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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Witchcraft and Trauma

Witchcraft and Post Traumatic Stress

Throughout the ages witchcraft beliefs and post traumatic stress have been closely related.  Many people accused of witchcraft in medieval Europe have been sufferers from post traumatic stress.  Their communities unable to make sense of the often bizarre, aggressive and self-destructive behaviour interpreted these symptoms in accordance with their magical frame of reference.  The same happens today in societies where the dominant worldview includes many magical beliefs.

In societies where misfortune, hardship, suffering, unemployment, disease and death are attributed to the work of demons or evil spirits who are believed to work in league with human agents it is a very easy step towards scapegoating people who are perceived as different.

Many studies have shown that foreigners, people with a disability, people with a mental disease, refugees, orphans and other people suffering from psychological trauma become easy targets for witchcraft related scapegoating.

Orphaned children, children who have been subjected to sexual and physical abuse as well as other people suffering from post traumatic stress are more vulnerable than other people groups because they can easily be forced to confess to anything evil as they already feel very dirty, very angry, very guilty, very powerless and very violated deep inside (Herman 1997:96-97).  Issues such as altered states of consciousness, dissociation and multiple personality syndrome are all symptoms of complex post traumatic stress and yet easily misidentified as demon possession and witchcraft in a magical belief-system.

Children subjected to the cruel horror of child abuse develop the wrong belief that they must somehow be responsible for the terrible things that are done to them by the powerful people in their world.  Why else are they deprived of love, care, kindness, goodness? Something must be wrong with them, maybe they are witches, demoniacs, whores, vampires, evil goblins, dogs, rats, snakes..... The perpetrators often try to re-enforce this perception the child has of him or herself by reminding them how evil they are and sometimes by forcing them to do horrible things to other children as well (Herman 1997:105).

To an outsider these children often appear very good as they strife so hard to be good and perfect. The child victim becomes an excellent performer, hardworking, perfectionist in all she does in the hope that somehow the abuse will stop one day and he/she will be loved and cared for. Even when such children become adults they keep being torn between a sense of inner malignant badness and outward perfectionist performance in order to be accepted.  Yet even when people accept him or her, it is never truly believed by the victim as deep down the feeling of ‘I am evil’ is still there.

 The only way out of their prison is counselling in love and in truth, whereby falsehoods the victims believe about themselves are countered with truth, where victims open up about what was done to them and also what they did to others. It is a very painful road both for victim and therapist, full of dangerous pitfalls but it is also the road towards full freedom and recovery.   

We should therefore not be part of the problem and heap more abuse on victims of abuse by labelling them as witches, mad or evil, they need proper psychological help to deal with their trauma.


Judith Lewis Herman 1997. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Report on Child Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Southern Malawi

(This report is currently being reviewed for publication in the Australasian Review of African Studies)

This report is based on research done on behalf of Stichting Afrika Zending and Across Outreach in Malawi in order to provide relevant information concerning child witchcraft accusations in the Southern African nation. The main aim of this research is to gain a better understanding of child witchcraft beliefs and accusations in Malawi and to contribute to more effective intervention on behalf of vulnerable children and other vulnerable groups in Malawi.

The issue of child witchcraft accusations in Sub-Sahara Africa has been highlighted in the media ever since Stepping Stones Nigeria released their compelling documentary Saving Africa’s Witch children in 2008 (Foxgroft 2008).  This documentary focuses on child witchcraft beliefs and accusations made by Charismatic and Pentecostal pastors and prophets in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria. Recent reports by UNICEF and UNHCR also describe how child witchcraft beliefs in Sub-Sahara Africa have led to untold suffering (Bussien 2011; Cimpric 2010).  Earlier in 2006 the organisations Save The Children (Molina 2006) and Human Right Watch (HRW 2006) had reported on child witchcraft accusations and the resulting abuse and abandonment of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Similar reports have followed from Angola (ICN 2009; LaFraniere 2007) and even from among African migrants in the United Kingdom (Schnoebelen 2009; Woodward 2012).  However, child witchcraft accusations may be more widespread throughout Africa than previously thought and also affects South and East Africa.  This report is based on research done in Southern Malawi into the prevalence of child witchcraft beliefs, witchcraft accusations and persecution of witches.

The research for this report consists of 88 semi-structured interviews of randomly selected adults and 35 unstructured in-depth interviews with influential key-persons in rural, semi-urban and urban communities in four districts in Southern Malawi, namely Thyolo, Blantyre, Zomba and Balaka districts. The respondents in these communities came from throughout the Southern region with a few originating from Central and Northern region. The key-persons interviewed were 2 child right activists, 2 police officers, 20 clergy, 10 teachers, 3 village headmen, 2 medical doctors, 2 lawyers as well as 1 magistrate. Focus group discussions took place with two groups of youths aged 10 to 17 who had been victims of abuse resulting from witchcraft accusations in Southern Malawi. In addition a literature review was done of over a dozen newspaper reports and articles on the issue of children and witchcraft which appeared in the Malawi newspapers over the past five years.  The data collection was done over a period of 90 days.[1]

