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Documentary Highlights Child-Witch Killing in Benin

Staying with the subject of child-witches, Al Jazeera recently ran a documentary in its People and Power strand on children accused of witchcraft in Benin. While many of the cases of child-witch stigmatisation I’ve blogged about, mainly from Nigeria and Congo (and spilling into the UK), can be traced back to the  teachings of powerful neo-Pentecostal evangelists, in Benin the phenomenon remains more closely rooted in traditional, non-Christian, beliefs and taboos around a child’s birth and development: a child born feet-first, or face down, or whose upper teeth appear before their lower teeth, may be regarded as evil and as a source of misfortune.

The consequences of an accusation can be dire: the documentary’s producer, Charles Stratford, speaks to Alidou Boukari, a traditional village healer who explains that if a child is thought to be causing misfortune, then various steps are taken. First, an exorcism; if that does not work, magic, and if that is ineffective, the child is expelled. However, should attacks continue, a child may be killed:

The killing is done by an elder. He takes the child into the bush and he kills it there. It is not done in the village. The practice goes on where the Bariba are. But no one will tell you who is doing the killing. Noone will tell you that such and such a person is the one appointed to kill the child. But there is always someone in the community who is old and spiritually powerful who does the killings.

Stratford also meets Nicholas Biao of the Family Protection Office in Parakou, who has been trying to change attitudes:

You don’t know when they go to kill a child. You can live with them for many years in the same area and children are being killed and you would never know. The phenomenon continues because it is cultural. It is tradition. It is deeply rooted in the mentality of the people… Despite efforts to raise awareness, the belief is passed from generation to generation. For example, when the executioner is old, he will train young executioners to take over the power of killings. This means it is perpetuated. … Personally, I have never witnessed a killing myself, but I talked to the executioners who told me how they do it.

Biao points to a poster in his office (see above), which shows how a child is killed by being dashed against a tree. More commonly, though, a child will simply be abandoned.

In Akwa Ibom in Nigeria, there is now a State Child Rights Law which makes it illegal to accuse a child of being a witch; however, the government of Benin will not support a similar measure there, on the grounds that some children really are witches. According to  Roland Djagaly, Assistant Director for the Department of Childhood and Adolescence in Atacora-Donga:

If this law was implemented one of the problems we would be confronted with would be that children could be accused rightly or wrongly. Not all natural laws are physical. A human being is a physical being, a spiritual being and witchcraft is highly spiritual. So beside the physical aspect the spiritual aspect supports our people in whatever they’re doing. That’s why today there are witches among children, witches among youngsters, witches among adults, witches among peasants, witches among intellectuals, witches among traders, witches among intellectuals.

…It doesn’t mean that we don’t have witch children, because today adults who are witches have a method of transmitting their power to children without the child’s consent. There are some children that are innocent, but due to circumstances are said to be witches.

Not everyone accepts this, though: Biao explains that some young couples will prefer to leave a village than to abandon their child, and Stratford meets some adults who have adopted abandoned children. He also talks to a mother who switched from vodou to Christianity after vodou priests told her that her disabled child had been responsible for causing her father’s death.

Watch the whole thing, entitled “Magic and Murder”, here.

9 Responses

  1. The accusation that African Traditional Religions advocate murdering children is just the old Blood Libel routine (and there is nothing new about this particular mutation of Blood Libel in an African setting, either). I am not surprised that Al Jazeera is promulgating this, but I didn’t expect to find Bartholomew’s Notes chiming in.

    • No-one is saying that this is somehow the essence of African Traditional Religion. However, the claim that abuses – including killing – do occur has come from practitioners themselves. There’s nothing to be gained by an a priori insistence that this can’t be happening. I’m more than willing to treat a report sceptically when appropriate – e.g. here – but in this instance there is a case to answer.

      • As you yourself quote, the documentary says that the murder of children among Africans “is cultural. It is tradition. It is deeply rooted in the mentality of the people.”

        This is racism pure and simple.

    • Given your jihad against muslims, you’d know all about this libel business.

  2. There is not one specific case of an actual murder of an actual child that is even alleged in the entire 24 minute documentary. Even as anecdotal reports go, this is very weak tea.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This extraordinary claim is presented with no evidence whatsoever. But people will believe what they choose to believe so long as it reinforces their preconceived notions. In this case, people who are predisposed to view African culture as intrinsically savage and amoral are easy prey to Al Jazeera’s crude and blatantly racist propaganda.

    • “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

      Erm, the idea that children may have been killed in a climate of obvious hostility against “child-witches” is hardly the same thing as a claim of the existence of the supernatural. Perhaps this girl is just propaganda, too:

      http://www.vanguardngr.com/2010/11/her-father-believes-shes-a-witch-and-must-die/

      • Richard, you claim that children in Benin are being murdered due to “traditional, non-Christian, beliefs and taboos”. But the only evidence you provide is a documentary that does not make even one concrete allegation of a single child ever being killed.

        And now you provide a link to another story about a single isolated incident in NIgeria (and one in which the child was not killed) that does not in any way substantiate your claim.

        Does child abuse exist in Nigeria and Benin? Yes. Just as it does in the UK and the US. Are child abusers evil scum who spout monstrous lies when confronted with what they have done? Yes. Obviously.

        There is a systematic and well-documented correlation between (1) the spread of Pentecostalism in specific parts of Africa, and (2) large-scale violence, include brutal murders, of children accused of witchcraft.

        You are trying to claim that there is some similar correlation with African Traditional Religion. The problem is that this is just a belief of yours. You have no evidence. You have proven this yourself.

  3. It’s not “just a belief”. People in the documentary gave testimony of having spoken to killers,and it was obvious that there was real hostility to children who are regarded as being witches. These people may be misinformed or lying, but what is more likely: (a) that there’s something in it; or (b) that it’s all a big racist conspiracy by Al Jazeera?

    Also, although Pentecostalism has become a vehicle for child-witch stigmatisation in Africa, there has to be another element in play, since the fear of “child witches” does not exist in western or Asian Pentecostalism.

    • “Also, although Pentecostalism has become a vehicle for child-witch stigmatisation in Africa, there has to be another element in play, since the fear of “child witches” does not exist in western or Asian Pentecostalism.”

      Belief in child witches is very common in the history of European Christianity. And, as is the case with the “child witch” accusations in Africa, this often involves children who are believed to have been “bewitched” by adult witches. This is precisely what happened in the famous Salem witch trials, for example. But in that case (as usually happens) the children were convinced to make accusations against the adults who had (supposedly) bewitched them, and it was downhill from there.

      What is different in the current “child witch” phenomenon in Africa is twofold: First, a new and especially virulent strain of Christianity (one that has its origins in the 20th century in California) has been unleashed there. Second, the “child witch” phenomenon only started when this virulent form of Christianity, Pentecostalism, came into contact with the truly apocalyptic scale of devastation and violence of the Congolese Civil Wars.

      Pentecostalism is relatively new to Africa. It really begins with Billy Graham in the early 60’s, but it took decades before it became the kind of social force that it is now. That only occurred in the 90’s. The Congo was a special target of Pat Robertson, who developed a close relationship with Mobutu and then attempted to do the same (with some success) with Kabila. It was also Robertson who specifically pioneered televangelism in Africa, which is now the most important weapon in the arsenal of the Pentecostalist spiritual warriors like Hellen Ukpabio.

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