Witchcraft in Nigeria

An award-winning documentary co-produced by a Dutch filmmaker deals with the plight of children accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. The documentary has generated positive change, but also tensions in the communities to which the children belong.

"Shocking", "terrible", "unbearable": the documentary that won an International Emmy award this week leaves no one indifferent.

Murdered and tortured

The British documentary "Saving Africa's Witch Children"tells the story of the fate of thousands of children considered witches by charismatic preachers in Nigeria. They are killed or tortured in gruesome excommunication ceremonies, often carried out by the parents themselves.
Such is the case of nine-year-old Mary, who was identified as a witch by a prophetess during a ceremony in a Pentecostal church. Her parents accused her of having killed her younger sister. They poured hot caustic soda over the girl's head and body, then abandoned her in the woods.


The film alarmed local authorities, who decided to take action to put an end to these practices. Dutch filmmaker Joost van der Valk is pleased with the positive impact of the documentary in the Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, where he and British filmmaker Mags Gavan made the film in 2008:
"It is no longer allowed to call a child a 'witch', and many priests have been arrested as a result of the documentary," says Van der Dalk, "In addition, numerous donations were made to the local NGO in Nigeria, funds that were used to improve the living conditions of the children in the orphanage."


It is not all doom and gloom in the award-winning documentary: children like Mary are rescued, and find safety in a centre run by a local charity, the Children's Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), whose chairman, Sam Itauma, is featured in the film.
Itauma says that as a result of the film, which has not yet been shown in Nigeria, local authorities introduced free secondary education in Akwa Ibom State, located in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. The state governor signed Nigeria's Child Rights Act into law, and the orphanage is thriving.
However, not everyone in the community is pleased with the attention generated by Saving Africa's Witch Children. "Many people in Nigeria feel that the documentary damages the country's image, contributing to its bad reputation," says Itauma. "However, we can't hide the situation, so it's better to face it.


Itauma's charity has been the target of threats and the children of the orphanage have been attacked. Itauma no longer makes public appearances:
"They want to suppress our activities, our campaigns against these practices, so that they can continue their abominable activities in the name of God," Itauma explains. "I have to be very careful, because my life is in danger.


Sam Itauma is not giving up the fight. Just last week, a nine-year-old boy died in hospital after his father "bathed him in acid".
He wants to ensure that new legislation banning the stigmatisation of children is upheld, and that religious people who, after being imprisoned, are prosecuted, were released on bail, as well as parents who abuse their children..
The producers of the documentary plan to make a sequel highlighting efforts to protect children's rights in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State.

Common practice

A recent UN report explains that the abuse of 'bewitched' children is common in countries where traditional social structures have collapsed, or where there are high rates of sudden death and few prospects for the future.
Increasingly, old women and children are being held responsible for family suffering, not only in Africa, but also in India and Nepal.

Note: A private company has recently bought the rights to the documentary "Saving Africa's Witch Children", and it is no longer available on You Tube.

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