Two Decembers ago, an elderly widow called Zuwana Kampalira went on trial for practising witchcraft. The judge heard evidence that Kampalira had taken a young girl on a magic plane to the village where her grandfather lived. There she pressured the girl to kill her grandfather with a magic hammer. When the girl refused, Kampalira allegedly sought to persuade her to murder her father. The defendant initially denied these charges, but later changed her plea on the advice of the police. The court took a dim view, sentencing her to 30 months imprisonment with hard labour.Nigerian protest against witchcraft persecutions
Women and children march in Nigeria against the persecution of people accused of witchcraft

In a related case, 70-year-old Namalinda Josephy was charged with teaching witchcraft to a group of small children. The court learned that Josephy had the ability to transform herself by night into a black log or a big snake, and that she had done so in the presence of the children. Despite warnings from the police that she should admit the charges to get a more lenient sentence, Josephy denied the allegations. She was also sentenced to 30 months in prison.

In January this year, Tryson Jere, Mabvuto Jere and their wives Nyabanda and Nyachunga were accused of teaching 17 children witchcraft at night, and flying with them in a basket plane to South Africa and “within the local district to play football”. The group were charged with disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, and are now awaiting trial.

These are just three of over 80 case-files compiled by the Association for Secular Humanism (ASH) in Malawi, where dozens of people have been jailed on imaginary evidence for the imaginary crime of “witchcraft”. Most are poor, elderly and from rural communities. ASH has campaigned successfully against efforts to recognise “witchcraft” as a crime. But some magistrates have been pursuing cases regardless, prosecuting people for an offence that isn’t even on the statute book. Others have been imprisoned for “pretending witchcraft”, or the catch-all crime of “disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace”. This despite the fact that Malawian law actually makes it a crime to accuse another person of being a witch.

The stories make heartbreaking reading. But when I speak by phone with George Thindwa, the ASH Executive Director, he sounds upbeat. He’s just received a letter from the office of the State President. “In fact I have it in my hand – I’m just coming from the scanning machine.”

The President’s office has agreed to review the case-files that the ASH had sent, and is “committed to ensuring that Women and the Elderly are not victimised in the manner highlighted”. Thindwa is hopeful that those listed could be free within weeks.

“Most of these cases are very easy,” he tells me. “Most of these people have suffered because they are very, very old and don’t know the basic requirements of the law.

“Once the accusation arises in the village, they are quickly taken to the police. The police charge them wrongly and they are quickly taken to the court. The police normally would have told them that if they plead guilty the case will be considered favourably. Once they plead guilty, the magistrate normally does not review the charges, he simply passes sentence and does not look at the circumstances of the case.”

The whole process can be over in as little as two days. In many cases the local magistrates are themselves witchcraft believers, “so the moment they see somebody accused of being a witch or practising witchcraft ... they will make up their mind even before the case is heard.”

As well as taking up individual cases, Thindwa has issued a public challenge that fans of James Randi may recognise: last year he announced a reward of 50,000 Malawian kwacha (about £200) to anyone who could successfully bewitch him. When no one came forward, Thindwa announced earlier this year that he’d quadrupled the prize. Claimants must inform him in advance what kind of spell they are casting, ideally with physical symptoms that are easy to verify: “For example, swollen stomach, cut off limb, timed sickness, lifting of objects through magic.”

Thindwa says that he has suffered no ill effects so far – but for weeks after the story was published in the local press, he was getting several phone calls a day from curious members of the public convinced it must be a hoax. The renewed publicity has helped raise awareness within Malawi of the ASH’s wider work on witchcraft. While there are still no takers for the challenge, several more people have come forward to put up money for the prize.

When I ask about the reasons behind the rise in witchcraft allegations, Thindwa points to several factors. Witchcraft beliefs have long existed within traditional culture, he says, but in recent years the explosive rise of Pentecostal and Revivalist churches has pushed the idea much more to the fore.

Pentecostalists tend to place a strong emphasis on solving people’s problems through prayer and faith healing, an idea which in turn rests on the notion that ill-health and bad luck can have an underlying spiritual cause. The belief in witchcraft has thus become intertwined with Christianity, and fuelled by politicians and community leaders keen to show their religious credentials by publicly espousing such ideas.

