top of page

Witchcraft or Madness?

Chilling rituals of Kenyan coastal tribes.

The accounts in this article are anecdotal. At times, they might make you feel uncomfortable.


In my early thirties, I signed up for a long-term assignment in Kenya. I was placed in Mtwapa, a small village north of Mombasa. The project was funded by the European Commission. I was tasked with the development of microfinance products in conjunction with Sidian Bank (formerly known as K-Rep Bank) and five local development agencies that were distributed throughout the country.

In order to judge the viability of the microfinance products, I had to conduct needs assessments. This often involved venturing deep into inland areas to meet with different tribal factions. Sometimes, I would travel in a pickup truck with a Kenyan man standing in the truck bed, toting a rifle to ward off elephants and other wild animals. At other times, I had to use a dirt bike to reach the villages where the beneficiaries of the projects, mainly women’s groups, lived.

I was always accompanied by a field officer who served as a translator. These field officers weren’t merely translators of the Bantu languages spoken by the tribes; they also had to interpret the tribe’s cultural customs and beliefs for me. This was important as I needed to establish a shared perspective that would guide me in the design of the microfinance products.

Mentalizing about people from cultures so different from my own always demands significant effort. In Africa, I often felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, following red soil paths instead of a yellow brick road.

On one of my field trips, I learned about a chilling ritual practiced by a local cult group.

The field officer and I arrived at a village where we were to meet with about forty women who had been selected to join our microfinance pilot group. Typically, we would arrive on time, and then have to wait a couple of hours, until the whole group was assembled.

Some women had to travel on foot for hours if they didn’t have the means to pay for a boda boda (a bicycle taxi) or a piki piki (a motorcycle taxi), so it was normal to wait a long time for everybody to arrive. We would sit underneath the shady canopy of a native tree and read a book or share stories about our experiences in Kenya.

This day took a very different turn. We waited for more than three hours, and still only a handful of women had shown up. My colleague decided to find the chief of the village to ask what was going on. When she came back, she related some disturbing news:

“The people we are waiting for are not coming to our meeting. They had to attend a funeral for two young brothers who died when their motorcycle collided with a car on the coastal road between the villages of Malindi and Kilifi,” she said. “This funeral was a significant event due to the circumstances of the boys’ deaths. Tribal members believe it was the curse of the Chonyi cult.”

I had never heard of this cult before, and I asked my colleague to explain what this curse was all about.

“Chonyi is a small tribe of the Mijikenda who reside on the coast of Kenya,” she explained. “This tribe is plagued by a cult led by witches and sorcerers that live among the Chonyi tribe members. Tonight, after the funeral concludes, the graves of these boys will be guarded. Tribal members will protect the remains of the boys from the members of the Chonyi cult. Failure to do so results in the cult members exhuming the bodies and using their flesh to cook a meal. They then invite non-cult members to their homes for dinner.”

Oh my god!” I reacted with terror. “Are these people aware that they are eating their own?

She continued, “Since nobody knows who belongs to the cult, you never know whether you are being invited by a cult member. If you are, you will unwittingly consume the flesh of a member of your tribe. After dinner, the cult member reveals this terrible truth, presenting you with a choice between two options: joining the cult, or selecting one or more of your family members to sacrifice for their ritual.”

This is why the brothers died?” I inquired.

She responded,“In the case of the deceased brothers, it was their father who unknowingly consumed human flesh, thinking he was invited by a friendly neighbor. You can guess which option he chose…”

After hearing this account, I began conducting more research on the prevalence of witchcraft and sorcery in the tribes I was visiting. 

One day, another field officer accompanied me to visit a tribe with which we were struggling to initiate a project. This colleague explained a ritual that helped me understand the tribe’s perspective in relation to our efforts to improve their lives. As we walked through the coastal forest along paths of red soil, we came across some dark grey rocks arranged in a manner resembling a table. Curious, I asked my colleague about the purpose of the table.

He explained, ”Someone once told me that tribes in this area use this rock for sacrificing tribal members to the gods, especially during times of drought when there is a desperate need for rain. Each family takes turns selecting a family member to be sacrificed. To appease the gods, they must select the best person from their family. You can imagine that in these tribes, it is not wise to strive to be the best person.”

Through this perspective, I understood the half-hearted attempts of the tribal members to kickstart the project. Though eager, they failed to show any significant progress. It dawned on me how challenging it was going to be to encourage tribes with such beliefs to embrace our microfinance products and help tribal families establish income-generating activities to support their livelihood.

These stories of witchcraft and sacrifices left me slightly apprehensive, fearing that I might encounter people who would view me — a white outsider — as a witch. But as it turned out I had no cause for concern.

I recall a brief conversation with one of my colleagues who had missed a meeting the day before. When I inquired about the reason for his absence, he proudly and excitedly informed me that they had discovered a witch in their village and had “taken action.” When I asked what he meant by “taken action,” he explained, not without a glimmer of pride, that they had chased the witch down, placed a tire around her body, and set it ablaze, ensuring she was no longer a threat to the village. Aghast, I asked him if I should be concerned about such occurrences during my field research. He burst into laughter and tried to reassure me, saying,

“No, we Kenyans know that you mzungus* don’t believe in things like witchcraft.”

His response provided me with little comfort.

*Mzungu is a Bantu word, meaning “aimless wanderer,” used to refer to a person of foreign descent, white people in particular.


I “borrowed” the title of this article (Witchcraft or Madness) from a research paper about mental health in relation to the witchcraft delusion. (1) Standing out physically, behaviorally, or mentally in Africa can make you vulnerable to being accused of witchcraft or bad juju (bad luck or negative energy). For instance, African people with albinism have been persecuted and ostracized, or even killed, by tribes for being presumed of as bearers of bad luck.

Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are invariably perceived of as being caused by witchcraft. Accordingly, creating mental health awareness has been an urgent priority for development workers in Africa.

Across Africa, beliefs in supernatural causes of mental illnesses are widely held. Traditional beliefs in supernatural causes and remedies of mental illnesses influence people’s knowledge and attitudes. Many traditional belief systems in Africa attribute mental health problems to the influence of ancestors or bewitchment, and traditional healers are therefore viewed as the experts in these matters. (2)

The “witchcraft delusion” is very difficult to debunk with African tribe members, as it creates strong feelings of fear and apprehension. These kinds of delusions often become self-fulfilling prophecies because fear draws attention to real or imagined misfortune, which in turn, becomes associated with something in the environment that is conspicuous to the senses.


A few final words. I hope that this article has not created a negative impression of Africa or its diverse cultural landscape. I have travelled to quite a few African countries, and I have always had a great experience full of pleasant surprises. My two-and-a-half-year stay in Kenya was one of the happiest times in my life. There isn’t a place in the world that I have ever felt as homesick for as Kenya. Kenyans are amazing people, and they changed my “Africa delusions” into a true understanding of how things work in their reality. I can’t thank them enough for the wisdom, hospitality and great sense of humor that they shared with me.





bottom of page