Witchcraft, Migrant communities, Child abuse

“It’s Our Tradition”: Witchcraft Beliefs in African Migrant Communities

Belief in witchcraft is a troublesome but real part of some African migrant communities, leading to issues such as child abuse and human right violations.

There have recently been reports of witchcraft related abuses in African migrant communities in the UK. In response to these abuses, governmental and non-governmental organisations have taken measures to address them. In this piece, I briefly highlight cases of witchcraft beliefs and accusations in these communities, and I advance some suggestions that might help social workers better deal with migrants and refugees. But first, I will explain how I relate to the topic of witchcraft. 

I was born in a rural village in Southeastern Nigeria and spent the first 12 years of my life there. It was while growing up that I came into contact with notions of ‘medicine’, magic, and witchcraft. People used these ideas to make sense of life and their everyday, fortunate and unfortunate, experiences. As a child, I remember witnessing rampant imputations of witchcraft, and invocations of medicine and magic, in everyday interactions. Most of the population in my community identified as Christians, but in reality they professed and practised a mix of Christianity and indigenous religions. There was really no clear line demarcating Christianity, indigenous beliefs, and magical/medicinal practices.

My parents were Catholic and I was brought up as a Catholic. At the same time, however, I was made to know that people could harm me through occult means. While growing up, there were often reports of sudden or accidental deaths in the community. People frequently attributed these incidents to occult attacks by other human beings. Occasionally, the suspects were named. Otherwise, one knew about the witches or witchcraft in the communities through rumours and gossips. Many instances of deaths and sicknesses were seldom believed to be natural occurrences. People often found themselves in relationships characterised by tension, quarrel, hatred, and rivalry. So when people suffered misfortunes  such as sickness, accident or death, they thought it was the handiwork of their rivals and enemies. The belief was that the enemies were out to harm and destroy you, and if they could not harm you physically, they would use metaphysical means. So very often I heard people say things such as:

 “Aha, they have killed him! Do you see it? I told you, they got him at last! I said it, they would get him. They have wasted her! They have butchered him like a fowl”. Out of anger, pain and incredulity, people who grieved would often exclaim: “Hai! Who did this to me?”

As you can see, these expressions are framed in the third person. Speaking in this manner is usually a way to disguise the identity of the person/s being suspected. It is a strategy to communicate knowledge of the culprit in a discreet manner. Thus people lived in constant state of fear, suspicion and feeling, that there were people who were out to kill or harm them. When children were not doing well in school, or when adults performed poorly in their business, they or their relatives would at times impute that somebody, often a family member, had stolen their star. Women who were unable to conceive sometimes claimed that somebody magically tied their womb. I met a lady during my fieldwork in Ghana who was about 40 years but had not married. She told me that she went somewhere and they told her that she was already married to a ‘tree’. Not a tree in the ordinary sense, but a spirit tree. There is a belief in Northern Ghana that spirits live in some trees. The lady was told that unless she disbanded the ‘spiritual marriage’ that she wouldn’t find a human husband. People also believed that their misfortune were due to some contracted relationship with mermaids or the goddesses that lived in the rivers. These ‘mermaided’ persons were made to perform some sacrifices to severe such ties and relationships so that they could live normal lives.

 Belief in Spirit-Children

Witchcraft, African, Migrant
Photo: Safe Child Africa

There was also the belief in spirit-children. The Igbos of Nigeria call them spirit children, and the Ogbanje and the Yorubas call them Abiku. When a child gets sick too frequently, he or she could be suspected of being a ‘spirit child’. People claim that spirit children are born several times. They are considered evil, and in order to put an end to their ‘coming and going’, parents and family members subject these children to exorcism. The ritual process is often characterised by inhumane and degrading treatment. Nigerian poets, J.P Clark and Wole Soyinka, made this clear in their poem, Abiku.

Clark said:

Coming and going these several seasons, Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits, If indoors is not enough for you…

As this verse suggested, parents and family members address spirit children using harsh tones and voices. Soyinka hints on how spirit children are treated:

So when the snail is burnt in his shell,  Whet the heated fragment, brand me 
Deeply on the breast – you must know him , When Abiku calls again.

In the same vein, Clark said:

No longer then bestride the threshold, But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars, Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish, And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house, Are all relics of your first comings.

These relics of ‘first comings’ are actually marks of torture and maltreatment by parents and family members who believe these children are evil or are witches. Contemporary witchcraft related abuse of children is therefore not a new development. It has existed for a long time as part of ‘child care practices’ in communities across the region. These childcare practices are pervasive among poor families that cannot afford better health care services, and in rural areas where these ‘modern’ health services are not available. Thus witchcraft accusations against children and adults constitute a social reality in African communities, including migrant ones. In particular among poorer families.

