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Youth and Witchcraft Violence in Africa

George Ongere

September 29, 2009

At times our lack of knowledge about various phenomena can be dangerous. Reason is available for us to use on a daily basis, but few use it in the right way. We have the freedom to judge what is right and wrong from a logical angle, but many of us don’t bother to use this freedom to sort through the ideas and phenomena we encounter every day to separate the good ones from the trash. Sadly, in Africa, the masses think that in order to be rational they must go to school and get advanced degrees. Without these degrees, they think they must remain village dustbins to gather all the trashy ideas and dogmas.

Even though deep inside we feel that pestering instinct to look logically at what society gives us to consume, we often fail to respond to that nagging desire to know. In the end all the garbage we ingest becomes so lethal that it threatens regurgitation, but we still assume and believe we are doing well. The result is that the garbage becomes a poison that is regurgitated so violently that we don’t know how to deal with it. Analogously, the African society fed us with ideas about witchcraft, witches, and witchdoctors that we consumed whole. These ideas entered our minds, growing over time and transforming into something so dangerous that it has caused a human rights crisis in many republics of Africa: the recent witch lynching activities that hit both local and international press.

Not long ago, we believed that a group of able-minded people free from the ideologies of the old would be born in Africa. The members of the group would develop their brains well and focus on agendas to help develop Africa. They would eschew mystical and tribal thinking to escape ideas of witchcraft, caste discrimination, and other dogmatic perspectives. They would thrive with the growth of scientific literacy in Africa, which would give them their name: the Millennium Children of Africa. Having grown up immersed in technology, the members of the Millennium Children of Africa could reap all the benefits of a computerized world to think forward and bring industrialization to Africa.

Of course, this group was born. They found when they intermarried with other tribes, tribal and ethnical thinking disappeared. They found when their educational institutions were secularized they could interact with people of all calibers and of all religions. They found when the eras of political assassinations and well-known dictators had gone, they now had the freedom to learn in an environment that somehow best suited them. The coming of the Internet with the computer age transformed the world into a global village in which the free exchange of ideas was possible. Their energy was capable of making Africa a continent of change. The coming new millennium was bright with strategic plans to enable these young people to develop a brighter future for Africa.

But things started taking a slower turn and, as the millennium came, it seemed as though things were stalling. The promises remained elusive, and nothing constructive was being done to empower this group of young minds. The education system began deteriorating, and ideas that could have opened up their minds for positive and creative thinking were gagged. All avenues to critical thinking, reason, and science were blocked and replaced with dogma.

To be precise, I am talking about the current youth in Africa. Young people face many obstacles that block both their individual progress and collective contributions to the country at large. The story is even worse in developing nations where youths face a bleak economic future due to lack of information and experience. Without job opportunities, young adults have been vulnerable to a wide range of hazards, including sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, violence, discrimination, and alcohol and drug abuse. The situation in Kenya specifically and Africa as a whole is a story of youth poverty and unemployment. In the cities, young men and women walk day in and day out in search of employment to fulfill their basic needs. Here, they end up in the slums where they find themselves in awful living conditions where running sewers and out of control human decay is the norm. In the rural areas, desperate youths have tried to engage in subsistence farming to survive only to find other obstacles like decline in prices and competing products sold at lower market rates.

Moreover, young adults in Kenya and most other African countries have been viewed with uncertainty and suspicion. Both the government and international strategists frequently overlook them and their views on economical, political, and social agendas as unwise and unripe. In the end, the young people have been left vastly unattended to, which has rendered them hopeless and disillusioned.

With all these obstacles, many youths have resorted to redirecting their energies to social vices. This is where they meet bad individuals who prey on their gullible, desperate minds. They find individuals who have watched them in their desperate situations and continue to tap and encourage their primitive instincts and plant dogmas in their unsure minds. Suspicion and superstitious ideas seep in, and they become willing slaves to be brainwashed.

