Monday, July 19, 2010

"Children Accused of Withcraft": New UNICEF Report on Africa's "Witch Children"

UNICEF has released a new 59 page report titled: Children Accused of Witchcraft An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa
(click that link to download the pdf of the full report). The report is dated "April, 2010", but has only recently been widely publicized first in the African press, and now in the western media.

One of the main themes of the report is that widespread violence against children accused of witchcraft is a very recent phenomenon in Africa, and it is not related to African Traditional Religion, but rather is associated with the spread of Christianity and Pentecostalism in particular.

Unfortunately, the idea that traditional "African superstitions" are behind this phenomenon has been widely disseminated in the West, even by people who are supposedly committed to helping the thousands of victims of these accusations, who often suffer horrific abuse and death.

One man in particular, Gary Foxcroft, has made a career for himself out of sensationalizing this tragedy in the name of raising money for his Stepping Stones Foundation (which Foxcroft runs from his hometown of Lancaster in the UK). Foxcroft and his "charity" have consistently stated that the root of the problem lies in traditional African beliefs. According to Foxcroft, the solution is for Africans to become better Christians, because then they would stop being so ignorant and superstitious.

Below are two excerpts from the full UNICEF report. [Also check out other relevant posts from this blog collected here: The Christian Roots of the "Witch Children" Phenomenon in Africa.]
Excerpt 1. Predominance of Christianity [section 2.2. in the report]

Churches, especially those belonging to the Pentecostal and prophetic movement (charismatic, revivalist, etc.), play an important role in the diffusion and legitimization of fears related to witchcraft, and in particular, child witches. The pastor‐prophet is an important figure in the process of accusing children of witchcraft, by effectively validating the presence of a “witchcraft spirit”. Pentecostalists, for example, present their faith as a form of divine armour against witchcraft, and they participate actively in the fight against Evil that is incarnated through witchcraft.

Despite a lack of precise and detailed information, it would appear that this phenomenon is far less significant in Islamic countries. It is important to understand why reactions to witchcraft in countries of Islamic belief differ from those in Christianized countries. Certain writers believe the difference stems from the ability to translate their religious message. The translation of the Bible into the local language was a priority for early ministers and priests: “The Word of God: open to everyone” (Fancello, 2006:113). For example, in Burkina Faso, the policy of indigenization resulted in missionaries from the Assemblies of God learning the Möré language and investing in translating biblical text (ibid.). In contrast with Christian practice, Islam considers Arabic to be a sacred language and has rejected any attempt at translating religious texts into local languages. “Whoever wants to praise God,” comment Christine Henry and Emmanuelle Kadya Tall, “must do it in Arabic, and submit to learning verses at a Koranic school” (2008: 19). In contrast, by putting sacred texts within everyone’s reach, Christianity has facilitated the successful localization of its message and led to the creation of authentic African movements and churches.

Another possible reason is the difference in the perception of Evil in each of the religions. Witchcraft is able to integrate itself so well within Christian discourse because it has been personified and associated with the Devil or Satan. Do witches benefit from the same support from Satan or the Devil in Islamic discourse? While it should be acknowledged that in Islam there is reference to a satanic force, it is not attributed to a single figure who personifies Evil. Instead, Islam discusses “satans”, in the plural. The satans are generally incarnated as jinns and shayâtîn. The latter spirits are generally considered to be responsible for illness and madness that is attributed to satanic possession. However, it is clear that, although there is a difference in the perception of Evil, Islam does present itself as an antidote to witchcraft, by developing talismans or other counter‐measures to warn of or thwart witchcraft spells or attacks.


Despite the translation of the Christian message and the perception of witchcraft as the Devil’s work, the question remains as to why children are accused more frequently in Christian circles. And why are these accusations less common in Islam? There is not enough detailed data to answer these questions. However, it would appear that the response lies within the doctrines and representations that each religion has with regard to children and their place in the religious system. Generally speaking, the Koran does not address underage children, but rather older children with an understanding of responsibility, or the adults responsible for them. The power of the child thus appears to be reduced. Consequently, a child would not be capable of assuming the role of a witch. In contrast, in Christian belief, there has been a transformation in the perception of children’s power: previously children were considered too weak to practice witchcraft, as in current Islamic belief. Now, however, their “power” seems to be gaining in strength.

Excerpt 2. The Deliverance of Child Witches [section 4.1 in the full report]

Revivalist churches [subsection 4.1.1]

Since the end of the 1980s, there has been a rise of various religious movements in sub‐Saharan Africa. The most visible groups originate in the large “universal religions”: protestant movements (evangelical, apostolic, Pentecostal, Baptist or Methodist) and the charismatic renewal in Catholicism. In sub‐Saharan cities, the public space is filled with these churches. It is of course necessary to distinguish, state André Mary and André Corten, the “historical” Pentecostal churches (Assemblies of God or Pentecostal Churches), some of whom have been present for over a hundred years, and those churches belonging to the “Pentecostal movement”, such as revivalist, spiritualist or African prophetic churches (2000: 12).

