Modson Sichinga, born in 1939, witnessed the devastating hunger between 1939 to 1949 in then Nyasaland.
He still holds memories of dead people strewn along the roads as most of them died while on their way to look for food.
The effects of the devastating hunger were still being felt from 1949 to somewhere around 1952 By sheer luck Sichinga still survived together with his family members.
“Though we survived in that year but this was one moment that we came to the sight of withered and prostrated human beings staggering aimlessly like living skeletons on the bare ground. I was only 10 at the time and my zeal to get good education made me continue with my studies despite the ruins of hunger in the family.
I was amongst the brightest pupils and was selected to Dedza Secondary School in 1952, same year former President of Malawi, late Bingu Wa Mutharika arrived at the institution to start his Form 1” he recalls.
Sichinga was the only hope for the low-earning family. However, life came to a halt to the entire family the same year when he and his sister suffered an illness believed to be caused by contaminated food. The condition, polio, brought to them a physical disability.
According to Sichinga, there hardly was any hospital or health centre at the time in the whole of Chitipa District and that they did not know their condition was polio since traditional beliefs associated the ailment with witchcraft.
The fear of the witches was very powerful element in Msongolera Village and beyond to the extent that people surrounded themselves with charms to ward off the evil spirit.
Sichinga’s mother also attributed the problem of her children to witchcraft so she visited so many witchdoctors whose common claim was that one of the family’s relatives was responsible for the suffering.
He recalls how devastating it was one day when upon return from the witchdoctor, some individuals were accused of being the witches haunting the family. Later, they invited witchdoctors to the community to bring everlasting peace by removing the (charms) nyanga.
“They gave them herbs and pieces of bark with roots enclosed in little bags of cloth. They claimed that they had the ability to heal and their skills were due to special spiritual endowment. They never approached our problems scientifically but their art was with great skill which involved using every trick from dressing style, beads, spells, charms and religious rites to impress and win our confidence”. said Sichinga, briskly shaking his head.
However, the 82-year old recalls how unbearable it was when his mother was accused of practicing the same decades later in her advanced age.
He believes her mother was not a witch but she could not deny or justify her innocence to the mob. Sichinga has no idea why the accusers even thought she was practicing witchcraft.
“She was rescued twice from mob attacks on suspicion that she has bewitched her grandson who died mysteriously. The question that troubles me to this day is on how people who accuse others of witch craft can feel if someone did the same to them. This is the question that everyone ought to ponder on before making accusations and in Malawi witchcraft does not exist” concludes Sichinga.
It would not be far off from the truth to say Malawians – regardless of age, education, and religion – believe that witchcraft exists and that witches are real. Section 33 of the Malawi constitution provides freedom of conscience, religion, thought and belief.
However, Witchcraft Act of 1911 is found to be in contradiction with Section 33 as it prohibits accusations towards anyone and the calling of traditionalists witch finders by chiefs and individuals for witch hunt and cleansing.
The Malawi Law Commission is in process of reviewing the Witchcraft Act. According to findings of the research made by the commission which was conducted through consultative meetings in all regions of the country show that witchcraft exists and that those practicing it will now have to be prosecuted and jailed for 14 years.
The findings fall short on evidence especially that it does not quantify people who provided evidence about the existence of witchcraft.
Professor Moses Muotcha, a freelancer clinical psychologist and former lecturer at Kamuzu University of Health Sciences finds some elements of truth in what Sichinga is saying that in Malawi witchcraft does not exist. He argues that witchcraft is not scientific and cannot be proven.
Muotcha fails to imagine how the proceedings in the court would be like and asks very critical questions.
“What if accusers fail to adduce evidence on the accused of the practice? And the courts frees the accused, should he or she go back to the community? And what happens to the accused in the society even after the court finds them innocent at the failure of the provision of evidence?” Muothca imagines.
Muotcha wonders why beliefs wants to turn into law saying that third threatens the already wobbling peace and tranquility as the new law has the potential of setting people into premonition attitude that may increase attacks on the elderly who are vulnerable to accusations.
“These are cultural beliefs and we need to tread carefully. Let the law protect people and not allow chaos.” Muotcha says.
Chiefs in Ntcheu and Zomba bemoaned the influx of attacks that target elderly people on suspicion of witchcraft.
Senior Chief Malemia of Zomba said. “We want elderly people to be protected and we will intensify awareness to tell people not to abuse the elderly.”