We must stress that the findings of our research may not be representative for the whole nation and additional country-wide research is necessary. Nevertheless, the findings of our limited research are sufficient cause for concern with more than 65 out of 88 respondents in the semi-structured interviews believing that children can be witches representing 74%.   Many of the respondents, 71 out of 88, have observed children accused and punished in their communities as witches and reported that these are subjected to traditional cleansing ceremonies, exorcisms, arrest, imprisonment, beatings and banishments.  All of the respondents have heard reports of children being killed but no-one reported to have witnessed this.  Severe beatings were very common as well as traditional cleansing ceremonies which included the drinking of unknown and potentially harmful substances.  In the focus groups as well as interviews with key-persons it was reported that many children are chased away from their families and are forced to live on the street and as a result may die of exposure. These children are also vulnerable to trafficking or may end up in prostitution or become involved in criminal activities to survive.  Out of the 7 underage girls in a safe house in Blantyre reported to have lived on the streets, surviving by means of prostitution even as young as 12 years of age.  In spite of the harm that can befall children on the streets 15 respondents were of the opinion that banishment of children accused of witchcraft was a good solution.  Similar sentiments were found among the specialists who were interviewed with one special needs teacher explicitly stating that all children suspected of witchcraft should be burned to death.  Elderly men and women who are suspected of having taught witchcraft to children faced even less mercy with 60% of the respondents calling for them to be beaten and chased  away from the community or else be imprisoned. Although only 2 out of 88 respondents called for suspected witches to be executed and only 1 of the key-persons who were interviewed it is still reason for serious concern, particularly in the light of recent extra-judicial executions of suspected witches in Malawi and other parts of Africa (Kasawala 2008:1, 3; Petraitis 2003; Somanje 2011:1,3). 
In as far as accusations are concerned the general consensus among all respondents was that the testimony of the children is sufficient for someone to be identified as a witch.  Nevertheless, normally confirmation by a traditional healer or charismatic prophet is recommended.  This of course gives the latter the enormous power to acquit or condemn and in a way the power over life and death.  Out of the 88 respondents, 76 indicated that they first heard about children being witches in the late 1990s or later.  This suggests that on the one hand the concept of children being witches is a relatively new phenomenon in Malawi but on the other hand already widely spread.  It is also interesting to note that 20% of the respondents (18 out of the 88) no longer believed in the existence of witchcraft at all.  Those who rejected the concept of witchcraft did so mainly due to higher level education. Of this group 8 went through the experience of being falsely accused of witchcraft and as a result started to reflect critically on the issue.  This group also insisted in more thorough investigation and great caution in entertaining accusations against someone as it is common for parents to influence their children into making allegations. It was also suggested that some children are influenced by the many witchcraft stories circulating in the community combined with the witchcraft themes in Nigerian movies which are often featured in informal cinemas. Psychological factors have also been mentioned such as the sense of power one has when accusing someone of witchcraft or even when asserting to possess some witchcraft related powers.  Most of the respondents believed that false accusations occur frequently out of jealousy, conflict or power struggles within families or between families or within the community.  Many respondents believe that counselling is the best way forward to deal with children who are suspected to be witches (41 out of 88) while 9 believe that nothing should be done at all as they contend that witchcraft does not exist.  The respondents included people from various tribal and religious backgrounds but no significant differences in witchcraft beliefs could be discerned on the basis of tribal background or religious affiliation.

The findings of our research suggest that beliefs concerning child witches in Malawi are similar to those found in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo but with less hatred being expressed towards the children who are believed to be witches.  Many see the children at least partly as victims who have been misled by some of the elderly who taught them witchcraft.  Generally the elderly bear the brunt of the witch hunts in Malawi (Gondwe 2008; Kandiero 2007:15; Semu-Banda 2008) although our research has shown that violence against children accused of witchcraft is on the increase in the country.  In the past five years newspapers reported the murders of several children who were accused of being witches (Gondwe 2008; MANA 2009:3; Muwamba 2012; Somanje 2011).  These are likely to be just a fraction of the real number as many murders are disguised as accidents or suicides.[2]
It is also sobering to reflect on the fact that the current situation in Nigeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo with extreme violence against children accused of witchcraft was in the past similar to what it is in Malawi at present today.  In these countries socio-economic problems, rapid urbanisation, the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the influence of some Nigerian religious movies are some of the factors which caused child witchcraft accusations, torture and murders to reach epidemic proportions as highlighted in the UNICEF report (Cimpric 2010).  From discussions with various NGOs who work among street children, local human rights organizations, the department of social welfare and from discussions with victimised children themselves it is likely that in Southern Malawi there are several hundred children who are subjected to violence and abandonment on the basis of witchcraft accusations.  In the whole of Malawi there may be even a few thousand victims.  Many children living on the street have been chased away from their homes due to witchcraft accusations and also several of the teenage prostitutes we interviewed were forced into the trade after they had been accused of witchcraft and chased away from their homes. It was also observed that 12 of the 15 ‘witch children’ placed in safe houses in Blantyre, Malawi have lost one or both parents. This suggests a link between the high number of orphans due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and child witchcraft accusations. Several respondents mentioned in the interview that people accuse children of witchcraft because they are orphans and their upkeep is too much of a burden to the host family.  However, culturally it is unacceptable for anyone in the extended family to refuse to take care of a needy family member. However, once the family member is labelled as a witch it becomes socially acceptable to mistreat and abandon such a person. One respondent related seeing how a 5 year old boy was severely beaten by relatives after the witch doctor had identified him as the witch who was responsible for the death of his parents who had succumbed to Aids. The child became so traumatised that it is now behaving as if mentally disturbed and as he is neglected by the same relatives his survival changes are small. A research by UNICEF in several other African countries has shown that many of the children accused of witchcraft there are orphans as well (Cimpric 2010:1-3).
Some respondents mentioned that they witnessed children being arrested by the police after they were accused by the community of witchcraft. However, we did not come across any evidence that any minor was ever convicted of witchcraft by any magistrate. The cases of arrest may refer to cases where children were taken into protective custody.  Some of the children in the safe houses had been taken to the police by the relatives who accused them of witchcraft but the children were not arrested. A 16 year old girl in one of the focus groups related how she was rescued by the police from being beaten to death and taken to hospital.  Until date the police has failed to arrest the step-brother who had assaulted her for being a witch. Nevertheless, the police officers and magistrates who we interviewed expressed their frustration with not knowing how to handle witchcraft accusations and an unwillingness to enforce the witchcraft act under which witchcraft accusations are in fact illegal. To complicate matters some magistrates have actually entertained witchcraft accusations against adults accused of witchcraft while admitting evidence from children who allegedly had been taught witchcraft by the accused (BBC 2010).  Apart from the problems associated with accepting testimonies from impressionable minors the evidence presented is of a supernatural nature and at the same time the whole procedure of entertaining witchcraft accusations let alone conviction and sentencing is unlawful under the witchcraft act. 

