than misplaced aggression. And who would be a better target than helpless old women?

THOMPKINS: Today, the Bible on James Gitau's desk is open to Psalms XII, "the wicked walk on every side." He says he learned the hard way about misplaced aggression in Kisii. By the time the notebook reached him, he says the villagers had already copied down the names listed. Gitau says they knew exactly who they were going to kill when they were all at the town meeting. But then something extraordinary happened. An old woman stood up and in front of everybody, admitted that she was a witch.

Mr. GITAU: A whole crowd stood up, shouting that they can't forgive.

THOMPKINS: Gitau suspects that the old woman knew she would be killed that night, so in a preemptive move, she asked for police protection. A man and three other women stood up and did the same. But to get them out of there alive, Gitau says he needed police backup. Now, a total of seven are in hiding.

Mr. GITAU: In fact, I'm proud of that. Even if, maybe, people not see that I did a good job, God will see. God will still remember me for that.

THOMPKINS: The police say they've arrested more than 100 suspects in the May killings, but many locals prefer the protection of people like Onyango Nyakundi.

Mr. ONYANGO NYAKUNDI (Witch Doctor, Magombo, Kenya): (Through Translator) I'm a witch doctor.

THOMPKINS: Nyakundi lives in neighboring Magombo. He says his concoctions can shield people from being bewitched. He uses herbs, and in some cases, a little bloodletting.

Mr. NYAKUNDI: (Through Translator) The person who does not, maybe, believe in that, he's just living a life in denial.

THOMPKINS: Nyakundi says that good is stronger than evil in the Kisii region, but it's a struggle. In the rest of Kenya, people from other tribes are on the lookout for ghosts and genies and creatures called night runners, who are said to careen through forests and villages making mischief. National faith in the occult prompted a former president to convene a commission on devil worshiping, but that came to nothing. Because at the end of the day, people here have an unshakeable dread of things that go bump in the night. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kisii, Kenya.

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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