The rising killings of grey-haired elders in Kwale County over witchcraft accusations has raised a fresh chorus of public disapproval with authorities admitting the motive of the crime is unclear and perplexing.
County Commissioner Karuku Ngumo condemned the killings saying police records show that at least 42 elderly people have been killed since January, this year in mysterious circumstances.
Kinanago and Lunga Lunga Sub-counties are not only the most marginalized but the hardest hit by the vice that has left both locals and security agencies in a dilemma.
The elderly continue to live in fear as the wave of the puzzling killings persists unabated.
It is a matter that has confounded even authorities as they struggle to unravel the murders.
The situation is so dire that the authorities resorted to seeking divine intervention encouraging religious leaders to intercede to stem the killings.
“These heinous killings need to stop and I urge the clergy to intervene through their moral and spiritual leadership role,” said Mr. Ngumo at a public baraza at Kenyatta Primary School in Msambweni Sub-county.
The crime mostly occurs in rural areas, where superstition is rife and people conveniently blame witches for illnesses and other calamities.
Police say a month hardly passes without reports of murders linked to witchcraft.
This has forced some elderly people to go into hiding as locals hunt them down like animals.
There has been an alarming rise in the killings on allegations that the victims are witches without any proof yet investigations, so far, point to land grabbing as the reason for the murders.
Such cases have been rampant in Kwale and Kilifi Counties.
Interviews with locals revealed that in most of the cases, relatives mainly youthful ones are behind most of the murders while killer gangs are hired to execute them with land being at the heart of it all.
Mr. Ngumo said many of the cases involved desperate young men who want to inherit their parents’ property through unorthodox means.
The administrator said prosecution of the murder cases has been complicated by conspiracy among relatives who hatch cover-ups.
“Foolproof evidence is needed for police to prove murder. When cases go unreported and no one volunteers as witness in trials, chances are high that culprits will go scot free as police cannot prove culpability,” he said. As a result, a number of cases had gone cold due to lack of evidence.
In one such bizarre killing, Kombo Ndegwa, a peasant farmer, was hacked to death and his private parts chopped off in Fikirini location LungaLunga.
People attending a judicial inquest into the death in a Kwale Court were horrified when the deceased’s wife described how he was brutally killed.
The widow Ms. Mkambe Ndegwa gave a heart-rending testimony that left those present in court stunned and disgusted during the proceedings of the inquest into the death of her husband.
She told the court how her late husband was brutally murdered by unknown people as she watched helplessly at night, three years ago.
“The attackers went to an extent of cutting off my husband’s manhood which they dropped next to his body before they disappeared into the dark night,” the widow said.
What is shocking is that this mayhem continues, in spite of Kaya elders’ campaign to counter the widespread killings.
Dubbed “Mvi si uchawi, uzee ni hekima” (Grey hair is not witchcraft, old age is wisdom) the campaign is meant to protect the elderly against the escalating violence that has left many grey-haired men and women killed or maimed.
In a previous interview in Kwale town, a Kaya elder and the Secretary General of Malindi District Cultural Association Mr. Joseph Karisa Mwarandu, said the elderly were increasingly becoming vulnerable and a target of irrational “witch-hunts” and deserve protection and support.
“Elders are very important people in the society because of their experience and wisdom and should therefore be respected and their interests safeguarded,” said Mr. Mwarandu, who is also a lawyer.
Interviews with locals revealed that in most of the cases, relatives are behind most of the murders while killer gangs are hired to execute them.
Mr. Mwarandu condemned the killings of innocent people saying it was sad to see elderly people in the region leading miserable lives simply because of their age.
“Grey hair does not mean that one is obviously a witch. No human being is immune to growing old hence the need to protect the rights of the elderly as they are an important component of any society,” he said
The chairman added that there is need for the Kaya elders and all right thinking people to stand firm and fight against the violence being meted out on elders adding if the vice continues unabated then all old people will be wiped out in the region.
He noted that they are working closely with the Coast Inter-faith Organization which is under the Catholic leadership in Mombasa in creating public awareness on the need to respect and protect the elderly people.
Mwarandu urged the local residents to concentrate on development issues instead of clinging on outdated cultural beliefs and practices like witchcraft which are not helpful to them.
Transparency International (TI) Kenya has started sensitizing youth at the Coast on land and property rights to improve their lot and to avert violence related to land disputes in the region.
The organization’s Coast Senior Regional Officer Ms. Mary Maneno said the initiative is aimed at promoting youth land ownership and access to family and community land.
Speaking at a Kwale County Youth Summit Ms. Maneno, who is a lawyer by profession, said there is need to create awareness among the local youth and the populace in general, on how to own and solve land disputes amicably.
“Many people from the region do not know their rights concerning issues of lands and they need to be sensitized,” she said.
According to her, communities need to be well informed about their land tenure rights and how to amicably solve land disputes.
She said most of the disputes result from lack of knowledge concerning land and added that this can be alleviated through capacity building to either avert or resolve disputes amiably.
Ms. Maneno, urged the residents to avoid violence in solving land disputes but instead follow the right channels that will help them live in harmony within their communities.
She also called on coastal communities to strive to acquire title deeds as proof of land ownership to avoid disputes in the future.
The official said plans are underway to bring together stakeholders including the National Government and County Governments to develop transparency policies that will help everyone in the community under a theme ‘Restoring Integrity in the Land Sector’.
By James Muchai.