Wonderful Mkhutche on Witchcraft Allegations and Malawian Humanism

by | June 26, 2024

Wonderful Mkhutche is Humanists Malawi’s Executive Director. Humanists Malawi is the only humanist organisation in Malawi and fights against witchcraft based violence as well as promoting rationalism in approach to public affairs.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, today we’re here with Wonderful Mkhutche. When it comes to Malawian free thought, what are some contexts people should understand at the outset? Yes, when it comes to the Malawian context, for things like combating witchcraft allegations, humanism, and secularism, there is a wide range of concerns that people in our movements have. What tend to be the major concerns of people in Malawi?

Wonderful Mkhutche: First of all, the challenge is that, according to a recent survey, over 74% of the population believes in witchcraft. This issue arises because people do not have adequate knowledge about certain diseases, so they simply conclude that it’s witchcraft. Due to poverty, people fight for property and end up accusing each other of witchcraft. The major concern for us as humanists is that the violence keeps increasing, and the government is not taking decisive action against the belief. Even today, the law states that if you accuse someone of witchcraft, no one has ever been arrested for that. People are only arrested for the violence resulting from their belief, not for their accusations. The Malawian society, in general, isn’t overly concerned, perhaps because they are just afraid of being bewitched. However, when it comes to concern about this belief, it is mostly us humanists who are worried because we do not see much action from the authorities.

Jacobsen: When you see this happen, where someone with a particular disease, such as an elderly person suffering from a disease of the mind like dementia, is accused, are there particular ways in which these accusations are made? Is there a pattern, or do they just use a blanket phrase like “you’re a witch,” leading to the person becoming ostracized within the community?

Mkhutche: Of course, there is a certain social pattern. When there is a disease or a death resulting from a particular disease, an individual starts spreading that rumor within the family. From that rumor, it grows out to the rest of society. They target the elderly, people who cannot defend themselves. This is one of the major patterns that have been noted. The accusations mostly go to people who cannot defend or speak for themselves. They even call a witch doctor to confirm that the accused person is involved in witchcraft, which makes the entire society go against that person. While that person may not face violence, there is significant social exclusion. If there’s a funeral, they don’t want that person there. If there’s a wedding, they don’t want that person there. If that person is just going about their business, people are always talking against them. So there’s significant social exclusion. I handled a case involving an old man from the south of Malawi. He was accused of witchcraft, ran away from his village, and called me to say he had nowhere to live because his community no longer accepted him. I asked if he took the issue to the chief, but unfortunately, the chief also believed the community’s claim that the man practiced witchcraft.

Jacobsen: That’s the issue. Some of these people making these accusations, are they true believers in supernaturalism, or are they using this as a tool to damage someone’s reputation? Or is it both sometimes?

Mkhutche: It’s mostly both. I’ve never seen an issue where someone has just created that belief to deal with someone. They truly believe that there’s witchcraft and that person is a witch. So I can say maybe 99% of the time, it’s both. They believe it and then use that belief against the other person.

Jacobsen: And there will be financial consequences, social consequences, and mental health consequences to this. Obviously, that’s becoming more acknowledged around the world. What about the cases of individuals who are using this for political gain? Do prominent people feed into this belief structure to gain political cache or rile up the public? For instance, in North America, we see this with our evangelical and hardline Catholic communities. I listen to a lot of these preachers to know the language they use. They say things like LGBTQ is of the devil, the Democrats are demon-possessed, and other such examples. Similarly, I can see the same political cache within a religious community or in politics. Is that also a context you are dealing with?

Mkhutche: Yes, that always comes out. What politicians or public individuals do is, it’s not just them; it even starts from the villagers. Some people use the identity of witchcraft to gain social respect. When people say that person is into witchcraft, there is nothing you can do against them. So it’s like a social status, which also finds its way into politics. There was this political activist who said in a radio interview, “I can do whatever I want. If the government wants to fight me, they don’t know where I’m coming from. I have trees I can use against them.” Some years ago, a politician, a woman, said, “As you all know, a wizard may forgive, but a witch cannot forgive. So this is my case. I cannot forgive anyone who was fighting against me.” They use the witchcraft identity to raise their political or social status and be feared by others.

