Late in 2010 ASH members visited prisons in Malawi to ascertain the status of the 'witches' with a view to presenting a full list for consideration by the President for release at Christmas time. It has been the custom, at Christmas time for all Presidents of Malawi to release prisoners on the recommendations of the Commissioner of Prisons. Ash's sensitisation of senior justice officials as well as the prison authorities was intended to ensure that all so-called witches would be on that list.
Blantyre-based Harold Williams visited the prison at Chichiri, Blantyre, he found that one old man had been sent to hospital as chronically ill. He explains:
When I arrived at the hospital I found this little old man, Lefikesi Tadzerankhani, aged almost 80, in his prison 'whites', in one of the main wards at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. He had been staying there without a prison guard. I learnt from the medical staff that he had a chronic heart problem. He was quite bright and was reported by the nursing staff as being very popular with his fellow patients being quite a comic. He comes from a remote rural area on Malawi's southern border with Mozambique. He and his brother and brother's wife had all been convicted and imprisoned in Chikwawa some 80 km from Blantyre. Because of ill-health he was transferred to Chichiri Prison where he would be closer to specialist medical attention.
I informed him of our efforts to have him and others released and asked him how he would fare if he were to return to his home village. He explained that his house had fallen down while he was in hospital and he was too weak to rebuild it.
The prison, the hospital and the TV studio are all within a few kilometers of each other. My visit to the TV station gave me an opportunity to follow up on Tadzerankhani. There was no sign of him at the hospital and no record of his discharge. I went to the prison to enquire. He was brought to see me in a wheelchair. His condition had deteriorated. His arms and legs were swollen, his stomach distended and he was not the same cheerful old man I had found in the hospital. I left him with some sweet ornage squash and a few packets of biscuits and some money with his prisoner/carer to buy some soap, promising to come on the Monday to see the Medical Officer to find out what could be done to help him.
On Monday I met with the Medical Officer, an ardent believer in witchcraft and apparently not too happy that we were trying to assist these 'public enemies'. He told me that Tadzerankhani had had a TB infection of the heart which was now cured but that the heart was permanently damaged. He attributed the swellings to malnutrition, the result of the poor prison diet, and stated that we would have to arrange for better food to be brought to him. He volunteered the information that he had visited the prisoner's village to ascertain whether the villagers would be happy to see him back home. Unfortunately, the people were not keen to see him return because he had been the village headman and someone else wanted that position. It may be that the chieftainship issue could have been a motive in his being implicated in witchcraft.
I learnt, also, that a special plea had been made in the Comnissioner's recommendations to the President but that there had, unusually, been no traditional presidential clemency during Christmas of 2010.
We will now have to ascertain what would be the best diet for this poor old man and arrange for the regular delivery to the prison.
In discussions with the prison MO on the question of witchcraft I was told that, as a white man, I could not understand it but, that had I been an African I would also be quite sure of the reality. He blamed the old people for teaching the children to kill their parents!
I would like to put in a few words of praise for the prison staff. They have been very cooperative and understanding. I, and other members of ASH, have noted the excellent relationship between the staff and the prisoners. Our impression is that prison staff are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances. Readers used to TV depictions of prisons in America and Europe should understand that Malawi's prisons are very much more relaxed places, seemingly disorganisd. With 1500 prisoners in a building designed to hold 300 some apparent chaos is to be expected! Fortunately, there is no culture of violence.