In many parts of Africa, defenseless children are being labeled as “witches”, and the orphaned, sick, disabled and poor, are most likely to be accused. If they are lucky, they are just abandoned by their parents and survive. Tens of thousands children have been accused over the past decade. Thousands have been murdered or have died due to injuries after beatings, torture and/or exorcisms.
7 year old Mary was accused of causing her younger brother's death. Three men came to her house and beat her. Afterwards they dragged her to the church for an exorcism. The next day, her mother tried to kill her with poisonous berries, and threatened her with a barbed-wire hanging. Then she threw boiling water and caustic soda over her head and body. Her father dumped his screaming daughter in a field. “My mother doesn't love me,” Mary said. A tear streaks down her beautiful face.
Mbet's mother accuses her daughter of giving her an illness – which sounded like malaria – so she tried to kill her. Ekemini's father and elders from the church tied her to a tree, the rope cutting her to the bone, and left the 13 year old there alone for more than a week. Udo nearly lost his arm after villagers hacked at him with machetes, and Jane's mother tried to saw off the top of her skull. Magrose's mother dug a pit in the wood and tried to bury her alive. Rita told her mom she had dreamt of a lovely party where there was lots to eat and drink; she was denounced as a witch and abandoned. Rachel was chained up by her pastor, starved and beaten. Jerry was tortured by a priest and then set on fire by his father. “Please stop the pastors who hurt us,” said Jerry quietly, touching the scars on his face.
Labeled a “Witch”
In many parts of Africa, children may be “identified” as “witches” by powerful religious leaders at extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have combined to produce a deep belief in and strong fear of witchcraft.
Many evangelical Christian churches spread the message that witches exist and that child-witches bring misfortune, such as poverty (e.g. loss of job), disease (e.g. cancer, HIV), and death to their families. And they claim that, once possessed, these children can cast spells and contaminate others. Those identified as witches must be cleansed through exorcism. If that does not cure them, they must be abandoned or killed. They take literally the biblical exhortation, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Evil spirits and satanic possessions can be found aplenty in the Bible, and references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians.
The belief in child witches is also spread by DVDs and books. There is a film, widely distributed, called “End of the Wicked”, which tells, in graphic detail, how children become possessed. It shows them being inducted into covens, eating human flesh and bringing chaos and death to their families and communities. There is also a popular book which tells parents how to identify a witch. For children under two years old, the key signs are crying and screaming in the night, high fever and worsening health.
Power and Money
Churches who claim to identify children as witches are seen as spiritually powerful because they can detect witchcraft. The more children a pastor declares witches, the more famous he gets and the more money he can make. So, religious leaders that didn't use to accuse children of witchcraft are often sucked into it by their hunger for power and money.
Priests claim that only they have the power to “cure” the witches by performing exorcism (also called “deliverance”). These exorcisms are highly lucrative for the religious leaders, many of whom enjoy a lifestyle of large homes, expensive cars and designer clothes.
Parents pay priests a lot of money for an exorcism, in the hopes the ceremony will cure their child – often as much as three months salary for the average working man. Some families are bankrupted.
During the "deliverance" ceremonies, children are shaken violently and have potions poured into their eyes. The children look terrified. The parents look on and pray that the child will be cleansed. If the ritual fails, their children will have to be sent away, or killed. Many children are held in churches, chained, starved, beaten, until they “confess” to being a witch.
In Nigeria, a shelter for children who have been labeled as “witches” was founded in 2003. In 2009 it had between 100 and 200 children at any given time. Every day, more children arrive at the refuge, often with severe wounds. Once a child has been labeled as a “witch,” it is very difficult to get his/her parents to accept their child back. If they go back to their community, they risk getting killed. The shelter is under constant attack. Neither the local schools nor the hospitals will care for children accused of witchcraft.
VIDEO: Child 'witches' in Africa