This misery might explain why the youthful demographic has been reported at the forefront of the recent activities of witchcraft violence and witch lynching. According to statistics in the Ralushai Commission Report, a conference that was organized in South Africa by the Commission on Gender Based Violence, youths often lead attacks on alleged witches. Their involvement was found to be based on various factors, including unemployment, poverty, and lack of credible leadership. It was found that the purveyors of the modern phenomenon of witchcraft violence—who target the wealthy and successful—were motivated by greed and personal gain. These people incited and mobilized youths by feeding them superstitious ideas about their business competitors. Here the youths took matters into their hands and quickly hacked these people to death.

Credo Mutwa, a victim of witchcraft violence, gave his personal account of being accused of witchcraft and nearly burnt alive. He also recounted how two of his friends, Mrs. Ramatsimela and Mr. Khupe, were killed by a mob of young activists in the land of Kgosi Phase. Ramatsimela and Khupe were dragged to the top of mountain and burnt alive by a group of young people. Rocky Mabunda, who comes from Zangoma, explained how the youths take a lead in killing those accused of witchcraft. He did not blame the youths, however; he said that youths never went to the seers, witchdoctors, and religious leaders and asked them to identify the witch. It was the parents and other ill-motivated people who sought the seers and gave the information to the youths who carried out lynching without inquiry.

Harold Mathebula, a young convict serving a twenty-year sentence narrated the story of a crime he committed in 1990 after the release of Nelson Mandela. Mathebula celebrated Mandela’s release by burning someone accused of witchcraft, which he now accepts was an innocent man. In prison, Mathebula was part of a group that produced videos to educate people about the dangers of witchcraft violence. He says, “We believe if the youths are given proper education about the horrors of witchcraft violence, this could help reduce or stop the carnageā€¦.We are aware that what we did was wrong, accept the consequences of our actions, and are prepared to work hard to prevent other senseless acts.”

In Kisii, a group of youths known as Sungu sungu has been a nightmare to many. They are notorious forerunners in burning alleged witches in Kisii. Sungu sungu was formed under the guise of community policing—a program that was launched by the Kenyan government in various local communities to involve citizens in keeping securities when the administrative police had failed working alone. In other communities, this program succeeded. However, in Kisii, the formed group used the opportunity to combat witchcraft, and witch accusation became the norm. This group is widely known to have burnt five women alive—a story that made headlines in both local and international media.

Usually when sickness, death, or other misfortune befalls a person or a family, witchcraft is the assumed culprit. The aggrieved party then consults a traditional healer to determine the source of the tragedy. Should the tragedy be ascribed to witchcraft, the traditional healer points out a witch and the Sungu sungu are fed the information that ultimately leads to a lynching.

The story has always been of youths involved in witchcraft violence. People between the ages of forty and sixty years have in rare cases been involved directly in witch violence, but young people usually commit the actual violence. This means that if the youths are not mobilized and given a proper education involving reason, science, and critical thinking, then a lot more witch hunting and witch lynching will continue in Kenya. Youth empowerment is the only way to curb witch lynching in Africa.

In its Anti-Witchcraft campaign, the Center for Inquiry/Kenya has embarked on engaging the youths in this fight. From September 28 to October 1, 2009, the Center for Inquiry/Kenya will visit Moi University to meet students on campus. Here they will organize a workshop to discuss ways in which youths can avoid becoming victims of unscrupulous individuals who mobilize them to carry out witchcraft and other related violence. We will debate “Do Witches and Witchcraft Powers Exist?” which will hopefully open the minds of students to science, reason, and critical thinking.

From October 26 to 28, 2009, the Center for Inquiry/Kenya will organize a major Anti-Superstition Campaign at the University of Nairobi. Here we will invite all the campus groups from different universities, local youth groups in the areas that have been on the spot on witch lynching, and other NGOs that have been at the forefront of the Anti-Superstition campaign. This campaign, whose theme is “Superstitious Thinking and Its Dangers to the People,” will raise concern on some issues that have been overlooked in the fight against witchcraft-related crimes. Many intellectuals from various learning institutions will be involved.

The Center for Inquiry/Kenya will then select a few individual campus groups and visit the local rural youth groups, like the Sungu sungu, that have been involved in witchcraft violence and have a session. We believe this will be a thoroughly positive direction in the fight against witchcraft violence and belief in witchcraft.

George Ongere

George Ongere's photo

George Ongere is the executive director CFI-Kenya.