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Family of Believers: An Interview with Christopher King and Maia Lekow
Christopher King and Maia Lekow offer an intimate look at modern-day witch-hunting in coastal Kenya with their documentary The Letter, which chronicles how senior citizens are routinely harassed or exposed to deadly violence after being accused – often via the delivery of a letter – of being witches. The husband-and-wife duo explore this everyday violence against a vulnerable population through the eyes of nonagenarian grandmother Margaret Kamango and her relationship with her grandson Karisa. While it does foreground this violence, The Letter is also a delicate and humane work on the trauma of colonialism compounded by unchecked capitalism and rising religious turf wars.
Critics Campus participant Shaheen Ahmed speaks to King and Lekow about their film’s treatment of religion, tradition and family dynamics in Kenya.
Shaheen Ahmed: Your documentary is located within a village, and it makes apparent that the pastoral is not always an ideal place of harmony. How do you place the village in Kenya’s cultural history?
Maia Lekow: The idea of the village in Kenya is a space where people are connected, and is about the community. A hierarchy in position does exist in the village. What is happening now is that, with consumerism, the battle of religions and more materialistic aspirations among people, a huge rift is being created within the community. Over the years, people are becoming more individualistic rather than invested in the commune.
Christopher King: Something I had not realised, as an outsider coming to Kenya, is that the cities are these kind of colonial-built places that people aren’t traditionally from. Kind of everyone we know, they struggle between two worlds. They have their urban lives where they work and live, but they all trace their roots back to some kind of rural area where their ancestors are buried. But in a lot of these rural areas, there is really no economic opportunity. A lot of young people in these areas are feeling frustrated. Farming is hard work, and it is not something that everyone wants to do. So it really is a kind of recipe for tension between the young and the elderly.
At the heart of the documentary is the question of the neoliberal economy and this kind of palpable tension within communities. How is the growth of neoliberalism, which also includes the growth of cities, impacting the issue of witch-hunting in Kenya?
CK: It is really interesting that you read that – it was something that we hoped would come through, something that we kind of struggled to say so deliberately. We have to understand how the economy [has been] designed here since the 1970s and 1980s, when a lot of foreign powers restructured Kenya’s economy to really open up its markets to the US. As time goes by, and there is a lot of economic progress, communities and interpersonal relationships are actually being dissolved and being damaged.
It made me really think a lot about growing up in Australia as well, and understanding how our economy works there and what that transition [has been like]. The capitalistic kind of philosophy reduces the value of human relationships and intergenerational relationships. It puts [forward] a sort of need to work and a need to accumulate. This is then reflected in how people see their elders and their own families.
ML: Just to add to that, it is important to talk about religion. A lot of people – obviously, back in the day – they were traditional believers, and then what ended up happening was when the missionaries came, they tried to convert people to Christianity. This led to traditional belief systems being marked as devil-worship. You have a lot of young people who are Christians or Muslims, and they say, We don’t have anything to do with our grandparents or our parents because they are believers of XYZ. So there is this huge shift that is happening. These colonial histories have spilled onto the present, along with a religious admixture, and it has led to an intense conflict that is visible within the village, and even within the domestic sphere.
CK: You are totally spot on. [Karisa’s] grandma and her family are traditionally Anglican, so they practise a bit more of the reserved form of Christianity. But the uncles are a part of the Pentecostal religion that has massive support in these areas. The coast in Kenya is traditionally an Islamic area. It’s part of the Indian Ocean. Islam has been here since the time of Muhammad. So I think it is really a kind of focal ground for the evangelical. It’s like a crusade where they are trying to convert people. It really is a race for souls in the area, and of course […] the traditional animists who worship ancestors and nature [are] caught in the middle of this spiritual warfare. We really concentrated on the personal and how a lot of those politics came out within one family. It was a real challenge, but we found that a more effective way to just explore ideas and trigger conversations about this stuff.
ML: Just in terms of the religious warfare that is happening, you also have a lot of these priests, for example, especially within the Pentecostal system, who are the ones saying to their congregants that anyone who practises traditional beliefs is a witch. Anyone who wears traditional clothing is a witch. Anyone who plays traditional music is a witch. So now you have a lot of elderly people who, even if they just wear a traditional bag or a wrap, they automatically get ostracised and have to live in fear.
I was intrigued by the insider perspective you adopted in shooting the documentary. The documentary was not judgmental at all.
CK: Working as a husband-and-wife team in the first two years when we were filming and researching in the area, we understood that witch-hunting was happening within families. And because these were usually in-house issues and so taboo to talk about openly, they were what was actually perpetuating the violence. There was little intervention by the police because these issues were thought of as family issues.
We met Karisa, the grandson, through a series of coincidences, and he took us back home to meet Grandma. It took a lot of time without the camera in getting to know everyone, and them getting to know us. Because it was very personal for us, I learned something valuable from this experience. It’s just that if you are feeling an emotion in the room, on the day, as you are looking through the viewfinder, usually that emotion is going to be somehow captured in the image. There is something metaphysical that happens. Maia also has a great talent for putting people at ease and allowing a lot of these issues and emotions to surface.
ML: And also what was interesting was, when we first met Karisa, we thought he would take on a much more activist role in supporting his grandmother. But, over time, we realised that he is not that character – he is a character who does sway. And a lot of young people also sway. So we then decided, Let’s just leave it as it was in reality. That also shows an interesting context for a lot of young people, especially at the coast, who swing in between believing and not believing in witches.