While a community grieved the HIV-related deaths across a generation, many elderly people were accused of being witches who had brought on the curse of HIV. Enifa was one of them, rejected by her own family, until a Bible Society project and the Parable of the Good Samaritan changed perceptions – and Enifa’s life.
69-year-old Enifa Ngulama has sold some honey. She runs to the back of her mud-brick house in the village of Kasarika in southern Malawi to get a jar for a passerby.
A neighbour sits on Enifa’s porch and laughs at the elderly lady breaking into trot. They share a joke. The sale is made. And the two old women sit down for a chat.
But it wasn’t always like this. Until recently, Kasarika had one of the highest rates of HIV in the country, more than double the national average of 12%. Some one in four people were HIV+ in Kasarika. But the majority didn’t know their status, so the real figure was undoubtedly much higher.
Every day the local vicar held at least four funerals, sometimes more. The village was dying on its feet. And with no understanding of how the virus was transmitted, the villagers looked for someone to blame. And they blamed the elderly, including Enifa.
The community – like so many others across Malawi – believed that Aids deaths were caused by a curse from God. That curse was cast by witches. And a witch was anyone who lived to be ‘very, very old’ or in local parlance, over 60.
Malawi has a shocking life expectancy of just 48.3 years, making it the 180th worst place to live if you hope to have anything approaching an old age. There are only 14 countries with worse life expectancy and they include Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Somalia.
So, the idea went, if you’re not dead, you’re a witch and you’re the cause of the village’s Aids-related deaths.
“Instead of rejoicing that God had kept us this far, when people died, other people pointed their fingers and me and said I was bewitching them,” says Enifa. “It went on for years.”
“In the end the whole village was accusing me. They used to say, ‘You are a witch. You are killing people.’ It was very painful. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Betrayed by family
Worse was to come when Enifa’s own family turned on her. They ransacked her house shouting, “Why aren’t you dead yet? We want you to die.”
“If your own children and grandchildren rise against you, what will happen to everyone else?” she says. The answer was that they joined in. Enifa was repeatedly attacked and on one occasion a lynch mob carrying sticks set on her to beat her to death. But she was rescued.
81-year-old Billy Thomas and his 73-year-old wife Ulalia know what this feels like. The three of them were among more than 40 elderly people in the village long held to be witches.
When one of Billy’s grandchildren died of Aids, his family froze him out accusing him and Ulalia of causing the death by placing a curse on the child.
“It was a double calamity,” he says. “We were grieving for our grandchild at the same time and grieving at the rejection. It was very painful.”
“When someone accuses you of something that you haven’t done, it is very degrading,” he adds.
“It was like being in prison. We stayed indoors as we were too afraid to go out.”
As the couple are, like all the village, self-sustaining farmers, this meant that they were slowly starving to death. But they say that worse than the hunger was the ‘psychological attack’. No-one spoke to them at all for three years.
Time for change
Two-thirds of people living with HIV are in Africa. The effect on those of working age, leaving orphans to be brought up by their grandparents, is well-known.
One woman decided that this had to change. Hilda Ntiya ,46, had attended an Aids-awareness training called the Good Samaritan programme that is run by the Bible Society of Malawi. She returned to Kasarika fired up to help her neighbours like Enifa, Billy and Ulalia.
“I couldn’t keep quiet,” she says. “Without this training the village would have been wiped out.”
“People thought that they were bewitching each other. When they saw someone who was sick, they believed that it was from witchcraft.”
“The prevalence rate was going up and up. People accused of being witches were beaten. It was a bad place to live. But not now. Now people understand that it isn’t the case that people are witches. HIV is an illness. People know that now.”
The Good Samaritan
What’s made the difference has been a church-based scheme run by Bible Society. It uses the story of the Good Samaritan as its foundation, teaching compassion for the suffering.
It explains what HIV is, how it is transmitted and encourages sexual gratification within marriage as a means of faithfulness, a reduction in the number of sexual partners, the use of condoms and the importance of getting tested. Over 365,000 people have heard this message over the last three years.
Hilda was one of them. As a consequence, two years ago, she set up a one-room orphanage-cum-community centre in Kasarika, despite living on the poverty line herself.
Every day she feeds 45 elderly people who were accused of witchcraft including Billy, Ulalia and Enifa. It gets them out. And they are reintegrated into the village.
All three are now back on good terms with their former accusers and their families. The prevalence rate in the village has also dropped, to 15%.
“Now people are beginning to believe that deaths are not because of bewitching,” says Enifa. “It’s from HIV sickness.”
“Things have started to change. In some cases people came to apologise to me. They said, ‘We’re very sorry. We know that you have nothing to do with the deaths that have happened.'”