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Under the cover of Covid-19, ‘witch hunters’ wreak havoc in Binga

By Nokuthaba Dlamini

A group of self-styled ‘witch hunters’ are extorting livestock, cash and other property from Binga villagers, taking advantage of Covid-19 restrictions that have reduced police visibility to enrich themselves.

The self-styled prophets, known as tsikamutandas in other parts of the country and Gwanzas by the Binga folk, target villagers and persuade them that they are in need of spiritual cleansing while insisting on payment for their work.

Some unfortunate villagers are in the process singled out as witches or wizards, who are then dragged to cleansing services that are often held in violation of Covid-19 lockdown regulation that restrict gatherings to less than 50 people.

The victims are forced to part with livestock or cash to pay the self-styled prophets that come from the neighbouring Gokwe district.

A month long investigation by CITE revealed that villagers in various parts of the remote district have fallen victim  to the tsikamutandas, who first gather information about families before accusing their targets of practising  witchcraft and possessing goblins.

In some cases, the witch hunts have left victims nursing serious injuries as the tsikamutandas allegedly use brute force as part of their rituals.

Scores of villagers are said to be nursing injuries in their homes and are afraid to seek treatment. 

The activities of the self-styled prophets have also left families torn apart as they also allegedly use their loot to lure young girls to elope with them as they move from village to village.

One of the victims Sibonile Mwale, whose life has been turned upside down by the tsikamutandas, told a harrowing tale of how she lost her young daughter to the predators. 

Mwale (41) said the tsikamutandas took away her teenage daughter after they manipulated her through their false prophecies.

 “They told me that I bewitched my daughter and they made her to revolt against me,” she said shedding tears. “They went with her and she is now married to one of them.”

Mwale was barred from the so-called cleansing ceremony and that was the last time she saw her daughter.

“She believed them and she cut ties with me,” she added. “It is very painful and most of the villagers have been left divided, poorer and humiliated.”

Seventy three year-old Thalitha Siatimbula did not only lose three of her five goats to the tsikamutandas, but she is no longer on talking terms with her son after they claimed she possessed goblins that made it impossible for him to secure a job.

Siatimbula is also nursing wounds on her back and neck after she was cut with a razor blade during the cleansing ceremony.

“I was undressed in front of the whole village and they cut me with a razor blade on my back and neck,” she said.  “They accused me of bewitching my son, his wife and my grandchildren.”

Siatimbula said she tried to contest the claims that she possessed goblins that were allegedly tormenting her family to no avail.

Eventually the self-styled prophets got away with her three goats and left her family badly divided.  

Her son has completely cut all lines of communication and she fears she would die without their relationship being restored.

Chief Sinansengwe, whose area has borne the brunt of the illegal activities by the self-styled prophets, said the problems go far back as last year.

The traditional leader said they now felt powerless as the tsikamutandas never seek authority to conduct their activities while others are invited by villagers themselves.

“It’s been the trend since last year that villagers call these prophets they call Gwanzas to settle disputes in cases of sudden deaths or when they have relatives suffering from unusual  illnesses,” Chief Sinansengwe said.

“Their activities have left the villagers poorer, humiliated and holding grudges against each other.

“They have taken away many cattle and goats and when they do that, they don’t clear the livestock with us or the police as per the law.”

Lameck Mudenda, a village head from Sikabinga, said his subjects recently lost 17 herd of cattle and over 50 goats after the tsikamutandas descended on the area.

Mudenda said before they carry out cleansing ceremonies the tsikamutandas demand a cow, which they pick themselves.

The poor villagers easily give in into their demands after being threatened with death, he said.

“This started last year and they have looted 17 cows and over 50 goats.” Mudenda told CITE.

“They take any valuable property from those they accuse of dabbling in witchcraft and we wonder how they move the livestock to Gokwe without police clearance.”

Elmon Mudenda, the councillor for the area, said villagers were being exposed to health risks as razor blades used to cut victims during cleansing ceremonies were not sterilised.

Elmon said they also feared being exposed to the novel coronavirus because cleansing ceremonies were attended by large numbers of people, who do not practice social distancing.

“I am reliably informed that they are currently camping at some village called Mbulule,” he said.  

“ Chief Siabuwa has also been complaining about their manipulation, and what is even more worrying is that the razor blades they use are shared and they can go for several days without disinfecting them.

“We are also in the middle of a pandemic and these people don’t follow the World Health Organisation guidelines on the prevention of coronavirus infections.”

Mudenda claimed that the raided livestock is often driven by foot from Binga to Gokwe in the middle of the night. 

Binga has few health facilities and the village head fears a Covid-19 outbreak would spell disaster in the village as people will not get treatment if they fell sick.

Matabeleland North police spokesperson Assistant Chief Inspector Siphiwe Makonese said police were not aware of the activities of the tsikamutandas.

Makonese said police patrols were limited due to pressure caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 that began in March.

 “We hardly conduct rural patrols,” she said. “So we won’t be aware of such practices unless someone files a report.

 “Those activities are wrong as they violate people’s rights and dignity.

“Action has to be taken because it also involves theft.

“We are in the middle of the fight against Covid-19 and some people have chosen to ignore the rules and regulations to control the pandemic.”

Makonese urged chiefs, village heads and affected villagers to report any criminal activities happening in their areas. 

She said victims should also report their cases if they believe police officers were involved in the clearance of livestock extorted from them by the tsikamutandas.

Kenneth Mtata, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches   secretary-general, said the activities of the self-styled prophets left villagers poorer and must be stopped.

“This must be condemned not only because it exploits the poor people through intimidation, but also that it exposes many people to the spread of Covid-19,” Mtata said.

The problem of the evil spirit exorcists is perennial in Zimbabwe especially in remote and poor districts.

There have been calls for the government to ban the activities of the tsikamutandas as they pit communities against each other.

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