Africa: the emotions aroused by the subject of witchcraft.
In our series of letters from African writers, Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani recounts the emotions aroused by the subject of witchcraft.
Hell was unleashed when the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, announced last month that it would hold a conference on "witchcraft" on its campus in the southeast.
Some staff and students organized demonstrations demanding the cancellation of the two-day event.
Posters have appeared around the university campus and online, with angry messages such as: "Witches and wizards, no vacation" and "Don't pollute our environment".
The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), an influential group representing members of the clergy, called on Christians to pray against the event.
"We have had enough ungodly activities in this country," said Godwin Madu, an NFP official. "We will not hand over [the state] to witches."
Each ethnic group in Nigeria has a name for the women and men who are believed to collaborate openly or secretly with the dark forces to cause harm to others.
The English words "witch" and "sorcerer" are insufficient to convey the depths of evil culturally associated with these people - their "manipulations" are often accused of various ailments, from illness to infertility, to poverty and failure.
Belief and repugnance towards witchcraft is so entrenched that a section of the Nigerian penal code, originally introduced under British colonial rule, still prohibits its practice and is punishable by imprisonment.
Although convictions are not common, the media regularly feature stories of people described as witches and brutalized or lynched.
Rights groups condemn the murders, claiming that superstitious beliefs lead to the loss of innocent lives, often those of women and children.
It was not the first time that a witchcraft-related event had caused fury in Nigeria.
Beliefs about witches in Nigeria:
- Magical powers to fly at night and travel far
- Transform humans into animals, birds, reptiles and insects
- Cause sudden death, illness and impotence
- Cause high winds, drought and other disasters
- In the Yoruba ethnic group considered a female art; power comes from Esu, the god of deception
- In the Hausa ethnic group, known as Maya, the soul-eating man who can possess people's souls
Source: Journal of International Women's Studies
In the early 1990s, Benin City in southern Edo State was touted as the venue for a world witch conference.
Nearly 10 witches were expected from around the world. Many Nigerians were disturbed by the news.
The drama that followed is still told from pulpits across the country. I have heard it over and over again, from Christians and even people who do not go to church.
"God doesn't need to waste his time"
The late Benson Idahosa, a popular preacher who is considered the father of the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria, called national television to have the witch conference canceled.
"Even God cannot stop it," replied one of the organizers.
"He's right," replied Idahosa, "Because God doesn't need to waste time when I'm here. I can handle this. "
The conference was finally canceled. Idahosa has publicly jubilated that international witches were unable to meet in Benin City because they were unable to obtain Nigerian visas.
Apparently, the flamboyant preacher had influenced the then military leader of Nigeria, Ibrahim Babangida, who gave the relevant instructions to Nigerian embassies around the world.
The Nsukka conference must have evoked memories of the famous Idahosa confrontation with witches almost 30 years ago. The demonstrators and the NFP were probably hoping for a similar victory.
But it turned out that there were no identifiable witches to warn. The event was a gathering of intellectuals "to assess belief in witchcraft and its impact on Nigerian society".
“Apart from the rumors about witchcraft, can we intelligently discuss the phenomenon of witchcraft? Commented Egodi Uchendu, professor of history and international studies and one of the conference organizers.
"Can we define its evolving dynamics, in particular with regard to human and societal development? What does belief in witchcraft symbolize for civilians, the military, academics and others? "
However, out of deference to the public outcry and at the request of the Vice-Chancellor, the organizers deleted the word "witchcraft" from all advertising material.
They also changed the theme to "Dimensions of human behavior".
The two-day event then took place. The main speaker had withdrawn due to protests, but the venue was moved to a larger room to accommodate the crowd - many were drawn to the accompanying hullaballoo.
“We didn't change anything at the conference. We just changed the title, ”said Benedict Ijomah, professor of political sociology who attended the conference. "All the papers were the same ... You could just change a sentence and there would be peace. "
The clergy of local churches were also present at the conference. The opening prayer was led by a Catholic priest, the debates were moderated by an Anglican priest, and music was provided by a choir from the university chapel.
"There was nothing wrong," said Damian Apata, a lecturer in the department of English and literary studies.
But prayer alone will not end the belief in witchcraft.
It persisted "even when people pray against witches and wizards," said Professor Uchendu.
To combat beliefs, education levels must therefore improve so that, according to the professor, a "pro-positive development mindset" emerges in Nigeria.