Witch Children film causes tension in Nigerian community

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An award-winning documentary co-produced by a Dutch filmmaker focuses on the plight of Nigerian children accused of witchcraft. It has brought positive change, but also tension to their community.

"Shocking", "upsetting", "cried all night", "unbearable": the documentary film that won an International Emmy award this week leaves no viewer indifferent.

Killed or tortured
The British documentary Saving Africa's Witch Children, tells the story of thousands of children who are branded as witches by charismatic preachers in Nigeria and then either killed or tortured in horrifying excommunication ceremonies, often by their own parents.

Children like 9-year-old Mary who during a religious ceremony in a Pentecostal church, is identified as a witch by a prophetess. Her parents accuse her of killing her younger sister. They pour hot caustic soda on her head and body and then abandon her in a forest.

The film drew the local authorities' attention to the childrens' plight and it was decided to take measures to end such practises. Dutch filmmaker Joost van der Valk is pleased with the film's positive impact in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State where he and Britain's Mags Gavan shot the film in 2008.

He says, "Now it's no longer allowed to call a child a witch, and  a lot of priests have been arrested as a result of the film. And there were many donations for the local NGO in Nigeria which were used to improve the accommodation for the children in the orphanage."

The award-winning film is not all gloom: children like Mary are rescued and brought to safety in a centre run by a local charity, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), whose president Sam Ikpe-Itauma is featured in the documentary.

Mr Ikpe-Itauma says that as a result of the film, which has not been shown in Nigeria, local authorities introduced free high school education in his state, located in the oil-rich Niger delta region. The local state governor signed Nigeria's Child's Rights Act and the orphanage is thriving.

The attention generated by Saving Africa's Witch Children, however, has not made everybody happy in the community, says Sam Ikpe-Itauma:

"A lot of people in Nigeria feel that we have not presented Nigeria in a good light and have contributed to a negative impression of Nigeria, but we cannot hide the situation, so let's address it."

Mr Ikpe-Itauma's charity has received threats and the children's orphanage has been attacked. He no longer appears in public:

"They are now out to stifle our activities so that we will not campaign against them and they will continue with their nefarious activities in the name of God. I have to be very careful because my life, I must tell you, is under threat."

Watch an excerpt from the film:


Sam Ikpe-Itauma is not prepared to abandon the fight. Only last week, he says, 9-year-old Nwanakwo died in hospital after having been "bathed with acid" by his father.

He wants to make sure that the new legislation that forbids the stigmatisation of children as witches will be enforced and that pastors who were jailed and then released on bail, and that parents who abuse their children will be prosecuted.

The film's producers are planning a follow-up which they hope will highlight positive efforts to protect the rights of children 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 sudden deaths are common and there are few prospects for a better life.

Increasingly, elderly women and children are being targeted and blamed for all the ills of their families, not just in Africa, but also in India and Nepal.

Photo: Twin boys Itohowo and Kufre stand surrounded by angry villagers who believe they are bringing evil to their lives. (Photos courtesy of The Observer/Robin Hammond)

Saving Africa's Witch Children was sold to a private company recently and can no longer be seen on YouTube.