The issue of child witchcraft accusations is a growing phenomenon in Southern Malawi as child witchcraft beliefs have been adopted by the majority of the people (Chandilanga 2008:4-5).  It appears that in the case of Malawi these beliefs are partially a foreign import with Nigerian movies and the growth of Pentecostalism as contributing factors[3]. It also appears that these beliefs found fertile soil in Malawi due to pre-existing witchcraft beliefs which include the belief that children can be taught witchcraft by elderly witches (BBC 2010; Byrnie 2011). The well-known African theologian John Mbiti described the fear of witchcraft as one of the most disturbing elements in African religion and life (in Westerlund 1985:36-37). Nevertheless, we need to recognise that apart from deep-seated beliefs, witchcraft accusations are also an effective way to scapegoat those who are perceived as a burden or a threat to the community (PRA 2012).[4]  Witchcraft fears, witchcraft accusations and witch hunts may well represent a general feeling of insecurity, unhappiness and helplessness in society.  While witchcraft fears appear to have been part of the various African cultures in Malawi for many centuries, its recent revival and media attention has various underlying sociological causes.  The rapid modernization of Malawian society has brought with it new socio-economic and political problems, this combined with adverse climatic conditions and natural disasters in the form of floods and droughts, results in a lot of frustration in society.  This frustration in the community may be translated in the scapegoating of orphans, widows, the elderly, foreigners and other outsiders as witches, sorcerers and Satanists (Lagerwerf 1987:33; Schoeneman 1975:529ff).  Nevertheless, witchcraft accusations represent a counter-productive way of resolving social tension as they in themselves produce more tension and perpetuate fear and repression (Bourdillon 1990:203-204, 212; Schoeneman 1975:532ff).  There appears to be a link between witchcraft accusations against the elderly and children. It has been suggested by several respondents that since these segments of society are the least infected with HIV/AIDS they are looked upon with suspicion by those who belong to the age groups most infected.  With more than half of the respondents still believing that most disease and death is caused by witchcraft it is likely that without intervention witchcraft accusations of children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups will continue to increase.
In terms of legislation it has become increasingly clear that existing legislation dealing with witchcraft allegations has not been properly enforced and has often been misinterpreted and misapplied to convict people of witchcraft and jail them (BBC 2010; Phiri 2007:10; Semu-Banda 2008). At the same time there has been a cry from the general public in Malawi for the government to further criminalise witchcraft and revise the witchcraft act so it can be used effectively to convict people of witchcraft (BBC 2010; Byrnie 2011; Chandilanga 2008:4-5, Gondwe 2008).  However, rather than giving in to the outcry of a majority to criminalise witchcraft as they have been influenced by a mixture traditional and modern witchcraft beliefs and other magical notions, partially inspired by Nigerian movies, such a thing would expose vulnerable groups in Malawi to even more unfounded accusations, abuse and unjust punishments.  It is by far better for the government of Malawi to decriminalise witchcraft and at the same time decriminalise witchcraft accusations as both are in essence spiritual and religious matters. In any secular country where religion and state are separate entities no court is competent to pass ruling on matters of faith and belief. Freedom of belief including the belief in witchcraft, the belief that someone or one-self is a witch is enshrined in the constitution and cannot be criminalised.  However, as soon as people commit human rights abuses these should be objectively be dealt with by the law and on the basis of factual evidence regardless of whatever belief the accusers or the accused hold.  The courts must limit themselves to matters covered by the law and deal with physical evidence in the natural realm. Under no circumstances should the courts be allowed to admit supernatural evidence from religious experts, nor entertain testimonies from children about supernatural experiences some of which have made headlines in Malawi (Mmane 2007:1,3). The courts should not entertain or admit self-incriminating confessions of people of who claim to have supernaturally hurt or killed other people, let alone convict them as has happened in the past (Chibaya 2007:15; Kandiero 2008:4). Such confessions are religious and not criminal in nature. Also one must keep in mind that self-incriminating confessions can be made for a number of reasons such as social pressure and coercion, but also religious indoctrination, delusions and various physiological and psychological causes. Even the presence of charms, amulets and traditional medicine in someone’s possession does not constitute evidence of a crime, they are religious artefacts. Many people in Africa have such artefacts in their possession in order to protect themselves against evil supernatural forces or to gain good luck.  The court must deal only with crime and tangible evidence in the physical realm and stay out of the realm of religion. Beliefs no matter how unacceptable or irrational they may appear to those who hold differing beliefs cannot and should not be legislated, only unlawful behaviour and unlawful actions flowing out from such beliefs can be and should be regulated.  In particular extrajudicial executions of people accused of witchcraft must be dealt with strongly as it is a serious threat to the whole of society when people start taking the law into their own hands (Kasawala 2009:1, 3).
However, the issue of witchcraft accusations against children the elderly, the disabled, refugees and other vulnerable groups in society needs more than legislative reform and needs a concerted effort by Government, especially those dealing with gender, disabilities, child welfare and social welfare in general.  We need to involve the churches, the academia, international NGOs, civil society, human rights activists, the media and other stakeholders in Malawian society to create public awareness and promote behavioural change but also a change in the underlying worldview and beliefs which contribute to the trampling of the rights of vulnerable groups in society (Mgbako 2011).[5]  There is also need to engage religious leaders including traditional healers, leaders of indigenous churches, the Malawi Council of Churches, The Evangelical Association of Malawi and encourage them to self-regulate in order to control unscrupulous traditional healers and Christian witchcraft specialists who are engaged in abusive witch hunting and witchcraft eradication practices which are unlawful and violate the rights of the accused. However, such engagement needs to go beyond just focusing on the rule of law and human rights principles and also engage the underlying worldview in a constructive manner. In as far as churches are concerned this could partly take place in the seminaries and theological college where clergy are trained. Workshops and seminars are also useful instruments for awareness creation and discussion, for clergy as well as other stakeholders in society.   

