Children Accused of Witchcraft

The phenomenon of children accused of practicing witchcraft in Africa has been around since the 1980’s. The beliefs concerning witchcraft are very present in Central sub-Saharian Africa, but as a UNICEF report claims, they are not a feature of “traditional” ways of life. Modernity in Africa seems to have given rise to accusations towards children. This is an issue that interests not only anthropology, but also psychiatry and sociology.

The stories are all pretty much the same: supposedly a child, of any age, is approached by an old person that offers him/her some food. He/She accepts it, and in return the older person says that they will have to kill someone else, to give back that piece of “flesh” they ate. Then a member of the child’s family falls ill or looses his job, and the child claims that it is because they “ate” that person during the night. Whether this is real or imagined by the children, these accounts give rise to true judgments starting by the families and then the communities. In some countries, even the courts of law can judge and imprison “witches”. They are interrogated, hit, tortured, in order to expel the darkness that possesses them. They are cast away from the society until they relinquish to their witch “powers”. Many of them eventually end up abandoned in the streets.

To understand this phenomenon one must look beyond the idea of “witchcraft” itself. We must look at African societies in the past years, to the economical, political and social scenarios that characterize them. The big African metropoles have gathered people from different ethnic origins, beliefs and backgrounds, monotheist religions have risen and evangelic churches often create these “witch-hunts” to solve the problems of a community. The most vulnerable children, those who have disabilities, those who are different, end up by being easy targets. Priests of evangelic churches offer their services at very high prices to “exorcise” the children. Some anthropologists link this phenomenon to inequalities and greed, in the sense that the societies try to find escape-goats for these problems. Witch children would be responsible for the rise of some, and the fall of others.

Whatever the cause that might underlie this issue, it is certain that it is a feature of contemporary African societies, and many cases have also been observed in Europe. Read the UNICEF Report here, or read more about it here.

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