Aleksandra Cimpric, Children Accused of Witchcraft: an Anthropological Study of Contemporary Practices in Africa, UNICEF, April 2010, 57 pp., PDF download from Unicef.org.
Westerners tend to think that African witchcraft is a peasant phenomenon that is gradually fading away as Africa modernizes. Not so. If anything, belief in magic is on the rise, and is certainly not limited to the countryside. Aleksandra Cimpric has written a report on sorcery for UNICEF that draws on extensive research, and on her four years of experience in the Central African Republic. She finds that the practice of witchcraft is changing, but certainly not dying out.
For example, the last 30 years have seen a tremendous increase in the number of children who are accused of witchcraft, and Miss Cimpric points out that such accusations are especially common in cities. As for witchcraft in general, a student in Bangui, Central African Republic, put it this way in 2006:
Witchcraft is more powerful than ever. In the past, people just wanted little things. Now they want a mobile phone, a TV, a car, a big house. Everyone wants to get ahead. People are becoming more jealous. If his neighbor has a radio or telephone, and he doesn’t, then he might use sorcery . . . .
Consequently, there is more open talk of magic. A man from the Central African Republic explains:
Before, [witchcraft] was taboo. No one even wanted to hear talk of witches. So as soon as you talked about witchcraft, there would be a strong reaction. Yet now, it’s become almost commonplace. People talk about it all the time.
There are many different African words that are translated as “witchcraft,” but to Africans they represent distinct phenomena. One refers to invisible beings that eat a victim’s life-essence during the night. Another refers to the practice of a recognized sorcerer who uses plants and rituals during the day to hurt enemies. Many Africans also believe that other kinds of witches gather at night to feast on human victims.
Because there are no authorities or rules that govern witchcraft, these concepts are always changing. If an anthropologist goes back to a tribe he studied decades ago, he may find that the practices and language have changed greatly.
One thing is usually constant, however: Misfortune is rarely thought to have occurred completely naturally. It is not that Africans do not understand natural causes, but natural causes don’t satisfy them. If a man dies from cirrhosis of the liver, Africans do not question that disease killed him, but they want to know why this man and not another? And why at this precise moment? So they say, “A witch ate his liver,” and that is what caused what the doctor calls cirrhosis. This explanation complements and does not contradict the natural explanation, and explains not how the man died but why.
Witches are detected through a process called “the ordeal.” One common ordeal is for suspects to take a poison of some kind while a healer calls on the spirits and gods to help identify the witch. Christian churches are popular venues for ordeals, and many “ministers” are little more than exorcists. Some Pentecostal preachers make witch hunting a big part of their work, and promote the idea that witches are everywhere.
Witchcraft is changing. Its power was traditionally limited to a particular village, but today, university students may fail courses because of witchcraft that was practiced far away in their home villages. Modern witches may ride invisible “airplanes” made of such things as peanut shells or mango-tree bark.
Traditionally, witches almost always attacked relatives; today they may hex neighbors, acquaintances, or colleagues. And whereas witchcraft was formerly thought to be innate and inherited, it can now be bought. Thus it adapts itself to urbanization, technology, and the money economy.
Prominent or powerful people are almost never accused of being witches; suspects are usually the weak and vulnerable. Traditionally, older women — widows who lived alone — were the likeliest suspects. No one knows why suspicion now turns increasingly on children.
Child witchcraft accusations are most common in the countries of the Congo River Basin — Congo (Kinshasa), Congo (Brazzaville), Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Northern Angola — as well as in Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The typical child witch is a boy between the ages of three and fourteen. Children with physical defects, which can be as mild as bloodshot eyes or stuttering, are often accused. So are children with unusual behavior, who are thought to be “stubborn, aggressive, thoughtful, withdrawn or lazy.”
Orphans are common targets, as are step-children. In Africa, when one parent dies, the other usually remarries, so many children live with step-families and are never fully accepted. These are the people who take the blame when some misfortune happens to the people around them.
Many children accused of witchcraft are summarily lynched. Others are driven out of their homes and join the hordes of children that live on the streets of African cities. Many of them were orphaned when their parents died of AIDS, but in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi they have now been joined by thousands of alleged child witches.
Some children unload trucks or carry heavy loads for a pittance. Others beg or deal drugs. Girls begin working as prostitutes from the age of six or seven. At night, children lie in front of buildings that offer some kind of shelter; a few make beds from pieces of cardboard. These unfortunates seldom survive to adulthood.
Accused child witches that are not killed or driven off are taken to healers. Treatment can begin only after the child has confessed to being a witch, however, and as one boy from Kinshasa reported, healers are not squeamish about the techniques they use to get confessions:
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.
Cures can go on for several days, and involve beatings and insertion of potions or gasoline into the eyes or ears. An eleven-year-old from Kinshasa recalled that “one pastor burned my body with candles,” adding that “in another church, they poured the sap from a tree into my eyes. It stung terribly.”
