Monday, 14 January 2019

I THOUGHT I WAS A WITCH...

Children Accused of Witchcraft
Image: SAFE CHILD AFRICA.

I remember when I thought I was a witch. It was sometime in the year 2000 or 2001.

My parents were strict and required us to stay at home always; unless absolutely necessary. They also didn't encourage us to have friends or people over at the house. Maybe it was because of their strictness or the fact that we were always indoors but, my house became the hub for our friends and neighbors when they weren't around. And yes, we had so many of them; especially me.

When my parents were out, our friends would come over and we would have all sorts of craziness in the name of fun. If my parents knew just how many people came to our house and caused havoc when they were out, we would have been flayed. This is not to say that we weren't caught once in a while. But they didn't know just how bad it was.

It was during one of these visits that a friend came to beat me in the house.

Funny story.

Omoh (fake name alert) and I were closer than most of our other friends. The group used to call us 'husband and wife'. For some reason which I cannot remember now, we had a fight and stopped being friends. Then I heard that he trying to tarnish my reputation and spreading lies about me. I got so mad and began to write a letter. By this point, I had just learned words like 'scalliwag', 'nincompoop' and the all-purpose French word, fuck. I peppered my letter with those words – and others like them – in what I thought was a take down of his entire existence. When I was done, I gave the letter to the same friends who brought the tale to me.

Turns out my words struck a million nerves. He was so mad!

What I didn't know was that the letter had been read aloud in front of the rest of the group and with each 'big word' they saw, the guys would fall all over themselves, regaling in laughter. And then they would check the dictionary for the meaning and upon discovering what it meant, would break out in even bigger laughter. By the time they were done reading that letter, Omoh was in a rage.

I had barely been told he was coming to beat me when he burst into my house brandishing a belt. He asked me to repeat myself if I dared. I was scared out of my skin but I was never one to show it. So I went, 'I have said all I wanted to say to you. If you didn't understand it, that is your concern.'

Wrong move.

I felt the sharpness of the belt eating into my flesh just as the rest of the group decided to intervene. Maybe most people didn’t think it wouldn’t get to that or they wanted to see me get beat, which I think is what really happened, but the delay in their response sent me into a rage. I reached for him, hoping to throw a blow; even though I was not a fighter. I remember that the biggest guy in the group held me back as the others held Omoh. As I was kicking and throwing blows, I kept saying, ‘You don’t know me! I will show just who I am. This is the biggest mistake you have made in your life and you will so regret it. Get ready to face who I am.’

There was nothing I was going to do. I knew I was bluffing but I kept going. Heck, I couldn’t even tell my parents. They would have started the beating even before he did his. But I was livid and kept going. In a way, I was thankful that I was held back. If they had let me attack, I most definitely would have run away.

The fight was eventually broken and everyone went their way. I heard that Omoh planned to still beat me up in the streets when he saw me. I was scared of what would happen to me when I didn’t have other people to protecting me. I know that I talk a big game but honestly, I don’t know how to fight; then or now. So when my mother sent me the market two days later, and I had to pass through his house, I was scared out of my wits. When I passed by on my way to the market and nothing happened, I was relieved; for a little while. I think the fear doubled when I was returning because I kept imagining him jumping out of nowhere to descend on me. When that didn’t happen, I finally breathed a sigh of relief when I got home. I was free!

I had barely let out that sigh when another friend came in.

‘Oh girl! I dey fear you oh! Wetin you do Omoh?’ Even though he said it in a joking tone, I could tell that he was a bit wary; of me.

I looked at him and wondered what he was about.

‘Omoh is sick. He has been lying in bed since that day that he beat you. What did you do?’

I looked at him and hissed. ‘He must be joking.’ I thought to myself.

But he wasn’t.

The rumor had spread that I had cast a spell on Omoh, which was why he was sick. It was then that it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any of my friends since the fight. They were actively avoiding me! I felt so bad. So I included every one of them in the anger I was still smarting from.

It wasn’t until the next day that a delegation of friends came to plead with me to forgive Omoh. I was shocked. What were these people saying? What could I possibly have done?

‘Remember as you were shouting that you would show him? Well, he has been in bed for the last three days. No vex now. He sent us to come and beg you. Please just come and tell him you have forgiven him.’