Access to healthcare is another factor. Where conventional medicine is unavailable, people are more likely to turn to the churches and traditional healers for alternative explanations and treatments. Many of the cases compiled by the ASH had begun with an unexplained death or illness. In one trial that was still ongoing, two witnesses testified to being advised by a healer that their health problems were caused by witchcraft.George Thindwa
Malawi's George Thindwa (left) with a village leader in Salima, after securing the release of three elderly women accused of witchcraft

A further factor, Thindwa tells me, is “the impact of the Nigerian film industry”. Across Malawi “there are these little halls where people can go and see films. Most of the videos being shown ... are coming from Nigeria and almost half are about witchcraft ... People get moved and taken by those things ... Those films have actually portrayed witchcraft as real.”

There is a striking similarity, George says, between the supernatural activities portrayed in the Nigerian films and the witchcraft accusations that ended up being made in court – especially those made by impressionable children.

I tracked down one such video online – an excerpt from Pastor Helen Ukpabio’s End Of The Wicked.

The film depicts children being summoned from their homes while sleeping and flown to the witchcraft realm for initiation. After a pep talk from a man on a throne clad in white face paint (left), they are handed over to a junior attendant.

“Welcome fellow wyrd children. This is my empire,” shouts the oil-smeared youngster to his new recruits. “From today, your spiritual name is ‘Mistake,’” he tells one, stretching out his hands. “I invoke upon you ... the spirit of stubbornness ... lack of interest in school, waywardness, unsteadiness, bad company and POWER of destruction. Blow up all electronic things in your home! Break plates, glasses, and then cause fever and failure to all other children in your home. Understand?!” The child nods keenly: “Yes, my Lord.”

This would be funnier were it not for the fact that, in real life, thousands of Nigerian children have been accused of doing the things portrayed in the film – and abandoned, ostracised, abused and even killed as a result.

Some believe that Nigeria’s Pentecostal churches, and Pastor Helen Ukpabio in particular, are partly to blame. Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Church has grown rapidly since she founded it in 1992, and witchcraft plays a central role in her ministry. Her films, including End Of The Wicked, have been widely disseminated. So too has her book Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, which offers guidance on diagnosing witchcraft in children.

The issue gained international attention in 2008, when a Channel Four documentary, Saving Africa’s Witch Children, highlighted both Ukpabio’s activities and a series of shocking individual child witchcraft cases. The charity Stepping Stones Nigeria – one of the few international NGOs working on child witch abuse – has suggested that “the prevalence of the belief in child witchcraft in south-eastern Nigeria can be linked to the books, movies and teachings of Helen Ukpabio”.

One Nigerian working to reverse the trend is Leo Igwe, the West and Southern Africa representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). By phone, he tells me about the work he is doing, and the obstacles he has faced.

“One could say if you want to combat witchcraft accusations you will be on a collision course with society because here there is an assumption that witchcraft is an African worldview,” he says.

“You have this challenge of being portrayed as un-African, as someone who is not proud of African culture. You also have the challenge of those with vested interests.”

In Nigeria, Igwe says, the rise of Pentecostalism – with its notion that anyone can be “called” by God and set themselves up as a preacher – has led to a proliferation of new churches. Amid stiff competition for followers, pastors have sought to differentiate themselves by specialising in particular kinds of problems.

“Praying for children, people who are barren, there are some churches that specialise in that. Delivering people from witchcraft, some specialise on that. Sometimes praying for the blind or doing miracles.

“When you try to tell people it’s nothing but the product of the imagination, you are making them look irrelevant or stupid. Then sometimes they act angrily like we saw in the case of Helen Ukpabio and the Liberty Gospel Church. Telling people she doesn’t have the power she claims goes against their interests as a mission, as a business, as an enterprise.”

In July 2009 a group of men accompanied by Helen Ukpabio’s lawyer raided a rehabilitation centre for children accused of being witches, and beat up several of the young people living there. Later the same month, a large crowd of Ukpabio’s followers invaded a “Child Rights and Witchcraft” conference that Leo Igwe had helped organise in the Nigerian city of Calabar, physically attacking him and breaking his glasses.

Helen Ukpabio subsequently sued Igwe and the other conference organisers, claiming that the event had infringed her religious freedom. She also sought an injunction to prevent the defendants, among other things, “holding seminars or workshops denouncing the Christian religious belief in witchcraft”. The case was finally thrown out in December last year, but only after more than 12 months of legal wrangling.

Ukpabio’s supporters have also taken the fight to the internet, with a lurid attack-website denouncing the “child witch scam” as an atheist-humanist conspiracy. Leo Igwe is labelled a “wizard”. The British blogger Richard Bartholomew, who has built up a detailed online profile of the Liberty Church’s activities, is accused of a dizzying string of imagined criminal offences. The charity Stepping Stones Nigeria are dismissed as fraudsters.

