Two women paraded in court as suspected witches after being found dressed only in skin-tights outside a house in Harare’s Budiriro suburb may have been willing participants in an elaborate hoax, it has emerged.

Relatives of the duo – who were found with a live owl and an assortment of witchcraft-associated paraphernalia – have also revealed that the names they used during their court appearance were FALSE.

The sensational new revelations could provide a key to a puzzle that had perplexed a nation and pitted scientists – who dismissed the idea of people flying 400km in winnowing baskets – against traditionalists who insist witches can fly.

On September 11, prosecutors charged Chipo Chakanja, 26, and Maria Moyo, 35, with “engaging in practices commonly associated with witchcraft”.

The two women denied being witches but claimed they were “possessed” by evil spirits. A magistrate postponed their trial to September 24 to allow for a psychiatric examination to be carried out.

But relatives of the duo say they are very sane – so in charge of their faculties they even managed to dupe police investigators by providing false names.

The woman who identified herself as Chipo Chakanja is in fact Christine Matiyenga, 28, and Maria Moyo is in fact Elnette Jinya (age not given), both from Chihota in Mashonaland East and not Nembudziya, Gokwe, as they claimed.

The Herald newspaper reports that the two women are known to be of “easy virtue” at Landos Business Centre in Chihota where they live in rented accommodation. Matiyenga rents a room at Munyama store, while Jinya rents at Mai Tigere’ store.

Both women were paid by two self-styled prophets from the neighbourhood where they allegedly “crash-landed” in their winnowing baskets – apparently in an attempt to show themselves as “powerful” and attract more customers.

At least six women had originally been drafted to carry out the hoax, but four had developed cold feet, according to accounts by family and friends. The other four have been named only as Mellisa, Precious, Forget and Pauline.

According to relatives and associates:

# The owl that one of the women was found with was in fact bought at Landos Business Centre from a man who captured it in a grinding mill building

# The two women left by car to travel to Harare a night before they were found in Budiriro

 # They both carried winnowing baskets when they were last seen getting into a blue Nissan Navara

# The two women have worked as prostitutes

Nyaradzo Mubako, 34, says she was with Jinya and Matiyenga on the evening of September 12.

She told the Herald: “We stay together and I was very surprised. We were together the previous night and they were picked by car. I just heard that Mai Fa*** (Elnette) and Christine were caught in Harare naked and practicing witchcraft.

“These two are not witches, they are just looking for money but this is so embarrassing.”

Filda Munyama, 33, who is Matiyenga’s landlady, said they spent the afternoon with the “witches” before they were caught in Harare the next morning.

“We spent the day plaiting Mai B’s [Matiyenga’s] hair. They left at night and were ferried by a blue Navara when they left for Harare. They carried winnowing baskets which they were later found with,” she said.

She claimed the duo were not witches “but had been promised a lot of money by a Harare prophet who works with Zunzamandere – traditional healers from Chihota who hoodwink people.”

Christine’s brother, Kingstone Matiyenga, 27, said he does not get along with his sister because of her lifestyle.

“What Christine did is embarrassing. She does a lot of other embarrassing things including pretending to be a witch because of the love of money,” he said.

“She is not a witch, she used to cook sadza and sell it at Landos. We just heard from the newspapers, radios and television that they fell off winnowing baskets at a shrine of prophets in Budiriro.”

He said he had visited her at Chikurubi Maximum Prison where she is being held and “she was just sobbing”.

“She could not talk to me and prison staff said she has not been eating for days,” Kingstone said.

He urged police to arrest the fake prophets who he says sweet-talked his sister into masquerading as a witch.

“What I know is that Christine was in love with a certain traditional healer who talked her to get into the difficult situation she is in now,” added Kingstone.

The two women have applied for bail at the High Court. Their lawyer said they were not a flight risk and chances of their acquittal were high.

See related reading:

Court orders mental exam for crash-landing ‘witches’

‘Witches’ seek out Makandiwa, Angel