In eastern Kenya, trumped-up allegations of witchcraft are driving elderly people, especially women, from their homes. A moving documentary with clear eyes shows how the witch hunt still haunts modern Kenya. This article is the fourth of this year’s summer special with reviews of artist work relevant to development.
Between 1912 and 1915, an elderly widow named Mekatilili wa Menza led a Giriama revolt against British colonial rule in eastern Kenya. Apparently a charismatic person, Mekatilili went from village to village, giving rousing speeches and leading vigorous performances of the traditional kifudu dance to drum up resistance to the British.
The colonial rulers were not amused. Regional administrator Arthur Champion captured Mekatilili and exiled him to a prison in western Kenya. She escaped and went back home to resume the protests. Champion, who called her a witch, had her recaptured. At the same time, he ordered troops to seize large areas of land and burn down the demonstrators’ homes.
Fast forward almost a century. In the same region where Mekatilili was persecuted and their people dispossessed, older women (and some men) are still called witches or wizards and are still being evicted from their homes. This time, however, the perpetrators are members of the elderly victims’ own families, eager to conquer land that belongs to the elderly.
This modern witch hunt is the theme of The Letter, a documentary by the Kenyan couple Maia Lekow, a musician and filmmaker whose ancestors came from eastern Kenya, and Christopher King, an Australian filmmaker. The film tells the story of Margaret, an elderly woman who lives in Kaloleni in eastern Kenya and is charged with witchcraft by devious relatives.
Interestingly, the filmmakers first wanted to tell Mekatilili’s story. But their project, which lasted six years, evolved into an exploration of a modern parallel to this story: persecution, robbery, and the occasional murder of old people through allegations of witchcraft.
According to the filmmakers, the local press reports about 10 such murders each month, along with hundreds of family disputes over land and inheritance. In many cases the elderly person is warned, sometimes in a letter, to motivate them to flee before they are killed. Charities have set up sanctuaries in the area for elderly people who are exposed to such threats.
“The Letter” got its title from one such warning sent anonymously to Margaret. The letter accuses her of being a witch and of cursing the family. At the same time, a Facebook post warns gloomy about an “elder who kills children” in Kaoleni. Margaret’s grandson Karisa, who works in Mombasa, sees the mail and travels to his hometown, 50 kilometers away, to investigate.
What Karisa finds out after careful investigation is that an uncle named Furaha was behind the threats. Furaha was raised by Margaret after the death of his own mother, who was Margaret’s sister. In keeping with tradition, Furaha’s father then married Margaret, who raised Furaha and his siblings along with the children they eventually had with Furaha’s father. The “adoptive son” never felt like a full son of Margaret and was concerned about his share of her inheritance.
Furaha’s allegations, heavily based on superstition and Pentecostal practices, split the family in two. In order to restore peace and a degree of security for herself, Margaret eventually agrees to attend some kind of purge ceremony led by a man who calls himself a priest and who brings the Furaha from Mombasa.
The so-called priest urges Margaret to swear that she is not a witch. He turns up the sound of a loudspeaker, which he has turned up to deafening volume, to increase the tension, and sets out to create fear. “God will appear in seven days,” he says. “I pray nobody dies or goes blind.”
Margaret sits stoically close by with most of the women in the family along with Karisa and her own local priest by her side. She is present but refuses to be drawn into the mock ceremony. Eventually the intruders from Mombasa, along with Furaha and his supporters, leave the scene and warn that the next seven days will tell if Margaret is a witch.
The seven days come and go without incident. Margaret, who was 94 years old at the time of these events, is allowed to spend the rest of her days in relative peace.
“The letter” – beautifully filmed, with close access to the family and accompanied by haunting music by Maia Lekow – is a warning story. Margaret survived the ordeal and attempted character assassination, but many of her age cohorts in the area are not so lucky.
Coincidentally, Margaret was born in 1925, one year after Mekatilili’s death. None of these brave and self-possessed women were witches. But the threat of persecution as witches, whom both of them met with courage and dignity, is unfortunately still present today.
The Letter, 2019, Kenya, directed by Maia Lekow and Christopher King.
Aviva Freudmann is a freelance journalist based in Frankfurt.