To delegates from the host country Kenya, and attendees from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania and Burundi; thank you for the honour of inviting me to address this meeting and for giving me the opportunity to contribute to strategizing against witch hunting in the region.
In the past weeks, I have pondered on what title to give this presentation in order to capture the urgency of the situation: In the course of my search and reflection, a popular line by an English poet, John Maxwell Edmonds, caught my attention. It says:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say:
For your tomorrow; these gave their today”.
On a second thought, I said, look we are not fallen soldiers yet. Instead we are standing soldiers and we are still fighting on. The issue we are tackling – witch hunting – is with us and affects us all directly and indirectly. The tomorrow we are fighting for is not distant or severed from us. The tomorrow we are fighting for is as much their tomorrow as it is our tomorrow. Let me say this on a more serious note: Youths of this continent, the tomorrow you are fighting for is your tomorrow. Never forget that witch hunting targets elderly persons and the youths of today are the elders and the targets of tomorrow.
Accusations of witchcraft are wreaking havoc in the lives of people across the region, among the educated and the non-educated, in families and communities, in rural and urban areas even as we are meeting here today. Witch hunting is silently destroying the future of our youths, and the future of our continent. We need to take a strong and decisive stand against it now. We need to make witch hunting history because whichever angle we try to look at this issue our youths are involved, African youths are both victims and victimizers. African youths are part of the problem. I ask you on this day: Will you join me in becoming part of the solution?
Now if you are undecided, consider this case in KwaZulu Natal where the police arrested in April last year 12 suspects between the ages of 18 and 30, I repeat 18 and 30, for burning an alleged ‘witch’ to death. These young people stormed the home of the alleged witch about 12.30 am, put tyres on his body and set him alight and in October last year two brother Donatus 28 and Eric 26 were sentenced to seven life terms plus 20 years for killing eight of their relatives including infants – a one year old, a three year old and a 4 year old following suspicions of witchcraft. Now, apart from wasting the lives of these innocent persons, have these youths not destroyed their future?
You can also take the case of Ali from Yendi in Northern Ghana. Ali finished high school and after some years could not find any meaningful job. In 2010, he consulted a diviner who told him that his step mother was responsible for his lack of progress. One early morning Ali confronted the step mother and stabbed her to death. The police arrested him and are prosecuting him for murder. He is currently on remand at Yendi prison. The trial is stalled because the witnesses have stopped coming to court. Look this young man may spend the rest of his life in jail. The late woman had children who were in primary school by the time she was killed and now have to grow up without a mother.
What about the case of Ayishetu, a 60 year old woman also from Ghana. She was enjoying her normal life till a younger woman in the compound fell down from a tree while she went to fetch firewood and died. Some relatives of the deceased went and consulted a diviner who declared that Ayishetu was responsible for the death. A male relative of the deceased went and attacked the woman with a matchete and inflicted deep cuts on her head and mouth. But she survived.
Last year Ayishetu asked a neighbor, Muhammad, to give her some soya beans after the harvest but Muhammad declined. He told Ayishetu that the harvest was poor and the beans were not enough. Two months later Muhammad took ill and died. While on sick bed, Muhammad recounted this experience to his family members and they threatened to kill Ayishetu. Not long after the death of Muhammad, Ayishetu came back from the market one day and found out that her chicken was missing. A neighbor, Musa, told her that he saw one young man, Kabiru, with the chicken. The woman went and confronted this young man but Kabiru denied having anything to do with her chicken and in the course of the exchange Ayishetu revealed the identity of the person who told her that Kabiru was the one who had stolen her chicken. The young man went and confronted Musa but Musa denied blatantly that he was the one who said so. Kabiru now returned with a gun and shot Ayishetu and nearly killed her. He said to her, “So you think you could kill me the way you killed Muhammad?” Ayishetu was rushed to Yendi hospital where the bullets were removed.
If you are still not convinced about the urgency of the situation, then need to listen to this. In Calabar in Southern Nigeria, Ben’s father woke up on July 3, some weeks ago and thought it was going to be like any other day. However it was not, because some hours later some youths stormed the compound with a ‘native doctor’ who pointed at him as one of those who were responsible for the death of young people in the community.
The youths seized the man and lynched him and destroyed his house. Ben fled the community and is now in hiding. Police have arrested some of the youths who were suspected to have lynched Ben’s father. The police would extort money from these suspects, detain and may later prosecute them. Friends, these young people who perpetrated these crimes and who are currently in police custody or at large, may never get to live ‘normal lives’ again. Ben may never get over the trauma of seeing his own father beaten and lynched by young people from his own community.
I tried getting my local contact person to reach out to other persons in Ben’s community who were affected by the incident but he told me that it was dangerous to go there because when the police officers went the coomunity to make arrests, a member of the gang shot and wounded one of the officers.
Young people make up the mobs that attack and burn witches in Kenya, Malawi Uganda, and Tanzania and in other parts of the region. Young people are mainly the witch hunters; they are also the children and relatives of the witch hunted.
African humanist youths, the world beckons on you to champion a movement against witch hunting. The world is looking up to you to provide leadership in this campaign for a rational Africa, a skeptical Africa, and yes for a secular Africa. The world needs you to foster critical thinking, skeptical rationality and other cognitive skills that are needed to interrogate and critically examine the use of witchcraft in explaining and making sense of misfortune. Will you rise up to this challenge?
African humanist youths, the world needs you to make other young Africans to understand that there is no connection between lack of job and witchcraft, loss of job and witchcraft, infertility and witchcraft, failure in exams and witchcraft, poverty and witchcraft, business failure and witchcraft, dreams and witchcraft, accidents and witchcraft, death and witchcraft, diseases and witchcraft. We need to make African youths aware that witches are imaginary beings and witchcraft is an imaginary crime. Nobody commits it and nobody should be punished for it. And I want to stress this, it is not only witches and witchcraft that are imaginary, but also God and godcraft, Allah and allahcraft, devil and devilcraft, jinn and jinncraft, Jesus Christ and christcraft, angels and angelcraft, demons and demoncraft, holy and evil spirits and spiritual craft, and other supernatural objects and formations which human beings have invented over the centuries and millennia to make sense of life, nature and experiences.
We need to challenge the magical, medicinal and religious establishments that peddle and propagate witchcraft narratives and schemes and use them to exploit people including the so called men and women of God or Allah, medicine men and women, the Nganga, Babalawo, Sangoma, Dibia, Bagha, Bouiglana and Tindana, Pastors, Mallams and Marabout, Prophets and Prophetesses and all who claim to have powers to diagnose and cure witchcraft, and to identify witches.
In addition, we need to robustly engage ‘scientific discourses’ on witchcraft in Africa because these debates often exoticize Africa. For too long, witchcraft has been used as the concept for studying and understanding Africa including African politics, economy, philosophy and science. When scholars tell us that witchcraft accusation is a mechanism for stabilizing the society or an idiom to make sense of modernity, let us draw their attention to the cases I have just cited and to the fact that witch hunting is a symptom of social dysfunction and lack of effective health care and strong modern state institutions
Friends, I am aware that to make witch hunt history in this region is not going to be an easy task. Sacrifices will be made. Dangers will be faced. Challenges will be met. Difficulties will be encountered. But more importantly history will be rewritten, and we shall be bending the arc of human progress towards enlightenment. So that it will eventually be said of us, it will be said of you, the African humanist youths and all who subscribe to the humanist outlook in this region, that for our tomorrow and for their tomorrow, we gave our today.