Young Kenyans are murdering elderly relatives they claim are witches, but it really has nothing to do with magical beliefs

Victims of climate change.
Victims of climate change.
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
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Bayacharo Kafuna was asleep in his house when two men attacked him with machetes. He was cut across the mouth, back, and the left side of his body. Had he not raised his own machete to defend himself, Kafuna says he would have been hacked to death. More painful than the injuries, though, was the emotional torment of learning identity of the culprits. His attackers were family: a grandson and nephew.

“The problem started after [one of my] sons developed liver complications,” Kafuna says. “When he died, my relatives accused me of using witchcraft against him.”

Kafuna, now 72 and living in a safe house in Malindi, Kenya, denies the allegation. In fact, he says, he even sold part of his land to pay for his son’s medical treatment months before he was attacked in 2010. After Kafuna was attacked for a second time weeks later, he left the Kenyan village in which he lived and worked as a farmer for his entire life. He returned a few times to try to sort things out, but eventually gave up; it’s now been three years since he’s gone back.

As shockingly personal as the attack may seem, it can best be explained by global forces. Around the time Kafuna was assaulted, Kenya faced a prolonged drought that left 19 million people in need of food assistance. Before conditions improved, 260,000 people across the Horn of Africa starved to death. In coastal Kenya, the harsh conditions coincided with an onslaught of attacks on elderly people—many of them under allegations of practicing witchcraft. Experts believe the violence is a way to preserve food resources for younger, more productive community members.

At least 50 elderly people in the area have taken refuge in safe houses after being accused of harming their communities with hexes over the past several years. Instead of being respected as tribal elders as is custom among the Mijikenda tribe that inhabits the dense forests along the Kenyan coast, they’ve been incriminated as witches.

“The practice is rampant,” says Alexander Makau, the police chief for Kilifi County, along the Indian Ocean. At least 22 people in Kilifi County reported being attacked after facing accusations of witchcraft in 2015, and 104 were reportedly murdered in 2014. But the real numbers are likely much higher than the official count—Makau believes only a small minority of cases are reported to authorities. That’s because many of the attacks occur within families.

“A family will conspire and they will hire a killer to come and bump the old man or the old lady off,” says Joseph Karisa Mwarandu, who started the Malindi District Cultural Organization to preserve local culture but has found himself protecting the region’s older residents. Those two missions dovetail, says Mwarandu, since those who opt for the traditional red, white, and blue sarongs; the coiled hair; and an indigenous faith that reveres ancestors are often those accused of practicing witchcraft.

Killing the elderly, Mwarandu says, “is like setting fire on a library, for example, or a museum, or an archive of some kind. So we have tried to find a way of rescuing them.”

There’s a long history of demonizing local tradition, from the British colonial administration’s policing of local traditions starting in the 1920s to contemporary efforts by Christian missionaries to associate indigenous beliefs with evil. Many locals now associate traditional rituals with causing harm.

Manuel Chingo, who works with Mwarandu at the Malindi Cultural Association, says the contemporary attacks are partially fueled by generational divides. The burgeoning tourism industry along the coast has enticed many younger members of the Mijikenda tribe to abandon traditional society. “Everyone wants to go…work in the hotels or maybe do business on the beaches. They flock there,” Chingo says. When they return to their villages, they tend to feel disconnected and disdainful of local customs: “If they have no job, they claim [it’s because] that the elders are bewitching them.”

What Chingo calls the “mass killing” of elders in the area began about 10 years ago. The Malindi Cultural Association took up the issue soon after. Elders who were attacked moved into thatched huts previously used by the Association a sort of museum display of the traditional Mijikenda lifestyle. The refugees now make beaded jewelry and local cuisine as a way to safeguard both their culture and their lives.

Bayacharo Kafuna in a safe house in Malindi, Kenya.
Bayacharo Kafuna in a
Image: Beenish Ahmed

It’s not surprising people feel comfortable enacting vigilante justice against presumed witches, since even the official courts in Kenya take witchcraft seriously. Witchcraft was made a punishable offense under a Colonial-era ordinance that was revised—but not by much—in 1981. According to Kenyan law, causing “fear, annoyance, or injury to another in mind, person, or property” through witchcraft is an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

At the same time, says Mwarandu, all these witchcraft accusations cannot be taken at face value—he thinks disputes over land and inheritance are what’s really driving people to attack community elders. “It’s an excuse for killing somebody just to get property maybe or to resolve a dispute,” he says. “When they say that you’re a witch, the idea in the community is that nobody will have sympathy with you.”

The problem isn’t isolated to East Africa. According to a 2009 United Nations report, marginalized elderly people—especially widows—all over the world, from Nepal to South Africa, have been attacked under the pretense of witchcraft.

In many cases, the supposed “witch killing” is really just a socially-acceptable form of “death hastening”—instances where an elderly member of the community is killed (or commits suicide) in order to lessen the burden on working relatives during times of scarcity which have been reported across the world. In the past, for example, Inuit tribes abandoned their decrepit elderly on ice floes, Miguel says. And in Japan, seniors in some communities were carried up mountains and left there to die.

In Kenya, authorities say witchcraft-related crimes have been on the rise in recent years, as increasing cycles of drought have caused regular water shortages and crop failures. Since Mijikenda society is traditionally a gerontocracy in which older men control resources and younger members of the tribe have little say, witchcraft accusations offer a pretext to disrupt the hierarchy. Many of the cases Mwarandu has dealt with involve young men willing to resort to desperate measures to get their inheritance without waiting around for it.

The elders of certain Kenyan and Tanzanian tribes are thought to have the power to control the rain through ritual ceremonies and to ward off bad omens that threaten the land. When there are serious droughts or flooding, and crop resulting failures, the elderly find themselves in danger. In a study of 67 Tanzanian villages across 11 years, Edward Miguel, a professor of economics at the University of California-Berkeley who studies witchcraft-related crimes, found that twice as many “witch murders” occur during years of droughts or floods.

Unlike the torch-bearing mobs who set out to burn witches on the stake in medieval Europe, Miguel says, the attacks in Tanzania were largely clandestine. “They’re committed by relatives,” he says, and enacted most often within poor families for whom a drought can be a death sentence.

Mwarandu, a tribal elder and a high court advocate himself, thinks the Kenyan authorities haven’t done enough to ensure the safety of those elders who want to return home by investigating and prosecuting those who attack them. The government does, however, now provide small pensions to the elderly to offset any financial burden that might make their families turn on them. It’s the one thing the Kenyan government has done to alleviate the national economic stress of the mounting environmental pressures of climate change and a rising elderly population.

Bayacharo Kafuna feels his family has already taken everything from him. In the years since he’s been living the cultural organization safe house, he his family divided up his land and collected their “inheritance” as if he had died.

Still, he says, “I am happy to be here because I’m safe. I go to bed and wake up alive.”

This article was produced with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).