Pentecostalism is a religious movement in which followers claim personal experience of a supernatural force, the Holy Spirit. Generally speaking, Pentecostalists believe that everyone can be saved by faith in Jesus. The force of the Holy Spirit within those who have been truly saved is the most obvious characteristic that distinguishes Pentecostalism from other forms of evangelical Christianity. During services, the Holy Spirit is called upon to descend on the faithful and is a necessary presence in ceremonies.

Followers attend services several times a week that can last many hours and take place in a highly charged atmosphere of singing, prayers, trances, sermons, revelations – testifying and confessions – healing rituals through laying on of hands, miracles and offerings. The “high” points are undoubtedly the public or private deliverance sessions, divine healing and testifying typically related to the forces of evil. Followers’ whole lives centre on their church, which integrates them in a new kind of community, the Pentecostal family. They call each other brothers and sisters. The main message of these churches focuses on their ability to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to fight against the satanic world that is incarnated by witches, evil spirits and ancestral spirits. Pentecostalism takes all these imaginary African characters seriously and gives them a new status through assimilation with Satan. These are of course highly syncretistic churches that have successfully integrated African beliefs into their discourse, as well as certain behaviour, such as trances and possession. According to André Mary and André Corten, Pentecostal discourse gains “its strength and ability to mobilize the two imaginary worlds of public space and invisible forces by intertwining them and inventing a new syntax” (ibid.: 17). By manipulating the forces of good to combat the forces of evil, Pentecostalism operates essentially in the universe of demonization.

Deliverance and the “spiritual war” [subsection 4.1.2]

Most Pentecostal churches (revivalist and charismatic) are centred around a pastor or prophet who claims to have been chosen by God through divine revelation. In their main objective to fight an omnipresent evil (witchcraft is an evil force that is still omnipresent), the pastor‐prophets offer their followers not only a better life – financial prosperity – but above all divine healing and deliverance (from where the commonly named, “healing churches”).
Maman Joséphine L. was born in 1954 and began working in 1974 in response to a miraculous divine calling. In 1997, she began to help children overcome bad spirits through deliverance. In her opinion, it is God who has given her this gift. The bewitching of children is shown to her by a spirit and through prayer. (Aguilar Molina, 2005: 27)
The phenomenon of deliverance is, according to Sandra Fancello, “at the heart of the explosion of Pentecostalism in Africa since the beginning of the 1990s” (2006: 147). The practice of deliverance is at essence based on a dualistic vision of the world between the forces of evil and divine power. It is closely linked with divine healing through the fight against genies and evil spirits that haunt African populations by inflicting physical and psychological harm. The personalization of the image of the demon, notably in the figure of the witch, enables churches to declare a “war against Satan” (Meyer, 1995).

Through increased reliance on therapeutic aspects – the miraculous healing – these churches’ discourse focuses on the healing and salvation of the soul, through “exorcisms” that are often accompanied by singing or performance that reduce anxiety. Many confessions by members involve visions or being possessed by evil spirits. While exorcism and promises of divine or miraculous healing apply to the individual – within the family – “deliverance” often contains a collective dimension, that of spiritual war and liberation from evil forces.

This healing by the Holy Spirit is interpreted as being miraculous, and forms part of the validation or certification procedure of the prophet, who is supposed to be capable of healing all kinds of illnesses. These include diabolic, satanic illnesses that modern medicine (that is, “the white man’s”) cannot cure, such as AIDS, cancer and diabetes. Accounts by people who have been “cured” of AIDS can be heard every day on the radio or television. They give hope to all those who have not yet received this deliverance from God. According to Fancello, “miraculous healing is at the centre of conversion strategies of Pentecostal churches” (2006: 148), but is equally valid for other revivalist churches.

The role of pastor‐prophets and “spiritual” treatment [subsection 4.1.3]

The role of pastor‐prophets in these churches seems to be of major importance in the “anti‐witch hunt”, not only through the possibility of bringing deliverance to people possessed, but also through their ability to identify witches. In several African cities, these pastor‐prophets play an essential role in witchcraft accusations against children. Although they are not always at the origin of the accusation – the person is already suspected by the family or members of the community – they confirm and legitimize the accusation. Numerous articles in the press, videos on the Internet64 and anthropological studies indicate that in Angola,65 CAR, DRC66 and Nigeria,67 as elsewhere in sub‐ Saharan Africa, these pastors detect witches through visions and dreams.

