My first memory of her dates back to when I was ten or eleven years old. We had travelled to my home village in Thoza of Embangweni, somewhere in the south eastern end of Mzimba district which shares a boarder with Zambia. We arrived at around 2 pm. As a kid, the first thing I would do when I arrived at the village was to jump out of the car and run off to the cattle kraal. On this day the kraal was empty because all the cattle had gone to graze. So too had the goats. There was one option remaining to feed my nostalgia and love for livestock; the pigs! So, I rushed to the pigsty.
I was busy playing with pigs when she appeared from behind me. “Ah ah Kulani! Mwanawa Tanangachi. Mwanimanyaine?” Ah ah! Kulani. Tanangachi’s son. Do you recognize me? I found it strange how people in my village still called my mother by her first name despite the cultural show of respect that translated to calling elders even amongst themselves either by their maiden or marital names.
I stared at her with that childish innocence, smiling with my hand clutching a wood committed to the pig house and then shook my head. I had not recognized her.
“Oh! You were still a baby when I last saw you. You have grown up, eh?” she replied with her beautiful smile.
“Who are you then?” I asked.
“I’m your grandmother from Zambia. Ring a bell?”
“I am the sister to your grandfather. You know our family is from Zambia, right?”
I remembered the tale; I had heard it numerous times. My grandfather, the father to my mother was originally from Zambia. He had come to settle in Malawi owing to an invitation from his uncle who had been childless. This woman, usually also addressed by her first name, Nyifwayawo, was my grandfather’s last-born sister who lived in Zambia. She occasionally came to Thoza to visit because it was only a one-day bicycle ride.
So, after a long thought, I said, “I think, I do!” And I made to run off but she said, “Here, take some groundnuts.” I grabbed the groundnuts and took off to greet my grandmother, my mother’s mother.
She hugged me and touched my cheeks impishly as if to pinch them. She said, “You have grown up my husband.”
“I’m not your husband,” I replied full of shyness. But she laughed and said, “You cannot say no to me today. Where did you get the groundnuts?”
“Grandmother from Zambia gave them to me.”
“You mean Nyifwayawo?”
“Ye…” She slapped my hand and all the groundnuts fell to the ground. I was perplexed by her attitude but I had not seen anything yet.
“Nyifwayawo! Nyifwayawo! What wrong have I done to you? You want to kill my grandson?” She yelled out loud and cried, causing panic and a miniature pandemonium. I was so shocked that I felt I was going to really die. Nyifwayawo came running and stood in front of us speechless.
“Witch! He is just a boy!” My grandmother cried. Then she bent and holding me from behind, she inserted her finger in my throat. I threw up. Immediately afterwards, she rushed into the house and came back with a clay pot which contained some herbs dipped in water. She poured the contents into a cup and forced them down my throat. Afterwards, she said, “A Chiuta, fwitiiyiyitondeke mu dzinalinu!” God, may this witch fail in your name!
That was the day I learnt Nyifwayawo was a witch and we had to avoid her. I felt sorry for her that day. There were tears in her eyes but she did not say a word. She just left to sit somewhere alone.
Over the years my grandmother told me several stories about her. Stories that made me dislike Nyifwayawo and actually believe that she was a witch. One day, I heard her talk to my mother about how she almost killed my cousin.
“We were awakened by a thumping sound on the roof. I heard the kids cry. It was around 2 in the morning. It was then that I realised that someone had been trying to strangle my neck. She looked like a woman and on memory, I realised it was Nyifwayawo,” she said.
“Eh! You don’t say? So, what did you do?” my mum asked in incredulity, the way women do when they are gossiping and want to hear more.
“What else could I have done, Shlezi’s mum? I just rushed to check on my grandkids and Nyifwayawo pretended to be asleep. That woman is vile with witchcraft, “my grandmother continued, referring to my mum as the mother of my sister, Shlezipe.
That was a while ago. Years passed before I heard anything about her. As I grew up, I concluded she was a victim of a culture that worshipped witchcraft unknowingly and preyed on old women. This thought I had arrived at did not go down well with my mother and grandmother who believed they had compelling evidence that Nyifwayawo was a witch.
A few months ago, she came to visit Thoza after a daylong bicycle trip, cycled by one of my uncle’s from Zambia. It was then that my mother phoned me. She told me Nyifwayawo’s story. She seemed to relish telling me because she had a point to prove to me; that I was wrong, that witchcraft existed.
