Can these Lively Children Be Witches?

THISDAY Newspaper- Roland Ogbonnaya

Mr. Victor Ekpuk is a native of Ikot Afagha Idung Ukpa, a small village in Eket, Akwa Ibom State where the Child Rights And Rehabilitation Network Centre (CRARN), which caters for the abandoned and rescued children, is situated. As a result of this so-called "Child Witch" phenomenon, his village has, of recent, been the focus of world media a radio address to the State, Akpabio announced, to the distress of many, plans to put the police on surveillance around the CRARN compound.

"Two days later armed men invaded Ikot Afagha village and shattered its peace. They shot firearms in front of Sam Itauma's residence and at the CRARN Centre where the children reside. They left the residents, particularly the already traumatised children, in shock. We recall that in the wake of the first international media exposé of the so-called "child witch" phenomenon by the BBC, suspected assassins went to CRARN in search of Itauma. In the process, they beat up some of the children and made away with his computer and digital camera.

"Judging by the ongoing spate of kidnappings and assassinations in Akwa Ibom today, I fear for the lives of Itauma of CRARN and Gary Foxcroft of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a partner non-governmental organisation. As I write, Itauma has gone into hiding. And in his absence, gloom hangs over the CRARN Centre. The children who call him "Uncle Sam" are fearful of their fate if the current situation worsens and the Centre, their only hope for their protection from the dangers of life on the streets, is forced to close.

Ekpuk said "On my last visit home, in April 2010, I conducted an art workshop with the children at CRARN. I noticed that the goodwill of donors have been put to good use. For instance, there is a hostel for girls built with funds from UNICEF and Zenith Bank, another hostel donated by Bristol Helicopters was under construction, and more land has been acquired around the centre to expand and provide vocational training and accommodation for increasing number of rescued children.

"There is a school and a few volunteer teachers, administrators and a counselor. The children, in spite of the physical and emotional scars inflicted on them looked healthy and cheerful, though most told me of their desire to go back home. The counselor on the staff helps to counsel parents and reunite some of them with their children. With the help donors inside and outside Nigeria, the children are getting education, food, shelter and medical care," Ekpuk stated in the document.

Three weeks ago, Dr. Suomi Sakai, Nigeria's UNICEF Representative inaugurated a new building donated by the organisation in collaboration with Zenith Bank Plc. Speaking at the occasion, Sakai described CRARN as the embodiment of what a handful of ordinary people with passion and compassion, courage and determination can achieve for their community. She said the centre has not only saved and sheltered hundreds of children; they have brought the plight of the children to UNICEF attention. Sakai said when the local, state and national governments learned about these young ones, they were quick to lend their weight and resources to restore their rights to protection and care. The governor of Akwa Ibom State, she stated introduced legislation to protect these children within months of his first visit here.

"And that's because seeing is believing. When we come here, whom do we see? We see children, just kids whose rights it is to live, to be cared for and to be educated and to be heard, like my children and your children. They are great dancers too. But believing can be seeing too. These children depend on the religious and cultural leaders to protect them as well, because in hard times, desperate times, its not difficult for faith to turn to fear and for fiction to turn to fact.

"As did for these children. And so when a family or a community finds itself unable or unwilling to care for their children, others have to step in. It's their duty, and the others are us. Look who we are: the citizens, the government, the church, the cultural industry, the private sector and the international community. We are the duty bearers when it comes to restoring these children's rights to protection and care, education and possibility," the UNICEF representative said.

Speaking on behalf of the children at the centre, ten year old Felix Usuyak said it's a well established fact that for the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children branded as witches and wizards and are abandoned totally to their fate by their parents and guidance. Usuyak said "we are extremely happy to note that these children, who were constantly tortured, enslaved in spiritual homes, starved, raped and also undergo several forms of abuse are today provided with a well furnished accommodation by the UNICEF and Zenith Bank Plc. We say thank you for caring for us."

The children expressed their appreciation to Governor Godswill Akpabio for enacting the Child's Rights Law, personally visiting here last year, the financial support and protection. They further requested that government and UNICEF and other stakeholders should help in sensitising the parents and caregivers and the communities on the effect and repercussion on child stigmatisation as witches. The children urged government to partner with CRARN to enable it reconcile the children back to their parents and guidance as well as help to bridge the gap between CRARN and Akwa Ibom state government.

In a report titled "Children Accused of Witchcraft" an anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa by Aleksandra Cimpric, UNICEF, it said that children accused of witchcraft are subject to physiological and physical violence, first by family members and their circle of friends, then by church pastors or traditional healers. The report said once accused of witchcraft, children are stigmatised and discriminated for life, adding that increasingly vulnerable and caught in a cycle of accusation, they risk yet further accusations of witchcraft. Children accused of witchcraft, according to the report maybe killed, although more often they are abandoned by their parents and live on the street.

"A large number of street children have been accused of witch craft within the family circle. Theses children are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and abuse by authorities. In order to survive, and to escape appalling living conditions, they use drugs and alcohol. Often victims of sexual exploitation, they are at increased risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection.

"Belief in witchcraft is widespread across sub-Saharan African countries. It was previously believed that these beliefs and socio-cultural practices would disappear over time, but the current situation indicates the contrary. Far from fading away, these social and cultural representations have been maintained and transformed in order to adapt to contemporary contexts. The notion of witchcraft is so flexible and elastic that it is able to integrate into all areas of life, including the most modern.

"For this reason, contemporary witchcraft can no longer be explained in terms of African tradition. Without wishing to ignore the history and culture of witchcraft, the current forms of belief are a product of an invented tradition or perhaps a reinvented tradition. Furthermore, the notion of witchcraft today covers a multitude of clearly distinct occult phenomena that should be understood in their specific context.

"The notion of witchcraft, despite its suggestion of multiple abilities, can perhaps be defined, in a larger majority of African countries, as the ability to harm someone through the use of mystical power. Consequently, the sorcerer or witch embodies this wicked persona, driven to commit evil deeds under the influence of the force of witchcraft. Accusations are still the most visible manifestations of belief in witchcraft. Without denying this belief, the violent nature of accusations deserves greater attention from governments and local and international non-governmental organisations. Whereas in the past, elderly people, particularly women, were accused, these days the number of children accused of witchcraft is increasing.

"The frequent accusations are the direct consequences of a generalised climate of spiritual insecurity that is created notably through spreading the idea of ever-present danger, closely linked with that of witchcraft as a source of all evil. The accusations form part of a general ant-witch movement found within families, churches, as well as state institutions.

It is as a result of this that Ekpuk believe that all people of good conscience in the media, governments and human rights groups must intercede and encourage help the children. He said the Governor had said on CNN that he has five children; if he were to see the vulnerable children at CRARN Centre as his own, he should surely realise that they need his protection not his wrath. As the father of the State, he said Akpabio must do everything within his powers to ameliorate the lives of children in whose hands lie Akwa Ibom State's future.


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