Maman Putu, from the Eben Ezer centre in Kinshasa, calls herself a prophet and explains her gifts in the following terms:
When a child first comes here, I first check the condition of his soul. I’m not only a prophet but also a clairvoyant. I start by praying with the child and then I ask him some questions about his dreams and his food situation. I use references and I can very quickly tell if a child is bewitched or not. (D’Haeyer, 2004: 37)
The “spiritual” treatment can only begin once the child has confessed. The confession is often obtained under duress or violence, as one accused of witchcraft, Bruno, explains:
For three days we were not allowed to eat or drink. On the fourth day, the prophet put our hands above a candle to make us confess. So I admitted the accusations and the harsh treatment stopped. Those who didn’t confess were threatened with whipping. (Interview by Human Rights Watch with Bruno, Kinshasa, 30 September 2005)
In exchange for money, the pastors then propose the “soul cure”, which consists of divine healing and the deliverance of the child. In the language of the Pentecostal churches, a child that is possessed by the evil spirits of “witchcraft” must be delivered “from the forces of darkness”. Deliverance ceremonies can last several days, and generally begin with the laying on of hands and prayers; they regularly transform into extremely violent “exorcisms”. According to de Boeck, “the space of the healing church enables the relocation and reformulation of the physical and psychological violence, sometimes extreme, that the accused child undergoes within the family group. In fact, the child is extracted from the threatening family situation in which his place has become very problematic, to be entrusted to a pastor. There, the treatment is often equally severe, beginning with a period of reclusion or quarantine, which may be individual or collective with other child witches.” (2000: 41)

The “spiritual” treatments described in studies carried out in Angola68 and DRC69 also exhibit a violent nature. The “healing” of children accused of witchcraft varies from one church to the next, and from one region to the next. Children are sometimes isolated in the churches for a period ranging from a few days to several months. During this time, they are forced to fast, deprived of food and water for such long periods that some children die.

The treatment can also consist of swallowing potions, administering perfume, spiced sauces, as well as injecting petrol in the eyes or ears. They are also often beaten.70 The surveys carried out by Ballet, Dumbi and Lallou in Kinshasa offer further evidence of the extreme violence inflicted on certain children. Glodie Mbete, aged eleven, recounts her “deliverance”:
The healing ceremonies took place in the revivalist churches. One pastor burned my body with candles. A prophet mama covered my body with a red cloth. In yet another church, they poured the sap from a tree into my eyes. It stung terribly. The healer said that the witchcraft had gone. My eyes hurt so badly. (Ballet, Dumbi and Lallou, 2007: 15)
In this way, the children are not only stigmatized because they are accused of witchcraft, they are also abused and tortured within the churches. The churches claim to eliminate the evil definitively from the child’s body. However, if the child survives this “spiritual” treatment, he will be stigmatized as being a witch and rejected by his family. The phenomenon of the child witches illustrates, as Facello rightly notes, “the paradox of churches that are themselves caught in the trap of witchcraft accusations while claiming to fight against witches. Between witch and counter‐witch, there is a constant switching of places (2008: 78). Another result is that parents sometimes doubt that their child has been healed after deliverance ceremonies in churches. It is not uncommon that after being initially convinced, after experiencing a single new misfortune, the child is once again accused.

Miracle Merchants [subsection 4.1.4]

All the “spiritual” treatments offered by pastors and prophets belonging to Pentecostal, revivalist and other churches require some form of payment. To my knowledge, no church offers these services for free. While the fee may vary from one church to the next, it is generally higher than most people can afford. For example, one Congolese family, for whom the pastor had detected five cases of witchcraft, had to pay the equivalent of €24 plus a piece of sheet metal for each child. Another family had to pay the equivalent of €27 per child, and so on. (Aguilar Molina, 2005: 29). One young believer explained it thus:
The hard‐earned money of the women selling vegetables in the market goes towards building the pastor’s villas or the upkeep of one or other of his mistresses. (D’Haeyer, 2004: 45)
The earnings from a deliverance ceremony, and also during a regular service when the collection plate goes around, are not insignificant. Consequently, a number of pastor‐prophets, including women, have found their calling in the anti‐witch hunt, as is the case with Prophet Helen Ukpabio in Nigeria. She founded the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, whose primary goal has become the detection and deliverance of child witches. For these pastor‐prophets, “detecting” child witches brings not only money, but also a certain social status and popularity that draws new members and “clients”, and leads to yet more income. Accusations against children therefore form part of this vicious circle of the prophets’ “business” and their status.

According to Marshal‐Fratani (2001), these days, pastor‐prophets are the new models of social success and power. They are associated with wealth, social status, connections with transnational networks and contacts among the political elite. Their conspicuous wealth – clothes, luxury cars, mobile phones and computers, villas, jewellery, etc. – escapes no one. They own television channels and radio stations, and they do not hesitate to advertise themselves, as the following billboard shows:



All this promotion is part of the goal to increase the number of members, who represent their “wealth in numbers”. Without ignoring their social function, while fighting evil, revivalist churches keep their members afraid of their neighbours and promote fatalism rather than action. Furthermore, although pastor‐prophets represent the fighters in the struggle against the forces of evil, they cannot escape from the suspicion that they are in fact collaborating with these forces. “Through healing gestures and other “miracles” that are supposed to replace the “charlatan witch”, these pastors appear to be endowed with the same extraordinary magical powers, and are therefore witches.” (Marshal Fratani, 2001: 43). This brings them, symbolically at least, closer to their direct “competition”, traditional healers.

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