18 November 2008

More on child witches in Africa

The UK Channel 4 programme on child "witches" in Africa broadcast last week has reignited debate on the topic. I keep a database of African independent churches and church leaders, to try to build up a coherent picture of African Christianity, but the media reports on this phenomenon, which has been reported mainly from Nigeria, the DRC and Angola, usually raise more questions than they answer.

According to Tracy McVeigh of "The Guardian" (9-Dec-2007) "it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs".

What I would like to know is which American and Scottish missionaries these were. What are their names, their background? Who sent them to Nigeria, and when? Which denominaations and mission agencies sponsored them? What was the source of their teaching, and how did they influence those who are propagating these beliefs in Nigeria today?

These seem to me to be very important questions for missiologists and church historians to be asking. We have international academic discussion forums for researchers on African Independent Churches and New Religious Movements, but if anyone is doing research into those topics they aren't saying. Possibly some sociologists have been doing research into it, but if they have, I haven't heard of it. An interdisciplinary study would be useful.

In the absence of such studies, all one can do is try to read between the lines of the newspaper reports and try to guess what is going on.

According to some reports this phenomenon -- accusing children of being witches -- did not exist in Congo (DRC) in 1994, but it was common in 1999.

One of the denominations reported to be most active in witch hunting is the Liberty Gospel Church, founded in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in 1992 by Helen Ukpabio, a former nurse.

She has apparently said that if children cry a lot and are fretful it is a sign that they are witches. Now I'm not a fundi on Nigerian witchcraft beliefs, but I do know that in most parts of Africa if a child is ill and feverish and cries a lot people may suspect that the child has been bewitched. Witchcraft has often been seen as a cause of illness. But it seems that Ukpabio has reversed this, and instead of seeing these as symptoms that a child is a victim, she teaches that it a sign that the child is a perpetator of witchcraft.

Maybe there is some precedent for this kind of thing in Nigerian culture -- if there is, I hope someone will enlighten me. But it seems to me like a new twist on the "blame the victim" game.

And if Helen Ukpabio and others like her really got their theology from American and Scottish pentecostal and evangelical missionaries, it might be quite important to know which ones. I think it may, however, be a bit more complex than this.

In Central and West Africa there seems to be a growing interest in exorcism; though such beliefs may have been around for a long time they seem to be growing stronger. Many clergy seem to have specialised in it. I met a student at the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi who had been a Roman Catholic and gathered a congregation of about 500 people in Douala, Cameroun, who had mainly been attracted by his ministry of exorcism. He became Orthodox when the Roman Catholic bishop sought to inhibit his ministry of exorcism, which he continued with the blessing of the local Orthodox bishop.

Another student at the seminary, who was from the English-speaking northern part of Cameroun, had become a Rosicrucian at the age of 16, and had tried an amazing number of religions, including Wicca and Ekankar, before settling on Hinduism, which he studied for some time under a guru in India. On returning to Cameroun he was told by his spirit guides to worship the Triune God, and walked into town and the first Christian Church he came across was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he decided to join the Orthodox Church. But at the seminary he believed that the teaching staff were withholding important information from the students, such as which variety of incense was best for driving out which kinds of demons.

But there is also the possibility that the excesses of people like Helen Ukpabio could actually kill off African witchcraft beliefs altogether.

Something similar happened in the great European witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries. In early modern Europe there was, in some places, a great increase in witchhunting and witchcraft accusations. As time passed, however, the accusations and the beliefs about witchcraft became more and more bizarre and over-the-top, until people could simply no longer believe them, and eventually the entire belief system crumbled under its own weight. Perhaps Ukpabio's teachings are a sign that this is beginning to happen in Africa.


Daniel Clark said...

Some comments from a Brazilian perspective to see how they overlap with Africa;

1) References to foreign influence tends to be a "red herring". In a globalised world most religions suffer international influence (Where is the centre of Catholicism...?). Yet Pentecostal and NeoPentecostal churches are the most indigenous in Brazil.

2) Arguably one can see the influence working the other way. Many of the proponents in the West of Spiritual warfare (e.g. Peter Wagner, Charles Kraft and to a lesser extent Paul Hiebert who developed the concept of the "excluded middle") have developed their teachings in the light of their experience in Africa, Latin America and Asia. In turn, they influence a generation of leaders from these continents.

3) In the case of the UCKG (Universal Church) its teachings on Spiritual Warfare are mainly derived from Afro-Brazilian religions such as Umbanda and Candomble, parallel to what you described in Nigeria.

Steve Hayes said...


I find that very interesting indeed. I hope you won't mind if I copy it to the New Religious Movements discussion forum, and hope that you will also join us there.

Like the UCKG, several Nigerian denominations, like the Liberty Gospel Church and Winners Chapel, have also established themselves in South Africa. I don't know if their "clientele" is composed mostly of Nigerian immigrants, or whether it includes a lot of South Africans as well. Do you know what it teaches about witchcraft?

Alby said...

Well, I have in the UCKG, as a watcher, for a long time and experienced that there are forces in combate there. Their war against evil is strong, Candomble, Umbanda and general macumba is being desmantled by UCKG. The Afro-Brazilian religions were raising in Brazil in an astonishing way back in the 70s and UCKG together with thousands of others (important to say) stopped this movement. This is due to the poor Christian practices of the Catholic church in Brazil that is more concerned about the millions of real estate they own than with catholics who move easily from catholicism to pentecostalism. The number is astonised, in the last 35 years one third of brazilian population became petencostal (and its combinations)and the number is raising. The UCKG in Africa has nothing to do with witchcraft. On the contrary, they fiercely combate evil forces in their meetings. A good place for witches to avoid when visiting a church.

Daniel Clark said...

Alby some comments:
1) There was no real astonishing growth of Afro-Brazilian religions in the 1970s, albeit this was a period when they received support from the military dictatorship and became fashionable amongst academics. In the 20th century the overall narrative was one of continuous decline, not directly related to any strategy of the UCKG
2) Equally to claim that over 30% of Brazilians have become pentecostal is not backed up by hard data (existing statistics point to 15-20% of evangelicals in Brazil, a considerable growth in itself). If one factors in Charismatic Catholics, than such a statistic may be reached, but on the whole Charismatics do not have such an aggressive approach to the Afro-brazilian religions.
3) The criticism made of the UCKG from fellow-evangelicals in Brazil is that they accept the ontological reality of the "gods" of these other religions. I.e. they believe that the "orixas" and others actually are real beings, as opposed to being some form of representation of demonic beings as suggested by other evangelicals.


Related Posts with Thumbnails