In This Article Children and Witchcraft in the Contemporary World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Studies in Europe
  • Psychological Studies
  • Transnationalism of Beliefs

Childhood Studies Children and Witchcraft in the Contemporary World
by
Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0065

Introduction

In several countries throughout the world, the belief in witchcraft is widespread. Witchcraft (or sorcery) refers to the belief that some people, generally adults, are capable of harming others through mystical techniques. Furthermore, it provides explanations not only for misfortune, illness, and death but also for accumulation of wealth and power. Accusations are still the most visible manifestations of this belief and form a part of a general anti-witch movement found within families, churches, and sometimes even state institutions. Writings from the early 20th century related to Latin America and Africa offer testimony that children have been linked to spirits or ancestors, sometimes called “divine children’ or “ancestor-children,” and feared and worshiped as such, thus more rarely defined as “witch-children.” Nevertheless, these more traditional beliefs have to be distinguished from more contemporary accusations of children, which are to be analyzed, according to anthropologists, as a new phenomenon related to changes which African cities are currently undergoing. In sub-Saharan Africa, witchcraft was until recently linked to elderly persons, especially women. Nowadays, in some countries, children have become a central figure of “new style” witchcraft. This phenomenon has been observed in urban areas of Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Angola, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone since the 1990s. Orphans, children with disabilities or illnesses, or those showing unusual behavior are accused of causing harm by mystical means. As such, they are stigmatized, discriminated, abandoned, mistreated, tortured, and even killed. Anthropologists are unanimous in recognizing the complexity of economic, politic, and social factors that contribute to these accusations. In recent years, violence related to child accusations has become a concern for various stakeholders and defenders of human and children rights.

General Overviews

Few of the numerous sociological and anthropological studies of witchcraft written since the beginning of the 20th century have mentioned children. They were usually defined as less harmful, as Evans-Pritchard 1976 indicates, because their witchcraft was too weak to operate. The anthropological studies on children accused of witchcraft were and are still limited. The majority of the anthropological texts on this topic were published after 2000 and mainly in the African context. De Boeck 2000 presents the author’s earliest findings on the recent and expanding problem of children accused of witchcraft as a consequence of multiple crises in Democratic Republic of Congo. La Fontaine 2009 offers an overview of child accusations through anthropological literature and explanations by emphasizing the problem of children accused of witchcraft in the African diaspora in London as well as the involvement of Pentecostal churches. It is possible that similar representations and interpretations of child witchcraft accusations exist also in other parts of the world but are, unfortunately, underreported. In Latin America, for example, Santos-Granero 2004 argues that current accusations of children in Peru represent answers to some modern changes. Moreover, various NGO and UN reports (see Human Rights Perspective) have been published in recent years exploring the phenomenon of “child-witches.” The anthropological study Cimpric 2010 (UNICEF) offers an overview not only of recent accusations of children in sub-Saharan Africa but also cases of “badly born” children, twins and albinos. It presents current witchcraft beliefs, reasons for child accusations, and the consequences for children accused of witchcraft. However, these contemporary accusations of children have to be distinguished, at least to some extent, from those referring to “divine children” or “ancestor children,” such as those presented in Zempléni and Rabain 1965 or more recently Bonnet 1994 on cases in West Africa, or newborns which are “badly born,” observed in Sargent 1988 among Bariba in Benin. These representations are based on more ancient practices, related either to their connection to spirits or ancestors or to the circumstances of the delivery or congenital deformities, including twinning.

  • Bonnet, Doris. “L’éternel retour ou le destin singulier de l’enfant.” L’Homme 131 (1994): 93–110.

    E-mail Citation »

    Anthropological analysis of different interpretations related to “child ancestor,” “divine child,” “reborn child” or “child spirit” among populations of West Africa. Article has not been translated into English.

  • Cimpric, Aleksandra. Children Accused of Witchcraft: An Anthropological Study of Contemporary Practices in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: United Nations Children’s Fund, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study offers a concise and general discussion of current witchcraft beliefs and the phenomenon of children accused of witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa. Presents some examples from Central African Republic.

  • De Boeck, Filip. “Le ‘deuxième monde’ et les ‘enfants sorciers’ en République Démocratique du Congo.” Politique Africaine 80 (2000): 32–57.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most quoted articles about current witchcraft accusations against children in Democratic Republic of Congo, presenting the importance of a “second/invisible world.” Available only in French.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1932, Evans-Pritchard’s monograph on Zande witchcraft remains one of the most influential and also criticized works on the witchcraft phenomenon in Africa. Distinguishing between witchcraft and sorcery, he argues that the Zande belief system is completely logical and coherent.

  • La Fontaine, Jean. “Child Witches in London: Tradition and Change in Religious Practice and Belief.” In The Devil’s Children: From Spirit Possession to Witchcraft: New Allegations That Affect Children. Edited by Jean La Fontaine, 117–128. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    La Fontaine presents through anthropological texts the phenomenon of children accused of witchcraft by emphasizing the transnationalism of witchcraft beliefs and those related to children, which are continually increasing in the African diaspora in London.

  • Santos-Granero, Fernando. “The Enemy Within: Child Sorcery, Revolution, and the Evils of Modernization in Eastern Peru.” In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright, 272–305. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Santos-Granero explores the socio-anthropological aspect of children sorcerers by analyzing three past and three present cases of children accused of witchcraft. He argues that recent accusations are a form of social control, occurring as a response to modern changes in crisis context.

  • Sargent, Carolyn F. “Born to Die: Witchcraft and Infanticide in Bariba Culture.” Ethnology 27.1 (1988): 79–95.

    DOI: 10.2307/3773562E-mail Citation »

    Sargent presents an assessment of ideology with regard to a belief in babies accused of witchcraft and a practice of infanticide toward child witches among rural and urban Bariba from Benin. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Zempléni, András, and Jacqueline Rabain. “L’enfant nit ku bon: Un tableau psychopathologique traditionnel chez les Wolof et Lebou du Sénégal.” Psychopathologie africaine 1.3 (1965): 329–441.

    E-mail Citation »

    Zempléni and Rabain offer reflections on different representations of the so-called nit ku bon child, taken either as ancestral spirit (child ancestor) or reincarnated ancestor. Only in French.

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