Mary Sudnad, 10, grimaces as her hair is pulled into corn rows by Agnes, 11, but the scalp just above her forehead is bald and blistered. Mary tells her story fast, in staccato, staring fixedly at the ground.
‘My youngest brother died. The pastor told my mother it was because I was a witch. Three men came to my house. I didn’t know these men. My mother left the house. Left these men. They beat me.’ She pushes her fists under her chin to show how her father lay, stretched out on his stomach on the floor of their hut, watching. After the beating there was a trip to the church for ‘a deliverance’.
A day later there was a walk in the bush with her mother. They picked poisonous ‘asiri’ berries that were made into a draught and forced down Mary’s throat. If that didn’t kill her, her mother warned her, then it would be a barbed-wire hanging. Finally her mother threw boiling water and caustic soda over her head and body, and her father dumped his screaming daughter in a field. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she stayed near the house for a long time before finally slinking off into the bush. Mary was seven. She says she still doesn’t feel safe. She says: ‘My mother doesn’t love me.’ And, finally, a tear streaks down her beautiful face.
Gerry was picked out by a ‘prophetess’ at a prayer night and named as a witch. His mother cursed him, his father siphoned petrol from his motorbike tank and spat it over his eight-year-old face. Gerry’s facial blistering is as visible as the trauma in his dull eyes. He asks every adult he sees if they will take him home to his parents: ‘It’s not them, it’s the prophetess, I am scared of her.’
Nwaeka is about 16. She sits by herself in the mud, her eyes rolling, scratching at her stick-thin arms. The other children are surprisingly patient with her. The wound on her head where a nail was driven in looks to be healing well. Nine- year-old Etido had nails, too, five of them across the crown of his downy head. Its hard to tell what damage has been done. Udo, now 12, was beaten and abandoned by his mother. He nearly lost his arm after villagers, finding him foraging for food by the roadside, saw him as a witch and hacked at him with machetes.
Magrose is seven. Her mother dug a pit in the wood and tried to bury her alive. Michael was found by a farmer clearing a ditch, starving and unable to stand on legs that had been flogged raw.
Ekemini Abia has the look of someone in a deep state of shock. Both ankles are circled with gruesome wounds and she moves at a painful hobble. Named as a witch, her father and elders from the church tied her to a tree, the rope cutting her to the bone, and left the 13-year-old there alone for more than a week.
If you thought witch-hunts were a thing of the past, think again. These shocking stories are the fruits of so-called evangelical Christians in Africa. And these are the ones that survived. Many have been killed. Hundreds if not thousands of young Nigerian children have been branded witches, then either attacked or abandoned by their families. Worse, some of the churches charge money for this ‘service.’
He estimates around 5,000 children have been abandoned in this area since 1998 and says many bodies have turned up in the rivers or in the forest. Many more are never found. ‘The more children the pastor declares witches, the more famous he gets and the more money he can make,’ he says. ‘The parents are asked for so much money that they will pay in installments or perhaps sell their property. This is not what churches should be doing.’
Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people’s memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.
Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.
This is what the Christian cherry-pickers ignore when they say the bible is the “word of God.” And sadistic and greedy Nigerian religious leaders following passages from Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Galatians to the letter are foisting this bloodthirsty dogma onto superstitious families too stupid to know better.
It is hard to find people to speak out against the brutality. Chief Victor Ikot is one. He not only speaks out against the ‘tinpot’ churches, but has also done the unthinkable and taken in a witch to his own home. The chief’s niece, Mbet, was declared a witch when she was eight. Her mother, Ekaete, made her drink olive oil, then poison berries, then invited local men to beat her with sticks. The pastor padlocked her to a tree but unlocked her when her mother could not find the money for a deliverance. Mbet fled. Mbet, now 11, says she has not seen the woman since, adding: ‘My mother is a wicked mother.’
The Observer tracked down Mbet’s mother to her roadside clothing stall where she nervously fiddled with her mobile phone and told us how her daughter had given her what sounded very much like all the symptoms of malaria. ‘I had internal heat,’ she says, indicating her stomach. ‘It was my daughter who had caused this, she drew all the water from my body. I could do nothing. She was stubborn, very stubborn.’ And if her daughter had died in the bush? She shrugged: ‘That is God’s will. It is in God’s hands.’
Chief Victor has no time for his sister-in-law. ‘Nowadays when a child becomes stubborn, then everyone calls them witches. But it is usually from the age of 10 down, I have never seen anyone try to throw a macho adult into the street. This child becomes a nuisance, so they give a dog a bad name and they can hang it.
‘It is alarming because no household is untouched. But it is the greed of the pastors, driving around in Mercedes, that makes them choose the vulnerable.’
In a nearby village The Observer came across five-year-old twins, Itohowo and Kufre. They are still hanging around close to their mother’s shack, but are obviously malnourished and in filthy rags. Approaching the boys brings a crowd of villagers who stand around and shout: ‘Take them away from us, they are witches.’ ‘Take them away before they kill us all.’ ‘Witches’.
The woman who gave birth to these sorry scraps of humanity stands slightly apart from the crowd, arms crossed. Iambong Etim Otoyo has no intention of taking any responsibility for her sons. ‘They are witches,’ she says firmly and walks away.