Some intervention is already taking place as in 2010 a small coalition was formed by Human rights activist Emmie Chanika of Civil Liberties Committee, Reverend Aubrey Goliat, Children’s rights activists Frank Phiri, Samantha Antonio and others under the banner of  ‘The Coalition against Witchcraft Stigmatization of Children in Africa’. In spite of lack of sufficient funding the coalition has since organised over forty workshops throughout Southern Malawi reaching about 1500 clergy and community leaders.  The first consultation about child witchcraft allegations for child care organisations in Blantyre was organised in February 2011 and another at the 20th anniversary of Civil Liberties Committee.  The coalition also teamed up with the association of secular humanists to sponsor a weekly radio broadcast about the issue of witchcraft allegations and the witchcraft act (Mlozi 2012:35). With the support of Across Outreach and the help of Stepping Stones Nigeria and the Bar Human rights association of the United Kingdom a contribution was submitted through the Malawi Law society in 2011 addressed to the special law committee which was established in 2009 to review the witchcraft act. The aim of this contribution was to point at internationally accepted rule of law principles and internationally recognised human rights norms and standards.  Nevertheless, much more needs to be done in terms of awareness creation and intervention at community level and on a national scale.

BBC (2010) ‘Malawi plea to free convicted 'witches'’. BBC News Africa (13 October).
            Accessed on 01 February 2011 from website: Http://

            Africa Intelligence (16 June). Accessed on 5 December 2011 from website:

Bourdillon, M. (1990) Religion and Society: A Text for Africa. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Bussien, N. et al. (2011) ‘Breaking the spell:  Responding to witchcraft accusations against
            children’, New Issues in refugee Research (197). Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR.

Chandilanga, H. (2008) ‘A Witchcraft Infested Society’, Weekend Nation (15-16 March): 4-5.

Chibaya, S. (2007) ‘Mwase and his magic world’, The Nation (15 November): 15.

Chimzimu, C. (2012) ‘Boy commits suicide, another drowns’. Nyasa Times (15 January).
Accessed on 25 March 2012 on website: Http://

Cimpric, A. (2010) Children accused of witchcraft, An anthropological study of
            contemporary practices in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: UNICEF WCARO.

Croome, V. (2010)’The Perils of Witchcraft’. IYIP Rights Media Internships,Malawi (24
September).  Accessed on 25 May 2012 from website: Http://

Foxcroft, G. (2008) Saving Africa's Witch Children, Interview and documentary by
            Dispatches, Channel 4 (12 November). DVD.

Gondwe, G. (2008) ‘Witchcraft Strife Storms Malawi’, Ground Report (February 3).
Accessed on 10 December 2011 from website:

ICN (2009) Independent Catholic News: ‘Angola: Papal envoy calls for end to witch child
Accusations’ (July 28).  Accessed on 01 November 2011 from website: Http://

Kandiero, C. (2007) ‘72-year-old jailed for witchcraft’, Daily Times (29 August): 15.

Kandiero C. (2008) ‘Man gets 5 yrs for magical transportation’, Daily Times (4 January): 4.

Kasawala T. (2009) ‘2-Killed over witchcraft’, Daily Times (January 26): 1,3.

