‘My wife was no witch’

‘My wife was no witch’

MAFETENG – The image of his wife lying in a pool of blood — her head hacked by an axe and neck stabbed multiple times — has haunted him daily for the past three weeks. Mphakhu Moleme watched helplessly as a gang of young men butchered his 82-year-old wife, a woman described by neighbours as a “sweet” and “jolly” person.

The killing of ’Mampati Moleme three weeks ago marks a surge in the killing of elderly women at the hands of marauding young men.
In this village nestled on a small hill, elderly women live in perpetual fear of their lives because they are suspected of practicing witchcraft, making them a target of so-called revenge killings.

“I know why they killed her and not me,” Moleme told thepost this week. “Young people think old women are witches,” he said. At least one elderly woman is killed each year on suspicion of witchcraft in this village, which has witnessed 10 such murders since 2007, according to the police.
’Mampati is the second woman to meet such a fate this year alone, said Ha-Raliemere area chief, Malefane Mabuse. In March, an elderly woman was gunned down at a homestead half a kilometre from the chief’s home.

Police say those arrested and charged for the murders often say they killed the women because they suspected them of being witches.
“Most people are misinformed about old women,” said Mafeteng District Police Commander, Senior Superintendent Moqhibi Likhama.
“Intense civic education is needed to sensitise people so that they stop accusing old women of witchcraft.  “Education is the only strongest weapon against this belief in witchcraft,” Likhama said.

Some of the accusations stemmed from young men who seek traditional healers’ help for their illegal mining activities, he said. “For instance, those that work in illegal mines go to a traditional healer when things aren’t working well for them and some of these healers tell them that they are being bewitched by a certain old woman in their village,” Likhama said. “This is when they take it upon themselves to kill,” he said.

Thato Nkone, a popular traditional healer who claims to cast out thokolosi and heal people of the effects of witchcraft, said “witchcraft is real but it is not a justification to killing people”. “I don’t support people who kill people because it is said they are witches. Rather if it is your (traditional) doctor who showed you the witch, you should ask that they protect you and strengthen you so that the witchcraft does not work on you,” he said.
“Anybody of any age can be a witch. It is surprising that in some places myths that witches are only old women continue,” said Nkone.
Lesotho’s laws are silent on the issue of witchcraft. Those who have accused others of practising witchcraft have instead been hauled to the courts to answer charges of defamation.

Belief in witchcraft remains quite strong among Basotho. Lipalesa Mathe, a sociologist from the National University of Lesotho (NUL), said it is hard to eradicate the belief in witchcraft because it is embedded in the culture and traditions of Basotho.  “To change the belief in witchcraft one will have to shake traditional and cultural pillars,” Mathe said. The beliefs have been passed on from one generation to the next one over centuries.

Mathe said civic education, public gatherings and fun walks will never change what people believed in.  “The belief can’t change unless individuals take it upon themselves to change,” she said. People do not understand that dementia exists because such behaviour has always been associated to witchcraft, Mathe said.  “It is therefore even harder to convince anyone that there is such an illness,” she said. “To eradicate the belief in witchcraft we will have to do away with witchdoctors because most of them make people believe there is witchcraft,” she said.

“For example, if someone wants to stop the belief that God exists you cannot do that with pastors because their duty is to convince people that there is God,” Mathe said. There have been various cases that have been taken to the courts of people killing their neighbours after accusing them of witchcraft.  Moleme recounts to thepost the horrific events of that day.

“It was around 11 o’clock at night when two men banged on our door with what I believe were an axe and a sharp object. I tried to prevent them from entering but they forced their way in. They hit me once on the forehead and I fell down,” he said, his voice trembling.
The attackers then axed his wife on the head and chest while stabbing her with a sharp object on the neck before fleeing. As the attack unfolded, part of the gang stood guard outside, Moleme said.

“I don’t know how many of them were outside. Everything happened so fast,” he said, adding he shouted for help in vain. Moleme said his wife was not a witch. Others described her as the perfect neighbour. “She was the sweetest elderly person to have ever lived in the village. She lived in peace with all people of the village,” said neighbour ’Mabokang Nakalebe.

“My son ate at her house together with her great-grandchildren and he never got ill. I don’t know why anyone would suspect that she was a witch. I don’t believe in witchcraft because I have never been bewitched or witnessed any witchcraft,” she said. Chief Mabuse said Ha-Raliemere is supposed to be a safe village. But with such bizarre killings, elderly women feel anything but safe. Volunteer village watchmen are hampered by lack of resources, said Mabuse.

“Tell me, who can fight a man holding a gun with a fighting stick? Their lives are in danger too. They don’t have guns nor do they have bullet proof clothing in case a criminal uses a gun,” he said, adding that he has asked for a police station closer to the village.  The nearest police station is in Mafeteng town roughly 15 km away. He says they have requested to have a police station closer to the village “because the safety of the village is compromised as of the nearest police station is in Mafeteng town”.

For now, he has pinned hopes on newly appointed Mafeteng District Police Commander, Senior Superintendent Moqhibi Likhama, whom he describes as “a man of his words.” “I believe he is going to address this issue seriously,” the chief says. But for 84-year-old Moleme, any solution now could be too late.

“He is heartbroken. His life has always revolved around his wife,” said Moleme’s 27-year-old granddaughter, Mamoliehi Loke.
“He skipped meals when his wife was not around. They went everywhere together. They did things together and I don’t remember anything that ever separated them,” she said.

Moleme’s trauma was evident when thepost visited his home. “This is the place you are looking for,” he said to thepost.
He cut a lone, dejected figure as he sat on the entrance of his one roomed mud house. He fought tears as he narrated how his life has become empty after losing his wife of 60 years.

As he began to speak, tears rolled down his cheeks. Sesotho custom does not allow a man to cry in public, especially in the presence of a woman. But he can’t help it, try as he may. The tears roll. “I wish they could have just killed both of us,” he said.

Rose Moremoholo

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