Last week American witches quibbled over their media image after police suggested that a Halloween grave digging in Hillsboro, N.H., might have been the work of someone who believed in witchcraft. Covens of 21st century out-and-proud followers of Wicca complained about the remark, explaining that grave robbing isn't part of their positive healing tradition. To which I say, hex them stereotypes!
But type "witch" into Google News at any time other than Halloween and the word doesn't conjure up a nice woman of pagan persuasion, but the hapless victim of community paranoia. Man, woman or child, the accused share few commonalities except their vulnerability. Two weeks ago Reuters reported that an Egyptian pharmacist living in northern Saudi Arabia had been executed in Riyadh for practicing "witchcraft." The accusations against him involved adultery and putting a Quran in a bathroom. The same week the Sowetan covered the story of a pastor whose village accused him of witchcraft after 14 homes burned down in the village. In retaliation, villagers "petro-bombed" two houses belonging to the pastor.
These tales of modern-day witch hunts beg the question: How far as a species must we go before we emerge from the Dark Ages? They don't, however, bring us any closer to understanding the rationale for the irrational. But today's article in the New York Times about the growing accusations of witchcraft against children in Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic did something profoundly unsettling -- it offered a glimpse into the logic of the unthinkable.
The story spotlights the lives of children in Angola -- ages 6 to 18 -- who, accused of being witches by their families, have sought protection in a tiny community shelter for boys accused of witchcraft. In many cases a family member died or became sick and subsequently the child was accused of causing the sickness or death. The children's experiences are harrowing, all the more so because they are often carried out by family members. One boy was hung upside down and beaten by his family. In an attempt to drive out evil visions, a mother blinded her 14-year-old daughter with bleach. A father injected his 12-year-old son with battery acid after suspecting the boy was a witch.
But as the article makes clear, the rising witch hunt against the most vulnerable members of society follows a horrible logic. Citing child advocates' estimates that in Kinshasa, several thousand kids who were accused of witchcraft now live on the streets, the article suggests that witchcraft has become an excuse for persecuting children who cannot be fed after decades of civil violence. As the European witch hunts indirectly blamed women for crop failures and bad weather, the current scapegoating of African children seems to apportion blame for poverty and instability. "The witches situation started when fathers became unable to care for the children," National Institute for the Child's Ana Silva told the Times. "So they started seeking any justification to expel them from the family."
Along with the economic motivation for finding witches in their midst is the prevailing fear that evil is everywhere and may come in any guise -- even the face of your favorite child. In a society that tends to view children as innocents, it's hard to understand how any community could persecute them in such an egregious, overt, paranoid way. (It's not as if we're immune to regarding the powerless as our persecutor -- the Minuteman fixation on immigrants springs to mind, but children occupy a special category.) At the end of the article, Domingos, an 18-year-old who fled his home when he was 12 after being forced to confess to killing his father via witchcraft, listens as his mother (who evidently still loves him) confesses that she suspects the accusations of witchcraft-related murder are true. When the boy emotionally disowns her, she appears nonplussed, then later tells the Times: "I just don't know why Domingos got so angry."