“He said the woman who claims to be a minister of God who is with you, is a witch.”
In my neighborhood, Halloween is a big deal. Residents go all out with their decorations. The costumes are stellar and the candy bars are full size. Some yard displays are so life-like, the darkened evening air is punctuated by all-too-real screams from startled trick-or-treaters.
I spent this past Halloween sitting on my front porch swing next to my skeleton companion, handing out candy. “What a cute witch!” I exclaimed repeatedly. My mind was far away from my first trip to Kenya, in 2008, and the widespread fear and hysteria that the word “witch” evoked when it was directed at me.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.
Reading Mitch Horowitz’ Ghosts of Salem last week, about the rise in violence against witches and how to stop it, I felt a gnawing sense of anxiety. My reading was stuttered. I turned away from the article twice before completing it. Buried feelings emerged from the recesses of my mind like the green plastic zombie head and arms that rise from the gray Styrofoam tombstone in my front yard.
I had arrived in Kenya six months after the “post-election disturbances.” That’s the polite way of saying “the time when people macheted others from different tribes, ransacked their belongings and burned their homes down.” Nakuru was filled with camps for these Internally Displaced People (IDP). People arrived in the city from their home villages; driven out with nothing but their lives. The country was rife with internal discord, name calling was the norm and “them versus us” was a rallying cry used by anyone seeking power.
I’d been called to Kenya by an apostolic evangelical Kenyan pastor – a bishop with seven thriving ministries across the country, who was doing good work. He had been raised in a small village, where his father valued education. He was eight years old when his father died and his education was sporadic, but he always had hope that something better his way would come. And he almost lost it all, by inviting me to Kenya.
He had a wife and four children (at the time). He helped widows and orphans set up sustainable farming. He dug wells. He was working on building a hospital. He had started an elementary school where children from all tribes were welcome. He had once been an Anglican priest but had left that church after they disciplined him for giving communion to anyone who asked to receive it. Pastor George was a good man, doing good deeds. He had read about my work and loved the way I taught that tithing was about gratitude –an opportunity to give thanks to God for everything.
I came to Kenya for a month, with a single prayer on my lips: “I am open and receptive to healing everything and anything within me that needs to be healed.” Armed with only my visa entrance fee, I felt called to fully demonstrate that God was the Source of my good. I trusted that God would provide all I needed.
I’d never traveled so far alone. I’d never been on such a long trip, at all. A torrential downpour delayed my plane from Philadelphia to Zurich four hours, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Kenya. With only one daily flight to Nairobi, I blissfully showered and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in Switzerland before traveling on to Kenya. So far, so good.
As I sat eating breakfast in the hip, contemporary hotel the morning before my flight, nothing foreshadowed the deep fears that would be brought up and healed during the coming four weeks.
My first morning in Kenya I woke disoriented. A woman was sitting at the foot of my bed.
“Do you know who I am?” she asked, in an extremely feverish tone. I assumed she was the pastor’s wife, and told her so.
Her eyes were frantic. She spun a story of how her husband was trying to kill her, trying to turn her over to the police, that she needed money to get away, to stay safe. She told me that whatever I did, I shouldn’t go with the pastor to Western Kenya, (where we had a huge minister’s revival scheduled).
You’ll be kidnapped! You’ll be killed!
Again and again, she begged me to give her money. Again and again, I told her the only thing I had with me that I could give was my prayers – and the beautiful shawl I had brought her from America.
After several hours, of praying, I had to relieve myself. She left the house while I was in the bathroom and I never saw her again. My mind was now filled with fears: Why hadn’t I brought any money with me? Or at least a debit card? How could I go to a country where I didn’t even know how to use a phone? Why hadn’t I gotten a cheapo cell phone I could use in country? And more importantly, what was I thinking, not registering with the US Embassy before I came to Kenya?
A few days later, Pastor George started receiving startling emails and texts. Pastors who had arranged to come to our revival started dropping out. Ministers in the United States and in the United Kingdom who were staunch supporters of his work, suddenly cut him off. Only one was kind enough to let him know of the rumors that were being spread, and who was spreading them: a minister from the United States.
“He said the woman who claims to be a minister of God who is with you, is a witch.”
I laughed when I read the words. Seriously? I’m being called a “witch?: That’s supposed to scare me? I’ve been called words that rhyme with “witch” but this is a first, I laughed.
What was scary to me was how seriously Pastor George was taking this statement. His ebony skin was suddenly ashen, almost gray.
