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Has Witchcraft Become Forbidden Topic in African Schools?

TO GO WITH STORY BY FELIX MPONDA Malawi’s longest serving witchcraft prisoner Ezereti Kampota walks to freedom from Maula Maximum Security Prison, in Lilongwe, on May 31, 2011, after the Association of Secular Humanism and its Executive Director George Thindwa became advocates for her release. AFP PHOTO / AMOS GUMULIRA

 By Leo Igwe

This question has become pertinent given recent developments in the course of arranging a lecture for a guest professor from the US. This professor who holds a master’s degree in public health and another in education is visiting Nigeria and agreed to deliver some lectures for free on witchcraft accusations and public health in Africa. I thought this lecture would be of enormous benefit to our institutions of learning. This learned gentleman wants to use the lecture to add his voice to the efforts and initiatives of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches to stamp out abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs and ritual attacks. With a vast knowledge and experience in explaining, and critically situating magical and paranormal issues, this professor would, through his lectures, equip students with insights into addressing misinformation linked to witchcraft belief. He is the author, co-author, or contributor to twenty-five books and has won awards for his books, films, and podcasts. The professor also co-founded two podcasts including Squaring the Strange. Drawing on his background and two decades of experience in public health, folklore, education, and psychology, he will discuss approaches to fighting magical thinking and harmful misinformation, especially in an African context. What a resourceful individual!

The professor plans to be in Nigeria for a week So to maximize his stay, I have approached a couple of tertiary institutions in Ibadan to arrange some lectures. I have contacted the School of Medical Laboratory in Oluyoro, and the School of Health Technology in Eleyele. I have also sent proposals to heads of departments of education, sociology, and medical sciences, and the Vice Chancellor at Lead City University. I have also approached the office of the French Institute for African Research at the University of Ibadan. To my greatest shock, I have yet to receive any positive response. In all cases, they promised to get back to me but they never did, not even a phone call. The silence has been such that I have started linking it to an emerging trend in our universities these days. This trend makes the discussion of witchcraft taboo.

Otherwise, I have been wondering why there has been no response from any of these institutions; why no department has welcomed this opportunity to share ideas and interact with a professor at no cost to the students or the institution. I cannot fathom this acute disdain or fear of an idea, or a topic by schoolers. I have concluded that witchcraft has become a taboo topic in schools. And this is tragic. This development is bad for our schools, students, and youths. I have yet to understand why any institution would turn down or refuse to welcome a proposal for a free lecture on witchcraft and public health. 

But recent happenings provide some insight into this development. There is a pervasive fear of witchcraft in schools and society at large. In September, the police disrupted a seminar on witch persecution in Benue state because they claimed that they received some intelligence that it was a meeting of witches and wizards. In 2019, some Christian students protested the organization of an academic conference on witchcraft beliefs and practices at the University of Nigeria Nsukka in southern Nigeria. The students, with the support of Christian clerics, opposed the program stating that it was an open invitation to witches and wizards to the campus. The protest forced organizers to change the venue and theme of the program. But the event eventually went ahead. 

It appears that this disease is spreading to other campuses. Hence, no department or institution in Ibadan has agreed to host a lecture on witchcraft accusations and public health in Africa. It could be that the heads of these institutions or departments are witchcraft believers. So they would not want to facilitate a lecture on such a dreadful topic. It could also be that those who direct these agencies are not believers but are afraid of a backlash from witch believing staff and students. Sometime ago, a school manager in Lagos invited me to do a program for her students. In the course of our discussion, she said: “Please, Leo, do not come here to tell my students that witchcraft is superstition or witches do not exist”. My reaction was: Really?

So, the school system is in jeopardy because those who fear the topic of witchcraft, or those who fear those who fear the topic of witchcraft have taken over the institutions. Whatever the case, this disturbing trend that makes the topic of witchcraft one to be avoided, dreaded or discouraged on our campuses must be addressed before it is too late.

Leo Igwe holds a doctoral degree in religious studies, wrote his doctoral thesis on witchcraft accusations in Northern Ghana and directs the Advocacy for Alleged Witches.

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Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe (born July 26, 1970) is a Nigerian human rights advocate and humanist. Igwe is a former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and has specialized in campaigning against and documenting the impacts of child witchcraft accusations. He holds a Ph.D from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria. Igwe's human rights advocacy has brought him into conflict with high-profile witchcraft believers, such as Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, because of his criticism of what he describes as their role in the violence and child abandonment that sometimes result from accusations of witchcraft. His human rights fieldwork has led to his arrest on several occasions in Nigeria. Igwe has held leadership roles in the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Atheist Alliance International, and the Center For Inquiry—Nigeria. In 2012, Igwe was appointed as a Research Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, where he continues working toward the goal of responding to what he sees as the deleterious effects of superstition, advancing skepticism throughout Africa and around the world. In 2014, Igwe was chosen as a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and in 2017 received the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Igwe was raised in southeastern Nigeria, and describes his household as being strictly Catholic in the midst of a "highly superstitious community," according to an interview in the Gold Coast Bulletin.[1] At age twelve, Igwe entered the seminary, beginning to study for the Catholic priesthood, but later was confused by conflicting beliefs between Christian theology and the beliefs in witches and wizards that are "entrenched in Nigerian society."[1] After a period of research and internal conflict due to doubts about the "odd blend of tribalism and fundamentalist Christianity he believes is stunting African development," a 24-year-old Igwe resigned from the seminary and relocated to Ibadan, Nigeria

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