3 Dec 2008

Persecuting the African child

Nigerian Tribune - December 2, 2008

It was easy for the notion of child witches or kindoki to gain a firm foothold in Angola as in many other African nations, as one of the key African beliefs is that of the potency of witchcraft.

Opinion | by Olusegun Fakoya

Africa abounds with various forms of child abuses, arising mostly from prevalent poverty and ignorance. This notwithstanding, the paramount role of the child in the African setting has never been in question. However, the traditional African belief and attitude to children has been successfully fractured by those who have deliberately perverted traditional belief and infused it with a distorted dose of Christianity.

The near constant strife and the desperate civil war in the Congo DR which has killed over four million people since the late 1990s, orphaned many children, leaving other families intact but too destitute to feed themselves. This has created a festering opportunity for shirking family responsibilities and the transference of frustration on innocent children. In the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are accused of being witches, and thereafter, beaten, abused or abandoned. Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, have been accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often as a rationale for not having to feed or care for them. There are over 50,000 homeless children on the streets of that lawless city, stealing, begging, and selling anything they can find, including themselves. The true number is incalculable but this estimate is certainly conservative.

Many of these abandoned kids are AIDS orphans. Others are the children of Congo’s desperate civil war, but a shockingly high proportion of these children are on the streets because of the mushrooming influence of the new revivalist churches who have comfortably carved a commercial niche for themselves in the business of “child kindoki”. Prof Hoskins stated that still more children are not on the streets but are held virtual prisoners in church compounds, apparently awaiting exorcism. In 2006, Congo’s Social Affairs minister, Bernard Ndjunga, estimated that as much as 50,000 children might just be illegally detained by churches specialising in the removal of kindoki.

It is perhaps natural to state that the situation in the Congo Republic would only be reflected in Angola, what with the country’s 27 years of civil war and social disharmony. The influx of Congolese pastors did not in any way help Angolans to peacefully come to terms with the effects of war and its consequential widespread poverty and hardship. Congolese pastors invaded Angola, bringing with them the message of kindoki and further destabilization of an already fractured society. In 2006, it was officially estimated that one northern Angolan town had over 400 abandoned and abused children stigmatised as witches. Same year, the United Nations Children Fund described the number of child witches in Angola as being massive. It was easy for the notion of child witches or kindoki to gain a firm foothold in Angola as in many other African nations, as one of the key African beliefs is that of the potency of witchcraft. It is commonly believed that witches can communicate with the world of the dead or other such supernatural plane, and usurp or “eat” the life force of others, bringing their victims misfortune, illness and death. Adult witches are said to bewitch children by giving them food and then using them to achieve their nefarious goals by bringing misfortunes to their families, causing illness, bad luck and death. In retaliation, gory tales abound of the atrocities committed against children in the fight back against child witches. Two cases were particularly significant. A mother blinded her 14-year- old daughter with bleach in an attempt to rid her of evil visions, while a father injected battery acid into his 12-year- old son’s stomach because he feared the boy was a wizard.

One of the notable propagators of kindoki in Congo DR is Prophet Onokoko who as at 1999, had over 230 children on his book, all accused of witchcraft. He employed what he termed “vomit up the devil system” to exorcise children of kindoki. This is the regurgitation of strange objects after these kids have been forcefully made to drink bizarre concoctions. There are other sects involved in these unwholesome practices in Congo, chief amongst which is the Combat Spirituel Church with its headquarters in Kinshasa and numerous branches all over the country and outside, United Kingdom inclusive.

Nigeria, being a land of opportunities and brimming with opportunists, , did not lag behind in wholeheartedly adopting the concept of child witches. It is instructive to note however that the end of the civil war in Nigeria, despite its resultant hardship with social disruptions, did not lead to an upsurge of this phenomenon.
But the current situation in Akwa Ibom State and other parts of the Niger Delta remains a shame. For as long as it is allowed to continue, it remains a stigma on Nigeria. For as long as it flourishes without restraint, for so long will it remain a blur on the conscience of the Christian Association of Nigeria and all those who at daggers drawn in defence of the impeccability of modern-day Pentecostalism. For as long as this unchecked instances of child abuse reign in Nigeria, for so long will men and women of good will and clear conscience the world over, continue to confront the problems created by a nation that has allowed its territory to become a nightmare for innocent children and mediocrity.

Children ostracised by being labelled as witches, pay a heavy price. Gone is the innocence associated with childhood, the care and embrace of loving parents. Such children become social outcasts, rejected by parents and communities, faced with insurmountable obstacles and subjected to indescribable tortures. The beneficiaries of these gory spectacles are the churches who engage in exorcism. Dubious exorcism at prohibitive costs. There is no point going into the details of this any longer, Mag Gavan film explains it in details and this film can be accessed online. The Nigerian phenomenon of child witches started attracting international attention as far back as 2005. Tracy McVeigh visited Esit Eket in 2007 in the course of investigating it and produced a film to document her findings. What Mag Gavan recently did was to add flavour to a simmering problem that refused to abate.

It is to be expected that Nigerians in the diaspora would not be left behind in manifesting the paranoia associated with the child witches phenomenon. The United Kingdom abounds with Nigerian-oriented churches practising the Nigerian version of Pentecostalism with its prejudices and notable flaws. This is said with reference to the unwholesome impact of non-Nigerian sects like that of Pastor Gilbert Deya and so many others from the African continent. In essence, Britain remains like a microcosm of Africa with our blemishes and impurities fully represented. The practice of kindoki is strongly rooted in the Congolese communities in the United Kingdom. Cases abound where parents have attributed ill luck in the UK to kindoki in their children. Often times, such children have been returned to the Congo for exorcism, some not to be seen again. Not too long ago, in Bradford, a Nigerian pastor was convicted of charges of child abuse. The abuse was directed to none other than his kids, whom he accused of possessing witchcraft.

Witchcraft apart, Nigerian kids face sundry abuses in the United Kingdom. Nigerians, pastors and non-pastors, bring children to the United Kingdom to work as housemaids, shop-helps and so on. Such kids are denied basic education which does not cost a dime in this clime. Education officials have lamented specifically about the abuses Nigerian kids are being subjected to. Kids are forced to participate in various demanding church activities, including being subjected to night vigils and prolonged fasting. The result is that sleeping during school hours remains the norm with associated poor performances.

Nigeria has actively continued to neglect the welfare of its citizens, adults and children alike. The concept of governance in Nigeria remains mired in corruption and political insensitivity. Manifestations of trappings of power and insensitivity of government to the citizenry are the order of the day.

Governments of the world need to come together in action and in deeds to tackle the menace posed by the phenomenon of kindoki or child witches. Africa as a continent can only become further impoverished by the sustenance of this retrogressive practice. In this age and time, what Africa needs is not the concept of child witches but technological advancement, economic, social and political emancipation. Africa needs enlightenment and not the concept of child witches. Africa needs prosperity and not further marginalisation by a hybrid religion that has done little to shake off the shackles of superstition and ignorance.

Dr Fakoya lives in London.

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