I just returned from a two day conference on witchcraft branding, spirit possession, and safeguarding African children. The conference was organised by a UK-based charity, Africans United Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA). The aim of the conference was to mobilize the faith communities against the practice of witchcraft branding by highlighting the negative impact of this phenomenon and the belief in spirit possession on African children in the UK and in Africa.
According to the organisers, "The conference will explore the issue of branding children as witches in all its dimensions, looking at different factors underlying the phenomenon, its impact, different policies and strategies to tackle this growing problem. A focus will be put on the importance of religious beliefs given the role the faith organisations can play in enforcing the recommendations that will come out of the conference".
Personally, I was fascinated by the theme of the conference. I was delighted to know that another international child rights NGO had taken up the fight against witch hunting in the region. For me, the conference's objective was a tall order. In fact, I had my doubts as to how far the conference could go in addressing this important topic. Because Africa is a deeply religious society, and very often faith, dogma, and tradition trump human rights whenever issues concerning Africa are discussed. Faith or better religion is at the root of most problems that plague the continent, including that of witchcraft accusation. Sadly, many Africans are reluctant to acknowledge this. Many more people in the region are unwilling to challenge religious doctrines, traditions, and practices, particularly when they conflict with reason, science, and common sense. Many Africans do not want to question or be seen to be criticizing the dogmas of witchcraft belief. They often refrain from demanding evidence or proof of witchcraft claims. Many Christians in Africa find justification for witchcraft-related abuse in the Bible, which they believe to be the literal word of God.
But I must say that the conference succeeded beyond my expectation. Representatives of various governmental and non-govermental organisations, including the UK government, the goverments of Congo DRC, and Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria, made presentations highlighting how they were responding to the problem. Many non-governmental organizations as well as faith- and community-based groups like Stepping Stones, Congolese Family Centre, African Health and Policy Network, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union were also present and shared their thoughts, insights, and strategies for addressing the problem. Also at the conference were representatives of UNICEF and the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, scholars, researchers, and activists in the area of child rights, care, and protection in the UK and in Africa. There was also a screening of the award-winning film the Witches of Gambaga. Gambaga is a village in the northern region of Ghana in West Africa where mainly women accused of witchcraft take refuge. This "witch camp" has been in existence for over a century. Recently, there have been calls for the camp to be closed down. But there are concerns over this initiative, because sending the women back to the communities they fled could be sending them back to be murdered.
Generally, there was free and open debate on the issue of witchcraft branding and spirit possesion. I contributed a lot to the debate and sometimes provoked and championed it. Some church leaders and other witchcraft believers at the event were visibly uncomfortable with comments critical of witchcraft.
As I expected, many participants were reluctant to discuss and actually declare witchcraft and the belief in spirit possession as superstitious. The representative of UNICEF said the agency was not interested in changing the belief but in addressing the abuses that are committed as a result of the belief. But that is where UNICEF got it wrong. Getting Africans to understand that witchcraft is superstition is not changing the belief but clearing and clarifying a fundamental misconception at the root of witchcraft branding. And UNICEF should not shy away from this important responsibility. Africans brand their children witches and subsequently abuse them because they believe these children have magical powers which they use to cause harm, death, and diseases in families and communities. UNICEF needs to answer these questions: Do children have magical powers? Do children fly out at night as birds or spirits to meet in covens where they suck blood or plot harm? Can a child be possessed by the spirit of witchcraft (whatever that means)? Can a child cause accidents or inflict harm or misfortune on anyone using "magical" means? Last year, UNICEF released a report on witchcraft accusation of children in Africa. The study focused on the complexity and diversity of the problem of witchcraft accusation in the region. But is that the issue? No.
I drew the attention of the representative of UNICEF and other participants to the fact that as long as we refrained from challenging and ascertaining the veracity of witchcraft claims, we were only treating the symptom, not the disease. But I must say that one of the child rights groups at the event, Stepping Stones Nigeria was in agreement with me on this. They stated in their presentation that challenging the belief in witchcraft was one of their strategies to combat this cultural scourge. I hope UNICEF and other agencies would adopt the same strategy too.
So, the two days were quite stimulating, and I have every reason to say that we are making some progress in the campaign against witchcraft accusations in Africa, even though a lot of work is still to be done. Much public enlightenment is required to eradicate this social menace. Fortunately, I met some activists from Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and other parts of Africa who were in agreement with this and who were ready to partner with me and the JREF in the campaign against witchcraft accusations in the region.
Leo Igwe is a skeptical activist in Nigeria and a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Currently, he is researching African witchcraft accusations at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is partnering with the JREF to respond in a more organized and grassroots way to the growing superstitious beliefs about witchcraft throughout the continent of Africa. More details on this collaboration will be announced in the coming weeks.