NEW: Column – Witchcraft and Poverty

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 3 November 2008

Witchcraft and the Global Efforts to Make Poverty History  

Of days in a year, October 17 is set aside as the International Poverty Eradication Day. What I intend to do in this piece is to share my view on how poverty eradication could be achieved. Do not get me wrong. I did not say the present policies are worthless rather my view is that there are certain beliefs hampering successful implementation of poverty eradication policies in most developing countries.

Here, I shall write on the effect of witchcraft belief and witch-killing on poverty, most especially in Africa. But first, let me share an experience with you.

It happened sometimes in 2006: “Please, Oga, I no understand wetin these people dey talk. Please make una no let them kill me!” She looked pleadingly straight into my eyes; hers filled with drops that could fill a bowl. We, my friend and I, were nothing but her messiah that appeared at the nick of time to save her. Brushing aside the gnashing pain mounting from every inch of her body, she managed to speak again.“What does a witch look like? And if I have so much power as these people claim, how come I watch helplessly while my parents/entire family wallow in chronic poverty?” Eno enquiringly posed the question to us.Unfortunately, we can’t help her much but we managed to RESCUE HER BEFORE SHE could be LYNCHED!  

Eno at the time of the incident, 2006, was just 13 years. But no one will doubt if she claims to be 8 or 9 years old because of her malnourished, or is it stunted, body? A mere look at her will suggest that all is not well with her family. Her supposed school uniform has suffered from countless mending that has given it all forms of shapes, and made the frontal view to be shorter than the back view. On her face was a map-like patch of eczema.  “Where is you school bag?” We enquired. “Em…” she stammered.

She later told us she had one when she was in Primary two. That means she had none, two years after the first and last one.   There were 23 pupils in her class. Two died ‘mysteriously’ when they were in primary three. After the death of the second pupil, their class teacher became worried; a Pentecostal pastor was invited to pray for them to ward off bad spirit. Pastor Utibe in the course of praying “saw Eno fighting and clawing the other children until they gave up the ghost”. Eno, who was a persona non-granta in the class gained instant fame for “her deeds”. But the Pastor warned that she should not be touched.Unfortunately however, one of her colleagues fell sick two days later.  

The unsuspecting Eno arrived at school that day, late as usual because she has to first hawk pap in the morning before preparing for school. Without being allowed to enter the class one of the students called her witch. An embarrassing pleading by the teacher that she should free the sick girl from bondage followed this. Rather than follow her to school, her father gave her the beating of her life suggesting that she release the sick pupil from bondage, and “also himself from bondage”. Four days later, after being suspended (the headmistress told me it was on security ground) from school, the sick girl died. After the closing hour that day, half of the school’s pupils matched to her house, armed with stones and sticks, prepared to send her to the great beyond. By the time we arrived at the scene, they have already succeeded in beating her blue and black, and in tearing off every inch of her cloth. She was simply in her birthday suit when we arrived. Not done, they threatened to do their worst: stone her to death.   I guess my reader can piece the narration together. Pathetic, Eh? Yes! It was an experience, not a fiction but a personal encounter I had during my 2005/2006 break with the mandatory national youth service. It is an experience I cannot forget in a jiffy, not in this very humble lifetime of mine. And that is why I have decided to write on something related to it: the relationship between poverty and witch killing in Africa. And believe me, no other day can afford me such a rare listening luxury but October 17, the international day for the eradication of poverty.   

Witchcraft, according to Bertrand Russell, is ‘a composite phenomenon drawing from folklore, sorcery, demonology, heresy and Christian theology’. The World Book Encyclopedia describes it as ‘the use of supposed magic powers generally to harm or damage property”. From the above, we can move on to deduce a definition of a ‘witch’ as a person who is supposed to have received such powers from ‘evil spirits’, that is, power to know all things, power to destroy lives, among others. While ‘witch’ is a general name, the word has a gender connotation. A ‘male witch’ is called wizard, while a ‘female witch’ is called ‘witch’. 

The belief in witchcraft is not recent, nor is it a product of the popular Harry Porter series. Rather, according to Godffrey Parrinder, it is “one of the great (sic) fears from which mankind has suffered”. The belief has appeared in many parts of the world, in one form or the other. While it became particularly prominent and developed in Europe in the later middles ages and renaissance periods, the belief in witches and their evil powers have remained with Africans for centuries before then. For Africa, therefore, till today, witchcraft belief is a great tyranny spreading panic and death. This unhindered, thriving, belief, which is devoid of any commonsensical scientific ratiocination, is being buoyed by the excruciating and pitiable living condition of many Africans that they found unexplainable; hence the need for scapegoats, the ‘witches’.  Thanks to the modern day fraudsters, the Pentecostal pastors.   

One deducible fact based on history, however, is that witchcraft accusations are usually malicious, unscientific and flimsy in nature. How, for instance, can one know a ‘witch’? And how can one be sure that an alleged person is guilty of all the heinous crime accusations levied? How can one be sure that the accusations are not mere victimization tactics?  These questions are quite important for a critical look into the Catholic criminalization of witchcraft, for instance, will show that it was directed at attacking the Cathars who were rebelling against the church, being Gnostics and Manicheans; they were accused of being against the church nay the society, therefore they are condemned to be tortured, maimed and to be outrightly killed.    

