It’s been called a macabre mass suicide, a bizarre religious ritual, and hell on earth.
Last week, the suicides of four and attempted suicide of another, added a new dimension to Malawi’s already complicated religious landscape.
According to police, it was a belief in witchcraft that led to the five siblings throwing themselves into a blazing fire in Ndirande, Blantyre’s most populous township.
Lamace Manda, 31, and his sisters, Etta, 27, and Annie, 16, died on the spot, while Petro, 25, was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital with severe injuries. He died several days later. The last sister, 19-year-old Maria, was rescued by horrified onlookers and has now pleaded guilty to attempted suicide at police headquarters.
Some local reports have suggested the siblings were being taught witchcraft by their parents, while others have quoted the parents saying they had been physically and sexually abused by their children.
Others have carried reports the children acted on the advice of preaching that encouraged suicidal tendencies from a local church, the Ndirande Lunch Hour Fellowship, which it has since denied.
According to a UNICEF report from April 2010, “Children Accused of Witchcraft”, Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in West and Central Africa, has seen an increasing number of children accused of practising witchcraft, which often leads to their abuse and abandonment.
“Whereas in the past, elderly people, particularly women, were accused, these days the number of children accused of witchcraft is increasing,” the report reads. “The frequent accusations are the direct consequence of a generalized climate of ‘spiritual insecurity.'”
Despite no available numbers from Malawi, the report cites unofficial estimates from a widespread study. Examples include Limpopo Province in South Africa, where 389 people were allegedly killed between 1985 and 1995 and another 600 killed by lynching between 1996 and 2001. The report also cites northern Ghana, where women accused and banished to “witch villages” are forced to live in dehumanizing conditions.
While the numbers in Malawi are unclear, reports of such cases are also prevalent.
The Malawi Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of the existing Witchcraft Act. Inherited through colonial rule in 1911, the current act presumes that witchcraft does not exist, but also makes it an offence for any person to represent themselves as a wizard or witch and aims to protect those against “trial by ordeal.”
Expected to be complete by the end of this year, the review will then be submitted to parliament for consideration to establish a new act.
Sophie Nyirongo, Civic Education and Public Relations Officer for the commission says they are responding to “many incidents related to witchcraft allegations,” which she says often result in mob justice, where victims are stigmatized, cast out or even lynched.
Although Nyirongo could not comment on the results of public submissions until the commission’s report is finalized, she says “the response from the public has been overwhelming,” and has ranged from claims that witchcraft does not exist, to accusations that the act is a breach of constitutional freedoms of conscience and beliefs.