Jacobsen: Right, there’s a mixed context. Most people acknowledge Christian European colonialism, but there’s a mixed history of superstitions. In many African countries, the contingent facts of history are always there. So you had European Christian colonialism and their superstitions, Arab Muslim colonialism and their superstitions, even in Jinn or something like this, and pre-colonial superstitions as well. Generally, it doesn’t really matter the country; you get a lot of these different superstitions mixing together. How have they mixed in the Malawian case?

Mkhutche: Yes, in our case, the view on witchcraft comes from two different angles. There’s the traditional view and then the religious view of witchcraft. In most cases, these two are mixed together to form a single narrative. The traditional view is the examples I gave, where people believe in the ability to use trees or cartilages to affect certain things in their lives. The religious view is mostly that since the Bible says witchcraft exists, it must be true. Even if traditionally you don’t prove it, if it’s in the Bible, then it is there. Since most people here are Christians, their belief in witchcraft comes from these two angles. When it comes to religion, it also extends to issues of the LGBTI community. If you see a homosexual person, then he’s more than a witch, more than a wizard. All those things keep coming out. So it’s a mix of many views forming a single narrative.

Jacobsen: And some Ghanaian colleagues have noted that the strong, draconian strong anti-LGBT law is being put in place, or trying to be put in place rather, in Ghana. They get a lot of support and backing from a lot of Western Christians, particularly evangelicals as far as I’m told. Is this funding stream also causing impacts in Malawi?

Mkhutche: Yes, of course, what was happening in Ghana, people were following. There was a mild discussion of it on social media. However, it’s mostly a discussion that is done by urban people and within those urban people. It’s mostly those who are already guessing on a similar thing. There was, there is, a Dutch national who has sued the government over these draconian laws about LGBTIQ. So that issue is still in court. Three or four months ago, there was a court hearing about it. However, I feel it may be going in a different direction than what we have seen in Ghana. The judges looking at the case are always talking about human rights, which is not something we were hearing in Ghana. So I don’t know how it is going to end, but we have an ongoing case. Even though much of the general public completely says no to homosexual issues. I don’t know how it goes because we are dealing with what our laws are saying about human rights, and then we are also dealing with a society that is against what the laws are saying. So it’s an interesting thing that we are following to see at the end of it.

Jacobsen: Yes, and I’m seeing this battle pretty much everywhere, not just on LGBTI issues. It’s really about having these parochial religious ethics or other ethics that are very local for the most part. Yet they’re claiming some transcendent ethical status. For example, God is the source of the good, and he is a transcendent object of the good and the just. Therefore, we get our morals and what is good and just from that. It’s the combat between that illusion and what we call human rights, which are more fundamentally universal calls for ethics, ensuring everyone has equal status in terms of access to the basics of life and dignity. This is very common, and I haven’t really seen an exclusion to that case. It’s just different areas dealing with it more than others. So when it comes to educating the public or even just a community, what ways in education do not work, and what ways tend to work? Because it’s much harder to educate people into something than out of something.

Mkhutche: Yes, from our experience, what works is mostly media advocacy. If you go on the ground, you may be putting your life under threat because people resort to violence when it comes to handling certain social views. So it’s mostly media advocacy. There are also projects by some organizations we are connected with. They meet the LGBTI community underground or secretly. They understand their cases because one of the major challenges is access to health. Looking at our laws, there are certain cases where if you want to access health, you have to come with your wife, husband, or even boyfriend or girlfriend. So for the community, it’s difficult for them to have access to health in those cases. These are the approaches that work: media advocacy and meeting the community. Slowly, people are changing their attitudes. However, approaching politicians or MPs does not work because most MPs do not risk voting for such a thing and then losing votes. We are even struggling with the issue of the witchcraft law. They wanted to change it for the laws to recognize the existence of witchcraft. When you talk to the MPs, they clearly said that they are going to vote for the laws to change. So if we understand each other when it comes to witchcraft, I don’t think that for the homosexual issues they can act otherwise.

Jacobsen: So is the basic social principle underlying that, the idea that it’s easier to understand the existence of witches than of homosexuals?

Mkhutche: Yes. People can deal with the fact that witches exist. If you come out in public and say, “I’m a witch” or “I’m a wizard,” people will be with you. However, when you say, “I’m a homosexual,” then no, they will not be with you.

