KISII, Kenya — A fertile oasis nestled in the highlands of western Kenya, Kisii District is a farmer's paradise. Its flourishing countryside boasts seven-foot cornstalks, trees laden with bananas and endless acres of tea plantations.
But beneath the tranquil facade, a phenomenon reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in late 17th-Century Massachusetts has plunged the close-knit Gusii tribe into a murderous frenzy.
Since last July, 44 men and women accused of practicing witchcraft have been burned to death in Kisii and neighboring Nyamira districts, according to police officials. In most cases, they said, village mobs several hundred strong locked the victims inside thatch-roof houses and set them on fire.
Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi has publicly denounced the killings and warned that vigilante witch hunters will be prosecuted for murder. He also appealed to Kisii residents to report suspected witches to the police. Under a colonial law still on the books, anyone convicted of using black magic to cause fear or injury can be sentenced to as many as five years in prison.
But despite more than 50 arrests in connection with the burnings, the killings have continued at an average of almost one a week.
The fact that witchcraft has deep roots in some African societies is nothing new. Good luck, as well as disease and death, are often attributed to the supernatural.
College students, professional athletes and even members of Parliament have been known to consult witch doctors for answers to their physical and metaphysical ills. This holds true even though many Kenyans are practicing Christians and Muslims.
According to Gusii beliefs, there are two kinds of witches: those who use their supernatural powers to perform good deeds and those who use black magic to harm others. What makes Kisii so unusual is the backlash against people suspected of practicing the dark arts for evil purposes.
"People have become hysterical about it, but they can't give you any concrete reason why except to say that these witches are instilling fear in people," said Kisii District Commissioner Harry Wamubeyi. "Most of the people killed were in their fifties, sixties and seventies who had been living in the community for all these years. So why, all of a sudden, do people think they are witches?"
He and other community leaders have searched in vain for an answer.
Some blame a worsening economy for heightened tensions. The district's growth in population, fast approaching 1 million, has led to land shortages, while at the same time youth unemployment has reached record levels.
But economics alone cannot explain the sudden hysteria that has left dozens of people dead and driven hundreds more from their ancestral homes.
The most recent victim was Michira Amoro, 25.
According to police, he was at home with his wife on July 12 when a mob encircled his house late at night and doused it with gasoline. His wife, who police now say is among a dozen suspects in the case, allegedly fled. Then, police said, the attackers set the house ablaze.
On a recent afternoon, Amoro's father, Zebeyo, sifted through the charred shell of what was once his son's two-bedroom home. Several burned human bones were visible amid the scorched cooking utensils.
The 55-year-old tea picker insists that neighbors murdered his son over a business deal. Seven years ago, he said, Michira joined a group of 60 villagers who agreed to pool their resources to build new homes. As part of the arrangement, each member would receive enough strips of iron sheet to build a new house.
But when it came time for Michira to get his, the father said, the other members reneged. He said there had been bad feelings between the former business partners ever since.
However, according to police, the suspects arrested on suspicion of murdering Michira assert that he was among a group of witches who abducted a 13-year-old boy on his way to school and bewitched him.
The boy's parents told police that when their son was released several hours later, he was unable to speak. They said they found out what happened when their son drew pictures describing the encounter, police said.
But like the suspects in the other burning cases, the boy's parents had no evidence to support their allegations, police said.
Most of those murdered were harmless elderly people whose only crime appears to have been incurring the jealousy of a family member or neighbor, local officials said. Even close relatives have taken to accusing one another of witchcraft in a deadly payback for past injuries.
"They haven't had any proof at all that these people were witches," said District Police Officer W. S. Ongayo, noting that many of the victims were successful members of the community. "But in the current climate, the only thing someone has to do to activate the village psychology against you is to call you a witch."
It is quite easy to do because for many Gusii, witchcraft is very much a reality.