>Widespread violence against children accused of witchcraft is not an ancient African tradition. In fact, accusations of witchcraft against children were the exception rather than the rule (and when they occurred they did not usually lead to violence against the accused child) in Africa prior to the 1990’s. Therefore, the current wave of violence (especially in Congo, Angola and Nigeria) against children accused of witchcraft is not some holdover from Africa’s past.
According to the Save The Children 2005 report on “The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo“, authored by Javier Aguilar Molina (emphases added):
A first step towards understanding the phenomenon of so-called child witches is to recognise that witchcraft is a real system of belief, rooted in popular mentality. For the majority of Congolese and, to a certain extent, Africans, an invisible world exists below the surface of material reality.
The discussions we had with children, adults and religious leaders clearly demonstrate that there is no clear dividing line between the “visible” and ”invisible” worlds. The two worlds are even entwined. Foreigners unused to seeing the world in this way, might think that these beliefs are specific to those who have had no access to formal education. This is not the case. During advocacy meetings with the most senior State authorities we found that the elites also have an ambiguous concept of child witchcraft, even accepting the phenomenon. In fact “intellectuals”, university educated people and even those working in child protection organisations are no exception.
For the vast majority of Congolese witchcraft is, thus, a reality and one that can also affect children. This was confirmed in interviews with social workers, pastors, parents’ groups, community members and people working in child protection.
Our first research, in 1999, clearly showed the changes that had occurred in the mentality of Kinshasa’s inhabitants. Witchcraft was perceived as fundamentally negative, unlike in the villages where witchcraft could be a positive or a negative thing. Witchcraft as we know it today has little to do with “traditional practices”. It is quite clearly a modern invention, largely urban in origin, in which common cultural roots have been distorted from their primary meaning. And this is by no means something that is unique to the Congo.
Revivalist church pastors, recognised as experts by the people, generally agree that witchcraft is the art of doing evil. It comes directly from Satan, assisted by demons (or fallen angels), and stops at no despicable act in order to achieve its aims. Emphasis is placed on the unworldly aspect of witchcraft and it is described as an evil power capable of doing harm, bringing bad luck, spreading illness and killing. This power may be exercised by individuals from any social class, as well as by politicians. Some pastors give this assertion a more concrete dimension by saying that witches have a very deep sense of psychology. Some see witchcraft as just another illness that can be cured. They affirm the existence of child witches but consider that 90% of the children brought to them are not witches.
Parents take their children to the churches as soon as they notice strange behaviour. Some pastors believe that the problem of bewitchment is poverty-related: because parents do not give their children enough to eat, they wind up accepting food from any old person in the street, giving ill-intentioned people the opportunity to commit their crimes. Another explanation is that the parents are never there, out all day trying to eke out a living, so the children are left to their own devices, opening the door to bad influences. Some people believe that witchcraft is transferred to children because it cannot be transferred to adults, others that children are used by the devil to do evil, the devil’s aim being to destroy a whole generation.
The key role played by revivalist churches in the “child witch” phenomenon is highlighted by this chilling passage from the report’s Executive Summary:
Children are stigmatised for many reasons and the family dynamic and attitude of the parents or guardians play a decisive role in this. The severe financial pressure faced by parents and the sudden deaths that can occur (often AIDS or malaria-related) cause crisis in the family structure and dynamic on three levels: a) weakening or collapse of the extended family, b) family recomposition, c) difficulties in being a parent in a society whose foundations and future prospects have been destroyed. The combination of external threats faced by families pushes parents or guardians to negatively magnify a child’s individual characteristics (such as disability, bad behaviour, changes due to puberty or even the mere fact of being in the wrong place at the wrong time) to the point where they see them as being signs of witchcraft. The final blow is delivered by the revivalist churches, which confirm or discover signs of witchcraft. Parents are deeply distressed by what they believe to be witchcraft and, first and foremost, fear for their own well-being. At this point they have three alternatives: to cast the child out onto the street or put them in an institution; to have the child ‘delivered’ or to refute the allegations against their child. We came to the conclusion that there was no “typical” profile of a high-risk family and that the problem of witchcraft is no more predominant in one particular ethnic group or social class than in any other.
