It’s Halloween, and witchcraft is a hot topic (haha, get it?) these days, so let’s talk about it. I’ll leave the history of witch hunts in pre-modern Europe and the US aside for the moment — since those topics are being covered like whatever Kanye West is doing this week — and focus instead on something more immediate and hence — since it could theoretically be ameliorated — more important.
“‘We’re women and we’re the weaker people; that’s why we are here.”
Witch camps — really, labor camps — only exist in northern Ghana and are populated chiefly by elderly widows who have been accused of witchcraft in their home villages, often by relatives using the accusation as a means to take over their deceased husbands’ property. Because, you know, why would an old woman who had served her husband like a slave for decades deserve to keep anything that her unpaid labor allowed him to accumulate?
Since an accusation of witchcraft comes with absolute ostracization and often brutal mistreatment including rape, torture, and murder, these women flee to witch camps where local chieftans offer them protection in exchange for labor and money. That’s right. Elderly widows, their lives endangered by the cupidity of their own relatives, get to pay for the privilege of performing backbreaking fieldwork, which often requires that they make and sell food items on the street once they finish their day in the fields so they can pay for their safety. And they’re not glamping. Many of them walk several miles a day to collect water since the huts they’re crammed into don’t have plumbing of any kind. I’ll give you one guess as to what kind of health care they’re offered.
(Naturally, western tourists stop in by the busload to have a gawk at these “witches.”)
They’re the lucky ones. There are no witch camps outside of northern Ghana, which means even that dismal remedy is available only to a select few.
In sub-Saharan Africa, anthropologists have identified a “multi-crisis” that afflicts much of the subcontinent and has been growing over the course of the last three decades. The legacies of colonialism and the arrival of the culture of capitalism with all of the economic insecurity and jealousy that it foments have led to disruptions in traditional means of survival and in community and kinship structures. At the same time, the continent has been ravaged by warlordism, superlative poverty, public health crises including HIV/AIDS, and the strange constellations of political and economic corruption and abuse that attend the extraction of the region’s resources as repayment for exploitative development loans.
The admixture of indigenous beliefs in hidden spirit worlds and the virulent misogyny of the syncretized/”Africanized” proselytizing religions that have come to dominate the region — Islam to a lesser degree, and various stripes of regressive evangelical Christianity to a much greater degree — leave women and children open to accusations of witchcraft when their communities or families suffer misfortunes that appear to be inexplicable or to lack obvious or feasible remedies, misfortunes that vary from a bad dream to the wrong kind of weather to an unexpected illness to a sudden change in financial fortunes.
Some of them are simply exiled to face the dangers unaccompanied women and children endure, but they’re often beaten, whipped, gang raped, and tortured to death in their own communities. In just six months of 2017, for example, 479 elderly Tanzanian women were brutally murdered by hysterical mobs for the crime of being female and no longer of use to men or the market.
Children are, however, of use to men and the market, at least up to a point.
Over the course of the past twenty years, witchcraft accusations levied against children have exploded in urban areas in Africa and are increasing by the day. Pentecostal and revivalist ministers help to legitimize witchcraft accusations made against children in their communities and offer their parents expensive “exorcism” programs comprising repeated psychological and physical abuse including starvation, beatings, prolonged isolation, forced ingestion of poisons, and gasoline being poured into their eyes and ears. They often die during the course of their “treatment.”
These pastors have arrogated to themselves the authority to identify child witches, to oversee their “treatment,” and to collect hefty fees for their efforts. Christian ministers advertise their services via billboards, radio, and television commercials and spread the fear of child witchcraft among the pubic in an effort at self-enrichment so brazen it would make Joel Osteen wince. These pastors, with their wealth, connections to international networks, and semi-divine status as prophets, carry enormous power over the futures of the children they come into contact with; once they’ve “confirmed” a child as a witch, the stigma that follows leaves the child open to continued suspicion, repeated accusations, and a permanent state of vulnerability and exclusion. And, conveniently, repeat visits to the pastor for future exorcisms.
