Here in America, we enjoy funny, cute witches on television and in the movies. The Harry Potter kids have grown over several movies, and audiences can’t wait until the next book or movie. However, witchcraft over the ages has not been fun and games, and in Africa today, being accused of witchcraft can mean imprisonment, torture or even death.
For centuries, churches and mostly rural communities have blamed bad weather, failed crops and the sickness or death of family on someone summoning the powers of darkness. We tend to look on societies that believe in what we consider superstitions to be less than completely civilized. However, this fails to take into account such excesses in our nation’s past as the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century. As recently as the late 20th century, there was a wave of reports about satanic cults and child sacrifice throughout America.
Here in the 21st century, Africans, mainly children, are victimized by people playing on fear, ignorance and desperate poverty. As a result, various international agencies and organizations report that thousands of children are losing their homes and even their lives each year across the continent.
· A United Nations study reported in 2009 that half the people in a local prison in the Central African Republic were being held because of accusations of witchcraft, which is a criminal offense punishable by execution if the accused is charged with causing the death of another person.
· An Africare official in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussing the growing number of children accused of being witches in May 2009, said they are often subjected to violent exorcisms in which they are beaten, burned, starved or even murdered. The official added that accusations of witchcraft “have become socially acceptable reasons for why a family turns a child out on the street.”
· The Associated Press reported the story of a nine-year-old Nigerian boy whose family pastor had denounced him as a witch last October, leading the boy’s father to try to force acid down the youth’s throat, instead burning away his face. According to AP, the boy, who died a month after the incident, was one of about 100 cases out of 200 interviews in which a pastor had accused a child of being a witch.
· Amnesty International reported in March 2009 that about 1,000 Gambians accused of being witches were locked in detention centers and forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion.
There are numerous other examples I could cite. Over the past few decades during which I have travelled to African countries, there are few instances in which during my trip there was not some report of witchcraft suspected or punished. Like many, I came back with tales of published reports such as the campaigns against people believed to have shrunken men’s sexual organs. Some of these reports I took to be cultural curiosities, often not amounting to more than discrimination caused by ignorance and fear. But now this fear and ignorance is leading to the deaths of those too weak to defend themselves.
Accusations often are made by so-called Christian preachers latching onto Biblical texts from the Old Testament warning against allowing witchcraft in one’s midst. Exodus 22:18 states: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” These unschooled, uncompassionate leaders claim to hear from God that some child or adult is practicing witchcraft and must be punished for the good of the community. In so many cases of the spiritually blind leading the spiritually blind, desperation caused by uncontrollable situations leads even relatives to denounce their children and either cast them out or turn them over to those whom they believe represent the justice of God. Sometimes, it is said, these relatives just seek to escape responsibility for another mouth to feed when times are hard.
Lest we continue to blame these people and turn away from an unpleasant and embarrassing situation, we must look in the mirror and acknowledge that our silence on this human rights tragedy is partly our fault. By doing and saying nothing, we allow children to be turned to the cruelty of the streets or the absence of mercy of those who receive payment for their vicious treatment of the weak.
I had to think long and hard about writing this blog because of concern over contributing to a negative view of Africa, but my continued silence on this issue is no longer possible for me. The lives of people are more important than the reputation of countries.
Cain asked God in the Book of Genesis if he were his brother’s keeper. The answer then is the same as the answer now: Yes. Let us never forget this responsibility for the wellbeing of others.