I looked at everyone and said I wouldn’t. And even though I insisted that I anything to him, I was clear when I said I sure as hell didn’t forgive him for hitting me. They left and started coming one after the other. All they wanted was that I forgave him. I wouldn’t budge.

On the fourth day, I had been so worn down by all the begging that I decided to go and see him. I went there, wary that it was a trap and I would be beaten. When I entered the room and saw that he was really sick and in bed, I told him I wished him a quick recovery and proceeded to make an exit. I was stopped before I made it to the door.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘Just tell him that you forgive him.’

I looked at the friend that said it and was genuinely vexed. What was this nonsense?! Why wouldn’t they see that I wasn’t a witch?!

So to fulfill righteousness, I turned back and said I forgave Omoh. I left at that point. I was done with my ‘friends’.

A little over four hours later, my father returned home and asked me to go to the market. On my way, guess who I saw playing football?! Omoh! The person that I had seen on the bed hours earlier was now playing football. I was desperately shocked; and very scared.

Was I truly a witch? Did I have evil running through me? Had I somehow put a spell on Omoh because of our fight; and without knowing?! I was deeply worried and in a way, ashamed of myself.
Few weeks passed and everyone forgot about the incident but I kept flicking back and forth to the entire thing. It didn’t matter that Omoh had been suffering from Malaria. It didn’t matter that the local herbs his parents used was what slowed his recovery process. It didn’t matter that when I saw him at the end of four days, the fever was already broken. Now, I know it was just a ball of coincidences but 13 year old me was devastated about the possibilities of being a witch.

Even today, my mind keeps flitting to the events of those four days.

You see, I was lucky that it ended without any negative incidence for me. This is not the case in many communities in Nigeria – particularly in the Southern part of the country – where being branded a witch is a certain death sentence. This can also be found in Angola, Congo, Ethiopia, The Gambia and even Sierra Leone. And it doesn’t matter if you are a child or an adult.

Take Hope from Uyo for Example.

He was accused of witchcraft and left to die in his community. He was just 2 years old. It was reported by CNN that he had been scraping food from the streets and had been so bloated and riddled with worms that he presented a sad sight to passersby. One of the people whose eye he caught was an aid worker visiting his community. Anja Ringgren Loven, the Danish aid worker who saw the state he was in, stopped by to give him water and food and after some months looking after him, decided to adopt him.

Anja Ringgren Loven rescues Hope in 2016.
Image: Anja Ringgren Loven
Hope’s story was the more popular one because he had been adopted by a foreigner. But what about the others who haven’t been talked about? Who gets to speak for them? Who gets to save them from the horrible abuse being done to them? Because you see, many children accused of witchcraft are locked in a room and starved, so that they can die. Some are beaten merciless and tortured until they would rather die than continue to suffer. Even more are put out of their houses and left to fend for themselves in the streets. And for families who claim to be religious, they send their children to ‘deliverance’ services where any number of inhumane things – not limited to the ones mentioned above – is done to these children.

And if you are older, a mob attacks you or an assassination squad removes you from the community.

What baffles me is that parents give up their kids to be treated poorly because of these accusations. They watch their children suffer, and in many cases, die from all the inhumanity and yet, do nothing. This has made me realize that our need to connect to the supernatural, to believe in a higher being of good, and it's consequent yang, is so great that we sometimes lose our collective sense of reasoning with regards to basic human rights.

It really is a shame that simple coincidences can sentence a person – a child – to a life of suffering and even death. I think that it is time to put a stop to this!

Human rights, and especially children’s rights, are non-negotiable. We must make it our priority to protect the children in our communities, even if it means protecting them from the sadists that are their own parents, teachers, religious leaders or even friends. We cannot continue to fold our hands and watch children being abused because someone has tagged them, witches. Or wait until a foreigner does a photog saving them before we move in. These children have rights; and it starts with the right to life. Again, I must emphasize that this is non-negotiable.

Every day I read about the stories of witch hunting or killings, I flash back to that day when I uttered those words and Omoh fell ill. If I had been born in the Southern part of the country, what do you think would have happened to me? Would I even be here today?

It is time to end violence against children; and it begins with you and I.

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