Not “What”, But “Where” Part 2

This article is from about five years ago, but it just got re-posted on Reddit and it’s the first time I saw it … so I’m sharing the love.  This specific article is about the village of Nyamataro in the district of Kisii.  Apparently five people had been accused of witchcraft in this predominately Christian region of the country, and were taken, beaten with sticks or machetes, and then set alight in a ditch along with some kindling to burn to death.

There’s a video in the first link above.  It’s about as horrific as you’d think, as are some of the photos on the front page.  Click at your own risk; this shit is NSFL (not safe for life).

Looking at the article and the rather obscure name of the website, I thought I would look for some additional information – maybe from BBC or the like, just to make sure the story was legit.

Ah.  Here we go.  “‘Witches’ burnt to death in Kenya”:

Eleven elderly people accused of being witches have been burned to death by a mob in the west of Kenya, police say.  A security operation has been launched to hunt down villagers suspected of killing them in Kisii District.

Anthony Kibunguchy, the provincial police officer, told the BBC that the eight women and three men were all aged between 80 and 96 years old.  The mob dragged them out of their houses and burned them individually and then set their homes alight, our correspondent says.

Wait, the numbers are off.  One article says five, and this one says eleven.  What gives?  Oh, that’s because it’s a different group of people being burned alive for witchcraft in the same district.  This is the town of Nyanza, not Nyamataro.  Silly me.  Little did I know that pulling this sort of shit is what you do when you live in this part of Kenya.

I was witnessing a horrific practice which appears to be on the increase in Kenya – the lynching of people accused of being witches.  I personally saw the burning alive of five elderly men and women in Itii village.  [OH HEY ANOTHER VILLAGE.] Village youths who took part in the killings told me that the five victims had to die because they had bewitched a young boy.

“Of course some people have been burned. But there is proof of witchcraft,” said one youth.  “We are very angry and that’s why we end up punishing these people and even killing them.”

Joseph Ondieki, whose mother was burned to death because the villagers in Itii thought she was a witch. Now he fears for his life. (Photo from BBC)

His friend agreed: “In other communities, there are witches all round but in Kisii we have come up with a new method, we want to kill these people using our own hands.”

I later discovered that the young boy who had supposedly been bewitched, was suffering from epilepsy.

That sounds about right.  It also sounds familiar, back a few hundred years in this country when any sort of accusation of witchcraft would translate to a death sentence with only a cursory glance at something resembling due process (i.e. “how quickly can we assemble a mob?”)  But, as with modern day Kisii, the belief in Satan, witchcraft, and the supernatural in the context of Christianity is alive and well, so the collective hysteria and their response to it seems, to them, perfectly reasonable in the absence of any better understanding of the natural world.

Back in January I wrote about an editorial cartoon portraying Islam as a heavy bomb held up by moderates, and being lit by extremists.  Whether you agree with the image or not, I put forth the idea that while Islam is dangerous in some parts of the world, it is in my opinion a result of where it’s managed to take hold, as opposed to of any sort of ideas or characteristic unique to the doctrines or holy book itself.

What I’m reading about Kenya seems to back this up.  Their Christian faith combined with their superstition, belief in the supernatural, and absence of any effective secular rule of law allow these murders to happen essentially unchecked.  In their minds, they’re only obeying God’s word on something that is all too real in their minds:  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

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2 Responses to Not “What”, But “Where” Part 2

  1. Richard says:

    I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to pin this one on Christianity, or how much bearing Christian faith has on one’s belief in witches. Belief in witchcraft and/or sorcery isn’t uncommon in Africa as far as I know, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect Christianity as commonly experienced in Europe and the US, or any highly industrialized country with a strong Leviathan and rule of law, to somehow supersede local folk religions and superstitions in any setting. Missionaries just can’t be that successful — some syncretism is bound to occur, and the things that get syncretized will be different from the monotheism’s original setting.

    None of that makes these incidents any less horrible, or the suffering of the victims any less profound. But there are all kinds of irrational beliefs out there. It is perhaps worth asking why Western countries don’t believe in witchcraft anymore — or how, indeed, beliefs in specific supernatural events and personae other than God and Satan arose in different blocks of Christianity. (The Christians couldn’t even seem to agree on central points of dogma in the early days, hence all the schisms, splinter sects and heresies.) My guess, and hope, is that this sort of thing will go down as Africa becomes more highly developed.

    • I agree. I was trying to make a point close to that, but it’s possible I came across as if I was just blaming Christianity. (This is the kind of thing that will happen when I blog very late at night like I’m doing now. I hope my response even makes sense.) As with my post about Islam, I don’t believe that the violence and brutality are a direct result of any inherent characteristic of one particular religion over another, but far more a function of the society that adopts it. (And with it, their superstitions, educational level, and the state of their secular legal system, if any.) If Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism took hold instead, we’d very likely see the same kind of videos, only with slightly different details. The end results would almost certainly be the same.

      The religious demographic info I have on this region says that it’s predominately Christian (7th day adventists, pentecostal, and other evangelical). But to your point, the degree to which they adhere to the teachings of the bible versus their own traditions under the name of “Christianity”, I don’t really know. It’s likely they found a number of similar elements in both and interpreted them as validation of their traditional superstitions. I wonder the same thing about the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even those groups that are located closer to the more urban areas like Kabul and Kandahar. How much of what they practice is really Islam, and how much are their own tribal customs they’ve just shoehorned into the umbrella term of “Islam” to make it easier to justify their actions?

      I think the answer to much of this is education. Superstition and an overall belief in the supernatural tend to diminish when there is a widespread understanding of the natural world and natural phenomena. Even if it’s only fairly rudimentary by our modern standards, it would still go a long way, in my (our) opinion, to helping put a stop to this kind of violence. Then again, the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism show, if anything, that mass hysteria and paranoia don’t leave our collective psyche so easily.

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