Kisii is infamous for witches, real or imagined. And none strike as much terror as those said to prowl graveyards in the dead of the night, and falling upon fresh graves to dig up decomposing corpses. They eat them, so goes the legend.
The very thought of a loved one’s body getting exhumed and eaten sends a cold shiver down the spine of many among the Abagusii. Thus, graves are dug to a depth of seven feet.
Family members and neighbors light up homes and keep vigil by the graveside for days after burial in most parts of Gusiiland, some going as far as fortifying the graves with a slab of concrete to keep off witches.
For additional ‘security,’ the bereaved engage healers and arm themselves with talismans during vigils, lest the Horror of Witches cast a spell that sends them into slumberland and steals the remains of their loved ones right under their noses.
But Kisii Catholic Diocese Priest Lawrence Nyaanga says nobody has ever come out openly to explain how the bodies are exhumed.“As a church, we don’t take such stories seriously; they are mere imaginations.
Those who have tried to open the graves on suspicion that their relatives have been exhumed have always found their bodies intact,” explains Nyaanga. But so entrenched is the belief, Nyaanga says, that some families burn the dead using acid before covering the graves.“I am against the use of acid to burn bodies unless the deceased clearly stated so in a will.
The dead should be respected,” he says. Not surprisingly, although the practice of sorcerers exhuming corpses among the Abagusii has been the talk for centuries, nobody seems to understand the phenomenon.
Pastor George Ondieki of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Nyamira Conference admits the presence of cannibals in Gusiiland, but links the exercise to witchcraft – a vice he describes as satanic.“Being a cannibal is one form of witchcraft and it is satanic.
It’s beyond doubt that witches are agents of Satan who use their satanic powers to cause problems among human beings,” he said. Sociologist Peter Morwabe who also ministers at the Gospel Embassy Chapel in Kisii town agrees, saying the practice of witchcraft in the Kisii community is an open secret.
“There are several occasions where a coffin has been found without a corpse. These are instances where paraphernalia associated with witchcraft at gravesites suggest the dead could have been exhumed,” he says, adding that stories of relatives complaining of the soil covering graves sinking a day or two after burial are common.
He however insists that there is a need for the claims of the dead being exhumed to be investigated. But despite what the men of the cloth say, the rank and file of common Wananchi speak of these sorcerers with a mixture of fear and dread, the reason being suspect of witchcraft in Kisii attracts certain death in a brutal manner: they are burned alive.
Belief has it that after identifying a grave, witches look for people to help them carry the caskets. They walk to a doorstep and call out a name and through the use of juju, command the occupants to wake up and sleep-walk with them to the graveyard, where they perform rituals to exhume bodies.
Once the corpse is out, the sleep-walking ‘helper’ “is compelled to carry it to the river where they wash it before moving it to a specified place for sharing.
If you’re lucky, the witches will let you go home. But you will remain dumb and unable to explain your ordeal to anyone,” a mzee from Nyamira who did not wish to be named explained to this writer.
Indeed, across Kisii and Nyamira, claims of people who mysteriously woke up having lost their ability to speak abound. Michael Kimaiga, a Kisii elder, told reporters of a local daily that the coffins are put into good use.
They are used to ripen matoke (bananas) and “I bet you’ve seen the ‘fat’ and yellow bananas along the streets of Kisii or elsewhere. Those are the ones!” said Kimaiga.
But there are those who argue cases, where bodies are exhumed, have nothing to do with witches but thieves seeking expensive coffins. Innocent Ombui from Marani says they buried a relative in late 2015 but were perplexed when the grave caved in rather fast.
“The body was flown from the USA and we highly suspect that those who exhumed the body were after the expensive coffin. We can’t tell how they managed to get the body out and later dispose of it. It is a mystery that left our family broken because we began to suspect even close family members,” says Ombui.
A few years, residents of Kisii Town’s Nyanchwa estate found a man’s severed head and hand dumped by the roadside. The body parts were covered with a black polythene sheet in a new green bucket.
The head had stitches on its forehead. Police suspect that the body had been exhumed. Stella Mokua’s father was buried in February 2014 and together with her other siblings, they left home for work and returned after a few months to find the grave had caved in almost three feet.
“Through stories of witches exhuming graves abound, we decided to use more soil and covered the grave because we didn’t want to torture ourselves imagining that our father had been exhumed,” she says And in 2016, comedian Sergeant Nyakundi (Samuel Nyakundi) revealed in a Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) documentary project that his mother was burnt to ashes when the community claimed she was a witch, an allegation he dismissed as cruel and false.
“My mother was not a witch because we are a family of nine. And there’s no way all of us could have failed to notice something strange about her. It was a traumatizing experience.
”James Nyaisu, a resident of Bonchari constituency argues that such stories paint a negative picture of the community.“We should focus on matters development and not on primitive issues that seek to derail our societal bond,” he advises.