It was a great pleasure to finally meet Leo Igwe in person last week in London. His name has become synonymous with fighting witch-hunting and providing shelter to children who have been abandoned by their families on the pathetic accusation of being witches. I have always been impressed by his bravery and prophetic determination. It seems however that his humanitarian effort is more recognised by the British Humanist Association than in West Africa where he does most of the work. He is the proverbial voice sounding in the wilderness asking people “repent” and come back to reason. Being prophetic, rather than being recognised in his own country, he is persecuted for standing up for justice and common sense in a place where people are obsessed with superstition.
I was convinced that his talk entitled Witch Hunts, Misogyny, and Enlightenment in Black Communities was going to be interesting. I say interesting but the stories are probable best described as heartbreaking. What makes it interesting is the depth of his research into the matter, his field activities that take him into the villages of Nigeria and Ghana to meet the real victims, and his uncompromising call for everyone concerned to take action and not stand on the sideline. The ridiculous belief in witchcraft is destroying lives, stigmatises people, and standing in the way to development. There was so much to learn from him about his phenomenon of witch-hunting.
Witchcraft has a female face and in some local languages synonymous with old women. If you hate a female, the quickest way to destroy her is to accuse her of being a witch. Witch camps, where “witches” get exiled to, are often referred to as ladies area. It is a label for a woman who has outlived her usefulness; a scapegoat for the problems you face; explanation of sudden death or bad death as it is called; a way to make sense of a situation e.g. illnesses when there are no explanations. It is basically a torture mechanism as well as perpetual suspicion of people when you are afraid to confront them.
Some of the accusations are comical for anyone in their right mind. Take the case of an old lady accused of turning into electricity to electrocute someone when the lady does not even know what electricity is. It stops being comical though when people turn to physically attacking “witches” who have attacked them spiritually. Imagine someone coming to beat you up in the morning because you appeared in his dreams apparently throwing stones at him. This is madness and has to be stopped!
How then do you put an end to this? Education? What kind of education and why hasn’t it helped up till now? The best schools are run by churches, mosques, pastors and imams, and such schools are engineered not to question the existence of superstitions such as witchcraft which they claim to provide solutions to through exorcism. Imagine someone like Helen Ukpabio running a school when her church claim to protect people from witchcraft attack, ancestral spirit attack and mermaid attack! We need the kind of education that encourages critical thinking and reasoning. We need to challenge the believe that somehow critical thinking is a Western idea. We need to challenge the stigma that Africans have to be overtly superstitious even when they are educated.
What about a legal approach to the matter, say make it illegal to witch-hunt? These laws already exist but the people that would implement them are superstitious themselves. The judges ans police are scared, and are known to interpret many things in the light of superstition.
There is a long way to go, but this is a fight worth fighting!