The life force of a nonagenarian accused of witchcraft in present-day Kenya | Blog Doc & Roll


As in so many other African countries, the division of gender roles in many parts of Kenya He reserves command decisions to men and physical work, both in the field and in the family home, to women. In the documentary The Letter by Maia Lekow and Christopher King, which DocsBarcelona projects this Tuesday at the Cineteca de Madrid and throughout the month of March in theaters throughout Spain, the young Karisa Kamango travels from Mombasa to her rural origins. He has discovered that his grandmother, the nonagenarian Margaret, is in danger: she is accused of witchcraft.

Thanks to their encounters, the viewer discovers that his uncle, fueled by a combination of superstition and financial interests, is the instigator of this accusation. On the other hand, her aunts try to protect her grandmother. The old woman, who owns a coveted piece of land, lives in fear of being murdered in her own home, while showing great strength of will. The story is primarily an intergenerational love story between a grandson and his grandmother. “And also one of feminine strength at the center of a patriarchy,” says Maia Lekow by telephone on the film, which can also be seen through the rental service of the digital platform Filmin. “It was a delicate matter, a family conflict based on superstition and also on universal aspects, like the quarrels of the past. But the humility, charisma and respect with which Karisa treated her family members made them explain to us in their own homes what was happening, ”King recalls.

As strange as it may seem in the eyes of the developed world, it is common in the country to find elderly people socially isolated for an offense that is as medieval as it is deeply Western. The Letter It shows how the values ​​of rural communities have been affected by the enormous influence of colonialism and religion. So common is the persecution of elders for witchcraft-related issues that there are several Kenyan shelters for those who have been left abandoned and disowned at such an advanced age. In his investigation with the duo of directors, the protagonist of the film visits one of them. In many cases, the objective of these slanders is to keep the lands of the alleged witches.

“When we showed Margaret images of those old people, she told us that she couldn’t appear in the same movie as them, because they were truly demonized. That left us very surprised and showed us the brainwashing that religion has done to countries like Kenya, where [naciones europeas] They have led them to believe that many of their customs are satanic and should be avoided, ”comment the filmmakers, who recorded everything that happened with just a small camera and microphone. The story is peppered with very little supernatural elements, such as capitalism’s own greed. “Hand in hand with faith, colonialism also imported the concept of economic liberalism. In recent decades, globalization has ended up inoculating it in this part of the world, ”says King.

Margaret, the nonagenarian protagonist of 'The Letter', accused of witchcraft by her community.
Margaret, the nonagenarian protagonist of ‘The Letter’, accused of witchcraft by her community.

Course change

The marriage of Lekow and King traveled through Kenya, where her father comes from, in search of a story that they both wanted to tell in their first feature film together. They had in mind the figure of Mekatilili Wa Menza, a historic pioneer who more than 100 years ago led revolts against the British to defend the rights of her nation. Because of her fighting spirit, the colonists began to define the heroine as a witch. While they lived together and interviewed people from the coast of the country to recap what happened, the directors understood that this argument had permeated the country and has continued since then. They began to hear testimonies about elderly people killed because they were seen as a threat to their community. At least 10 of them they keep dying every month from these accusations. When Karisa, who was collaborating on the documentary in translation work, told them about her grandmother’s personal situation, the couple decided to change the focus of their film. Margaret’s life trajectory and her grandson’s charisma were a winning combination. “The story of Mekatilili had a lot of social background, but we lacked the hook that would allow us to humanize the story. Meeting Margaret and Karisa allowed us to discuss the same issues from a much closer perspective, ”says Lekow.

To complete the financing of a project such as The Letter, received support from large film institutions, such as the Sundance Institute and the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival (IDFA). “There is hardly any cinema made in East Africa and that helped our proposal to arouse the interest of these organizations. But we suppose that it was decisive to deal with two issues such as feminism and the treatment we give to our elders, which at the moment transcend any cultural barrier, ”says Lekow.

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