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Discussing Angola in 2006, The National Catholic Reporter writes that accusations of witchcraft and resultant assaults sometimes target “children suffering from diseases such as malaria and AIDS, or street children…. Between 2001 and 2005, 423 children accused of witchcraft sought refuge at the Santa Child Centre run by the Catholic Church in M’banza Congo….” According to the Reporter, one such “three-year-old HIV-positive child was suspected of placing a curse on his parents, so neighbors abandoned the child in a coop, where chickens pecked out one of his eyes.”1

In northern Ghana as of 2010, according to The Guardian, “More than 1,000 women accused of witchcraft … live in refuges, where they have to pay for protection from the chief who runs them.”2 The Ghanian women have not only been ostracized, but most often have been beaten, even tortured, prior to taking refuge in the witch camps.

In November 2010, in a different article at The Guardian, David Smith reports that a 72-year-old Ghanaian woman, suspected of being a witch, was burned to death. Ama Hemmah was “allegedly tortured into confessing she was a witch, doused in kerosene and set alight. She suffered horrific burns and died the following day.”3 According to Ghana’s Daily Graphic, Hemmah was attacked by no less than five people, one of whom is an evangelical pastor.4

In a later Guardian article, Cameron Duodu asks the pained question, “Why are ‘witches’ still being burned alive in Ghana?5 And in answering, Duodu might as well be speaking of Europe in the Middle Ages, or Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The mechanics and the narratives of the witch-hunting described by Duodu are the precisely the same as the earlier enactments, regardless of cultural differences, regardless of centuries or even half a millennium between the events:

[A] marriage breaks down, due to infidelity or pecuniary hardship, and the older woman in the household is responsible. A young, unemployed man becomes listless and shows signs of depression: an elderly lady wants to destroy him. A lorry driver gets drunk and crashes his vehicle at night: an elderly woman shone a torch into his eyes and blinded him, running his vehicle into a ditch. Even simple things such as pupils failing exams, or crops failing, or an inability to save money, are laid at the doors of “witches.”

Likewise, as noted throughout the work of most historians of witch-hunts, outbreaks of witch-hunting are, among other things, marked by the convergence of both religious beliefs on the part of leaders, and religious and traditional folk beliefs of “the people,” both fueled in part by the cross-cultural impulse to scapegoat. “[W]ith the aid of both traditional superstitions and the modern equivalent preached in the ‘charismatic churches,’” writes Duodu, “swaths of Ghanaian society” who already “absolve themselves of personal responsibility in almost all things,” then “embark on acts of brutality against helpless scapegoats.”6

A longer quote from the National Catholic Reporter article cited earlier, puts in perspective the roles of religious leaders, and even educators, in enabling, if not facilitating, the witch-hunts:

In February 2007, the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, held a three-day symposium on witchcraft. Experts warned that witchcraft is “destroying” the Catholic Church in Africa, in part because skeptical, Western-educated clergy don’t take the beliefs behind it seriously.

“It is important for the Church to understand the fears of the people, and not to attribute them to superstition,” said Michael Katola, a lecturer in pastoral theology. “Witchcraft is a reality; it is not a superstition. Many communities know these powers exist.… If we don’t believe in the existence of witchcraft as Satanism, then we cannot deal with it.”7

Indeed, with university professors and “experts” discussing witchcraft only by way of the fate of the Catholic Church in Africa, discussing the need to “understand” the “reality” of witchcraft and “Satanism,” rather than focusing on the injuries and deaths of women and children, the matter is dire in the extreme.

But, if there is any good news for the victims of these witch-hunts, it is that Catholic clergy and Catholic professors are not the only people paying attention. A late-2011 book from UCT Press, Traditional African Religions in South African Law, includes a chapter written by Nelson Tebbe, “Witchcraft and the Constitution,” which “examines constitutional questions surrounding witchcraft beliefs and practices in South Africa,” including two of the more “common” witchcraft narratives: attacks on alleged witches, and “accounts of killings for body parts, presumably so that the parts can be used in muthi,” as well as “reprisals against those suspected of carrying out such murders.”8

A multiple-award-winning documentary, The Witches of Gambaga (website at http://www.witchesofgambaga.com), trains its lens on just one witch camp among those refuges mentioned earlier, in Ghana. Directed by Yaba Badoe, and co-produced by Badoe and Amina Mama,9 The Witches of Gambaga “is the product of a collaboration between members of the 100 strong community of ‘witches’ and women’s movement activists determined to end abusive practises and improve women’s lives in Africa.”10 In an interview with Colorful Times, Badoe says “The next step is to stop violence against women who are our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and daughters. Public eduction and commitment by African governments to stop these terrible abuses against women are paramount.”11

A resistance to interfering with peoples’ belief-systems, however laudable in theory, is problematic in terms of stopping the aforementioned abuses. On 16 November 2011, Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and currently a research fellow at the Department of Religion, University of Bayreuth in Germany, penned an article for Nigeria’s Daily Times, “Saving the African child from witchcraft.” Having recently returned from a two-day conference on “Witchcraft Branding, Spirit Possession and Safeguarding African Children,” which had been organized by a UK-based charity, Africans United Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA), a frustrated Igwe writes, “Faith or better, religion, is at the root of most problems that plague the continent, including that of witchcraft accusation”:12