Some Africans think witches have something inside their bodies that acts independently of their wills. In these cases, treatment requires cutting open the child’s belly to remove what is actually a small piece of the intestine.
However painful, no deliverance is final, and parents often wonder if their child is really cured. Of all the things one could doubt about witchcraft, the only one Africans seem to doubt is the reliability of treatment. After a new misfortune, the same child may once again be blamed.
“Spiritual treatments” cost a lot of money by African standards; Miss Cimpric mentions fees of €24 and €27. As one young African explains: “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.” Healers flaunt their luxury cars, houses, and jewelry. They advertise their services in magazines and on billboards, and some own television and radio stations that broadcast stories about their exploits.
Children who confess to witchcraft make astonishing claims. Here is the account of one Congolese boy:
My name is Mamuya. I’m 16 years old. I became a witch because of one of my friends, Komazulu. He gave me a mango one day. The next night, he came to my parents’ house and threatened to kill me if I didn’t give him some human flesh in exchange for the mango he had given me. From then on, I became his night-time partner and joined his group of witches. I didn’t tell my mother about it. There are three of us in our group. At night we fly in our plane which we made from the bark of a mango tree, to our victims’ homes. When we fly at night, I change into a cockroach. Komazulu is the pilot. He does the killing. He gives me the flesh and blood and I eat and drink it. Sometimes he gives me an arm, sometimes a leg. Personally I prefer the buttocks. . . . Sometimes when a man has just been buried in the cemetery, we go there and say a prayer. The prayer wakes the dead man and then we eat him.
This is a 10-year old Congolese boy’s story:
I was a witch. I was bewitched by my grandmother. One night, she came to see me when I was sleeping. She gave me bread and tea. That’s when I began my astral voyages with her. One day she told me to kill papa in return for the bread and tea she had given me.
A 12-year-old girl from the Central African Republic claimed that “at night I changed into a cockroach to get out through the bars and meet up with my uncle, who had changed into a cat.” A Congolese child made this claim:
I’ve eaten 800 people. I made them have car or plane accidents. I even went to Belgium thanks to a mermaid who took me all the way to the port of Anvers [Antwerp]. Sometimes I travel on my broomstick, sometimes by flying on an avocado skin. At night I’m aged 30 and have got 100 children. My father lost his job as an engineer because of me — and then I killed him, with the help of the mermaid. I killed my brother and sister too. I buried them alive. I also killed all the children from my mother.
Miss Cimpric notes that hardly anyone doubts these crazy stories. As a police superintendent in Banguui, Central African Republic, explained in 2007, “Children are too pure and too innocent. They never lie.” Miss Cimpric points out, however, that children who make confessions under duress may take back their stories once they are older or are in a safe environment.
Despite the fact that many Africans have never seen the ocean, mermaids play a surprisingly prominent role in African witchcraft. In Congo (Kinshasa), which has a tiny coastline, and in the Central African Republic, which is landlocked, there is widespread belief in the Mami-Wata. She is a white woman with long, straight hair and a fish tail, who promises her victim wealth and eventually drives him insane.
Albinos and “bad births”
Miss Cimpric also reports on the murder of Albinos and the killing of children whose births are somehow “irregular.” Albino-killing is not a traditional custom, and the craze is centered in Tanzania, where several dozen albinos were killed in 2008 alone. It is catching on elsewhere. A Cameroonian albino explains: “People think we are magical creatures, that we’ve come back from the dead as a punishment from God for something we did in our previous life.”
Certain parts of the body of an albino, including the skin, tongue, hands, ears, skull, heart, and genitals are believed to have magic powers and are prized as ingredients in potions and charms. There is a brisk trade in these organs, and they fetch a good price.
Many Africans fear children who are “badly born:” those who emerge from the womb in an irregular way, have some physical defect, or are born with teeth. These babies are thought to bring bad luck, and may be killed immediately after birth. Many that are not killed are exposed, or if they are kept, they may be shunned from an early age. Unlike witchcraft, Miss Cimpric reports that these practices are in decline, but are still common in Benin.
In some parts of Africa, twins are met with rejoicing, but in others they are another example of “bad birth.” The Thonga of Zambia think twin births cause drought. Elsewhere, people associate them with animal spirits, and think they have a special gift for turning into animals.
Many Nigerians think twins can fly, and also cause sickness and misfortune. In one Nigerian incident in 2007, when twins were born, the villagers cried, “They are witches; take them away before they kill us all.” Many twins are exposed, but some are killed outright.
The UNICEF report concludes with a call for witchcraft of a different kind: “program responses,” “community dialogue,” “systems approaches,” “anti-stigma strategies,” and “negotiation and mediation,” etc. The idea that this sort of thing is going to cure Africa of witchcraft is about as plausible as flying to Antwerp on an avocado skin. Africans have been exposed to Western science since colonial times, and even the remotest villagers know about cars, telephones, and cameras. Even if Africans had the money for “systems approaches,” the African mentality is not likely to change.
Today, the craze may be child witches. Tomorrow it will be something else.