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Child Witchcraft Accusations in Ivory Coast
Leo Igwe   Jul 12, 2015   Ethical Technology  

Ivory Coast is one of the countries in Africa where belief is witchcraft is widespread. A Gallup Poll found in 2010 that up to 95 percent of the populations believed in “sorciellerie” – the French word for witchcraft. This means that witchcraft is more or less a ‘national religion’. Almost everyone in the country thinks as a matter of fact, not fantasy that witchcraft is real in its conception and consequences, that people can harm others using mystical means.

As we have seen in other African countries, witchcraft is not just a mere belief; sorcery is an idiom which people use to make sense of evil or undeserved misfortunes in their everyday life. These undeserved misfortunes include sickness, death, accident, business failure, child birth difficulties. Expressed through accusations, attributions of evil magic have severe consequences on the accused because accusers and the witch believing public often react angrily and violently towards an alleged witch.

In Ivory Coast, witchcraft allegations are rampant. But these allegations are  mainly brought against adult males and females, particularly elderly women who are branded ‘soul eaters’ because the witch’s main activity is believed to be what Sheila Walker calls, ‘cannibalism at a distance’. Yes witches are believed to be cannibals, not in the literal sense but in the spiritual sense. Though, I must add that, for Ivoirians and yes, for most people across Africa the literal and the spiritual senses of witch cannibalism are one and the same.

It means that witches eat the ‘soul’ of their victims and in the process make the people sick or kill them. In addition, witches eat the fruits of the victims’ labour, and spoil their plants and crops.  As Walker further explains, the malevolent witch could, with other diabolical colleagues, “eat the souls of the cocoa pods on a neighbour’s or relative’s plantation, causing the plants to fail to produce”. Those who believe they are victims of witchcraft often attack or kill the suspected ‘soul eaters’ in an attempt to revenge the witchcraft attacks or cleanse the society of these agents of the devil.

But another tragic trend is unfolding in the Ivorian witchscape - that is the accusation of children. Children who are labeled witches (soul eaters) are consequently tortured by their parents or guardians. In October last year, a woman appeared before a local tribunal for torturing a five year girl.  The woman accused the girl of witchcraft and apparently tried exorcizing the witchcraft. She inflicted severe injuries on her using a machete. The woman put the girl’s hands and feet on the fire in an attempt to drive out the witchcraft spirit. A neighbor alerted the police who intervened and rescued the child. An online video of the girl at a court session shows graphic images of the bruises on her face, machete cuts on the head and palm and severe injuries which she sustain in the course of the ordeal.

 It is not clear the number of innocent children across Ivory Coast and the entire continent that are treated in such a horrific way by their witch believing parents and guardians. But they are probably in their tens of thousands. Child witchcraft accusations are taking place behind silent walls. Let us break that wall of silence now!

Those who are likely to be accused of witchcraft are children from poor families - orphans, step daughters and sons, house helps etc. Poor illiterate parents and guardians who attend churches or traditional religious and medicinal centers where the idiom of witchcraft is used to interpret and make sense of family problems and difficulties are those most likely to engage in accusing and abusing children in the name of witchcraft. Both the victims and the victimizers need the help of critically minded and compassionate persons. The victims need assistance to protect them from further torture and abuse. And the victimizers need help in disabusing their minds of superstition based fears, anxieties and fantasies which cause them to commit atrocities.

The Ivorian society needs a counter narrative to disentangle the minds of the people from the grip of magic and mysticism. The authorities must do more to tackle these abuses which endanger the lives of children and the future of Ivory Coast by putting in place measures that safeguard vulnerable children and reorient the local population including religious leaders and other managers of spiritual centers who promote witchcraft narratives.

Child witchcraft accusation must stop. Child witchcraft accusers must be stopped.

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.

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