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Witchcraft Claims Mask Deadly Land Grabs In Kenya’s Kilifi Coast


AN investigation by BBC Africa Eye has uncovered a disturbing trend of elderly individuals being accused of witchcraft and murdered along Kenya’s Kilifi coast. These accusations often hide a darker motive—land grabs by relatives and community members.


Seventy-four-year-old Tambala Jefwa bears the scars of brutal attacks. His wife, Sidi, recounts the horrors they endured. ‘They stabbed him with a knife like this and pulled,’ she says, pointing to a long scar on his chest. Another attack left Jefwa partially scalped. He has lost an eye and narrowly escaped death in his home, located 50 miles inland from Malindi.

The Jefwas own over 30 acres of land, a valuable asset that has sparked disputes with family members. They believe these land disputes are the real reason behind the attacks, not genuine beliefs in witchcraft. ‘I was left for dead. I lost so much blood. I don’t know why they attacked me, but it can only be the land,’ Jefwa explains.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in many parts of Africa, but in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa, it is often exploited to justify the killing of elderly people to seize their land. According to Haki Yetu, a Kenyan human rights organisation, one elderly person is murdered every week along the Kilifi coast under the pretext of witchcraft. Programme officer Julius Wanyama states that many families believe it is a relative who orders these killings to gain public sympathy.

Land ownership in this region is rarely documented with official title deeds, and inheritance is typically based on customary agreements within families. This lack of formal documentation makes elderly men prime targets, as they are traditionally seen as the custodians of land. Wanyama notes, ‘Historically, people here in Kilifi do not have [land] documentation. The only document they have is the narrative from these elderly people. That is why mostly men are being killed, because once you kill them, you remove the obstacle.’

In Malindi, about an hour from the Jefwa family land, a rescue centre run by the Malindi District Association shelters around 30 elderly people who have been attacked and cannot return home. Among them is 63-year-old Katana Chara, who was attacked with a machete in his bedroom in April 2023. He lost one hand at the wrist and the other above the elbow, making him dependent on others for basic tasks.

Chara was accused of witchcraft after a man’s child died, but he believes his six acres of prime seafront land were the true motive behind the attack. ‘I don’t have anything to do with witchcraft. I have one piece of land and it is at the seafront. It is a big piece of land,’ he says. Despite questioning his family members, no one was prosecuted. Activist Wanyama has been working to secure justice for Chara, noting that few people are charged for these killings, allowing perpetrators to feel free from consequences.

BBC Africa Eye’s investigation led them to an ex-hitman who confessed to killing around 20 people, earning a minimum of KSh50,000 ($400) per murder. He claimed that family members usually paid for these killings. ‘If someone kills an old person, know that their family paid for it. It must be their family,’ he said. When pressed about the morality of his actions, he responded, ‘I may have done something bad because I was given the job and it is me that killed, but according to laws, according to God, the person who sent me is the guilty one.’

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights presented a report to the United Nations in February 2023, highlighting that younger family members seeking to acquire family land is a key factor behind these killings. The report indicated that such attacks increase during periods of drought and famine when sources of income become scarce.

Wanyama describes the situation as a ‘national disaster,’ warning that if not addressed, Kenya risks losing its valuable elderly population. ‘It started as a regional issue, but now it has escalated. If we don’t address it, then we are losing our archives of the elderly. Those are the only live archives we can believe.’

In traditional African culture, the elderly are revered for their wisdom and knowledge. However, in Kilifi, the elderly live in fear, with some dyeing their hair to appear younger. While Chara is now safe at the rescue centre, men like Jefwa continue to fear for their lives, knowing that those who attacked them may return.

The BBC Africa Eye investigation highlights the urgent need for legal reforms and community education to protect the elderly and address the real motives behind these tragic killings.

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