State silence gives murderers licence to target elderly people

Wednesday October 27 2021

A house that was torched after villagers accused a woman of practising witchcraft in Uasin Gishu, Kenya on March 1, 2017. Every year in Kenya, especially in Kisii County and the Coast, elderly men, and mostly women, are brutally killed on suspicion of being witches. PHOTO | NMG


Every year in Kenya, especially in Kisii County and the Coast, elderly men, and mostly women, are brutally killed on suspicion of being witches. No one is ever prosecuted for these murders.

The government’s silence has given murderers a licence to kill elderly citizens.

And the bloodletting continues. This past week, four elderly citizens of Kitutu Chache in Kisii were killed in the most horrific manner for being “witches”. Bystanders watched the massacre, taking photos and videos. In Kenya of the 21st century, elderly citizens are disposed of in the most barbaric way imaginable.

Some years ago, a video of elderly men and women being burnt alive in Kisii made rounds on social media. One old woman feebly attempted to flee but a young man kicked her back into the flames.

An old man sat with his hands on his lap, not even flinching, as the fire consumed him. After such horrific killings, one would have expected a manhunt to be launched to capture the murderers and those who had accused the victims of witchcraft.

But little was done. We pride ourselves as being a country aspiring to ideals of enlightenment and progress, yet we tolerate medieval barbarism.


HelpAge International, an organisation that promotes the rights of the elderly across the globe, has researched the practice of witchcraft killings in Africa.

Their findings can inform policy and laws to bring this barbarity to a halt. One finding of the study shows that in places where there is little education, coupled with economic deprivation, calamities are explained as being caused by witchcraft.

Another finding explains why only the elderly are seen as witches. Because they live alone and mostly in isolation, and because smoke makes their eyes red, and because they mutter to themselves and collect odd bits and pieces, the elderly fit the superstitious imagination of a witch.

The study also found that witchcraft was often an excuse to expropriate land from the elderly.

Whatever the reason does not diminish the barbarity in any way. Why has the political class and intellectuals looked the other way in the face of this medieval practice? The political class is only interested in votes and, therefore, avoids actions that might jeopardise that all-consuming interest.

Politicians are also not interested in a real issue that will demand solutions. It’s too taxing for their brains. They are more inclined towards politics of lies and tribal propaganda. It’s easy politicking and rake in the votes.

The intellectuals, on the other hand, are still busy explaining how colonialism corrupted and underdeveloped Africa. Talking about witchcraft killings or female circumcision or other dehumanising customs is not ideologically “sexy”. Such talk undermines the idea of a utopian African universe despoiled by colonialism.

They will be forced to admit that their beloved ubuntu is a myth. Caught between the rock of political apathy and the hard place of reckless intellectual idealism, murder of the elderly will continue to soil our collective conscience.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator