All Ponda Changa wanted was to enjoy his retirement in peace.
After a lifetime of work, he had built a modest four-bedroom home, complete with solar power and a television set, in his native Kibaoni village in Kenya's Kilifi District. With an income derived from a herd of cattle and a grove of coconut trees on six acres of land, Mzee Changa had few worries in his life.
Until one of his sons accused him of witchcraft.
Now in a refuge in Ganze District farfrom his village, Changa states that "My son has attempted to kill me several times. He once beat me seriously outside a chief’s office in Takaungu on claims that I bewitched his sister. I decided to flee to save my life". He also states that his son has used to witchcraft accusation as an excuse to seize his property which he plans to sell. His son has also seized his National Identity Card and his life savings of 50,000 Kenyan shillings (about US $600). Although he reported the threats to the local police, they have been of little assistance and he claims that the officers demanded bribes which he did not have.
The accusations directed against Ponda Changa is just the latest of a series of incidents in which elderly Kenyans in Kilifi District have been targeted. Due to widespread local beliefs that people with grey hair and red eyes were witches or wizards, many old people have faced death threats and forced to leave their homes. Given that the witchcraft accusation provides younger relatives with an excuse to seize property that they might otherwise not inherit until after the owners death, the obvious financial incentive has fueled the attacks.
In some cases, more than threats can occur. Youth attackers have reportedly killed accused witches and leaving the bodies hanged under trees to make the deaths appear to be suicides. Others have been forced to drink poisonous substances with the attackers only leaving their homes after the accused witches were dead. Although human rights groups in Kenya have demanded government intervention to protect accused witches, investigation of suspected deaths has been slow since the killings are often carefully planned by close family members to ensure inheritance.
To protect accused witches such as Ponda Changa, a refugee centre has been established in Ganze District by the Ganze District Cultural Association. Originally intended for cultural preservation, the centre has become a rallying p0int for many elders fighting against accusations of witchcraft. Using traditional rituals to refute the witchcraft charges, the centre also recruited youths to carry out civic education to combat many of the local beliefs about red eyes and grey hair that have been used to justify the attacks. Despite the centre's education campaign, Coast Provincial Commissioner Ernest Munyi has expressed concern over the rising incidence of killings following claims of practicing witchcraft. He blames the violence on high levels of illiteracy among Kilifi villagers as well as the economic climate which provides witch accusers with a profit motive.
While district authorities have taken a closer look at suspicious deaths, the climate of fear in Kilifi District has made many elders afraid of returning to their homes.