Again, we’re talking about lucky witches, though, whose parents can afford and are willing to pay for repeated “exorcisms.” Orphans, step-children, children born with developmental disabilities or deformities, and gifted or otherwise “troublesome” children are often labeled witches or sorcerers by their families or communities who can’t (or don’t want to) care for them. And, because sub-Saharan Africa is the world region most devastated by the legacies of imperialism and the contemporary realities of neoliberalism, there are a lot of reasons they can’t.
What do you think becomes of children who are shunned and abandoned by their families and communities in regions that suffer from extreme poverty? They’re still of some ephemeral use to men and the market — just different men and a different kind of market — and their exclusion from their communities leaves them with absolutely no protection from human traffickers, corrupt and exploitative authorities, and depraved men in general. The vast majority end up living on the streets of major African cities. The boys survive by begging, selling cheap goods on the street, petty theft, indentured mine work, and selling drugs. In Central Africa, they’re also vulnerable to impressment as child soldiers.
The girls are — surprise — trafficked abroad or funneled directly into local sexual slavery, the average age at which this begins being six or seven years old. The police and other governmental authorities not only offer no help, but are often the chief agents of exploitation that these girls come into contact with. Their johns — despite the widespread awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa — routinely either pay slightly more than the average price of $1-3 per paid rape to eschew condom use or, being that they’re adults raping children, they often just refuse to use condoms and refuse to pay at all.
“Sometimes men come and force themselves on me, and after, they go without leaving any money. That often happens. I started doing this work when I was ten years old. It’s not a pretty life. I’d like to go somewhere else and study.”
— Lumbashi, age 18, in an interview with Human Rights Watch
Lumbashi, being 18 years old, can be considered one of the “lucky” few children accused of witchcraft to reach adulthood. According to UNICEF, the majority are either starved or murdered before they even reach the streets of urban capitals, or they succumb to starvation, die of AIDS and other preventable diseases, or are murdered with impunity within a few years of being accused and exiled to the streets.
Whether a crazed mob carries it out immediately or it’s effected by the conditions in which discarded human beings exist, an accusation of witchcraft is almost always a death sentence for a woman or child in sub-Saharan Africa.
Let’s hop to another region of the world no one seems to care about, Papua New Guinea. The country has been absolutely devastated by foreign exploitation and forced integration into the market system and suffers from extreme poverty and social chaos as a result. In the past several years, gruesome murders of women and girls over accusations of “sorcery” (sanguma) have spread from rural areas to larger towns, including the capital of Port Moresby. As usual, the violence is aimed at the most vulnerable members of the community:
“[A]ccusations of witchcraft were usually levelled at those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, most often women who lived on the margins of society — the elderly, disabled, or those who had married into the village.”
The killings usually begin with a woman or girl being accused of causing the death or illness of a member of their community. They are then tortured by being beaten, cut with knives, whipped, or burned into providing a “confession,” which then provides justification for even more brutal abuse and murder.
Two recent noteworthy cases highlight just how ghastly PNG witch hunts have become. A 20-year-old woman named Kepari Leniata was accused in 2013 of causing the death of a young boy by means of witchcraft, after which she was set upon by an angry mob and “stripped, tortured with a hot iron rod, doused in petrol, and burned on a pile of rubbish and car tyres.”
Less than a year ago, Leniata’s six-year-old daughter was also accused of witchcraft — serving by dint of association with her mother as a scapegoat for the community’s unexplained misfortunes — after which she was “tortured with hot knives.” The girl survived and her story became a national and international sensation, which prompted PNG’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, to acknowledge the reality of modern witch hunts in his country:
“In the modern day sanguma is not a real cultural practice, it is false belief and involves the violent abuse and torture of women and girls by pathetic and perverted individuals.”