It is rather pitiable today in Africa to note that instead of progressing, the continent is regressing into the unprofitable activities of the European Middle Ages. Consequently, the continent is today bedeviled by all the indices of under-development that characterized the European middle-ages, where they have taken themselves to. Although there is no state where witch-killing is legally backed in sub-Saharan Africa, yet governmental activities, and that of their agents, have not shown compliance with modern scientific commonsense and strong will necessary and sufficient to promote the human rights of all, regardless of the accusations. For they have been allowing pastors and their ilk to continue, without any serious challenge and prosecutions, with their damaging campaigns and annoying fake prophesies that have led to maiming of spineless, haggard and hungry old women and, unfortunate, innocent teenagers, all in the name of their being ‘witches’.   

The deducible implications of this practice, witchcraft and witch-killing, are numerous. Here are some of them:

1. The religious campaigns popularizing and blaming witchcraft for all woes have led to the killing of countless women, who are secret breadwinners in their family and denied many children the chance of growing up normally due to the attached stigma, of being ‘a small witch’.

2. Houses and properties have also been burnt or touched based on accusations of perceived community leaders’ inability to help ‘find’ the community witches.

3. Because of the prevalence of the belief, rather than work on and cooperate with government in the poverty eradication efforts many religious sub-Saharan Africans have resorted to consulting witchdoctors, or the Sangomas, for sanctification.

4. The belief has also hindered the growth of and the cultivation of scientific inquiry that is needed for scientific and technological breakthrough in contemporary Africa.

5. Finally, the belief has perpetually remain gender biased, a cunning way of carrying on with the malicious traditional attack on the women folk, discriminatory and fictitious. 

The major consequence of the above is that the belief in witchcraft has stunted the growth of unchained creativity and made many sub-Saharan Africans to recoil unnecessarily to fate, visiting only pastors, Alfas (the Muslim witchdoctors) and the Sangomas/Babalawos (the traditional witchdoctors) to ward off and cleanse themselves of the ‘curses or family jinx’ trailing them. Lean income, rather than been spent wisely are given to these modern day ‘fraudsters’ who ride in big cars for the spiritual ‘protections services’ they provided. In some cases, micro-finance loans have been used in funding ‘witchcraft cleansing rituals’ rather than the small scale business that it was disbursed for.   

The effect of these on poverty will not be far-fetched if one can pause to critically examine their effect on poverty eradication policy execution. How for instance, can a man who is jaundiced with the belief in irredeemably bewitched life participate in poverty empowerment programme when a pastor has told him that “unless he begged one old woman in his family, he would never succeed”? Again, what do you expect to happen to children whose mothers have been sent to their untimely graves based on the flimsy allegation of being ‘witches’? How can a community that hinged their predicaments on bewitchment think out and work with policies meant to empower and reduce poverty in such communities? What about the effect on techno-scientific development, the language of globalization? I can go on endlessly but there is no need, for my point is made, that the parochial belief and heinous act of killing others for being witches are inimical to workable poverty eradication policies. Here lies our specific challenge as humanists and responsible citizens of the world who are worried and disturbed by the level of global poverty: we must work together to fight this irrationality. But our paths, even though shall cross, have different starting point with associated responsibilities.   

On our part, as developing world humanists, who live with and are nauseated by these belief and religiously coloured murders daily, the challenge is thrown, rightly, to us and we have taken up the fight. The Nigerian Humanist Movement’s ‘Stop Witch-killing!’ Campaign and the many activities of the Ugandan Humanist Association led by Deogratias, are some of the notable actions that have been taken to address the anomaly, marauding as sanity in our polity. Although it is usually a big risk to confront the belief held dearly by the tyrant, religious, majority, still we must not be dissuaded by the threats of the organized religions. We, therefore, need to be more vociferous, more determined and more focused.  

To other humanists all over the world, who are genuinely concerned about and eager to help make-poverty-history, the challenge is no different: we must all fight this irrational belief that has the potential of rendering poverty-eradication blue-prints unachievable. They need to support science education popularization projects and campaigns targeted at dissuading witch-hunting and witch-killing through volunteering and funding projects. They could also volunteer to teach or work with Africa-based humanist projects. Or they could help in funding, or in raising funds for, anti-witch-killing projects.   

Of direct effect on poverty, and the core of challenges to African and non-African humanists, is the support of, and for, persons accused of being witches. Both need to support these victimized citizens of the world and their families; and also work together to engineer international policy, or policies, that will enjoin states to prosecute ‘witch’ hunting and  killing. For it is only when we are prepared to support such efforts that the quest for a poverty-free world will not continue to be a mirage but a reality, an achievement that we all can be proud of.  


‘Yemi Ademowo Johnson, socio-political philosopher and applied anthropologist, is former Secretary General of IHEYO, Belgium, and National Coordinator, Young Humanistas Network, Nigeria

© 2008

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