On the screen was a thin girl, sitting alone on the side of a road in a Nigerian town. From a distance she might not grasp more than a single glance, but when the car stopped and the camera approached her, detachment was evident in her eyes. The crew discovered that she was victimized in a way I didn’t know was possible: She was accused of being a witch and thrown out of her home.
The experience of that girl and 15,000 other children in the Niger Delta was the subject of a lecture, “Female Violence in South Africa: Witch Burnings.” Led by Dr. Robert Peacock from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, the lecture was part of Social Justice Week, a multi-day event sponsored by the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice and the Criminal Justice Society. After a brief introduction to the topic, we watched part of a documentary, Dispatches: Return to Africa’s Witch Children.
Admittedly, I had expected to see violence endured by teenagers or young adults, but so many of the children in the film were hardly old enough to speak fluently. Their bodies were scarred from burns that doctors and nurses won’t treat because the patients are labeled witches. It was great to see non-profits such as Safe Child Africa (formerly Stepping Stones Nigeria) organizing to offer treatment as well as schooling to children abandoned due the stigma of the accusation. It was a relief to learn that international outrage over witch burnings and killings pushed officials to enforce Nigeria’s Child’s Rights Act. But, that does not erase the images. It wasn’t just the scars. Every child had the same look in their eyes that I noticed in the girl sitting on the roadside.
As we learned through a discussion, the systematic use of witchcraft accusations is really a manipulation of beliefs. Traditional African religions do include witches, good and bad. But, in the face of economic hardship and the pursuit of political power, that belief was manipulated so that all witches represent evil in the world. A Ghanaian woman in the audience explained how she has seen it firsthand. Once the tradition of beauty and duality is hijacked, what is left is the belief that African traditions are evil. She explained that “by killing all of these children, by killing these so-called witches, we’re really trying to kill ourselves.”
The next day, Dr. Peacock and Matthew Cronje, also from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, visited my class, “Women: Local/Global Connections,” where we discussed corrective rape and issues of sexuality and gender identity in South Africa. We explained some of the struggles we face in the United States, where some progress has been made for the rights of LGBT communities while at the same time we are experiencing a backlash against them. Dr. Peacock and Cronje, though, helped us to contemplate the efficacy of hate crimes legislation in South Africa, something that is still absent there (and in some states of this nation).
In addition to the lecture on witch burnings, Dr. Peacock, Matthew Cronje (another lecturer from South Africa), faculty from my department, and State Representative Brian Sims led events on the legacies of racism, hate crimes against LGBT communities, and the African philosophy of Ubuntu and restorative justice. I changed my work schedule and stayed up late preparing a presentation on my Capstone Project to ensure I could attend each one and though that made for a crazy week, it was rewarding. Social Justice Week was one of the most enriching weeks I’ve had at Arcadia (so far).