Child 'witches' and killings in Africa: Why the little ones are safer in Muslim than Christian societies

Children accused of witchcraft are more likely to be middle or last-born children; and African preacher says crying children are "servants of Satan".

IT can sometimes be hard to be a child in Africa. As if staying alive to see your fifth birthday isn’t difficult enough, in some places in Africa, middle childhood (age 4-10) is especially fraught because it is the time when you are most likely to be accused of being a witch.

Accusations of children being witches are especially common in central and west Africa, particularly parts of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon and Nigeria. Children are blamed for untimely deaths in the family, broken homes, problems at work, poverty, pain and sickness.

In Congo, UN-Habitat reports that religious television channels even run weekly shows where “child witches” are identified during public mass meetings.

Children ‘servants of Satan’

“Child witches” are taken for “deliverance” at local churches, but this report by Save The Children says most of the churches operate on a profit-making basis and nearly all of those practising exorcism will put on a real performance for the purposes of financial gain.

In the UK, a Nigerian “witch-hunter” who claims any child who cries is a “servant of Satan” could be banned from the country. There have been calls to Home Secretary Theresa May to label the woman a risk to youngsters, and kick her out.

Campaigners have warned that “Lady Apostle” Helen Ukpabio’s controversial views are dangerous to children – including the belief that “if a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan”. 

Ukpabio founded the church in 1992, and now claims to have 150 branches worldwide.

An American NGO has a “witchcraft legal aid” programme, where free advice is offered to families who suspected their children are witches—the NGO tries to explain alternative (rational) explanations of misfortunes to the families.

Witchcraft lingers

Witchcraft was hugely interesting to Western anthropologists at the beginning of the 20th century. Considered a precursor to a “proper religion”—hence leading early missionaries in Africa to claim that Africans had no religion—witchcraft was one of the “primitive” beliefs that was supposed to disappear as Africans became more Westernised, urbanised, richer, better educated and began believing in proper gods.

But it hasn’t happened. If anything, belief in the occult or in mystic powers has become even more prominent in contemporary African society, present in “every aspect of modern life” as  this report by Unicef states.

Both the British and the French colonial rulers introduced laws against witchcraft, but the French only punished the practice of witchcraft, while the British also suppressed witchcraft allegations – irrespective of whether you were accusing others falsely or claimed to be a witch yourself. 

The implicit suggestion is that the French may have considered witchcraft a real thing, while the British didn’t even want to think about it (proper British manners and all that).

As a result, those accused of witchcraft are more likely to be prosecuted in the official judicial system in former French colonies—Unicef reports that in Bangui, CAR, about 25% of all cases brought to court in the capital Bangui and 80-90% of all cases in rural areas between 2005 and 2009 were witchcraft-related. 

During that period, 70% of all prisoners in Bangui central prison were incarcerated because of witchcraft accusations.

So how do you prove in court that someone is a witch? Apparently, you just ask somebody else who purports to have similar powers. In Bangui, the testimony of a “good” witch against a “bad” witch is common and their testimony often “bears enough weight” to lead to a conviction.

Swaziland sets rules on the broomstick

Last year, witches in Swaziland were  reportedly banned from flying on broomsticks at altitudes higher than 150 metres by an official from the country’s civil aviation authority, with the penalty being arrest and a fine of R500,000 ($47,000).

It could have been a joke, but the newspaper report said it was “hard to say” how serious the authority’s marketing and corporate affairs director Sabelo Dlamini was when he made the statement.

In any case, witchcraft survives because it is “functional”, anthropologists say, and accusations peak at a time when a society is experiencing instability in the social order, or where social relations have broken down—such as in situations of war, conflict and civil unrest.

Witch-hunting also peaks where an individual’s expectations are consistently not met, coinciding with the frustration of high inequality, with  certain writers arguing that witchcraft in modern African society is a reaction to capitalism and emerging globalisation, and others saying it is an attempt for the poor and disenfranchised to gain a small measure of power in an oppressive society.

Witchcraft thus apparently renews itself constantly, adapting to new situations, or as anthropologist E. Evans‐Pritchard starkly put it, “new situations demand new magic”.

One of the changes, Unicef says, is the way children are increasingly being accused of being witches, far from the stereotype of the old woman.

Child “witches” are an urban phenomenon, with Save the Children calling it a “modern invention” and children accused of witchcraft being subject to psychological and physical violence; first by family members and their circle of friends, then by church pastors or traditional healers during the “exorcisms”.

Sometimes they can even be killed, but they are more often abandoned—numbers are hard to come by, but it has been estimated that  anything between 23,000 and 50,000 street children in Kinshasa were abandoned or chased away from home because they were accused of being witches.

Boys and girls are equally likely to be accused of being witches, but one study in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state revealed that most of the accused children were middle or last children in the family—a reflection of the high cultural premium placed on first sons. Where the first son was accused it was usually by a step-parent who saw the first son as a threat to her own child being the heir apparent. 

Horror for children

Children with a physical or developmental disability, or any physical abnormality, including a large head, swollen belly, red eyes) are likely to be targeted, as with those with a physical illness (epilepsy, tuberculosis, etc.) or especially gifted children. 

It can even be any kind of “unusual” behaviour, for example children who are stubborn, aggressive, thoughtful, withdrawn or lazy, Unicef says.

The allegations are also more likely to happen in Christian societies, or more precisely, churches with an evangelical, revivalist, Pentecostal outlook, with accusations of child witchcraft far less likely among Muslims. 

One possible reason is in the two religion’s understanding of evil. Personifying evil in one person—the witch— is able to integrate itself so well within Christian tradition because evil has been embodied into one single being, the Devil or Satan. 

But Islam does not have a specific Devil personified as such, instead, Islam discusses “satans”, in the plural, generally incarnated as evil spririts or jinns.

But why would Christianity have a higher tolerance for child witches in particular? It appears that generally speaking, the Qur’an considers young children “weak” and incapable of bearing responsibility for actions, therefore, a child would not be capable of assuming the role of a witch. 

On the other hand, the Christian doctrine of original sin leaves room for placing the blame of evil on all of humanity, so by extension, potentially even young children.


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