Nigeria: Children accused of witchcraft
By Christian Purefoy, CNN
August 28, 2010
Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria (CNN) -- Just after midnight, the pastor seized a woman's forehead with his large hand and she fell screaming and writhing on the ground. "Fire! Fire! Fire!" shouted the worshippers, raising their hands in the air.
Pastor Celestine Effiong's congregants are being delivered from what they firmly believe to be witchcraft. And in the darkness of the city and the villages beyond, similar shouts and screams echo from makeshift church to makeshift church.
"I have been delivered from witches and wizards today!" exclaimed one exhausted-looking woman.
Pastors in southeast Nigeria claim illness and poverty are caused by witches who bring terrible misfortune to those around them. And those denounced as witches must be cleansed through deliverance or cast out.
As daylight breaks, and we travel out to the rural villages it becomes apparent the most vulnerable to this stigmatization of witchcraft are children.
A crowd gathered around two brothers and their sister. Tears streamed down their mother's face as she cast out her children from the family, accusing them of causing the premature deaths of two of their siblings with black magic.
"I am afraid. They are witches and they can kill me as well," she sobbed.
Taking his time to talk to the mother, Sam Ikpe-Itauma, an imposing man wearing a "Child's Rights & Rehabilitation Network" t-shirt, has come to try to rescue the three children.
"If we are not here there's a possibility of them being thrown into the river, buried alive or stabbed to death," Sam said.
He tries to persuade their mother and a crowd of villagers that the three children are not witches - but no one believes him. And so, putting the children in his white pick-up, he drives away to his orphanage and safety.
Sam runs Child's Rights & Rehabilitation Network, or CRARN -- an orphanage that supports nearly 200 children. All of them were accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often after being tortured. The orphanage provides security, healthcare, nutrition and counseling.
Godwin's story is typical. As he sat next to the quiet 5-year-old, Sam said that after Godwin's mother died, the church pastor told his family that "Godwin is responsible."
From his own investigation, questioning Godwin and talking with neighbors, Sam said that when a relative asked Godwin if he was a witch, "he said no and was beaten and made the confession that he actually killed the mother."
Sam said Godwin was locked up with his mother's corpse every night for three weeks with little food or water before a neighbor contacted Sam, who was able to rescue him.
Other children at his orphanage bear the scars of being beaten, attacked with boiling water, and cuts from machetes. But these children are the ones lucky to be alive.
"A child witch is said to be a witch when that child possessed with certain spiritual spells capable of making that child transform into cat, snake, vipers, insects, any other animal and that child is capable of wreaking havoc like killing of people, bringing diseases, misfortune into the family," Sam said.
"When a child is accused of being a witch -- that child is hated absolutely by everybody surrounding him so such children are sent out of the home... But unfortunately such children do not always live long. A lot of them, they're either killed, abandoned by the parents, tortured in the church or trafficked out of the city."
Sam doesn't believe in witchcraft and is trying to raise awareness in local communities now gripped by hysteria.
Belief in witchcraft is rooted in centuries of tradition, but it's only in the last 10 years, that it has become associated with child abuse, he said.
"It's a social crisis," he added. "Poverty propels this child witch phenomenon and poverty is a twin sister to ignorance.
"Most vulnerable children come from single parents, divorced parents, dysfunctional families."
But the orphanage has very little space for more children. Overstretched finances mean he can barely pay a staff of 16 people, as well as feed the children.
Instead, many children are left to roam the streets.
"My parents sent me out of the house -- said I'm a witch," said Samuel, a 15-year-old who has lived on the streets for five years after a local pastor blamed him for unexpected deaths in the family.
"I was beaten by the prophet in the church," he said in a quiet voice.
Samuel lives in an abandoned building with 10 other children accused of witchcraft. A local group, ',' which is dedicated to helping street children, visits them.
"Religious leaders capitalize on the ignorance of some parents in the villages just to make some money off them," said Lucky Inyang, project coordinator for 'Stepping Stones Nigeria'.
"They can say your child is a witch and if you bring the child to the church we can deliver the child but eventually they don't deliver the children... The parents go back to the pastor and say, 'why is it you have not been able to deliver the child' and the pastor says 'Oh - this one has gone past deliverance - they've eaten too much flesh so you have to throw the child out.'"
And most pastors charge a fee for deliverance -- anywhere from $300 to $2,000.
One of the most notorious and influential pastors is Helen Ukpabio of Liberty Gospel Church. Her 1999 film, the widely distributed, "End of the Wicked" has been attacked by child rights groups for its depictions of Satan possessing children.
She had agreed to an interview but the meeting was continually postponed for two days.
But in her preaching at Liberty Gospel Church, she heralds success stories of how she has driven out demons through deliverance.
"Witches and wizards, they started getting afraid. I never gave them rest!" she shouted to a cheering congregation.
Some pastors believe education is a more powerful tool against witchcraft fears.
"One of the things that caused the parents to abandon the children is ignorance," explains another local pastor, Celestine Effiong.
The local government, however, accuses Sam Ikpe-Itauma and Lucky Inyang of using the children to run a scam.
"We insist that the name of Akwa Ibom state must not be smeared and the people of the world should not be deceived by certain NGOs who are claiming to be taking care of stigmatized children of Akwa Ibom," said Aniekan Umanah, the Information Commissioner of Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state.
"This is a ruse, they are making money for themselves."
Stories of NGOs rescuing children, say the government, are exaggerated. They argue instead, that a new Child Right's bill outlawing child stigmatization has largely ended the problem.
But despite some arrests, so far, the government acknowledges, there have been no prosecutions.
"There may be problems yes but it's been blown out of proportion and people are capitalizing, on what ordinarily may be a social problem, across the globe in painting Akwa Ibom state black -- that is the aspect we say no to. We will not allow the image of our state to be smeared."
Sam and other NGOs deny any improprieties, insist their finances are a matter of public record and plead with the government to support their cause.
"Relevant government agencies, working on security and protection of children must step up their efforts to make sure any child that is stigmatized must -- that parent, the churches, the law must be evoked to make sure such people face the law immediately, otherwise it must go on and on, on and on."
With the night comes the screams of more deliverances -- and more witches to be cast out.