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Malawi's Witchcraft Holds Power

FILE: Representative illustration of people involved in voodoo and witchcraft. Taken 11.1.2021

Belief in witchcraft in the southern African country Malawi is almost as widespread as its poverty. Since 2019, mobs have killed at least 75 people suspected of dark magic, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a non-governmental organization based in the capital Lilongwe, says.

CHRR director Michael Kaiyatsa says criminalising witchcraft could help prevent people from taking the law into their own hands to punish suspected sorcerers.

But securing convictions might prove tricky, he said.

"Witchcraft... is not something that you can see or prove," he said.

His group says killings caused by rumor-mongering have only rarely resulted in arrests and prosecutions.

It brands this a failure of law enforcement that has stoked a climate of impunity and fed the violence. It urges more action to bring killers to justice.

Last week, local media reported that residents in Dedza, central Malawi, killed the village chief on suspicion he had used sorcery to murder his nephew.

Last December, a special commission tasked with drafting legal proposals to address the issue concluded that the best way around the problem was to acknowledge that magic is real.

Malawi's current laws assume that witchcraft does not exist. Under a law drafted during British colonial rule, it is a crime to accuse someone of witchcraft.

But since most Malawians believe in magic, the commission suggested it was better to recognize the existence of sorcery -- and make its practice a crime.

"People's beliefs cannot be suppressed by legislation," retired Supreme Court judge Robert Chinangwa, who headed the commission, wrote in his findings.

"The commission therefore recommends recognzsing the existence of witchcraft and states that the law must penalize all witchcraft practices."

AFP this month visited Lupembe, which lies on a sandy shoreline of Lake Malawi near the border with Tanzania, some 550 kilometres (350 miles) north of Lilongwe.

"Hundreds of villagers descended on our home from all directions and started assaulting me, my brother and my parents," Walinaye Mwanguphiri, 36, told AFP.

Inside his grass-thatched home, Mwanguphiri, the survivor, stuttered with emotion as he recounted his ordeal and how he felt to be living today among his family's killers.

The family, he said, had gathered at the village graveyard to bury his cousin's son, who had died after a short illness.

It was then that the mob descended on them.

They accused "us of killing (him) through witchcraft," he said.

Mwanguphiri said he managed to scrape his way through the crowd and ran for his life away from the village, leaving behind his elderly parents and brother, who were beaten to death.

"I survived by a whisker," he said.

The crowd destroyed his house, his brother's and that of his aunt before dispersing, he said.

Law enforcement officers rounded up a couple of villagers but later released them, he said.

The police did not respond to a request for comment.

To this day, Mwanguphiri does not know what triggered the deadly rumors.

After a year away, he returned to Lupembe, where he now cares for his brother's five orphans.

"Although it is hard for us to live here after what happened, we have no other option because this is the only home that we know," he said.