It is hence not surprising that there have been reports of child abuse related to witchcraft in the past few years. These cases include those of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie who was murdered in 2000, and of 8 year-old Child B. Child B was suspected of being a witch and she suffered abuses in 2005. In 2010, a couple tortured and murdered a 15-year-old boy, Kristy Bamu, after accusing him of witchcraft. Four years later, detectives in London reported over 30 cases connected to beliefs in witchcraft and spirit possession. These abuses were linked to migration and to migrant ‘churches and rogue pastors’. Authorities in the UK claimed that cases of witchcraft related abuses go largely unreported. This is mainly because the main victims are children and these children are rarely aware that they are being abused.

Accusations Against Relatives in Africa

It is not only children who are affected by witchcraft beliefs in these communities. This is because in some cases relatives of migrants living in Africa are also accused. There have been past instances in which many Nigerians who lived in Europe and the United States suspected their family members back home of bewitching them, and of being responsible for the problems and difficulties that they encounter in these places.

Some years ago, there was a case that involved a Nigerian lady living in the US. She suspected an elderly woman in her home village of bewitching her. She accused the elderly woman of being responsible for the difficulties she encountered while giving birth to her children in the US. Actually, she claimed that the woman who never ventured outside Nigeria till she died had appeared and prevented her from delivering her baby in a hospital in the US.

In a related development, a female politician told me during my fieldwork in Ghana that her daughter who lives in the US accused her of witchcraft. The woman’s daughter had been married for some time, but could not conceive. The daughter attended an African church in the US, where she was told that her mother back in Ghana was responsible for her inability to conceive. This woman told me that she was confused and short of words when her own daughter confronted her with the allegation.

In response to the allegation, the woman asked the daughter what she would gain from preventing her own daughter from getting pregnant. This female politician told me that the allegation eventually disappeared because her daughter later got pregnant and gave birth to a child.

Tips for Social Workers

So, witchcraft accusations in migrant communities is real. These allegations poison relationships within these communities and beyond. There is an urgent need to mainstream the issue of witchcraft belief in the integration programmes for migrants and refugees. And to this end, I make the following suggestions:

i) Social workers should discuss actual and possible problems and solutions individually and collectively with migrants. This is with the aim of understanding the challenges that migrants and refugees face and also their problem-solving techniques. It is important to understand how migrants and refugees make sense of the causes and solutions to their problems. To this end, it is important to know the religious or non-religious background of migrants; which church or mosque they attend, etc.

ii) Social workers should use narrations of cases found outside the UK to educate and inform. Lessons and insights should be drawn from these cases in order to dissuade migrants and refugees from indulging in such practices.

iii) Social workers should provide alternative explanations, solutions, and options, that fall within the law. Migrants and refugees should be told where to go and how they could access help and support whenever they are in need.

Final Thoughts

Let me end this piece with another story. This one happened during my time in Bayreuth some years ago when a friend of mine from Sudan invited me to the presentation of his baby. I went to the event with the hope of seeing the baby and the mother. Unfortunately, to my greatest surprise, the mother was not at the presentation ceremony. The father was the one who carried and showed the baby to us. I was surprised and kept asking: where is the mother of the baby? I was curious to know from another Sudanese colleague why the mother was not in attendance. For a while, though, I thought the mother of the baby was ill or had some post childbirth issues, and so was unable to attend. But this colleague told me that the mother of the child was hale and hearty. He pointed out that in Sudan the tradition was for a woman who gave birth not to come out for 40 days. What? I mean what came to my mind immediately was: but we are not in Sudan! Well, I held my peace as I tried to figure out a way to let this colleague explain to me why he thought it was reasonable to uphold this Sudanese tradition in Germany. I later asked him why they didn’t wait until after the 40 days before doing the presentation of the baby so that the woman who actually gave birth to the baby could be seen and be congratulated. My colleague smiled, looked at me, and said: ‘It is our tradition’. I quickly retorted: Which tradition? Here in Germany?’ He said with a smile, “Look, we are Sudanese, wherever we go, we go with our traditions”. I was stunned and left the event shortly after this conversation.

So, we must know and note that whether as Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Indians, or Nepalese, migrants come with their traditions – who doesn’t? Migrants bring with them their religious and cultural beliefs and practices. It is now left for the people in the host countries to tell migrants or refugees which traditions are in accordance with the basis of human rights and the rule of law. It should not be left till it is too late, as was the case with the couple that murdered Kristy Bamu.

Doing so is not racism. It is not a form of ‘islamophobia’. Instead, refusing to highlight harmful and misogynistic religious and cultural traditions in the name of multiculturalism constitutes a grievous betrayal of the very ideals of universal human rights and common humanity!

Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.

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