Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pentecostalism, Spiritual Warfare & The "Witch Children" of Africa

Part One: Overview, plus a timeline of events, sources and media coverage

UPDATED: Several additions have been made to the sources listed here since I first posted this. These include two additions to what I consider to be key documents: the 2005 report by Save the Children, and Adam Hochschild's recent Mother Jones article. I will continue to add to the sources and the timeline if I find more items that need to be included, but I will leave the Overview as is.


Witch hunting. Forced confessions extracted under torture. Grisly execution methods -- even burning people alive. Surely Christians would never do such things! And if some African Christians are found to be committing such acts today, well, it must have everything to do with the fact that they are African, and nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they are Christian. Right?

There is today a wave, some have even called it an epidemic, of witch-hunting and witch-murders in Africa. The victims are children, and the witch-hunters and witch-killers are Christians. The torture and forced confessions often occur in Churches. And these Christians share something else in common: they are Pentecostalists.

Of course the large majority of Pentecostal Christians in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) do not engage in or in any way condone any kind of child abuse. But Pentecostalists do believe in and actively engage in spiritual warfare, and this spiritual warfare includes identifying individuals who are possessed by demons, and conducting exorcism rituals to "cast out" the demons.

Pentecostal Christianity has spread rapidly around the world and especially in Africa over the last several decades. This has also been a time when nations across Africa have been torn by violent conflicts, such as the Nigerian Civil War (followed by decades of repressive military rule), the Angolan Civil War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Rwandan Genocide, and two consecutive civil wars in Congo. Added to the carnage of these violent conflicts has been the devastation caused by the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The story of Africa's "witch children" has consistently been presented to the public in a highly distorted way. Over and over again we hear that "superstition", "ignorance" and "traditional" beliefs are the culprits. And while the role of Christians, and Pentecostalists in particular, is often acknowledged, there always comes the insistence that the real problem is not with Christians or with Christianity, but with African Christians who mix their ignorant superstitious traditional African beliefs and practices with Christianity.

The fact is that the the phenomenon of "child witches" is something new in Africa, not some "traditional" holdover due to Africans being incompletely or imperfectly Christianized. The root cause of this new phenomenon is the volatile combination of (1) the devastation of war, (2) the ravages of HIV/AIDS, and (3) aggressive proselytizing by Pentecostal Christian missionaries, mostly from the United States, who have brought their especially virulent form of spiritual warfare to Africa.

Below is a very bare bones timeline of important events in the development of the horrifying saga of Africa's Witch Children. Two sources have proven especially invaluable in compiling this. First is an essay written by Olusegun Fakoya, Africa: Child Abuse and Persecution of Children, in November 2008. Fakoya is a Nigerian, and even he engages in the kind of distortion just noted (sadly, many Africans have internalized negative stereotypes about African Traditional Religion). But despite some problems, Fakoya provides both an African perspective, and also an extremely thoughtful overview of the Big Picture, and especially the central role of developments in DR Congo and also Angola.

The other source that has proven extremely helpful is Richard Bartholomew's "barthsnotes" blog. Bartholomew is a British blogger who has been closely following the story of Africa's "witch children" for the past four years. A great deal of the chronology below was pieced together using his blog entries (some of which are included in the timeline).

Also included in the timeline below are the following seven key documents:

Richard Hoskins' 2006 essay: "Torment of Africa's Child Witches"
Save the Children's 2006 report "The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo"
Human Rights Watch's 2006 report: "What Future? Street Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo"
Africa: Child Abuse and Persecution of Children by Olusegun Fakoya
the 2009 report "Witchcraft Allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence," by Jill Schnoebelen of the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Adam Hochschild's March 2010 article on the Congo: Blood and Treasure in Mother Jones
UNICEF's April 2010 report: Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa

Africa's "Witch Children": Timeline of events, key sources & media coverage

Oct. 1992 Mozambican Civil War ends (began in 1977, 1 million dead)
Apr. - July 1994 Rwandan Genocide (1 million dead in 100 days)
Nov. 1996 - May 1997 First Congo War
Aug. 1998 Second Congo War starts
Dec. 1998 Elections mark end to three decades of repressive military rule in Nigeria
Oct. 12 1999 BBC report: Child witches in the Congo
Dec. 22 1999 article: Congo witch-hunt's child victims
Feb. 2000 death of Victoria Climbie (Ivory Coast) in London
Jan. 12 2001 conviction of Marie-Therese Kouao (Ivory Coast) and Carl Manning (Ghana) in death of Victoria Climbie
Aug. 2002 Angolan Civil War ends (began in 1975, half million dead)
2003 Gary Foxcroft first visits Nigeria
May 11 2003 UK Guardian article: Congo casts out it's 'child witches'
July 2003 Second Congo War ends (4 million dead in both Congo wars)
Mar. 28 2004 Chicago Tribune (Paul Salopek) article: Children in Angola tortured as witches
Nov. 2005 "Child B" (Angola) discovered cut and bruised on streets of London
June 3 2005 Sita Kisanga (Congo), Sebastian Pinto (Congo), and a third person (also from Congo) whose name has never been revealed "for legal reasons" convicted of child cruelty in "Child B" case
Jun3 3 2005 BBC article (Cindi John) 'Exorcisms are part of our culture'
June 25 2005 UK Guardian article: How media whipped up a racist witch-hunt
July 11 2005 BBC Newsnight airs program about "child witches" in Angola
July 13 2005 BBC report: Angola witchcraft's child victims
Dec. 2005 Stepping Stones registered as charity in UK
Feb. 5 2006 Richard Hoskins' "Torment of Africa's Child Witches" appears in The Sunday Times
Feb. 12 2006 UK Guardian article: "Thousands of child 'witches' turned on to the streets to starve" [Congo]
Mar. 2006 Save the Children report: "The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo"
February 14, 2006 Congo's Churches and Child Witches [barthsnotes]
Apr. 4 2006 Human Rights Watch report: What Future? Street Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Sep. 2006 first four classrooms of Stepping Stones Model School completed in Akwa Ibom
June 10 2007 Reuters article: Ugandan refugees stone, burn three "witches"
Nov. 15 2007 New York Times article: African Crucible: Cast as Witches, Then Cast Out
Dec. 21 2008 Witchcraft Hysteria in Nigeria Highlighted [barthsnotes]
Nov. 12 2008 "Saving Africa's Witch Children" first airs on BBC Channel 4
Nov. 19, 2008 Africa: Child Abuse and Persecution of Children by Olusegun Fakoya
Jan. 10 2009 UNHCR report: Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence, by Jill Schnoebelen
Feb. 1 2009 Child Witches in Congo Highlighted by UN Report [barthsnotes]
Feb. 8 2009 Child Witch Hysteria Promoted in Cameroon by Presbyterian Evangelist [barthsnotes]
Nov. 1 2009 Boston Globe article: Churches in Nigeria denounce children as witches
May 21 2010
New York Times: "Nigerian Witch-Hunter Explains Herself" (profile of Helen Ukpabio)
Mar. 2010 Adam Hochschild's Mother Jones article on DR Congo: Blood and Treasure
May 26 2010 HBO2 airs "Saving Africa's Witch Children"
Apr. 2010 UNICEF report: Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa