Why will anyone be so poor and vulnerable but still called a witch or wizard because of the misfortunes that befall the person? This is the exact situation of some children and old women in northern Ghanaian, Nigeria and many communities around Africa where suspected witches are abused, sacked from their homes and sometimes lynched.
It was worse for three-year-old Comfort, 15-year-old Hope and their five-year-old brother Godbless who are living in an emergency shelter in Calabar, a southeastern city in Nigeria.
The three children whose names have been changed to protect their identities were beaten with a hot machete for hours by two men in other for them to confess that they were witches, BBC reported in a news feature about the menace.
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The children, who are orphans, were living with Christiana, their grandmother who was HIV positive and was suffering from complications of not taking anti-retroviral drugs.
A so-called prophet in the community declared the children witches and alleged that they had killed their parents and caused Christiana’s illness among other frivolities. The prophecy attracted the criminal intervention of the two neighbours who inflicted injuries on the children and forced them to accept that they were witches.
“So he started beating us in turn with the hot machete, from morning until afternoon … We eventually said Yes. Then they asked us if we are the ones that killed our mother and father. We said Yes. They asked us if all these troubles in our family we are the ones who caused them – we said Yes,” Hope told the reporter Marc Ellison.
Their uncle, Sunday, saved them from the torture and reported the matter to the police before they were rescued. This is one of the few cases against children in the community which has for centuries accused old women of witchcraft.
Despite the laws that criminalize witch-branding and abuse of children, the act persists in many parts of the continent as people escape punishment for branding others as witches, even when they abuse the victims.
In northern Ghana, women and children accused of witchcraft have been camped in six locations where they feel safe from attacks and lynching. The so-called witch camps in Bonyasi, Gambaga, Gnani, Kpatinga, Kukuo and Naabuli house hundreds of mostly old women who live in huts and are protected by a local chieftain in return for working in his fields and paying him.
These women are considered lucky as many others have been killed by mobs like the case of Yenboka Kenna, a 67-year-old woman accused of being a witch. She was lynched by about 63 suspects who were picked up in a police raid at Pelungu and Tindongo in the Upper East region.
But what about the laws?
The laws are weak when it comes to spiritual matters and issues of witchcraft. Malawi, where albinos are also being killed for witchcraft purposes, has a Witchcraft Act which has failed to protect suspects from unfair prosecution by the public.
It prohibits trial by ordeal, in which suspects are subjected to painful and unpleasant experience to prove their innocence. It also outlaws the hiring of witchfinders and pretending to be a witch or practising witchcraft. The law is under review due to its inefficiency.
Zambian actress, movie director, and film writer Rungano Nyoni won a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for the movie I Am Not a Witch which showcases an 8-year-old Zambian girl named Shula who is accused of witchcraft, then sent to witch camp where she is tied to a spool with thread.
Shula is told that if she attempts to escape, she will be turned into a goat. This increases her curiosity and ignites her longing for freedom.
Unicef noted in a 2010 report that it is typically vulnerable children with physical disabilities or illnesses such as epilepsy who are targeted.
Despite the awareness created to protect the vulnerable women and children, the practice of abusing them persists. The root cause of witch-branding is the witchdoctors, pastors, prophets and spiritualists who claim to have a special gift of identifying witches.
These people are openly and shamelessly advertising their services freely and selling the belief that they can solve spiritual problems. The men of God and men with four eyes are all over African television channels and walls calling people to bring them their next victims.
All these actions are happening right under the noses of those who formulate, implement and execute the many laws against witch-branding and attacking people on the basis of spirituality.
To end this menace, the major actors – the source – must be nipped in the bud before more children are abused and subjected to cruel torture and hardships. The spiritual advertisements must be switched with advertisements against child abuse and human rights.