For children in Liberia, bad behaviour or family misfortune can result in being branded a witch. And the number of accusations - followed by abuse, in the name of deliverance - is on the rise.
In Montserrado County, the witches come out on Wednesdays. They come – some more willingly than others – from all across the county, indeed from every corner of Liberia, to Pastor John Carr’s church, the Healing Temple of Christ.
Outside the narrow tin-roofed building, aid agencies’ pickups race each other along shoddy roads. Their drivers dodge men on motorbikes, girls hawking watermelons and the torrents of brown water unleashed by the constant downpour.
Inside, villagers take their places on a handful of pews or the couple of dozen plastic chairs. When newcomers arrive, inquiring eyes appraise them. Are they here to confess?
As the pastor told me one recent Wednesday, this is a deliverance ministry, one of several in Liberia (just up the road a sign advertises another, the Victory of Fire Healing and Deliverance Ministry). Every month or so, a “witch” will be brought here by their parents, ready to be delivered from evil.
The child stands beside the pastor at the front, facing the entire congregation. Then the questioning begins. “First of all, we ask their parents ‘what is happening?’” said the pastor, explaining that the “witches” are often 12 or 13: sometimes older, sometimes even younger. “Then we will ask them ‘what are you doing? What are you saying?’”
Some are ready to talk right away; others protest their innocence. Either way, any member of the congregation is free to take part in the probing: they may ask the child whatever they wish. There is no levity about the occasion; the accusations are a grave matter. Asked that day if they believed in witches, more than half the congregation raised their hands. “Yes, yes!” some of them chorused.
One time, a mother brought her 17-year-old daughter here, saying she had been a witch since the age of five. Her daughter’s special powers, she said, were to blame for her divorce.
Another time, a child confessed that she had been initiated into a witchcraft society by her grandmother. Together, she said, they drank blood in the “dark world”.
Once the questions are exhausted, the congregation joins the pastor to pray for the child. Of course, he acknowledged, the experience can make the children “nervous – they can be afraid”. Still, he said, it was worth it. “They don’t want to die in their sin. That’s the reason they confess their sin even though they are children… Every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess when they hear the word of God.”
From Salem to 'sassywood'
The notorious witch trials that convulsed Salem in the late 17th century conformed to a stereotype that was well-established even then: the majority of those who were hanged were women, often elderly. The victims – to begin with, Betty Parris, 9, and Abigail Williams, 11, both struck down by “fits” – were children.
These days, the accused are young as well as old. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of children live on the streets after being abandoned by their parents - often because of accusations of witchcraft. In Nigeria, tens of thousands have been labelled as witches, only to be cast out by their families and left to be abused. A 2010 report by Unicef concluded that in several central African countries there is “a growing and recent phenomenon in urban areas of witchcraft accusations against children and adolescents”.
In a small number of cases, such beliefs have spread to Britain. Probably the most high profile instance was the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000, who died after prolonged abuse by guardians who believed she was possessed by spirits. Last year, the Metropolitan Police dealt with 73 reported instances of child abuse linked to witchcraft - a sharp increase from just nine instances in 2011. In some cases, children were being ill-treated here; in others, they were sent for deliverance ceremonies in Africa.
In Liberia, belief in witchcraft is far less unusual: according to Lovely Sie, advocacy and child protection manager at Save The Children in Liberia, the branding of children as witches has become “commonplace”. The taboos that surround the subject mean it is under-reported to authorities: Between 2012 and 2015, the United Nations recorded cases where at least 214 people were accused of witchcraft, but the true figure is likely to be far higher.
As recently as 2008, the Liberian Ministry of Internal Affairs employed traditional practitioners of sassywood, a form of trial by ordeal used to extract confessions from suspected witches that can include placing red-hot metal on their skin.
Sassywood and witch doctors are now banned. Today, the ministry encourages Liberians accused of witchcraft to sue for the damage to their reputations. Yet “traditional doctors” and pastors dealing in deliverance continue to thrive.
“When I was growing up, you would hear of it mostly in rural communities,” said Lovely Sie of Save The Children. “But in contemporary Liberia, you hear of witchcraft everywhere. It is a growing problem.”
Some, like John Carr, merely offer prayers for deliverance. Others subject the suspected witches to “cleansing” rituals: they can be forced to retrieve a pebble from a pot of hot oil or to have chilli pepper rubbed into their orifices. According to Marcel Akpovo, chief of human rights and protection for the United Nations mission in Liberia, who recently wrote a report on witchcraft accusations, “what we saw in many cases may amount to torture”.
Tamba Taylor still bears the scars. The long, deep marks on the 11-year-old’s wrists and arms are only the most visible signs of the months of torment he suffered after he was labelled a witch. As he spoke about the treatment he endured, sitting in a corner of the Monrovian mechanics’ yard where his father, Titus, works, he repeatedly scraped his nails. When his father spoke, he put his head down, eventually resting it on his arm.
As teenagers ferried parts across the dirt to a dozen smashed up cars behind him, Mr Taylor told how his son had been abused for six months in the church where he took him when he suspected him of being a witch.
Tamba took up the story, explaining that he was fed only a small portion of rice a day and slept on the floor. When he refused to confess, he was threatened with molten plastic or a razor blade. “There was a day when they tied my hands and lit a fire outside the church and tried to put my hands in the fire,” he said.
Mr Taylor knew his son was suffering but could not easily remove him from the church: his landlord was too afraid to let Tamba in her house. If they moved elsewhere, he said, the stigma would surely follow. One day, though, he saw people at the church rubbing chilli into his son’s eyes, and finally decided he must do something.
