NaNoWriMo Meets Blog 2007: The Witch Trials Aren’t Over

Today, November 15, back in 2007, I posted on my original blog, Peaceful Ponderings, about certain traditions in Africa that are antiquated and leading to the torture and death of hundreds, if not thousands. It only seems fitting to post this now as I take on WEEK THREE of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and my own Africa-based novel takes off.

Take a gander:

Most of us have heard about the Salem witch trials, or the drownings and burnings that took place in Europe centuries ago. In the Western world, we understand that this phenomenon was catalyzed by superstition and the inability to explain certain illnesses and weather, among other factors. But there are still places on this planet in 2007 where witchcraft is considered rampant, and innocent people, including children, are paying the price.

A New York Times article today entitled “African Crucible” by Sharon LaFraniere discusses the hundreds of children killed or cast out of their homes and communities under suspicion of being witches. Considering that the vast majority of Africa is considered to be the Third World, it is not hard to believe that there would still be misunderstandings akin to those prevalent in Massachusetts circa 1692. When cattle die, it is not because of a bovine epidemic, drought or lack of food, it is because a neighbor put a hex on them. When two parents perish at the hands of a mysterious illness, it is not HIV/AIDS, it is their child using magic because he is a witch.

LaFraniere writes, “In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are accuses of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned.” She goes on to state that by casting these children out of the community, there is less pressure to provide for them, allowing other family members to eat more; a definite bonus when you are in a situation akin to near starvation. It may be difficult to believe that a family would actually fabricate a witchcraft accusation against a son or daughter just so they could have a little more food for themselves at the dinner table, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

In my opinion and, I’m sure, in yours as well, the measures that have and are being taken in these regions of the world are beyond desperate – they are horrific. LaFraniere reports on the actions of “a Luanda mother [who] blinded her 14-year-old daughter with bleach to try to rid her of evil visions. In August, a father injected battery acid into his 12-year-old son’s stomach because he feared the boy was a witch…” It is incomprehensible to me how anyone could take such actions against anyone, let alone their own children. Such accounts go to show just how ingrained superstitions are in these cultures.

These three nations are not the only ones where these beliefs are rampant. Indeed, when I was living in Malawi I heard of similar circumstances as well. At a dance by the Guli Wam Kulu, an animistic religion native to the area, I witnessed a mentally-disturbed man who was attempting to entertain the audience. It was obvious to us Westerners that he must have had a mental disability, but when I asked a Malawian the answer was usually that the man was possessed, or a witch. Nobody got to close to this man, and when he tried to take money from the dancers, he was quickly chased away. Nobody wanted anything to do with them. They simply ignored him until he became enough of a nuisance to take action. Certainly, nobody wanted to help him.

An interesting aspect of African witchcraft, at least in Malawi, is that it cannot be used against blood relatives. Obviously, considering familial cast outs, maimings and killings described in Angola and Congo, this is not true everywhere. It is near impossible to change these beliefs when even national officials, professionals and medical personnel are believers. If a person cannot get the medical assistance they desire at a health facility, they will turn to traditional medicine – witch doctors. If a hex is suspected on themselves or a family member, for instance, the doctor will put a hex on their enemy who will, in turn, come to the doctor to hex them back. Fairly ludicrous to us, but downright understandable to many places in Africa. In Angola, healer João Ginga, 30, casts bad spirits out of people inside a narrow, mud-walled room. “”If someone has a bad spirit, I can tell […] We treat more than a thousand cases a year.”” The man’s business is definitely lucrative with clients paying in cash, candles and perfume among other items they can come up with. Some of the methods are questionable at best. Here are some examples:

– Poultice plant inserted into the anus

– Head shaving

– Two weeks of sequestering

– Upside-down suspension for a night

Is it any wonder why a child would confess to a crime they did not commit after going through such torture? Unfortunately, even if they do and even if a healer like Ginga treats a patient, a family is not always content, casting them out nonetheless.

There are steps being taken slowly in countries like Angola where the atrocities have been escalating. “The Angolan city of Mbanza Congo, just 50 miles from the border with Congo, has blazed a trail. After a child accused of witchcraft was stabbed to death in 2000, provincial officials and Save the Children, the global charitable organization, rounded up 432 street children and reunited 380 of them with relatives, the witchcraft report stated” (LaFraniere). After such actions took place, the prevalence of child outcasts has definitely dropped. In Uige, a city 100 miles north, however, the opposite trend is occurring; child persecution is rising.

As long as these beliefs remain ingrained in people’s heads, it is unlikely significant change will occur any time soon. It is nearly impossible to make alterations when you are battling against culture, and that is what is happening; not just in terms of witchcraft, but female genital mutilation, AIDS and wife inheritance as well. The grassroots campaigns against these phenomena educating people on the ground are truly what is going to make a difference. Let’s hope that one less child dies today so a hundred less can die a month from now.

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Filed under Africa, AIDS, Politics, Social Justice

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