In The Letter, filmmakers Maia Lekow and Christopher King relate the story of Karisa Kamongo, a Mombasa-based children’s entertainer, who learns through social media that, back in his home village of Kilifi, his elderly grandmother, Margaret Kamongo, has been accused of being a witch and that some people believe she should be killed. Karisa returns to the village to find out what is going on.
The subject of older women in Africa being accused of witchcraft has been dealt with in Rungano Nyoni’s excellent I Am Not a Witch. What makes The Letter startling is that it’s not a fictional film. It’s a documentary.
What Karisa discovers is that his beloved grandmother is the scapegoat in a dispute within his extended family. Margaret is Anglican, but Uncle Furaha is Pentecostal. However, the real point of contention is not religious doctrine, but land ownership and inheritance rights.
Uncle Furaha and his clan invite an evangelical group to Kilifi to exorcise the village. While Grandmother Margaret and her side watch on with disgust, the evangelical troupe stages a ridiculous performance so transparently silly that Uncle Furaha and his relatives must have cringed with embarrassment when they finally saw The Letter.
Margaret Kamongo died at the age of 94 in July 2020, but she got to see the film three times.
I can imagine some Westerners watching The Letter and smugly shaking their heads at the realization that in Africa there are still people who believe in witchcraft. But wait a minute. Let’s take a look at one supposedly more advanced nation: The United States. There are millions of U.S. citizens who believe in the theories of the QAnon cult, notably that Satan-worshipping Democratic pedophiles control the U.S. government, and that Donald Trump is their savior. Some believe that Hillary Clinton and her supporters were operating a child-sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant. And at least one QAnon advocate has been elected to Congress.
Is the United States really a more sophisticated and “civilized” country than Kenya? I think not.