The truth is my whole family believes in witchcraft. My mother strongly believes in it that she has been to several witchdoctors. On the contrary, I do not, not believe in its existence; I just refused to believe that Nyifwayawo was a witch. In my mind, she was an unmarried old woman without kids. That fact made her vulnerable. Her vulnerability made her a subject of accusations and mockery. My mum never liked how I defended her. So, this day, she had a point to really prove over the phone.
“Kulani,” she started with my name.
“Have you heard what happened to your grandmother from Zambia?”
“Nyifwayawo?” I asked not really because I wanted her to say yes. It was a rhetorical question. I just wanted her to have the energy to tell the story.
A baby died in Nyifwayawo’s village in Zambia. The baby had been sick for a day. It had fever and cried all night long before being found dead in the morning. During the day, Nyifwayawo had carried the baby to the borehole to fetch water. According to the mother, she started to notice changes in her baby upon returning from the borehole.
On the morning of the baby’s death, the elders called Nyifwayawo to a meeting to answer charges of killing by witchcraft. Nyifwayawo denied and tried to plead with them for her innocence. She told them that when she went to the river, she took the baby only because the mother had asked her to and that she went with other women who would indeed verify that she did not do anything with the baby. The women were called to the meeting. While, they acknowledged going to the borehole with her, they denied noticing what she may or may not have done with the baby.
One woman said, “You know how clever Nyifwayawo is. She would have done something while we were not watching. Plus, the child cried a lot on the way back.”
That testimonial sealed Nyifwayawo’s fate. The leaders unanimously agreed that Nyifwayawo was the culprit. That night, someone, her niece, tipped her that the village had planned mob justice. She decided to flee. As soon as she had left, she heard a big commotion and saw a big fire. It was her house. The people chanted, “She must die today! That witch! She must die today!”
They looked for her all night, dancing and hurling all sorts of insults at her name. Meanwhile, she was in a bush next to the village, shivering as she braved the cold. She stayed in the bush for days and would sneak back into the house of her niece at night and leave early in the morning. After a week, she decided to walk to Thoza. The old woman walked for days, begging for places to sleep, sometimes sleeping outside till she arrived in Thoza. When she arrived, she had lost weight and looked like a ghost.
My mum finished with, “So you think all these people are wrong to think she is a witch? And you are the right one?”
“If someone accused you of witchcraft, what would you say?” I asked her.
“Why would they? Am I one?” She said, starting to get angry and I could sense it in her voice. The line was cut. She had run out of airtime before I could reply. So, I phoned her back.
“Hello mum. So, as I was saying…you are not a witch but how would you prove you were not one?”
“Kulani, I’m your mother, don’t ask me silly questions. Why do I have to prove what I’m not? Stay with your disbelief. bye.” With those words she cut the line.
A few weeks ago, I travelled home to Thoza to attend my grandfather’s funeral. He died after being ill for several months. He was 87 years old when he died. It was while I was in the village that I learnt another story.
Nyifwayawo’s arrival was met with chaos. My grandmother having heard her story already over the phone from Zambia and that she had gone missing, treated her arrival with acrimony. Everyone in the village disliked her and they did not even talk to her like a human being. She slept in the corridor and was not allowed to talk to or touch kids. During the day, she had to stay at the kraal and someone would take her food there.
She had one source of hope, her brother, my grandfather. My grandfather loved his sister regardless of what everyone thought of her. It was the two of them remaining from all of their father’s children. My great grandfather had five children and the other three had died.
When Nyifwayawo arrived in Thoza, my grandfather was ill and at the hospital in the city of Mzuzu. He returned a month later to find her sister being tortured and subjected to abuse. It is said, my grandfather was so mad that he yelled at my grandmother and everyone. He vacated his room and gave it to her. He began sleeping in the corridor and said he was not going to move to his bedroom till my grandmother agreed to treat Nyifwayawo with dignity. Of course, my grandmother refused. In her mind, a witch deserved no remorse. She often said to me, you can forgive them, but make sure they know you haven’t forgotten. These witches, eh, they are dangerous, son.
My grandfather fell ill again. This time he was taken to Kamuzu central hospital in Lilongwe, hundreds of kilometres away from Thoza. He went back to Thoza a few weeks ago a corpse. I was there at the graveyard, when Nyifwayawo cried and kept saying, “Mwanawakwithu. Wanizikizgengeinesono. Nikhalengenanjanikwali”. Oh my brother. They will chase me. I do not know who I will live with.
Everyone else who was crying had someone comforting her except Nyifwayawo. Who was going to comfort a witch? As she walked to lay her wreath, she fell on the grave and wept. I stood up and walked to her. You should have seen the look people gave me. I placed my arm around her and said, “I understand why you must cry, granny. But sober up, life will provide.”
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