They went missing in broad daylight. News spread like a raging wildfire.
A dark cloud was thrown upon the charging village, the unseen hands of heartily care spread across the land in search of their loved ones.
This was in Mkweche Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chilooko in Ntchisi.
Five adolescent girls went to look for pieceworks at one farm. They never came back.
Some people silently and secretly shoved the girls into a Gulewamkulu camp, which is a dense forested graveyard, popularly known as ‘Dambwe.’
This camp was their home for three days of psychological torture and assault.
This was in January 2016 in a predominantly Chewa area, culturally rich with ‘Gulewamkulu,’ a tradition whereby parents send young boys to a weeklong bush camp for initiation rites and orientation into adulthood and society.
But in Mkweche, the contrary happened. Young girls, instead of boys, were forcibly taken into the camp. They remained in the ‘dambwe’ under custody of men and boys.
The camp is famous for harsh treatment. During the day, the girls spent their time in the graveyard and at night, they were bundled back into the village, heaped into a small house where they spent their night together with men.
“It was our worst experience,” says Belifa Kachiwawa, a Standard 8 learner at Mwalawaphanga Primary School.
“We were like slaves. I believe they used charms, because we became so docile and obedient.”
Asked if they were sexually harassed or abused, the girls fall into total silence, their facial expression hides in the veil of shame and embarrassment before a word ‘NO’ springs out of the mouth of one girl, Judith.
“They did not touch us. I am afraid to say much. We were told our parents will die or our faces point backwards if we say anything,” she says.
Sitting closer is Judith’s sister, Linda George. She says the girls cannot say much about their ordeal because they were heavily threatened and warned of lifelong consequences.
Everything that happens in the camp is regarded as a secret. Even the boys are told to zip their mouths. And the moment they come out, they are completely changed souls.
The young girls looked to have travelled the same road of ‘disciplining.’
When the girls disappeared, there was nothing their parents could do apart from informing the village head as per tradition. They waited until the release of the girls to open a case against the men responsible—who were known personalities in the community.
“This was abduction but the girls do not say much. They only say they were tortured and assaulted,” says Linda who is worried that the matter is dying a natural death despite being presented to different forums.
She adds: “The perpetrators are still free. They only spent a day or two in police custody.”
Senior Chief Kasakula angrily questions the reasoning behind taking the girls into a Gulewamkulu camp.
“Traditionally, that place is for boys. Girls have their own initiation ceremony in which they camp within their homes. What happened to these girls was total violation of their rights.” Kasakula says.
He argues that it was the responsibility of village chiefs as custodians of traditional and cultural practices to penalise those involved.
“Traditionally, in such cases, we even punish the chiefs for doing nothing,” Kasakula says.
But in Mkweche, some action was later taken.
Some junior chiefs and the girls’ parents ganged up and reported the issue to Malomo Police Unit. Two men were arrested and remained in custody for few days before taken to Ntchisi Magistrate’s Court.
They were identified as 51-year-old Chikampha Mphero and 18-year-old Dalitso Banda, both from Mkweche.
Later, the men were granted bail and are said to walk around in the village boasting that their case is over.
But Ntchisi Police says otherwise.
“The two men are on bail. They were charged with a case of abduction and they pleaded guilty. The case is on,” says police prosecutor Austin Daudi who is handling the case.
Meanwhile, a warrant of arrest for the two men was issued after they jumped bail and failed to appear before court on some set dates.
“They have not come. We understand one of them ran away but the other one is still around. I am sure Malomo police is yet to arrest them,” says Daudi.
According to him, all witnesses testified in court and what remained was final testimony from one police officer.
Orphan Mkhalipi, head of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at Malomo Police Unit, says the unit was aware about the men but was waiting for a warrant of arrest from court to re- arrest them.
He denies having received a file from Ntchisi Police to arrest the two.
Records at Ntchisi’s Court show that Mphero and Banda are answering charges of kidnapping. They got court bail on June 21 2016, but they have never appeared before court since then.
Following the abduction, chiefs around Mkweche abolished Gulewamkulu in their areas. But looking at how the police and the court are handling the matter, the traditional leaders are slowly regretting their action.
“We thought and believed abduction was a serious case. But it seems that is not the case,” says village head Kamanga.
He adds: “We are still in the dark about what really happened to these girls in the camp. We wanted to bring sanity to our tradition. But the conduct of police and the court is letting us down..”
Belifa, Judith and the other three adolescent girls, who appeared and testified in court, were still hoping for justice to take its course. But one year and some months later, that hope has lost its strength and the girls believe the case is over but do not know how it ended.
The girls’ recollection of that dark moment put some testing question to the inevitability of miscarriage of justice.
“What if we died there? Would people take this case lightly the way they are doing now?” wonders Belifa, adding: “During and after the abduction, we missed classes. We did not go to school for some weeks, we were embarrassed and ashamed because we became the talk of the village.”
The girls and Mkweche community are waiting patiently for justice. But sadly, this may be another historical analogy to the story of Chibook girls in Nigeria, whose narrative is nothing but another event in the pages of world history.