How Nigeria’s fear of child ‘witchcraft’ ruins young lives


Abandonment, persecution, violence: Childhoods lost as young Nigerians are branded as witches.

From a distance, the children look like scarecrows as they slowly scour the waist-high piles of rubbish for plastic bottles.

Their ragged clothing hangs loosely from their emaciated frames, their gaunt shrink-wrapped faces are deadened by the drugs they took at dawn.

It is hard to believe that these children are “witches”.

And yet this is exactly why several hundred skolombo – or street children – are now living at the Lemna dumpsite on the outskirts of Calabar in southeastern Nigeria.

“My grandmother was sick and her leg became very swollen,” says Godbless. “She said I was the one responsible, that I was a witch.”

The 14-year-old boy is sat in the makeshift hut at Lemna that he now calls home.

He shares this stuffy wooden hovel with half a dozen other boys who are now outside, smoking the cannabis that will get them through the day.

Godbless was taken to the family’s local church where a pastor confirmed his grandmother’s worst fears – he was indeed a witch, the pastor claimed.

His relatives demanded he leaves the house, but he refused.

Godbless rolls up the leg of his shorts to reveal a long, blackened scar on his upper thigh.

“This is what my auntie did to me when I did not go,” he whispers. “She heated up a knife in the fire and put it on me.”

Two years after he ran away, Godbless and his gang make money by recycling plastic soda bottles and cans.

These are weighed, and if he is lucky, he says, he can make a couple of dollars a week to buy food, clothing and medicine.

“When relatives throw these children out of the house, it’s as good as killing the child,” says Adek Bassey.

Bassey is a student who helps run Today for Tomorrow – a small Nigerian volunteer organisation that once a week meets the children near the dump to feed them, and address any health concerns.

She complains that the state’s Ministry of Sustainable Development and Social Welfare is not doing anything despite apparently having a pot of money with which to tackle the skolombo issue.

“Nobody from the Cross River government is coming out to feed these children, nobody is coming to send these kids to school, nobody is teaching them trades.”

“I don’t know if it’s corruption, or intentional negligence,” she says. “Or whether they have just given up on these street kids, that they think they will never change.”

Bassey alleges she has also received anonymous phone calls after a colleague posted photos on Facebook of their work at the Lemna dump.

“‘Who gave you the right to snap in that place?’, one person said,” recalls Bassey. “You better pipe yourself down before you get into trouble.”

“Someone even told me that they would arrest me for child trafficking.”

Her mother has pleaded with Bassey to stop her work, but she has refused to do so.

“They can lynch or kill me,” she says. “But I won’t stop.”

Manipulating fears

In the Niger Delta, where an extreme form of Christianity has taken root and blended with indigenous beliefs, an alarming number of children have been accused of practising witchcraft with malicious intent.

The accusations have created a generation of outcasts who live at the mercy of a system ill-equipped to protect them.

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that exploded across the region in the 1990s, fuelled partly by popular films and self-professed prophets looking to manipulate people’s fears to make a quick buck.

The epicentre of these accusations is in Nigeria’s southwestern states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River.

A report in 2008 estimated that 15,000 children in these two states had been accused.

And while there is no definitive figure for the number of skolombo in Calabar, a 2010 survey found that in one region of Akwa Ibom state, 85 percent of street children like Godbless had been accused of witchcraft.

The consequences for many of them were severe.

Children and babies who have been branded as witches have been chained up, starved, beaten, and even set on fire. Cases of parents attempting to behead their children with saws have also been reported.

These accusers typically use witchcraft as a means to scapegoat vulnerable children for acts ranging from unruly behaviour and absenteeism from school to a failed harvest or mechanical problems with the family motorbike.

“We have the laws to address witch-branding,” says Nigerian lawyer James Ibor. “But the problem is not the laws – the problem is implementing these laws.”

“And until we begin to implement these laws, our children are not safe.”

Al Jazeera for more

Comments are closed.