Stigmatisation in the name of God
AT 10, Jeremiah Victor Usuk appears stoic. Deep in him, he not only sheds tears but also yearns for fantasies every other child his age enjoys with gusto. By a stroke of ill-luck, that part of early childhood has eluded him, and maybe for ever; he has been tagged a witch.
As he sat on a white plastic chair inside the administrative office of the Child’s Right Rehabilitation Networks (CRARN), Jeremiah Victor Usuk, 10, remains eternally grateful to God for bringing him back from the jaws of death.
Born into a family of four, Jeremiah experienced some slight form of princely treatment as the only male child of the home. But all that became history soon after one Prophetess Grace Ben Peter of the City of Grace Mission in Eket, Akwa Ibom State allegedly brandished him a child witch and the prime cause of unpleasant happenings in his family.
Pronto, the Afaha Ukwa, Eket-born lad was bathed with gasoline and set on fire by his father sometime in March last year. It took the intervention of neighbours to save Jeremiah from untimely death. But he will have to live with the scars on his head, down to shoulder and beyond for the rest of his life.
Jeremiah’s case is just one of many playing out in parts of Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, where religious sects, especially of the Pentecostal fold, are accusing hordes of kids of possessing powers to cause misfortune to their families.
A female child from Oron Council of Akwa Ibom State was tortured and bathed with hot water and thrown into the forest to die by his family for allegedly possessing strange powers. Another was tied to a stake in a goat’s house for two weeks by his father because a prophet in his church proclaimed her a witch.
In Nsit Ibom, another was tortured and eventually chased out of home by his uncle, who believed he bewitched and killed his parents.
The phenomenon of “child witch” has been on the increase in the two states in recent years, resulting in brazen violation of children’s rights. The 152 inmates quartered at the CRARN Children Centre on Abat Street, Ikot Odion in Eket Council points to this.
Unfortunately, the suspected ‘witches’ and ‘wizards’ are either abandoned by their parents/guardians, dehumanised, poisoned to death with a local berry, hurled into the river, buried alive, severely maltreated and thrown into the street or clandestinely killed.
CRARN has identified religious profiteering, poverty, disintegration of extended family structure, ignorance and superstitious beliefs, broken marriages and dysfunctional families as main causes of the ugly trend.
Its coordinator, Mr. Sam Itauma, who runs the centre, does not believe in the existence of witches and wizards the way it is being peddled around the state.
But not everyone shares his belief. While Ndedu Ekere, a banker in Eket wants families to be cautious in handling the issue of existence of witches and wizards, Samuel Atang adds: “We need to be more alert to daily life situations that if not handled with the seriousness they deserve, can lead to unpleasant happenings.
“For instance, if one sustains an injury in any part of his body, he should endeavour to give it adequate medical attention. But if that does not happen and the sore festers and leads to amputation, people believe someone in the family must be the cause. I really think we should grow above this.”
But Atim Inyang believes witches and wizards do exist in the African society and are capable of inflicting serious pains, using metaphysical powers.
“I know there are such people living among us who can cause untold hardship in their families, but if you are deeply rooted in your faith, they just cannot penetrate or harm you. So the good thing is that for those who are determined to shut out these kind of influences in their lives, there is a way out for them,” she assures.
However, Itauma said: “Since I am strongly convinced that the alleged existence of child witches and wizards is a function of ignorance, I alongside a few committed friends, decided to take on the fight to salvage the situation by forming a front and reaching out to the government and in the process gather the kids from the streets. Since the government had no facility to house the kids gathered, we that were just in the business of protecting their rights had to go into rehabilitating them.
“At the centre today, we have kids within the age range of one and half to 16 years, and they keep on coming by the day, since there is a refuge here for them. We welcome into our fold, between nine and 11 kids weekly. Sometimes, we get calls from people about the torture of kids in their neighbourhood. Sometimes we get there to meet kids in a state of coma and some girls thoroughly raped.”
CRARN had over the years taken parents who set their children on fire, machete or maltreat them to court, if only to serve as deterrent to others. But even that does not seem to be working.
“Churches have strong influence on people and some church leaders get some parents to sheepishly believe that their kids are witches and wizards. This is the focus of most of these churches, which have departed from preaching righteousness and salvation of souls to stigmatisation of children as witches and wizards.
“In fact, it has gotten to a stage that if you do not spot witches and wizards in your church, you are not seen to be spiritually powerful and you may lose some of your members,” Itauma explains.
He singles out the founder of the Liberty Gospel Church, Prophetess Helen Ukpabio as one of the arrowheads in the stigmatisation of children as witches and wizards.
“This noise about child witches and wizards was almost non-existent until the tail end of the 1990’s, when Ukpabio sent into the markets, some of her earliest home videos, including End of the Wicked and The Coven.
“These two movies strongly portray some children as possessing supernatural powers that they use in bringing dire misfortune on whoever it pleases them to attack. These movies and many more tailored along this line have succeeded in presenting kids as harbingers of strange powers to make and unmake,” he says.