Note: I wasn't going to write this blog. It's not that I feel that the topic should not be talked about. To the contrary, the idea that it should be talked about is the conclusion I reached when conversing with a friend about this earlier today. No, despite it being about a subject that makes me uncomfortable - because that is certainly the case - and despite the fact that some people may misunderstand my reasons for highlighting it - because that surely might be the case - I have decided to write about it.The belief in witches on the African continent is not unusual. Everyone knows they exists. Everyone knows of one. Superstition runs wild. This is not new.
Witch hunts themselves are not new. They go back to the 15th and 16th century in Europe (and even back to ancient times) and we who live in the US are well aware of the witch trials which occurred here in colonial times.
What is relatively new is that modern witch hunts are taking place in certain countries of Africa and certain churches are not only supporting the practice but are profiting from it. I'm sure most of us are familiar with passages from the Bible such as this one from Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The Bible also contains many other verses which could be used to justify taking actions against witches and some churches are using this to their advantage.
What is happening in Sub-Sahara Africa is that when things start to go wrong for a family, or even a community, people try to figure out why. Since they are a superstitious population, they might decide that certain children are witches who are causing the problems. They either throw them out of their home, beat them, torture them or send them to the local pastor. The preacher will determine if they are actually witches and - for a price - offer to perform a ritual to remove the evil spirits from the children. This BBC news article from 1999 tells us about some of the children who have gone through this. This article from the Guardian posted in 2007 gives us a bit more detail about the role of Nigerian churches in this practice. CBS news highlighted the problem in 2009. I'm not going to go into the specifics of the atrocities that have been committed. You can read the articles if you want to know that. Suffice it to say that it is horrible what some of these children have gone through!
Here's what you need to know in a nutshell:
- Children (and sometimes women) in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia, primarily, are being identified as witches.
- They are being thrown out of their homes and in some cases tortured and even killed.
- Churches in the region are exploiting the situation and making quite a bit of money by performing exorcisms to remove the evil spirits from the children and/or their family. Some preachers go as far as to point out which children are witches without the prodding from parents or the community. Again, there is a fee to remove the alleged spirits - if the methods used don't actually kill the child.
- This was first brought to light in 1999 by the BBC but the practices continue today and have spread to western countries. For example, earlier this year, a couple in the UK were sentenced for killing her brother because they thought he was a witch. This is not the only case of its kind in the UK.
- Helen Ukpabio - founder of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries (a church which is exploiting the beliefs of African people for profit) - wants to conduct revival-like services in the US though has indefinitely cancelled the tour for now. These churches want to spread this superstitious nonsense throughout the world.
What can we do about this?
- We can financially support groups who are taking an active role in helping the children. Stepping Stones Nigera is one group. CRARN (Child's Rights and Rehabilitation Network) is another.
- We can email or write to network news programs (60 Minutes and Rock Center with Brian Williams are two examples) and ask them to do a story on these witch-hunts or to interview Leo Igwe. Mr. Igwe is a Nigerian human rights activist who is campaigning against the child witchcraft accusations and is well aware of what is going on in Africa. (He was recently interviewed by a podcaster who produces a podcast called The Good Atheist and a transcript of that interview is available here.)
- Talk or blog about this issue! Outrages like this will continue when they are happening in a non-Western country halfway around the world if no one knows about them. It is easy to ignore them but not if the subject is being brought to light.
- A documentary entitled Saving Africa's Witch Children is available on YouTube and for download. Watch it and recommend it to your friends.
I'll admit that there is very little that I, personally, can do to help but I can contribute to those who can and help spread the news of this atrocity. You can do the same and perhaps by working together we can make a difference.