In a land where the works of traditional faith healers, and spiritualists like Science of Mind practitioners are looked upon as “deadly snakes that occupy the land,” accusing someone of witchcraft was akin to hanging an open season hunting sign around their neck. In fact, the week before I arrived, two women were killed for being suspected witches. And the month before that, five people were burned alive (a horrifying event that was captured on video and smuggled out of the country weeks later).
My laughter at the name calling faded away. I involuntarily shivered. I could feel my heart racing. I licked my lips nervously, a childhood habit I’ve never broken. So many questions raced through my head. How much danger was I in at this moment? Should I call the embassy? Should I email friends and get them to change my ticket, and come home? Was it safe for me to even travel back to Nairobi? Was this how my life was going to end?
Who was this minister, inciting violence against me? How had this happened, and why? Pastor George’s wife – who we later discovered was bi-polar – had shared his entire mailing list with a minister who had recently done mission work with them. Was it the pastor’s wife who decided I was a witch? Me, a minister with such strong belief in God’s All Providing nature, that she dared travel without money? Or was he the one who concocted the story? Was he a minister who didn’t want anyone else poaching on his “territory” or did he get caught up in the charisma of Pastor George’s wife’s fervor? Did he look me up and not care for my particular “brand” of “God is a loving God” Christianity?
I had answers only for one of these questions. All I knew for certain was this: a Pentecostal/Charismatic preacher from Georgia, who lectures on leadership, theology and Biblical ethics, was spreading the rumor that a fellow American minister was a witch.
A rumor that, it turned out, was fraught with dangerous implications.
Restricting my movements around town did little to ease the growing anxiety. At any moment, day or night, an angry mob could pull me from the house and burn me alive, or burn the house down around us. My life was in danger, and now so were the lives of my host and his children.
Blessed by a wide range of friends from myriad religious backgrounds, I reached out to two dear friends back in North Carolina, whose father was well-placed in the Pentecostal Holiness leadership. I outlined what I knew about the minister and how to reach him. I shared the current Salem-esque atmosphere about suspected witches. My attempts to sound calm, cool and collected did nothing to overshadow my fear: “Is there anything anyone can do from the States to stop this?”
Intervening quickly, “Mister Thomas” let the Georgia preacher know in no uncertain terms that if any harm befell me, he would be held personally liable. The rumors stopped immediately and no more was heard from the preacher. I was still wary of strangers who approached, and a bevy of wide-eyed, laughter- and love-filled little girls from Pastor George’s church walked with me in their colorful pastel Sunday dresses every day for a week, as we travelled from house to house praying with people. The stark reality of superstition had touched the hem of my world and left its mark on me. That even these little girls could be called witches on a whim, was a frightening thought.
It’s easy to think persecution of witches is a third-world problem. Even the recent Western incidents are mostly in immigrant communities. What’s largely missed in the conversation, however, is how Western religious figures are fanning the flames.
I decided, after reading Horowitz’ article, to take one final step to heal the remnants of fear that clung to this story. I decided to see whatever happened to the Georgia preacher. He’s moved to Ohio since this incident. Kent Cason still has his ministry, and he has a blog that he posts to every month or so. As far as I can tell, he’s never returned to Kenya. He has done missionary work in South Africa as well, although it’s not clear when he’s been back in that country either. In February of this year, he wrote a blog entry entitled Sangomas, izinyanga and other poisonous snakes. He starts by talking about the venomous snakes – like adder, cobra, mamba – that call a certain region of South Africa their home.
He goes on to say that these aren’t the only “deadly snakes that occupy the land.” Sangomas and izinyanga are the traditional healers, diviners, mediums (what some in the Bible refer to as prophets).
Despite his article’s title, Cason is quick to point out that “it is important that we make a distinction.” It’s not the traditional healer, diviner or medium that is the serpent, he says.
“It is the Spirits by which they are deceived and empowered that must be driven from the land by the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit.”
He then goes on to relate stories of which African Indigenous Churches (AIC) use these traditional methods, includes pictures and information on how to identify these serpents based on their clothing, and then shares pictures of himself and others standing behind bonfires created from the clothing and items related to these ministers and their work.
“We stoked the fires again. The smell of the smoke reminds me that the fire grows brighter as the power of the Holy Spirit drives the demonic serpents from the land.”
The images and words do nothing in my mind to make a distinction between whether it is the healer or the “Spirits” deceiving them, that are being burned to a crisp.
I wondered – not for the first time – how anyone claiming to represent the All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Ever-Present God Almighty could think that there was another power greater than that Universal Power, that had any ability to usurp God’s power.
A shudder ran up and down my spine as I recognized the power in name-calling. We may think we’re “sharing information” when we pass along tidbits meant to demean and discredit another. But in truth, we’re merely demonizing them. And in the process, we’re the ones fanning the flames.