Sadly, many Africans are reluctant to acknowledge this. Many more people in the region are unwilling to challenge religious doctrines, traditions and practices particularly when they conflict with reason, science and common sense. Many Africans do not want to question or be seen to be criticising the dogmas of witchcraft belief. They often refrain from demanding evidence or proof of witchcraft claims. Many Christians in Africa find justification for witchcraft-related abuse in the bible, which they believe to be the literal word of God….13

At the conference, Igwe writes, “Many participants were reluctant to declare witchcraft and the belief in spirit possession as superstitious. The representative of UNICEF said the agency was not interested in changing the belief but in addressing the abuses that are committed as a result of the belief.”14

“But that is where UNICEF got it wrong,” writes Igwe. “Getting Africans to understand that witchcraft is superstition is not changing the belief but clearing and clarifying a fundamental misconception at the root of witchcraft branding. And UNICEF should not shy away from this important responsibility.”15

“Africans brand their children witches and subsequently abuse them because they believe these children have magical powers which they use to cause harm, death and diseases in families and communities,” Igwe continues. “Therefore, UNICEF needs to answer these questions”:16

Do children have magical powers? Do children fly out at night as birds or spirits to meet in covens where they suck blood or plot harm? Can a child be possessed by the spirit of witchcraft (whatever that means)? Can a child cause accident, inflict harm or misfortune on anyone using ‘magical’ means?17

Indeed it is precisely these questions—questions of evidence—that must be answered first, if authorities are to address witchcraft and witch-persecution in a meaningful way, whether in Africa or elsewhere. While it is difficult to quantify with any accuracy the damage caused by the practice of witchcraft, it is easy to quantify the damaged caused by such allegations. In addressing the intersection of witchcraft beliefs and human rights, one cannot simultaneously entertain the beliefs of accusers while hoping to put an end to the all-too-factual results of those beliefs.

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1 “Condemned by pope, witchcraft a reality in Africa.” National Catholic Reporter. Mar. 21, 2009. http://ncronline.org/print/12657

2 “Ghana: The Witches of Gambaga.” The Guardian. Thursday 25 November 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/video/2010/nov/25/witches-gambaga-ghana

3 David Smith. “Ghanaian woman burned to death for being a ‘witch.’ Evangelical pastor among five people arrested for dousing 72-year-old Ama Hemmah in kerosene and setting her ablaze.” The Guardian. 29 November 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/29/ghanaian-woman-burned-death-witch/print

4 Della Russel Ocloo. “Grandma Set Ablaze To Exorcise Witchcraft.” Daily Graphic. 26 November 2010. http://www.graphic.com.gh/news/page.php?news=10378

5 Cameron Duodu. “Why are ‘witches’ still being burned alive in Ghana?” The Guardian. 31 December 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/31/ghana-witches-burned-alive-women/print

6 Ibid.

7 “Condemned by pope, witchcraft a reality in Africa.”

8 Nelson Tebbe, Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, is the author of “Witchcraft and the Constitution,” published in Traditional African Religions in South African Law, edited by TW Bennett. See the publisher website at UCT Books Live. Nov 11th, 2011 http://uctpress.bookslive.co.za/blog/2011/11/11/from-traditional-african-religions-in-south-african-law-witchcraft-and-the-constitution/

9 Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker and writer. A graduate of King’s College Cambridge, she worked as a civil servant in Ghana before becoming a General Trainee with the BBC. She has taught in Spain and Jamaica and has worked as a producer and director making documentaries for the main terrestrial channels in Britain. Her short stories have been published in Critical Quarterly and in African Love Stories: an anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo.In 2009, her first novel, True Murder was published by Jonathan Cape. Her TV credits include: Black and White, a ground-breaking investigation into race and racism in Bristol, using hidden video cameras for BBC1; I Want Your Sex, for Channel 4 and a six-part series, VSO, for ITV. African Love Stories is now available in Swedish from Tranan publishers under the title Kärlek x 21.

Amina Mama is a Nigerian feminist activist, researcher and scholar, who has lived and worked in Nigeria, South Africa, Britain, the Netherlands and the USA. She spent 10 years establishing the University of Cape Town’s African Gender Institute and is founding editor of the African journal of gender studies, Feminist Africa. She authored Beyond the Masks: Race, Gender and Subjectivity (Routledge 1995), Women’s Studies and Studies of Women in Africa (CODESRIA, 1996), and co-edited Engendering African Social Sciences (CODESRIA 1997). She is currently developing a transnational activist research initiative on gender and militarism and pursuing her interest in documentary film. The Witches of Gambaga is her first film. She currently lives in Berkeley and works at University of California, Davis as Professor and Director of Women and Gender Studies.

SOURCE: African Women’s Development Fund. http://www.awdf.org/browse/1497

10 Website for The Witches of Gambaga. http://www.witchesofgambaga.com

11 Paul Boakye. “Women in Film: Yaba Badoe on The Witches of Gambaga.” Colorful Times. 1 October 2010. http://www.colorfultimes.com/2010/10/culture/film/yaba-badoe-filming-witches-gambaga/

12 Leo Igwe. “Saving the African child from witchcraft.” The Daily Times NG. (Nigeria). November 16, 2011. http://dailytimes.com.ng/blog/saving-african-child-witchcraft

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.