Lagerwerf, L. (1987) Witchcraft, Sorcery and Spirit Possession – Pastoral Responses in
            Africa. Gweru: Mambo.
Lalwani, P. (2010) ‘Facts about Salem Witch Trials’, Buzzle (13 December). Accessed on 24
            May 2012 from website: Http://

MANA (2009) Malawi News Agency: ‘Three arrested for torching 12-year-old to death’,
The Nation (2 February): 3.

Mgbako, C. (2011) ‘Witchcraft Legal Aid in Africa’, New York times (February 17). Accessed
            On 21 February 2011 from website:

Mmane, D. (2007) ‘Chilling Witchcraft Revelations: 10 children shock Bishop’, Malawi
            News, 45 (28 January): 1,3.

Muwamba, E. (2010) ‘Ndirande Fire Last Victim dies’, The Nation (6 September): 3.


 Petraitis, R, (2003) ‘The Witch Killers of Africa’. Accessed on 17 February 2011
            From website: Http:


Onyinah, O. (2002) ‘Deliverance as a way of confronting witchcraft in Modern Africa: Ghana as a case history’, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies (5:1): 107-134.


Paul, S. (2010) ‘Defenceless Woman Branded Witch, Brutally Tortured’, Ground Report
(26 August). Accessed on 24 May 2012 from website: Http://


Phiri, F. T. (2007) ‘Three to serve 42 months jail for witchcraft’, Daily Times (05 July): 10.


PRA (2012) Political Research Associates: Dehumanization and Scapegoating. Accessed on

            26 May 2012 from website: Http://


Schoeneman, T. J. (1975) ‘The witch hunt as a culture change phenomenon’. Ethos (3): 529-554.

Semu-Banda, P. (2008) ‘Witchcraft and Mob Justice in Malawi, The Women’s

            International Perspective (May 21). Accessed on 1 November 2011 from website:


Short, T. & Bedford Z. 2009 Witchcraft and homicide defence in Malawi, Centre for Capital
            Punishment Studies, Internship Reports (2009): 113-145. Available online at:
Reports20092-Copy.pdf .

Somanje, C. (2011) ‘3 Beat boy, 12, to death, accuse him of witchcraft’, The Nation
            (27 January): 1, 2.

Van der Meer, E. (2008) The Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare Theology of C. Peter
            Wagner and its Implication for Christian Mission in Malawi. Unpublished doctoral
            dissertation. University of South Africa, Pretoria.  Available for download on:

Van der Meer , E. (2010) Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare and Mission in Africa.
Evangelical Review of Theology (34:2), World Evangelical Association - Theological Commission , (USA): 155-165.

Van der Meer, E. (2011) ‘The Problem of Witchcraft in Malawi’, Evangelical Missions
            Quarterly, 47:1 (January): 78-85.

Woodward, T. (2012) ‘Relatives Accused in Witchcraft Killing’,  ABC News (9 January).
Accessed on 20 May 2012 from website: Http://

[1] Most of these articles have been cited in this report and can be found in the list of references. Others may be found in Short & Bedford (2010:113 ft. 1).
[2] One may think of reports of 10 year olds committing suicide by hanging themselves and other suspicious incidents (Chimzimu 2012; Croome 2010).  Unfortunately the Malawi Police is ill-equipped for thorough forensic investigation and in the rural areas many cases are never reported as the victims are quickly buried and the matter is kept quiet.
[3] For an in-depth study of how Pentecostal and Charismatic spiritual warfare theology has affected African Christianity one can consult the writings by Onyinah (2002) and Van der Meer (2008; 2011).
[4] It also should be noted that witchcraft accusations and the killing of people accused of witchcraft is not just an African phenomenon but also is common in parts of India (Paul 2010).  Witchcraft accusations and execution of witches including some children was also a common occurrence in Europe in the late Middle Ages (Van der Meer 2008:228-229). We may also consider the well documented case of the execution of witches in Salem in North America where the testimonies of children played an important role while other children were jailed together with the adults who were suspected to be witches (Lalwani 2010).
[5]For example the right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, including physical and psychological violence  as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Committee on the Rights of the Child - General comment:  No. 13 (2011).

Friday, 4 May 2012

This article written by a Malawian reporter was publiced on 24 April in the Daily times of Malawi highlighting some of our efforts to address the abuse of children due to witchcraft beliefs

Monday, 20 February 2012

Anti-witchhunt campaign in Malawi

The anti-witchhunt campaign in Malawi is slowly gaining momentum as we have joined hands with Civil Liberties Committee, The Crusade for Community Transformation, Word and Deed and even the association for secular humanism in addressing this scourge. A weekly radio advert is being aired conscientizing the nation concerning the witchcraft act and why witch-hunting is detrimental for society. An article was published in the national newspaper highlighting a Christian responsible response to witch hunting and yesterday and today 3 different media houses did radio interviews and a newspaper reporter wrote an article concerning the problem of witch hunting orphans, the disabled and the elderly.

Besides the safehouse for girls, the safehouse for boys accused of witchcraft is now well established and recognised by the Blantyre department of social welfare.

