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Child-Witches of Nigeria Seek Refuge

November 10, 2008

child-witches-nigeria.jpg
Ostracised, vulnerable and frightened, she wandered the streets in
south-eastern Nigeria, sleeping rough, struggling to stay alive. 
Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa
Ibom province with 150 other children who have been branded witches, blamed
for all their family’s woes, and abandoned.


Before being pushed out of their
homes many were beaten or slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had
acid poured over them as a punishment or in an attempt to make them
“confess” to being possessed. In one horrific case, a young girl called Uma
had a three-inch nail driven into her skull.

Yet Mary and the others at the shelter are the lucky ones for they, at least,
are alive. Many of those branded “child-witches” are murdered – hacked to
death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive in an attempt to
drive Satan out of their soul.

The devil’s children are “identified” by powerful religious leaders at
extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have combined
to produce a deep-rooted belief in, and fear of, witchcraft. The priests
spread the message that child-witches bring destruction, disease and death
to their families. And they say that, once possessed, children can cast
spells and contaminate others.

The religious leaders offer help to the families whose children are named as
witches, but at a price. The churches run exorcism, or “deliverance”,
evenings where the pastors attempt to drive out the evil spirits. Only they
have the power to cleanse the child of evil spirits, they say. The exorcism
costs the families up to a year’s income.

During the “deliverance” ceremonies, the children are shaken violently,
dragged around the room and have potions poured into their eyes. The
children look terrified. The parents look on, praying that the child will be
cleansed. If the ritual fails, they know their children will have to be sent
away, or killed. Many are held in churches, often on chains, and deprived of
food until they “confess” to being a witch.

The ceremonies are highly lucrative for the spiritual leaders many of whom
enjoy a lifestyle of large homes, expensive cars and designer clothes.

Ten years ago there were few cases of children stigmatised by witchcraft. But
since then the numbers have grown at an alarming rate and have reached an
estimated 15,000 in Akwa Ibom state alone.

Some Nigerians blame the increase on one of the country’s wealthiest and most
influential evangelical preachers. Helen Ukpabio, a self-styled prophetess
of the 150-branch Liberty Gospel Church, made a film, widely distributed,
called End of the Wicked. It tells, in graphic detail, how children become
possessed and shows them being inducted into covens, eating human flesh and
bringing chaos and death to their families and communities.

Mrs Ukpabio, a mother of three, also wrote a popular book which tells parents
how to identify a witch. For children under two years old, she says, the key
signs of a servant of Satan are crying and screaming in the night, high
fever and worsening health – symptoms that can be found among many children
in an impoverished region with poor health care.

The preacher says that her work is true to the Bible and is a means of
spreading God’s word. “Witchcraft is a problem all over Nigeria and someone
with a gift like me can never hurt anybody,” she says. “Every Nigerian wants
to watch my movies.” She denies that her teachings and films could encourage
child abuse.

One British charity worker is fighting to help the children stigmatised as
witches. Gary Foxcroft, 29, programme director for the UK charity Stepping
Stones, Nigeria, first came to the country in 2003 to research the oil
industry for his masters degree. But he was so shocked when he learned about
the children’s plight that he decided to help raise money for the refuge –
the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (Crarn) – and try to persuade
the parents to take their children back. He has also helped to build a
school for the children who are refused places at local schools.

“Any Christian would look at the situation that is going on here and just be
absolutely outraged that they were using the teachings of Jesus Christ to
exploit and abuse innocent children,” says Mr Foxcroft whose expose of what
he describes as “an absolute scandal” will be screened in a Channel 4
documentary on Wednesday.

The Niger Delta is an oil-rich region but the wealth does not reach the people
who live there. The locals blame their hardship on the Devil but
international analysts point to the oil industry’s large-scale contamination
of air, land and sea.

In the documentary, the charity worker visits one of the pastors, a man who
calls himself “the Bishop” and who claims to be able to drive evil spirits
out of “possessed” children. At his church in Ibaka, the Bishop pours a
homemade substance called African mercury, a potion of pure alcohol and his
own blood, into the eyes of a young boy lying on a table. “I want this
poison destroyer to destroy the witch right now, in Jesus’ name,” he says.

The priest charges £170 – in a country where millions of people are forced to
live on less than £1 a day – for “treating” a child every night for two
weeks, and holds them captive until the bill is paid.

He has recently refined his techniques for dealing with child witches. “I
killed up to 110 people who were identified as being a witch,” he says. He
claims there are 2.3million “witches and wizards” in Akwa Ibom province
alone.

The children’s shelter was started five years ago when Sam Itauma, a Nigerian,
opened his house to four youngsters accused of witchcraft. Today, he and his
five staff are caring for 150 youngsters. “Every day, five or six children
are branded as witches,” he says “Once a child has been stigmatised as a
witch, it is very difficult for someone to accept that child back. If they
go out from this community… there is a lot of attacks, assault and abuses
on the children.” Children often arrive at the shelter with severe wounds,
but few clinics or hospitals will treat a child believed to be a witch.

“Christianity in the Niger Delta is seriously questionable, putting a
traditional religion together with Christian religion – and it makes
nonsense out of it,” he says. “If you are not rich and don’t have anything
to eat, you look to blame someone. And if you don’t get anything, you blame
it on the witches.”

Christians have been in Nigeria since the 19th century and the Niger Delta
area claims to have more churches per square mile than any other place on
Earth. The vast majority of the country’s 60 million Christians are
moderate, but an influx of Pentecostals over the past 50 years has led some
churches to be dominated by extremist views. Five years ago, the Nigerian
government passed a Child Rights Act, which made abuse illegal, but not
every state has adopted it.

At the refuge, a baby girl called Utibe and her five-year-old sister,
Utitofong, are dumped at the gate by their mother because a “prophet” told
her that Utitofong was a witch and had passed the spell to her sister. The
mother, who spent four months’ salary on an unsuccessful exorcism, left them
at the centre because she feared they would be killed. The police are called
but locals offer them no help.

Mr Itauma goes to the village to try and convince the locals to accept the
daughters’ return, but the older girl is threatened by a man with a machete.
“Get away from our food – I’ll kill you,” he shouts. Utibe is allowed to
stay, but the older girl has to go back to the refuge.

At the end of the film, Mr Foxcroft and all the “child-witches” stage a
demonstration at the Governor’s residence in the state capital, Uyo, and
urge him to adopt the Child Rights Act.” After four hours the Governor comes
out and says the Act will be adopted. It has since been adopted, but so far
not a single pastor has been convicted of any offence. And the rescue centre
still takes in up to 10 children a week.

Mr Foxcroft took Mary back to her village where he was told that her father
left a year ago to find work in Cameroon. A cousin says: “She is a witch, we
don’t want her here.” Mary is now back at the refuge.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

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