Royal subjects, there is something amiss in the sub-Saharan African realm. Children, and sometimes the elderly, are being accused of witchcraft and are consequently victims of torture. The accounts of individual and social violence against those accused are horrifying, so much so that I shudder to link you to examples. But if I don’t, you won’t understand the gravity of events in places like Nigeria and Kenya.

Map of sub-Saharan Africa

Accusations of witchcraft are not new in African countries. I learned of it about two years ago, but the BBC reported incidence of witchcraft accusations against children in 1999. Those making accusations range from parents to religious leaders. Why is this happening, especially to children? The answer is as complex as the question is simple. Unicef published a report that details this complexity of this issue, but I will try to summarize it here.

Some have argued that witchcraft and accusations thereof are part of traditional African culture. This premise is not anthropologically accurate and smacks of blaming the victim (sociologically). However, there is a kernel of truth in this assumption. That kernel being that witchcraft, also called sorcery or sorcellerie, is accepted in sub-Saharan traditions.1 In other words, it is not a matter of “does magic exist” for these cultures, it is a matter of “how does magic exist” or “how is it manifested” (see pages 8 and 17 of the Unicef report for detailed information). In traditional cultures, magic was not discussed openly. It was understood, accepted and largely feared, but not part of public discourse. Apparently, something changed in the last 10 or so years such that it was no longer taboo to speak of magic openly. It appears this change is what has allowed (in terms of social mores) the more recent and rampant accusations of witchcraft.

Accusations of witchcraft are considered a “mystical weapon,” (a term coined by Stephen Ellis, a professor of social science at Free University in Amsterdam) a way to leverage another person’s vulnerability for the accuser’s personal gain.2 In the sub-Saharan context, personal gain is not uniquely tied to what we (as Americans) consider political or economic gain. Unicef reports that sometimes parents or family accuse their children of witchcraft because doing so releases them from responsibility for the child or explains misfortune. Other times, personal gain is exactly what we consider political or economic gain. Sometimes pastor-prophets accuse children of witchcraft because doing so secures their social placement; accusations of witchcraft both provide “clients” for spiritual services (where the pastor-prophet tries to eradicate magic from the accused) and affirm the need for such services (see page 3 of the Unicef report for more information).

It is not our intent to shake our heads and *tsk tsk* at developing countries. Sub-Saharan African countries are not unique in the use of mystical weaponry. Indeed, these countries now join a long and impressive list of cultures that have created and exploited “spiritual insecurity.”3 Let us not forget the infamous blight on witchcraft in our own history. The seeds of the Salem incident are still debated,4 but the outcomes were arguably the results of demographic change and personal greed. A more recent (post-Western hysteria) exploitation of spiritual insecurity occurred in Haiti under the rule of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his use of the paramilitary force, Tonton Macoutes, to secure political power.

This intent of this post is to inform and raise awareness. While all causes of mystical weaponry in sub-Saharan Africa are under investigation, the systemic culprits are poverty, hunger and social, political and economic marginalization. I feel heartache and helplessness,  but I committed to doing something, so I am going to contribute to Save the Children and War Child. What are your thoughts?

1 There are nuanced differences between these terms. For more information, see page 7 of the Unicef report referenced above.
2 Needless to say, children are already vulnerable. Indeed, accusations of witchcraft are targeted at the most vulnerable children: very young children (usually under 15), orphans, step children, children with disabilities, etc. (see pages 16-17 of the Unicef report).
3 Spiritual insecurity, in this context, is a social phenomenon where a population feels vulnerable to attacks related, even tangentially, to their spiritual beliefs and practices. This article explains it in the context of sub-Saharan Africa.
4 That is, there is no definitive account of why three girls in the village, ages 9 and 11, began “having fits” at the same time. “They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions,” from Smithsonian Magazine.