Jacobsen: Yes, that’s an issue. I grew up in Canada. It’s a small town, but it’s a really prominent evangelical community there. You don’t see it a lot because I didn’t go out too much, but you hear how people talk sometimes. You get this in the context, right? What do you think have been the areas of actual progress, either socially or politically, to combat witchcraft allegations, anti-humanist sentiment, or anti-LGBTQ issues?

Mkhutche: I will still go back to the media focus because that’s one of the major approaches that we use. It is safe, and you can reach out to thousands of people at once. From our experiences, when you do a media interview, of course, there will be negative points. However, from that interview, you do see some people that are interested because it’s a strange narrative to them. Some are excited to see what exactly you are saying. So media advocacy does help. Additionally, meeting with traditional leaders is crucial because they have a lot of social power, especially in the villages where most witchcraft cases occur. When there is an issue, we usually talk to the traditional leader to alert them and see how committed they are to dealing with the issue. At the same time, we also deal with the police, who are quick and effective. The moment you alert them that there’s an issue, they quickly act. So, the approach of using media, meeting with traditional leaders and the police, and informing them about the law helps. I’ve also moved around in secondary schools and universities, where we talk to students. They seem like casual talks, but what I’ve noted is that young people are most interested in the humanism message because they are simply growing up with a religious narrative. When you introduce humanism, they are always excited about it. These are the approaches that work. Recently, we managed to publish a book on issues of humanism in Malawi, and we are working on more topics about humanism. Most people, when they read the book, change their attitudes regarding religion and humanism. So, in a nutshell, these are some of the approaches that are working in our context.

Jacobsen: And social media and the internet in general have been huge drivers of non-theism, particularly among the ex-Muslim community globally. Some of the biggest platforms are founded by ex-Muslims rather than ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses or ex-Christians. How effective have online platforms been in regards to some of the activism, getting the word out, and so on?

Mkhutche: Yes, it has been so important. In my case, I can say I’m the most vocal humanist in Malawi. Most people are not willing to come out in public because they are afraid of certain consequences. However, when I’ve used social media to talk about humanism, I’ve received good reactions. Three or four years ago, there was always a negative reaction because people were not aware of my views. However, now, when something is posted about humanism, people are excited and trying to find out more. Some even contact me on WhatsApp to ask for books on humanism and atheism. These are people with a religious background but who are open to seeing something different. Because of that identity, the media has shifted how it analyzes these stories. When something happens, if they need our view or a religious view, they come to us. In the past, they would just ask pastors or Muslim sheikhs, but now they come to us for comments on witchcraft cases, for example. This shows that social media or digital media has helped to uplift the message of humanism. We are now in the process of developing a website to have all our content digitally available so that people looking for information on humanism in Malawi can find it. We have seen that with access to the internet, we are reaching many people over time.

Jacobsen: What support do you need? That’s always a good question to ask.

Mkhutche: When it comes to support, it’s mostly financial and about advocacy. That’s the major area: advocacy and also training. For advocacy, on our part, we go to the media, isolate specific cases of witchcraft, and then use those cases to teach the public about witchcraft and how we can relate to the belief or even how we can do away with that belief. When it comes to training, I would say most of the police need our training. I do not think they are well equipped to handle these issues. There are two cases I can talk about, or maybe one. One that happened in northern Malawi, where the police rushed to a scene to save an elderly couple that was accused of witchcraft. Then one of the police officers was beaten near Kiyuni. He was complaining, saying, “We have done this job, and then in the end, the government does nothing for us. The government doesn’t take us back to the community to train that community.” Because if you take that police officer back to that community and then he talks about the belief in witchcraft and all that, it can be impactful. However, we don’t have that government approach because they are not concerned. So if we can step in and do that approach, it can be effective. Another way is through the distribution of literature, like the book I was talking to you about. It was printed and then freely distributed. So the ideas are spread around the country. Of course, I do not expect that people are going to change because of that book today, but in two, three years, you do see people changing certain attitudes about humanism or witchcraft simply because they are reading something they initially didn’t have access to.

Jacobsen: Is the website up now?

Mkhutche: No, it will be up in the next 15 weeks.

Jacobsen: And what will the web address be?

Mkhutche: We agreed to say humanismmalawi.org.

Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Mkhutche: Thank you.

Jacobsen: Cool, man. Appreciate it. Thank you.

Mkhutche: Thank you.Jacobsen: Take care.

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