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Jan 31 2013

Igwe on ‘Witch’ Killings in Africa

Leo Igwe, who has done more to expose and publicize the brutal attacks on child “witches” in Africa over the last few years than anyone else, has an article on the James Randi Educational Foundation website about this horrible practice and what fuels it. Speaking first about an orphanage that cares for 32 of the child victims, he writes:

Very little is known about this ‘home’ in Sang where children accused of witchcraft or of being ‘agents’ and instruments of the devil are taken care of. The children are from a day old to sixteen years. They are victims of superstitious beliefs which constitute the basis of the local thought and culture. In many parts of northern Ghana, a child whose mother dies after delivery is often percieved to be an ‘evil child’, a curse to the family or community and an agent of the devil. In a region where many deaths are seen as unnatural, many babies are accused of killing their mothers through witchcraft and magic. And to prevent such an ‘evil child’ from wreaking more havoc, the baby is abandoned or dumped at an anthill to die. Children who are born with disability are also accused of witchcraft. Disability is generally percieved to be abnormal and unnatural. Witchcraft accusation is often a way of reacting to abnormalities in children. Children with disabilities are often thrown into an ‘evil forest’ or are killed in order to remove the ‘curse’ from the family or to disable and get rid of their their evil magic and witchcraft. According to local caregivers, some children were brought to the center by their parents out of fear that they could be murdered by family or community members who regard them as evil.

There is need for an intensive public enlightenment campaign to get people in northern Ghana to abandon the superstitious belief that associates disability with withcraft and magic. People need to be educated to act and react with care and compassion, not irrational fear, to any form of disability or ‘abnormality’ in children or in any other human being. But this much needed awareness program cannot happen due to lack of principled stance on the witchcraft phenomena. Witchcraft is a charged and controversial topic. And many locals do not like tinkering with it. There are too many people; local chiefs, priests, soothsayers, etc. with vested interest in witchcraft belief and practice. Those trying to combat witchcraft related abuse are mainly faith based organisations like the one managing this orphanage or religious individuals who actually believe in witchcraft. They do not openly question or are willing to challenge witch beliefs.

For instance, two NGOs working to address the problem in the region stated in their brochure that they ‘do not challenge the existence or otherwise of witchcraft and its effects on individuals and communities’. It is difficult to understand how these organisations can execute a comprehensive and effective campaign without challenging witchcraft claims. Getting the local population to understand that witchcraft is an imaginary crime, a form of superstition, should be a critical part of any efforts or program to tackle and eradicate witch persecution and killing.

Ignorance and irrationality are sometimes harmless, but they can also result in innocent people being killed and maimed.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Sastra

    For instance, two NGOs working to address the problem in the region stated in their brochure that they ‘do not challenge the existence or otherwise of witchcraft and its effects on individuals and communities’. It is difficult to understand how these organisations can execute a comprehensive and effective campaign without challenging witchcraft claims.

    Yes, I can see why that would be hard, if not ultimately impossible. It might be like trying to convince Christians that God used evolution to create humanity. Those NGO’s must somehow manage to convince individuals and communities which believe in witchcraft to learn to think of witches as very, very reluctant to ever cast spells — and when they do it’s only for things that would have happened anyway. That would harmonize religion and science and thus settle the problem once and for all.

  2. 2
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Yeah, I don’t know how you make the argument inside the belief system not to kill perceived witches. Killing witches is probably as much a core of the system as believing babies have agency and cast spells. (I don’t know what is being translated as “witch”, but is sounds more or less like a Euro witch, not like ‘demon possession.) I don’t suppose it would have worked in Europe, either, to say, “Pfft, witches don’t do that” in individual cases. You have too many people invested in the belief and lie, and the liars want to make sure the believers keep believing. They want someone dead for some reason, and witchcraft is just the excuse.

    I’ll have to ask my cousin what the witchcraft issue is like in his village. It isn’t something we had ever discussed before, oddly enough.

  3. 3
    ragingapathy

    My wife is Nigerian, from Lagos, not a country girl in any way (Bush, or Local as they would say). I know plenty of Nigerians through her who, while being devout (usually Pentecostal) Christians, or observant Muslims, talk all the time of witches, voodoo, and the ever-presence of the spirit world. There are always, in their view, both good and evil spirits around us, and prayer is used to protect one from the evil spirits. words and thoughts are powerful, and if you don’t know how they think, you can unintentionally “curse” one of them with words we consider harmless hyperbole, like “crazy.” If you work with Nigerians or Ghanians, don’t ever say “You’re crazy” to them even if you’re just kidding around.

    It’s like they use Christian or Muslim mono-theism to ward off the animism and ancestor worship and lively spirit world that they learned from their elders. This is why they (generally) fear cats — cats are likely to be a witch’s familiar. I think that got into their belief system from Euro missionaries.

    These are highly educated people – doctors, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists – professionals all. But they were raised with this cross-over religiosity, and many can’t let it go.

    It’s only deeper and harder to deal with when you have village or bush people, and the inland areas of Nigeria and Ghana and other West African countries are mostly villages and small cities, not like Lagos or Accra.

  4. 4
    andrew

    It’s a rather horrid example of the persistence of belief. These people maintain their beliefs in witchcraft–under which, really, it does makes sense to deal with witches–despite the fact that they’re actually killing children due to ideas that anyone not indoctrinated in them as a child would find utterly retarded. So in a choice between a) ‘killing children’ and b) ‘reevaluating belief system’, lots and lots of people pick a. I find this distressing. People will kill children rather than entertain the idea that they might be wrong. It’s … I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it.

  5. 5
    Nathair

    dumped at an anthill

    That’s something I could have happily lived my entire life without picturing.

  6. 6
    d.c.wilson

    I’m with andrew. The idea of even thinking of killing an infant because you believe they are cursing your family is beyond abhorrent to me. I can’t even fathom how fucked up their thinking must be.

  7. 7
    Crudely Wrott

    Yes, andrew. I find that deeply unsettling too.
    It’s not that hard to imagine such attitudes being prevalent in ages past. It is easy to give our long dead predecessors leeway for the sake of their having lived so long ago. That such notions persist today goes against the grain of humanity’s struggle to come to grips with the nature of the world we inhabit as well as our own nature.
    I am at a loss to offer any solution except to let time pass though I do not know if even time is a sufficient balm for such ills.

  8. 8
    Irreverend Bastard

    If you work with Nigerians or Ghanians, don’t ever say “You’re crazy” to them even if you’re just kidding around.

    Why not? Would they physically attack me if I did? Or would they try to exorcise themselves?

    Would it be better to tell them that they have crazy beliefs? Because if I met anyone professing belief in witchcraft, voodoo, or evil spirits, I can guarantee that I would use the word “crazy” in the following conversation.

  9. 9
    Crudely Wrott

    Why not? Would they physically attack me if I did?

    Yes. They would. Expect anything from sticks or fists to machetes or burning tires. News stories and videos over the past several years bear witness.

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