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Branded witches and cursed by spirits, Kenyan widows ousted from land

23 June 2016, 19:02

Nairobi (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Juma Kalume Musunye's six grandchildren beat her until she fell to the ground crying, and then doused her in petrol, claiming she had used witchcraft to paralyse their mother's hands.

"They wanted to kill me," said the 65-year-old widow who lives on Kenya's coast, where the Mijikenda people traditionally blame witches for illness and misfortune.

"My son told them I had bewitched his wife."

Hearing her screams, Musunye's neighbours rushed out and rescued her.

"I am really bitter," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of International Widows' Day on Thursday.

"I am old, my health is not good and my children do not care about me."

Musunye was speaking by phone from Kaya Godoma, a centre set up in 2008 to care for elderly people ousted by their relatives.

Millions of widows across Africa are left destitute after being evicted from their homes and are too poor or uneducated to seek legal redress, campaigners say.  

Musunye is one of 19 elderly people branded as witches who have found refuge at Kaya Godoma, some 30 km (20 miles) inland from the popular tourist town of Kilifi, with its palm-fringed sandy beaches.

Her seven sons and their families continue to live on her late husband's land, which she described as "very big".

Killings of elderly people for witchcraft in Kilifi County are on the rise, according to local media, with 104 such murders reported to the police in 2014.


Under the guise of culture, widows are often mistreated by relatives who want their property, experts say. Hunger for land is growing in Kenya, a country whose 45 million strong population is predicted to double by 2045.

"You will see people making up stories that someone is a witch," said Josephine Mongare, chairwoman of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA).

"They will go out there and do mob justice on her ... because her right to that property extinguishes upon her death."

Traditionally, women in Kenya could not own land, which was passed down from father to son, leaving widows without a male heir vulnerable to eviction.

"If you don't have a boy child, you haven't given birth," Mongare said. "You'll find relatives now coalescing around the property and wanting to get rid of you."

One percent of land in Kenya belongs to women, with five percent jointly owned by spouses, 2006 government data shows.

Most of the 300,000 court cases FIDA has pursued since 1985 on behalf of poor women involve land and property rights.

Kenya's 1981 Succession Act grants widows the right to live on their late husbands' property until they die, provided they don't remarry, after which it passes on to their children.

This right is often violated, driving poor widows into the slums where they struggle to feed and educate their children, further entrenching poverty.

Some widows' children even end up selling sex on the street, said Margaret Gero, a member of the Luo community who runs a widow support group in Kajimbo, some 30 km from Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

While Kenya's progressive 2010 constitution recognises that men and women have equal rights to own property, parliament has not enacted laws to spell out how these rights can be realised.

Courts continue to recognise customary laws as long as they are not "inconsistent" with the constitution - an ambiguity which often leads to contradictory rulings.


Another traditional belief that has fuelled the abuse of widows is the Luo custom of widow cleansing, where a widow is forced to have sex with one of her late husband's brothers as a purification ritual, before being inherited as his wife.

"The Luo community believe that when the woman is not (cleansed and) inherited, the spirits of the dead might come back and haunt the community," said Gero, a 48-year-old retired health worker who campaigns against the practice.

Wife inheritance was designed to ensure that the wife - and her late husband's land - remained in the family.

But it has fuelled the spread of HIV in the Luo-dominated counties on the shores of Lake Victoria, which have Kenya's highest HIV prevalence rates, up to four times the national average of six percent, government data shows.

Gero blames the practice for her own family's misfortunes. She set up the widows' group to help others avoid the same fate.

When her polygamous father died in 1997, leaving behind five daughters, his wife was inherited and contracted HIV.

Gero's uncles destroyed their home, pushing her youngest sister, Rose, to run away and get married at the age of 15.

She and her child are also HIV positive. 

Several members of Gero's widows' group have chased away men who were trying to inherit them and their land.

"I am homeless, but I don't want their children to be homeless," she said.

"They have the right to live in the modern world."

- Reuters


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