The UK Channel 4 programme on child “witches” in Africa broadcast last week has reignited debate on the topic. I keep a database of African independent churches and church leaders, to try to build up a coherent picture of African Christianity, but the media reports on this phenomenon, which has been reported mainly from Nigeria, the DRC and Angola, usually raise more questions than they answer.
According to Tracy McVeigh of “The Guardian” (9-Dec-2007) “it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs”.
What I would like to know is which American and Scottish missionaries these were. What are their names, their background? Who sent them to Nigeria, and when? Which denominaations and mission agencies sponsored them? What was the source of their teaching, and how did they influence those who are propagating these beliefs in Nigeria today?
These seem to me to be very important questions for missiologists and church historians to be asking. We have international academic discussion forums for researchers on African Independent Churches and New Religious Movements, but if anyone is doing research into those topics they aren’t saying. Possibly some sociologists have been doing research into it, but if they have, I haven’t heard of it. An interdisciplinary study would be useful.
In the absence of such studies, all one can do is try to read between the lines of the newspaper reports and try to guess what is going on.
According to some reports this phenomenon — accusing children of being witches — did not exist in Congo (DRC) in 1994, but it was common in 1999.
One of the denominations reported to be most active in witch hunting is the Liberty Gospel Church, founded in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in 1992 by Helen Ukpabio, a former nurse.
She has apparently said that if children cry a lot and are fretful it is a sign that they are witches. Now I’m not a fundi on Nigerian witchcraft beliefs, but I do know that in most parts of Africa if a child is ill and feverish and cries a lot people may suspect that the child has been bewitched. Witchcraft has often been seen as a cause of illness. But it seems that Ukpabio has reversed this, and instead of seeing these as symptoms that a child is a victim, she teaches that it a sign that the child is a perpetator of witchcraft.
Maybe there is some precedent for this kind of thing in Nigerian culture — if there is, I hope someone will enlighten me. But it seems to me like a new twist on the “blame the victim” game.
And if Helen Ukpabio and others like her really got their theology from American and Scottish pentecostal and evangelical missionaries, it might be quite important to know which ones. I think it may, however, be a bit more complex than this.
In Central and West Africa there seems to be a growing interest in exorcism; though such beliefs may have been around for a long time they seem to be growing stronger. Many clergy seem to have specialised in it. I met a student at the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi who had been a Roman Catholic and gathered a congregation of about 500 people in Douala, Cameroun, who had mainly been attracted by his ministry of exorcism. He became Orthodox when the Roman Catholic bishop sought to inhibit his ministry of exorcism, which he continued with the blessing of the local Orthodox bishop.
Another student at the seminary, who was from the English-speaking northern part of Cameroun, had become a Rosicrucian at the age of 16, and had tried an amazing number of religions, including Wicca and Ekankar, before settling on Hinduism, which he studied for some time under a guru in India. On returning to Cameroun he was told by his spirit guides to worship the Triune God, and walked into town and the first Christian Church he came across was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he decided to join the Orthodox Church. But at the seminary he believed that the teaching staff were withholding important information from the students, such as which variety of incense was best for driving out which kinds of demons.
But there is also the possibility that the excesses of people like Helen Ukpabio could actually kill off African witchcraft beliefs altogether.
Something similar happened in the great European witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries. In early modern Europe there was, in some places, a great increase in witchhunting and witchcraft accusations. As time passed, however, the accusations and the beliefs about witchcraft became more and more bizarre and over-the-top, until people could simply no longer believe them, and eventually the entire belief system crumbled under its own weight. Perhaps Ukpabio’s teachings are a sign that this is beginning to happen in Africa.