Is it witchcraft or dementia?


IT is now a common occurrence to see phots or videos of a nude or partially dressed frail elderly women circulating on social media.
As expected, the heading would be: ‘Muroyi abatwa kuZengeza’, or ‘Witch caught red-handed in someone’s yard’.
I saw one such photograph circulating a few months ago and younger women were the ones making most of the nasty or negative comments about the supposed witch.
“Izvozvi ndimai vemumwe munhu ivavo,” someone commented on facebook.
Another wrote, “Kanjani vari amwene vako ivavo?”
The ‘witch’ looked bewildered, with bluish eyes (obviously due to the bright light from a torch shown in her eyes) and was obviously scared and confused.
A gathering of young people was surrounding her.
I have also noticed that most of the so-called photographs of ‘witches’ have one thing in common: They are mostly of elderly women, probably in their 80s and they will either be nude or partly dressed.
She did not look like a witch to me.
At her age, it was possible that she had dementia, most probably undiagnosed, or even some form of cognitive impairment that can come with ageing.
So are they all witches?
Does witchcraft exist, anyway? And if it does, are only women and especially old and frail women, the only ones capable of being witches?
Or does witchcraft come with ageing, I wonder.
Could it be possible that those old women found wandering alone at night may probably be suffering from dementia, or early onset of dementia?
It is highly likely.
Here in the UK, I have seen police bringing elderly people they find wandering and confused to nursing homes or residential care homes where most elderly people are cared for.
I remember an incident involving an elderly Caribbean man who was brought to a residential care home for the elderly people where I used to work as a care assistant.
They had found the man wandering, half-naked in a park at night.
When they asked him who he was and where he lived, all they got from him were some places in Jamaica.
As expected with cases of dementia, he said he was looking for his mommy and dad, behaving like a young child.
It took us some time to piece together his information to make sense and establish his identity.
Eventually we figured he used to live in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, before he came to the UK.
We figured it out not because he told us so, but because he kept making reference to St Elizabeth.
As one of the few black care-givers at the home, he thought I was his sister, while on some days, he thought I was his daughter and my identity kept changing as his memory fluctuated between the past and the present.
That fluctuation helped us to know that he had a daughter, maybe more because he gave me different names and a sister or more sisters.
But the point I am trying to make is that when members of the public saw him wandering in the park, half-naked, they did not accuse him of witchcraft.
They alerted the police, who brought him to a place of safety.
The rest is now history.
I have worked with people with dementia to recognise it without any formal diagnosis (not always though).
I have also studied about dementia to know the different types, the common symptoms and presentations, as well as how it affects the memory, eventually making someone to forget things, especially the recent past.
And when I phoned someone in Zimbabwe, a University of Zimbabwe lecturer, to discuss the issue of the supposed witch caught in Chitungwiza, I tried to reason with him that it was most likely dementia.
He brushed it off, adamant that it was indeed a witch who had been caught.
Dementia is not common in Zimbabwe, he argued.
“Ndezvekwenyu kwamuri ikoko ndiko kunezvirwere zvakadaro,” he said.
Maybe he was right, but I am still not convinced that the woman whose photo I saw on social media was a witch.
As I look back, I regret some of the things that we used to do as children, largely because of lack of information or misinformation.
When I was about eight years old, I remember how I joined a group of children that tormented some elderly women in my village.
They were very mostly old frail widows who lived by themselves.
One particular elderly woman, who I guess was in her 80s, lived with her two cats.
One day I joined a group of young children who were attacking the elderly woman’s cat.
We pelted it with stones and it fled up a tree hissing at us.
We continued to throw stones at the cat, until it sustained a broken limb and lost one of its eyes.
This was despite pleas from the elderly woman, telling us to leave her cat alone.
We all believed that she was a witch.
Someone in the village had started the rumour because lately she was in the habit of being caught by neighbours, semi-naked in their yards in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning.
And because she lived very close to her family’s graveyard, sometimes she was seen wandering among the graves.
The rumours became facts and someone said he had seen her with a human skull in the graveyard.
Parents whispered behind closed doors, warning their children never to accept any food from the woman, the village witch.
Soon every death in the village was attributed to her.
For those who could not conceive; it was also her fault.
Lonely, shunned, scorned and abused, she eventually died and no one took in her cats because they were considered zvidhoma zvake.
It is possible that the woman had some form of dementia, which made her to wander at night.
Maybe after she went outside her hut to relieve herself, she wouldn’t know her way back to her hut.
I think there should be more understanding about dementia so that many elderly women who get confused and wander at night are not humiliated by mobs of on-lookers who accuse them of witchcraft.


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