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Where cats tread carefully

In many urban homes cats are pampered and treated as family. In parts of the Coast the meowing creatures are feared because of long-held superstitious beliefs

A black cat purrs, gracefully perching on a seat in Grace Wanjiru’s home. The cat is part of the family in many ways – she eats like a queen, has her own bed and is dotted on by Wanjiru’s children. “ We were given the cat by a friend when she was a kittten.

Three years later, we treat her like one of our children and her only job is to keep mice away,” says Wanjiru. If this cat were living in some parts of Coast region, her life would be different. Here cats are shrouded in superstition. Some say they bring bad luck and are associated with black magic while others believe they are witches and sorcerers.

The mystery and myths spread all the way from the Coast region to Busia and Malaba borders with Uganda. Mzee Bakari Shee from the Bajuni community in Lamu county, who is the villager elder at Kiwandani village, Kilifi town talked to the People Daily about the mysteries shrouding the cat.

“First, the cat is a civilised, clean animal. It will cover its droppings everytime,” he says. A cat, he says keeps snakes and rats away from houses, making it a useful ally. “I have seen cats save families from dangerous snakes,” he says.

Mzee Shee claims despite the good traits of a cat, wizards intending to unleash terror on unsuspecting victims are usually associated with cats. “Jinnis (which are in spiritual form) turn into cats and involve themselves in heinous, frightening acts,” he claims.

Mzee Shee claims that powerful wizards have the power to turn themselves into cats and terrorise people. He alleges wizards transform themselves into black or white cats because they are stealth and mysterious.

He cautions the public against mistreating or killing cats, claiming that they would face dire consequences. “Do not hit a cat on the head. If you do so you will surely bleed from the nose as the cat is dying.

And if you do not bleed, you will become mad,” he warns. Mzee Shee claims having seen many people in his community turning mad after killing cats. Others have become night runners or vangas in Kiswahili.

“That is how Vanga village in Kwale county at the South Coast acquired its name,” he says “It is claimed that many people in that village killed cats a long time ago. They then turned into vangas,” he says.

The wild allegations surrounding cats, especially black ones, can be traced back to ancient Egypt where killing one was considered a capital crime, punishable by death. Here cats were worshipped and considered sacred.

Their “good fortune” changed when in 1232, Pope Gregory IX issued a decree against devil worship and he made it clear that black cats were the incarnation of the devil himself. He urged people to burn them.

After all cats were killed, mice took over, leading to the Bubonic plague in the 14th century, which killed more than 200 million people. It was then believed that killing cats had caused the plague to punish those who had taken part in the massacre.

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