Report first published on

Monday, 30 January 2012

Witch children beliefs in Malawi

We are in the process of conducting a country-wide research on witchcraft beliefs in Malawi and the preliminary findings are cause for concern with more than 65% of the respondents believing that children can be witches with over 50% of them believing that such children must be arrested and severely punished by means of imprisonment, beatings, with some suggesting execution. An interesting detail is that none of the respondents who had a Bachelors degree or higher believed in witchcraft. Although respondents included people from Chewa, Angoni, Lomwe and Tumbuka background there were few differences in witchcraft beliefs.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wikipedia article on Child Sacrifice

I have written and posted an article for wikipedia under the title Child sacrifice in Uganda. Any of you who have experience with Wikipedia please edit, add and modify where necessary as this is also a great awareness creation tool.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Child Sacrifice in Uganda and the Response of the Church

Child Sacrifice and the Response of the Church in Uganda

30 December 2011

The issue of child sacrifice in Uganda has been highlighted in the media over the past three years with ABC and BBC producing compelling reports and documentaries (ABC 2009; BBC 2010). Also journalists for various media houses wrote about the issue.[1]  The media attention coincided with media campaigns by Ugandan NGOs such as RACHO[2] and FAPAD[3] (Whewell 2010), ANPPCAN-Uganda[4] as well as faith based organisations such as Kyampisi Childcare Ministries (KCM). An undercover BBC investigation made with the help of KCM shows witch doctors explaining how they can sacrifice a child and that they have done it many times before (BBC 2010).  The media attention has put the government of Uganda under pressure to be seen doing something about the issue of child sacrifice and has resulted in the formation of an official government taskforce to deal with this evil in Ugandan society. Unfortunately, the taskforce consists of only one officer with a motorcycle and works without a proper budget (Vernaschi 2010).  Consequently, many Ugandans[5] believe that the gesture of the Ugandan government is more a matter of window dressing to avert local and international criticism than a genuine attempt to root out this evil.

Origins of Child Sacrifice
The killing of human beings for magical purposes is a common phenomenon in Sub-Sahara Africa (Akosah-Sarpong 2007; Kante 2004; Igwe 2010) as it is believed that human body parts have magical proportions, particularly the ‘life-giving’ genitals, the ‘life-sustaining’ blood, but also the heart and other body parts[6].  Amulets, charms or traditional medicine made with such body parts are believed to make the wearer victorious in battle, provide protection against evil spirits or bad magic and/or provide health, fertility, long-life and prosperity (Jonker 2006). These beliefs are not uniform and among different tribes one may find different preferences such as the preference for albino body parts in Tanzania (ABC 2009; Allen 2008) and its neighbouring countries (BBC 2008), Pygmee body parts in Gabon (USDS 2010) and DR-Congo (BBC 2004)  and so on.  From the various investigations and reports as well as recent research by the author of this report, ritual killing and mutilation has reached epidemic proportions in Uganda. It is a worrisome scenario which, given the right circumstances, may be repeated in other parts of Africa as well.
While the media has been using the term child sacrifice, a better term would have been child ritual mutilations and child ritual killings. The term sacrifice suggests that a sacrifice is made to a spirit or deity which in most instances is not the case.  People are ritually killed because of the belief that their body parts can provide protection, success, power, health and wealth. In other cases victims survive ritual mutilation as for example in the case of the boy Alan who is being taken care of by KCM.[7] One could, however, argue that people are sacrificed to satisfy human greed and selfishness. It is also important to note that we are also dealing with human sacrifice in general as in many cases sacrificing a child rather than an adult is simply a matter of convenience as an adult can put up a good fight while a small child is easy to overpower.

The Ugandan Context
Until a few years ago ritual killings happened occasionally in Uganda just as it does in many African countries and consequently the issue did not get much publicity.  In recent years the gruesome discoveries of scores of mutilated bodies of children have been discovered at roadsides, the victims of a growing belief in the power of human sacrifice. In a few years time child sacrifice became rampant (Rogers 2011; Vernaschi 2010; 2010a).  Communities that surround Uganda's capital, Kampala, have been badly affected and are gripped by fear.   On the roadside are posters warning children of the danger of abduction by witch doctors for the purpose of child sacrifice.

A study of the Ugandan context shows great disparity between the rich elite and the average Ugandan who struggles to make ends meet. It is almost impossible for someone born in a poor family to climb up on the social ladder.  The gap between the rich and the poor combined with discontent with the political status quo, endemic corruption and general feeling that the country has lost direction breeds a lot of discontent and frustration. It is in such an environment that any religion promising health, wealth and success thrives.  Evidence of this abounds with the one charismatic church promising even more blessing than the other and all kinds of miracles, anointing and other spiritual quick fixes to the shared problems of poverty, ill health and lack of success in life. If the miracles fail the pastor, prophet or apostle is quick to point out that the power of the devil, demons and evil spirits are preventing the miracles from happening through curses, bewitchment and other such spiritual evils. 

The witchdoctors operate in a similar religious environment and are quick to attribute misfortune, poverty and illness to the work of malicious spirits who need to be appeased in order for someone to obtain health, wealth, success and prosperity.  Just as some of their unscrupulous ‘Pentecostal’ counterparts[8], the witch doctors thrive when desperate people turn to them for a miraculous way to bridge the gap from have-not to have, from failure to success and from poverty to wealth.  However, the means of the witchdoctors who ironically are also called witches[9] are way more violent and damaging than the methods employed by the prosperity preachers.  

