Human-rights groups and assorted do-gooders have been filling up my Twitter timeline with news of a phenomenon many think no longer exists: literal witch hunts.
In 2009 the leader of The Gambia, the self-titled Sheikh Professor Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh—perhaps best known for being the inventor of an herbal HIV “cure”—launched a witch-hunting campaign. Police, army, and national intelligence agents kidnapped up to 1,000 people at gunpoint. They were taken to secret detention centers and severely beaten, almost to the point of death. They were forced to confess and to drink “potions.” At least two died from potion-induced kidney failure.
Self-appointed witch hunter and self-described “Lady Apostle” Helen Ukpabio recently launched a crusade she calls “Witches on the Run” in Nigeria. The Observer reports that accused children in the country are “burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.” Some have had nails driven into their heads. Ukpabio is helping to fuel this rampant child abuse.
Magical genital thievery is a common belief in certain parts of Africa. As a psychiatrist named Sunday Ilechukwu describes it:
Men could be seen in the streets of Lagos holding on to their genitalia either openly or discreetly with their hand in their pockets. Women were also seen holding on to their breasts.
In Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, suspected penis snatchers have been beaten to death by angry mobs. Journalist Frank Bures traveled to Lagos to investigate the issue: “In a typical incident, someone would suddenly yell: Thief! My genitals are gone! Then a culprit would be identified, apprehended, and, often, killed.”
In 2008 police in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrested 13 people for using black magic to steal or shrink men’s penises.
A BBC reporter traveled to a church in Angola seeking child victims of witchcraft. Among those shackled to the walls and the floor he found an emaciated eight-year-old boy. “If the child dies, it means the child is evil,” he was told. The child died days later.
In the Central African Republic an estimated 40 percent of court cases are witchcraft prosecutions. Graeme Wood of The Atlantic spoke to a judge in the country who admitted that “there is usually no evidence.” Asked how one determined guilt he replied, “The judge will look at them and see if they act like witches….His principal advice to clients was to refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.”
Apartheid South Africa’s Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 has been less than successful. In a lengthy review of a recent anthropological study (Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa by Isak Niehaus), Jeremy Harding describes the country’s occult situation:
…when a bunch of kids had chased a monkey from a café, it had ‘mysteriously’ disappeared into Doris’s yard. Obviously she was a witch and the monkey was one of her familiars. The comrades arrived at Doris’s house, dragged her into the courtyard and stoned her to death.
The anthropologist gives one of his subjects money for medical treatment. Naturally the dying AIDS victim spends it on witch-diviners. For all medical symptoms the diagnosis is the same: Witches are responsible. Ear trouble? Witches “wanted to recruit her as a zombie and had put an invisible worm into her ear to start the metamorphosis.” Boils on your legs? “A potion had been placed on her path and she’d absorbed it through the soles of her feet.” A terminally ill woman is taken to a witch-finder who “went into a trance, lured the familiars into her own body and then sneezed them out.”
Where people are undiscerning enough to believe that sorcerers can fly at night and transmogrify into animals, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that some have tried the juju for themselves. Things were so bad in Uganda the government had to set up an Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce.
Since 2007, 45 albinos have been killed in Tanzania. Their limbs, hair, skin, and genitals were used to make potions. Their graves have to be fortified with metal bars and cement to stop the further harvesting of their organs.
From the vantage point of the West, this subject could be viewed with nothing more than morbid anthropological curiosity. Yet thanks to immigration these practices are now appearing in Western countries. Two charities, the NSPCC and World Vision, released a joint statement about the problem. “Across Sub-Saharan Africa, World Vision encounters these cases all too frequently.…And these views can come over to the UK.” The BBC reports that “Hundreds of central African children living in the UK may have suffered abuse or even been killed after being accused of witchcraft, charities say.”
In 2002 the mutilated torso of a boy was found in the River Thames—a human sacrifice by a Nigerian tribe. The police uncovered a trafficking ring that smuggled African children to Britain for occult purposes.
British citizens have been taken to the Congo on “holiday” by their parents to undergo “deliverance ceremonies,” i.e., exorcism. These involve being “cut with razors, stamped on, beaten, shouted at and forced to drink pigeons’ blood.”
At a flat in east London a Congolese couple starved a 15-year-old boy whom they accused of being a sorcerer. According to the Guardian, “floor tiles were smashed over his head, his teeth were hit out with a hammer.” The child was drowned in a bath on Christmas Day in 2010. Thomas Bikebi, director of the Congolese Family Centre, said, “There are people within the community who will say that this pair did the right thing, they killed a witch.”
Three members of the Angolan diaspora rubbed chili peppers in the eyes of an eight-year-old girl and attempted to “beat the devil out of her” in an East London flat. One of the assailants told Radio 5 Live, “In our community in the UK everyone believes in it.” In a separate case another eight-year-old girl, Victoria Climbié, was beaten, burned with cigarettes, and forced to sleep in a bin liner inside an empty bath. She died of hypothermia and malnutrition.
And it’s not just the UK. Latisha Lawson of Fort Wayne, Indiana, forced her three-year-old son to drink a mixture of olive oil and vinegar as part of a ritual to drive a demon called “Marzon” from her son’s body. She held her hand over his mouth to stop him from vomiting. The child died. Lawson kept the child’s body in a plastic bag for more than a year after his death, thinking he would be resurrected. He stayed dead.
Michela Wrong has worked as an Africa correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written in the New Statesman of her profession’s self-censorship:
…the two tacit no-nos of western reporting on the continent, the two ingredients white reporters avoid whenever possible, for fear of being accused of racism. Unfortunately, they are two elements that hold the key to how Africans - even modern, urban, churchgoing Africans - see the world around them: witchcraft and tribalism.
If Michela Wrong is right about self-censorship in mainstream media, one can only wonder about the full scale of barbarity only glimpsed in the fragments collected here, as well as their implications for the demographic revolution currently underway in Western societies.
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