The phenomenon of child witchcraft is a symptom of a more serious problem that involves extreme and boundless violence within a traumatic social space, on the verge of disintegration. There is clearly a strong tendency towards the social cleansing of children considered to be undesirable, or towards getting rid of children by way of a level of neglect that could lead to death. In addition, the failure or absence of the government and community social guarantors, whose role it is to maintain respect for law and order, also has a large part to play in the spiralling violence engulfing the most vulnerable children.
The report’s reference to “extreme and boundless violence within a traumatic social space, on the verge of disintegration,” is much more than just grandstanding from yet another charity organization on a fundraising drive. Between 1996 and 2003, Congo society was wracked by two consecutive civil wars that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4 million Congolese. The equivalent, adjusted for population, would be a civil war in which 24 million Americans were slaughtered — by their fellow Americans.
The death toll of the Congo Civil Wars was about 8% of the population, while the American Civil War led to death of about 2% of the US population at the time (between 700 and 800 thousand out of a total population of approximately 35 million). So just take the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil, and multiply by 4.
It is into this context of violence, devastation and social disintegraion that Pentecostal missionaries have injected their literally apocalyptic ravings, their battle cries of “spiritual warfare,” and their eager offers to identify those who are possessed by demons and to “cast out” the demons by any means necessary.
Over one quarter of the Save The Children report is devoted to a section on “The role of revivalist churches,” which begins by stating: “The boom in revivalist churches is undoubtedly closely related to the accusations of witchcraft against children.”
The report lists four “common characteristics of this movement”, and each of these is obviously of direct relevance to the new phenomenon of child witchcraft:
1. The prophets, pastors and believers say they are experiencing a supernatural force such as that of the Holy Spirit, which motivates and guides them. Cultural practices involve the body, song and lively ceremonies enabling experiences to be externalised without censure. A feeling of ‘solidarity’ and/or community belonging is thus created amongst the faithful.
2. These churches recognise invisible negative forces as being the source of evil and poverty; elements of local culture, such as witchcraft, are highlighted in their religious practice.
3. The demonisation of and anxiety in relation to evil, death and poverty are the main motivations behind these religious movements. The church thus serves as a protection against these obscure forces.
4. The hierarchy normally found within historical churches is broken down, meaning anyone can be a pastor.
It must be emphasized, however, that none of these “common characteristics” are unique to either Congolese or more generally African revivalism, rather they are all found in revivalist Christianity throughout the world. In particular, these are all among the defining features of Pentecostal Christianity as it has been practiced in the United States since the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement in Los Angeles in 1906.
Lastly, for now, the report found that the Pentecostal/revivalist churches have a pervasive influence in Congo society extending beyond those who “belong” to these churches. Researchers for Save the Children found that parents of accused “witch children” would seek out Pentecostal/revivalist churches even though they might be practicing Catholics, for example, because “they wanted their child delivered [exorcised], something that is not a usual practice among Catholics.[p. 26]
In the concluding “Main Observations” section of the report, this point is expanded on:
A significant number of families have their strongest affiliation with one of the historical churches [that is, not with one of the newer “revivalist” churches]. It is, therefore, common to find, for example, practising Catholics who turn to the revivalist churches to resolve a witchcraft problem, since witchcraft is not recognised by their own church. The revivalist churches are not necessarily, therefore, comprised of faithful followers, but of passers by seeking to escape their neighbourhood and their family in order to avoid being stigmatised.
It is clear that traditional African religious beliefs and practices play no significant role in the tragedy of Africa’s “witch children.” The ideology at work here has its roots in 20th century American Pentecostalism and Televangelism. Far from engaging in any kind of syncretism with indigenous traditions, Pentecostal Christianity in Africa aggressively demonizes and seeks to eradicate all traditional beliefs and practices and to replace them with a form of ignorant, intolerant superstition that was born in the USA.
[Also see this previous post on Pentecostalism, Spiritual Warfare & the Witch Children of Africa. And also check out the new page I just put together with links to all (or nearly all, I’m still working on it) of the blog posts I’ve done dealing with Africa & African Traditional Religion at EGREGORES.]