In a context where a small elite has become rich in a relatively short time during Uganda’s economic boom or enriched themselves using political patronage the witchdoctors of Uganda claim that they have aided many of the nouveau riche to gain their wealth. Such claims are likely not true at all but once such rumours are circulating they advertise the witch doctors’ skill. Some witch doctors even advertise openly in the media. Some of the poor driven by desire for wealth, health and success and looking for a quick way to achieve this may use their last resources to consult the witchdoctor.  According to the head of the country's Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the child sacrifice is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly (Whewell 2010).

The witchdoctor will consult the spirits for anyone who approached him and is willing to pay the fee. The spirits via him will communicate what kind of sacrifice of appeasement they want.  Often these sacrifices comprise of chickens and goats but when such sacrifices fail to make the client prosper instantly ‘the spirits’ demand human sacrifices. The witchdoctor himself may believe that this is indeed a powerful magical ritual but in some cases the aim is to give the client an impossible task so that the witchdoctor does not appear to have failed. In other cases the witchdoctor actually gains a lot of wealth by facilitating and carrying out human sacrifices as the fee charged is normally very high.  Young children are often the victim because they are relatively easy to abduct.  The desire for instant wealth on the part of the client and greed on the part of the witchdoctor has created a ready market for children to be bought and sold at a price. They have indeed become a commodity of exchange, child sacrifice has become a commercial business (Rogers 2011).

Fact finding trip
The author of this report was requested by Across Outreach to go on a fact finding mission to Uganda.  This fact-finding mission was a response to reports from Pastor John Richard Mubiru of one of the local Pentecostal churches Amen and Amen ministries that the problem of child sacrifice is a very serious issue in Uganda which is insufficiently addressed. The mission took place from 11 December to 20 December and included a consultation on the topic of child sacrifice organised for heads of Christian denominations and other church leaders.  Prior to the trip I extensively reviewed all I managed to find  related to child sacrifice on the internet and as a result came in contact with Peter Sewakiryanga of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries. They have been campaigning against child sacrifice in Uganda for several years and are taking care of some child survivors of ritual mutilation. I have also contacted organisations who had been involved in addressing the evil of child sacrifice in the past such as RACHO and ANPPCAN Uganda.

Besides meeting representatives of KCM,  I also met with Anselm Wandega, the programme manager for ANPPCAN Uganda but I was unable to meet with representatives of RACHO due to a communication breakdown. Whereas KCM was still very active in addressing the issue of child sacrifice, ANPPCAN who were very active in 2009/2010 were now mainly focused on other child rights issues. However, Anselm Wandega expressed a desire to rekindle the campaign against child sacrifice in collaboration with the local churches.

In the course of 10 days I met with various church leaders, former witchdoctors, academics, students and people from different walks of life and obtained a lot of information using semi-structured interviews with 30 people and informal unstructured interviews with another 22 persons.

Although all interviews took place in Kampala, the respondents came from various regions in Uganda.  All respondents agreed that child sacrifice and child ritual killing was still a serious problem in their region and district in Uganda but that it appears to be the worst in and around Kampala. All respondent bemoaned the fact that there is little political will to root out the problem and deal with witchdoctors and their clients in a manner that would frighten off would be offenders.  All respondents were convinced that police, the judiciary as well as other officials were easily bribed by witchdoctors and their clients to drop prosecution against those who committed ritual killings or mutilations. The majority of the respondent felt the church did not do enough to address the evil of child sacrifice and only a few were able to name an NGO or activist who was active in addressing this matter.  I also met with some surviving victims of ritual mutilation, an experience that brought home the severity of the issue.

Consultation with church leaders
As about 80% of the Ugandans are affiliated with a Christian church it is important that the church is mobilised to address the issue of child sacrifice.  With this in mind I organised a consultation with the help of my host, pastor John Richard Mubiru, and met with 15 church leaders at Namirembe Guesthouse in Kampala to discuss the problem of child sacrifice.  Pastor Peter Sewakiryanga and Karen Lewis of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries showed part of the investigative documentary they made about child sacrifice together with the BBC. This compelling documentary, partly made undercover, is a very good introduction to the issue and led to a lot of discussion.  The final outcome of the consultation was that an interdenominational ecumenical church taskforce should be formed to guide the church in addressing this evil in Uganda and to pressurise the government to take more action. The taskforce will be formed by Peter Sewakiryanga with the help of pastor John Richard Mubiru. In order to further equip pastor John Richard Mubiru I enrolled him at Makerere University for a short course in administration and management in order to build his capacity.

How to help
What can foreign organisations and donors do to support true transformation in Uganda and to eradicate evils such as child sacrifice, domestic violence and other forms of abuse?

