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Nigeria's 'cursed' children

Adrian Kriesch / Jan-Philipp ScholzJune 16, 2016

It sounds like the dark ages: children being accused of witchcraft. In Nigeria, hundreds are still persecuted and tortured every year for this reason. Adrian Kriesch und Jan-Philipp Scholz met one of the victims.

Burundi Schule in Bujumbura
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. De Souza

Joseph (not his real name) loves football. The 10-year-old runs around with his friends on the dusty football pitch in the small town of Eket in south-east Nigeria. It's not until Joseph strips off his shirt that it becomes clear his childhood has been anything but easy. His chest and back are covered with large scars, several centimeters wide.

Many of the scars are just a few weeks old. They are a painful reminder of the day Joseph's mother died, when his stepfather took a red hot knife and pressed it into his skin for minutes at a time. "Before that he used to beat me," Joseph remembers. "He always told me I was an evil witch."

Beaten, tortured and cast out

Several times a week, when Joseph came home from school, his stepfather would beat him with a length of cable. "When my mum tried to stop him, he punched her in the stomach," Joseph says. His stepfather's violent behavior escalated rapidly when, just a few weeks ago, Joseph's mother died suddenly from an infection. His stepfather accused him of having cursed and killed his mother, and chased him away.

A wide scar on Joesph's chest
The scars under Joseph's football shirtImage: DW/Kriesch/Scholz

Experts say cases like this are not uncommon. It's thought that thousands of children are accused of witchcraft by their families every year in Nigeria. These children are often abused; in some cases, killed. Many are cast out by their communities and end up on the streets. A recent study commissioned by the EU concluded that witch-hunting children was one of the most neglected abuses of human rights of the past few years. The gruesome practice occurs in various African countries, as well as parts of Asia, but most commonly in Nigeria. The situation is especially critical in the Akwa Ibom region in the south-west of the country. That's also where Joseph grew up.

'Money making venture'

As journalist Arukaino Umukoro explains, the practice of witch hunting is linked to regional traditions which have existed for centuries. The reporter, who writes for the Nigerian daily "Punch," has been working on the topic for years. Many villagers believe witchcraft is behind misfortunes from accidents and illnesses to unemployment and HIV. "The culture of blaming someone for your predicament is very rife, it's an African thing. You want to blame it on 'juju,' black magic, or a witch." The real scandal is that many local churches encourage this superstition – in order to make a profit.

"These pastors help to push that culture," Umukoro told DW. "They'll say, 'bring your child to my place, to my prayer house, and I will pray for her for one week.' Then they'll say, 'you have to pay me to feed her, for deliverance materials and anointing oil, for holy water and so on.' It's a money making venture," Umukoro explained.

As most of the villagers are uneducated, they fall for these promises. One female pastor has even written a book explaining how to identify child witches. "It contains some really outrageous views, like if a child doesn't stop crying all night, that is an indication that the child is a witch," Umukoro said. Children are rarely listened to by their communities and cannot defend themselves against accusations of witchcraft. Experts say this is another reason why children are so often blamed for misfortunes and mysteries.

Superstitious cinema

Critics say it's not only profit-hungry pastors who are to blame for the practice. Nigeria's film industry, known as Nollywood, also plays a role. Many Nigerian productions take an astoundingly uncritical view of witch hunting. The most popular films often show witches or supernatural forces as being responsible for charactersʹ misfortunes. Happy endings are only possible with the help of magical rituals.

Uneducated viewers mistake these films for reality, journalist Umukoro said. While researching the issue, he met some parents who, after watching films like this, had examined their children for characteristics which could identify them as witches. "Most Nollywood films encourage superstitious values," Umukoro told DW.

Street scene in the Nigerian town of Eket
Billboards advertise bootleg churches in the Nigerian town of EketImage: DW/Kriesch/Scholz

Dreams of a normal life

At least the Nigerian government is aware of the extent of the problem. Back in 2008, it introduced stricter laws to protect children from witch-hunting and violence. But activists point out that these laws have yet to result in a conviction. But in Joseph's case, several attempts by DW to contact authorities did eventually result in action. The police took Joseph's stepfather into custody for questioning.

Now Joseph lives in an orphanage. He is still struggling to come to terms with his mother's death. But at least he is no longer afraid of the beatings, he says. And he has big dreams for the future. "The son of one of my mother's friends is a doctor. That's what I'd like to be one day too," he said. "I've seen how he helps sick people – and how others place their trust in him."