The PNG government, however, lacks the resources or the will to do anything about the increase in violence against women and girls accused of witchcraft. Women and young girls are trafficked from all over PNG to Port Moresby and to logging and mining camps where they’re sold into sexual slavery in brothels frequented by migrant workers and the male employees of multinational corporations that have bought the rights to the nation’s natural resources. Women are considered commodities in this new economy, and accusations of witchcraft serve as an expedient means of disposing of them once their value has been extracted.
Their male family members sell them into sexual slavery, so it’s not exactly shocking to hear that these same men use accusations of sorcery to control women within the home:
“Sorcery accusations all too often become a form of family violence, with abusive husbands threatening or using sorcery accusations to silence and control women.”
If a woman’s husband finds himself a new and improved wife, what better way to rid himself of the troublesome old one than accusing her of witchcraft (or threatening her with an accusation if she refuses to accept being abandoned)? Once he has discarded her, she is rendered even more vulnerable to accusations of sorcery since she exists outside of the traditional social order.
As is the case in sub-Saharan Africa, men in PNG suffering new forms of economic and cultural insecurity and exploitation turn on the most vulnerable members of their communities and facilitate and profit from their sexual exploitation, and accuse them of using dark magic to create the misfortunes they either can’t understand or feel powerless to confront. Misogyny comes together with confused rage to exclude unprotected women and girls from the community, after which they are eligible for the most ghoulish forms of exploitation and violence.
Austerity, structural readjustment programs, and the resultant growing poverty in Asian countries have resulted in huge spikes in human trafficking from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China, and elsewhere (including Africa, of course) to the US, Europe, and the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE). If someone were to put a gun to my head and tell me to pick one of those regions to be accused of witchcraft in, I wouldn’t choose the Middle East.
Women who migrate or are trafficked to Saudi Arabia as domestic laborers find themselves at the complete mercy of their employers, mercy which is often lacking. They are routinely forced to work more than 18 hours a day, are rarely if ever afforded days off, are whipped and beaten for the flimsiest of perceived failures, and have no recourse to state aid when the abuse becomes unbearable. They’re often undocumented and do not speak Arabic, and even if they do approach authorities to allege abuse, they are open to counter-accusations of witchcraft that put their lives in danger.
It’s noteworthy that the Saudi government inaugurated its “Anti-Witchcraft Unit” in 2009, since it coincides with the drastic rise in numbers of female foreign domestic workers entering the country.
By 2011, the unit had created a total of nine witchcraft-fighting bureaus in cities across the country, according to Arab News, and had “achieved remarkable success” in processing at least 586 cases of magical crime, the majority of which were foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia…
In a country where public observance of any religion besides Islam is strictly forbidden, foreign domestic workers who bring unfamiliar traditional religious or folk customs from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa, or elsewhere can make especially vulnerable and easy targets. “If they see these [folk practices or items] they immediately assume they’re some kind of sorcery or witchcraft.”
Accusers are guaranteed anonymity by the Saudi government, leaving foreign domestic workers especially vulnerable to retaliatory accusations made by their employers when they flee or report abuse:
“Recently, all family members has started to suffer from fainting and epileptic fits. After the housemaid fled, we found magic items planted in various part of our house,” the unnamed man said, quoted by Sabq Arabic language daily.
“I swear that we do not want to hurt her but to stop her evil acts against us and others,” said the man, who published a picture of the 31-year-old maid in newspapers.
Make no mistake: the Saudi state actively pursues these women, and though some of them are merely lashed and imprisoned, the vast majority are convicted on the shadowy basis of a male judge’s whim and sentenced to death.
The most economically, politically, and socially vulnerable women in the world are trafficked to or migrate to one of the richest countries on Earth out of desperation, only to be treated like chattel. When they display the slightest resistance to being brutally dehumanized, the Saudi state comes to the rescue of their abusers under the guise of protecting the socio-religious order from the “danger” these powerless and completely isolated women purportedly pose via labeling them as witches. It’s a tidy system that allows for the demonization and disposal, yet again, of women who have lost what little value they had to men and their market.