When I meet him seven months later, Tamba was sleeping in the mechanics’ yard, choosing a different car for a bed each night. Though Mr Taylor agreed the church had gone about it the wrong way, he still believed Tamba needed to be “delivered”: He was saving up money to buy olive oil for a more traditional ceremony.
By September, he said he hoped that Tamba might even return to school: “That’s my prayer. But it depends on my child – whether he is willing for the process to happen. It might take a longer time.”
Why children become scapegoats
There are many reasons a child might be called a witch. Sometimes, it is because he or she is born with a disability or wets the bed. Often, though, they are blamed for some misfortune that befalls their family: a father who loses his job, a relative who suffers an untimely death.
In Liberia, there is plenty of misfortune to go around. Founded in 1822 as a haven for freed slaves, it has often proven anything but. Up to 250,000 Liberians are thought to have died during the civil wars at the end of the last century; thousands were mutilated or raped. The former president, Charles Taylor, who is now imprisoned in a British jail, led child soldiers into battle.
Then came Ebola. The disease killed more than 4,000 Liberians, and some in the country attributed the outbreak to witchcraft. Will Pooley, the British nurse who caught the disease while working in a hospital in neighbouring Sierra Leone, has said even some of his colleagues shared this belief. “All the people I worked with, educated people with degrees, believed in witchcraft,” he said. “Some thought Ebola was caused by supernatural forces.”
The war, and the threat from Ebola, is over, but the effects are still being felt. Children are often brought up by distant relatives; poverty and unemployment are common. According to a 2008 study by members of the American Medical Association, 44 percent of adults display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Not that children are only on the hook for death or disease; they can also be blamed for relatively trivial occurrences. Tamba was first implicated when belongings began to go missing at his school and at home. His family called in a witch doctor. “The witch doctor told us that the whole place was enclosed by the spiritual world,” said Tamba’s father. “The demon had taken possession of the place.”
In another instance, a pastor labelled a teenage girl a witch after her mother struggled to find a new boyfriend. When the girl would not confess, her mother began whipping her.
An hour’s drive from the yard where Tamba worked, Confidence Dweh, who is nine, lives with her much older cousin, Eleanor Bondo, who already looks after 14 children, including five of her own. Confidence was sent by her mother to live there so she could be closer to school.
Soon after she arrived, though, Mrs Bondo’s three-month-old baby fell ill. Mrs Bondo summoned a witch doctor, who picked out Confidence and another of the children. “It made me feel bad,” said Confidence. “They used to call me ‘witch’.”
A narrow two-storey building in central Monrovia makes up the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In the car park, a hawker stood beneath a parasol, selling mobile phone vouchers. Inside, Ishmael Walker, liaison for culture and custom, sat behind a desk beside a typewriter and a large map of Liberia. He pointed towards a sign on his office wall: STOP STOP STOP, it began.
Mr Walker is responsible for putting an end to all manner of what he terms “negative cultural practices”. The sign went on to list some of these: child labour, beating your wife, trial by ordeal - and sassywood.
“Way back there were some people here that used to investigate witchcraft,” said Mr Walker, referring to the ministry itself. “We used our traditional method.
“In those days, if you used to come to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, this sassywood was hot water, needle, put it on the fire, put it on your foot. It would be very, very hot and they would put it there.”
Now, he said, “we don’t do it anymore – the section that was here for that has been closed. These are traditional practices that are harmful and we are trying to call it out.”
Even so, he admitted, “we hear plenty of it”. About once a week, he said, someone still comes to the ministry hoping to accuse a suspect. “We give them government information that we don’t investigate witchcraft and you don’t accuse anyone of being a witch."
To illustrate his point, he explained that his ministry keeps a register of more than 100 traditional doctors or “herbalists”. They are not allowed to deal in deliverance or eliciting confessions, but they can still use herbal remedies to treat various non-spiritual ailments, such as back pain or malaria.
If any of these doctors were found to be investigating witchcraft, he said, they would be struck off. “Maybe we confiscate your licence, tell you not to practise for one or two years. Depending on the gravity, we tell you ‘don’t practise anymore’.”
He was asked how many licences had been confiscated. “So many licences. So many licences we have taken from people.”
Yet, sitting beside him, David Free, a senior cultural inspector here for 18 years, did not seem so sure. Asked how many licences he has confiscated, he said he had never “had any case like that”.
Not one in 18 years? “Not yet.”
To lesser or greater extents, the government itself, the United Nations and charities are working to prevent children being accused, and to help those who have been. After Save The Children heard about Tamba’s circumstances, they stepped in: he now lives with his aunt, has been given psychological and medical support and should return to school this year.
Yet, according to Lovely Sie, the Save the Children worker, “a lot of people are not even aware of the laws”. “You can have all the laws but if people do not change their perceptions and their attitudes, the laws are not going to make any difference.”
For now, the stigma endures. Mrs Bondo’s baby recovered and a year has now passed since Confidence was “healed” by a traditional doctor in a ceremony that cost Mrs Bondo two weeks’ wages, yet the family’s reputation remains tarnished.
“It causes a lot of confusion and hatred among families,” she said. “People look at me as being associated with children who are witches.” She explained that her business had suffered as customers feared being linked to her family; Confidence and her nephew, who was also accused, were still not allowed into their friends’ houses. “Other children refer to them as witches, laugh at them and make fun of them.”
As her cousin spoke, Confidence kept her head down. She looked at the floor or at a chair, anywhere but at another pair of inquiring eyes. When it was her turn to talk, she first whispered her answers to an interpreter, then dried up entirely. Shame still gripped her, its power greater than any curse.