*     Promote international awareness as done by the Jubilee campaign (UK) and Kyampisi.
*     Network with other international and local NGOs to address this evil practice in Uganda
*     Lobby your government and multi-lateral organisations to exert pressure on the Ugandan 
       government  to act firmly against child sacrifice and violence against women and children in general.
*    Support local activists and organisations who are already actively fighting the evil of child sacrifice in Uganda so that they can be more effective:

-    Provide structural financial support to organizations involved in the campaign against child sacrifice such as KCM and Across Outreach.[10]
-   Capacity building of activists by facilitating further training, both formal and informal training. For example by helping them to attend international conferences and seminars on relevant topics.
-   Make the stories of victims and activists known and help to advertise their work through social marketing
-   Provide technical support, assistance and advice by means of long-term volunteers or resident expatriate specialists (anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, human rights specialists, medical personnel etc).
-  Monitor and evaluate activities of local partners on a regular basis in order to promote accountability and transparency.
-    Plan, organise and facilitate ongoing research in accordance with accepted international standards in order to inform, modify and develop policy on the ground in order to improve the efficiency of the various interventions.
-     Encourage international students, researchers and academics to do their research in areas relevant to addressing child sacrifice in Uganda and help them where possible.
-   Encourage reporters and other media personnel to investigate the issues in Uganda as part of documentation as well as international awareness creation.
-   Facilitate for national, regional and international consultations on the issue of child sacrifice to promote better networking, cross-pollination of ideas and form strategic alliances.
-   Facilitate for activists and experts to be given various international platforms to speak out on the issue of child sacrifice. These may include both academic and popular platforms in Universities, colleges, churches, human rights clubs etc.

The issue of child sacrifice in Uganda is still a very serious problem which can easily spill over to other African countries. The issue should be high on the agenda of human rights organisations, churches and non-governmental organisations as well as the various government bodies in Uganda and the region. There is little use in blaming and accusing the Ugandan government of doing too little as some have done in the media for this may create resentment and an unwillingness to work with other stakeholders.  Positive engagement with the government combined with non-aggressive pressure in the form of creating a national awareness of the problem through the media and in the pulpits as well as extensive lobbying is likely to produce more results. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors should also be engaged so that they make funds available to local and national government agencies including the judiciary to address this scourge. Documentation, information sharing and ongoing media attention is essential to keep up the momentum. Finally the issue of child sacrifice and other forms of ritual mutilation and violence against women and children should be addressed from multiple angles: legally, politically, sociologically, psychologically, theologically and even through the music and the arts until the practice becomes totally discredited, abhorrent and impossible to continue in the Ugandan context.

Dr. Erwin van der Meer

Across Outreach Africa
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Sources cited:

ABC 2009.  Men severed albino boy's legs in ritual killing. ABC News (23 September):


Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi 2007. Mozambique tackles Witchcraft and Human Sacrifice. Modern
hana (5 August): Http://    


Allen, Karen 2008. Living in fear: Tanzania’s albinos, in BBC News (21 July): 


BBC 2004.  DR Congo pygmies 'exterminated', in BBC News (9 July):

BBC 2008. Albino girl killed for body parts, in BBC News (17 November):

BBC 2010. Human sacrifices 'on the rise in Uganda' as witch doctors admit to rituals, BBC
Investigation quoted in the Telegraph (7 January): Http://

Igwe, Leo 2010. Ritual Killing and Human Sacrifice in Africa, a statement made at the
            African Commission on Human and People’s Rights , 48th Session (November 10-24)
            in Banjul, Gambia. Http://

Jonker, Kobus 2006. South African police accused of ignoring ritual murders, quoted by
            Stephen Bevan in the Telegraph (Mar. 26).

Kante, Sadio 2004. Mali's human sacrifice - myth or reality? BBC News Africa (20
            September): Http://
Mulondo, Moses 2011. Christianity, ancestral worship cannot mix, in Sunday Vision
            newspaper – Uganda (18 December): 30.

Rogers, Chris 2011. Where child sacrifice is a business, BBC News Africa (11 October):

USDS 2011.  United States Department of State,  2010 Country Reports on Human Rights

Vernaschi, Marco 2010. Child Sacrifice in Uganda. Pulitzer center (April 16):

Vernaschi, Marco 2010a. Uganda: A lawyer's brief, a mother's grief. Pulitzer center (April

Whewell, Tim 2010.  A BBC investigation into human sacrifice in Uganda , in BBC News:
Newsnight: (7 January):

[1] See for example Vernaschi (2010).
[2] Restoring African Cultural Harmony Organisation, a small Ugandan NGO (Vernaschi 2010).
[3] Facilitation for Peace and Development
[4]African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, see
[5] This view was often expressed by Ugandans in interviews and discussions with the author of this report.
[6] See for example the reports on ritual killings in West Africa: Http://
[7] The author of this report has had the privilege of meeting the boy on several occasions at Kyampisi Childcare Ministries.
[8] Just like one may find unscrupulous clergy in for example the Roman Catholic church who abuse the system for personal benefit to the detriment of others so one can find them among African Pentecostal churches.  This is not to say that all African Pentecostals are like this but as they generally have received little or no theological training they are easily swayed by such inherently non-Christian ideas.
[9] The sharp distinction found in many African cultures between the witch-doctor, as the one who sniffs out offending witches, and those who are considered to be witches, in the sense of those who are believed to cause mayhem in the community by evil magical means, appears non-existent in Uganda. The role of witch in the sense of bewitching someone by magical means and the role of witch-doctor in the sense of providing protection against bewitchment are usually fulfilled by one and the same person.  This ambiguity is often hinted at in other African cultures but is very obvious in Uganda.
[10] For local organizations and activists to do their work well a consistent small donation on a regular has more impact than an occasional large donation as it enables the organization to budget and plan rather than operate on an ad-hoc basis.

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