Bizarrely, this claim has been echoed by the Governor of Akwa Ibom state, Godswill Akpabio. In August last year, after a CNN TV report had questioned the effectiveness of his child protection measures, Governor Akpabio ordered the arrest of staff from Stepping Stones’ local partner, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), accusing them of exaggerating the child witch problem for financial gain.

In January this year Leo Igwe was arrested and beaten up by the Nigerian police after rescuing two children who had been abandoned after being accused of witchcraft. He later wrote an account of his ordeal: “The Officer in Charge came in and started interrogating me. ‘Who are you? And where do you work?’

“I told him that I worked with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and that I was in Uyo for an ongoing campaign against witchcraft accusations and to rescue victims.

“‘Where is your organisation based?’ As soon as I mentioned ‘London’ he hit me several times with a baton on my head and my legs. He said I was among those who used fake NGOs to make money in the name of campaigning against witchcraft accusations in the state.”

Part of the problem, Igwe says, is that many of the government officials charged with protecting children are themselves witchcraft believers.Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe has campaigned tirelessly against witchcraft persecutions in Nigeria

“In Akwa Ibom state the government claims to have passed a child rights law, which prohibits witchcraft accusations against children. And the government claims they are doing a lot in terms of combating this belief and protecting children. That is the impression that they try to give the world. But right here on the ground, they believe in witchcraft – they believe that children can be witches!”

Igwe recounts one case where he had taken three confessed child-witches to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the Akwa Ibom state capital.

“The director at the ministry tells me, ‘Look, these children confessed to being witches. If we keep them with other children at the child care centre they will contaminate others.’ I was outraged. Here is a ministry that tells the world, ‘We are taking care of these children’. But the director did not want to accept these children because in the course of being interviewed they admitted that they were witches.”

The government was failing to recognise “that the circumstances under which these children have been subjected to traumatisation, the mental coercion, have predisposed these children to be saying things which they don’t really understand.”

Akwa Ibom state had passed its child rights legislation in large part because of international pressure, Igwe says. Yet to date no one had been prosecuted or convicted, and children were still being abandoned, because politicians “are afraid that the thing might backfire – that if they dabble into it the witches will come after them.”

“International pressure helps,” Igwe says, but “now there is need for us to move from international pressure to a kind of engagement, because people need education. They need programmes that will keep combating this deep-held belief so that at least they will be having some doubts.”

Igwe is frustrated that international relief agencies are not doing more – “The problem is so huge that the humanist movement alone doesn’t have the resources. Others have to get involved. I want to see tackling witchcraft accusations become central to the programmes of international organisations who say they are working in Africa.

“If they say they are empowering women, I want to see what they are doing to empower women who are victims of witchcraft accusation... The UN has a programme for the aged – I want to see them do something about aged people who are abused as a result of witchcraft.”

Igwe had been amazed to be told by one local UN worker that her organisation was reluctant “to dabble into things that border around people’s cultural beliefs”.

“One of the greatest mistakes we’ve been making,” Igwe says, “is trying to tolerate and accommodate human rights abuses committed in the name of culture and religion. We tend to lower our guard – we tend to be silent. The time has come for us to tell the world that human rights abuses cannot be tolerated in the name of culture. If there are cultural practices that are abusive of human rights, those practices must be challenged.”

Grim though things are, Igwe is hopeful that Nigeria’s Pentecostal witch-hunters may ultimately help sow the seeds for a much-needed reformation.

“Some form of secularisation may eventually set in because of the excesses this Pentecostalism is bringing – in terms of Biblical literalism, in terms of all this fraud. People are getting disenchanted. People are getting to know that some of these religious claims are fantasies.

“You can set up a church anywhere, you can carry the Bible and start acting as a Reverend overnight. You carry a bell and go along the streets, and the people will listen to you – even though sometimes they will look at you and know you may have some other problems – they may be psychiatric, existential. But they will listen to you because you are carrying the Bible.

“And sometimes people will make some cynical remark – ‘Oh, he’s into this because of money...’ They speak those doubts in hushed tones. But what happens in hushed tones for a very long time, at some point something will cause you to get loud. That’s where it could lead to some kind of reformation and awakening among the people.”

As I’m finalising this article, George Thindwa drops me a line with some good news from Malawi. Five witchcraft defendants he’s been helping have been acquitted. The group had earlier been accused of taking a young girl on a magic plane and causing sickness to the girl’s mother, and charged with “pretending witchcraft”. After reviewing the evidence, the magistrate has thrown out all charges.

Another defendant, Yolande Belita, has had her conviction quashed and is seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment. George Thindwa’s bewitching challenge now stands at over 300,000 kwacha. At the time of writing there have still been no takers.

Both Leo Igwe and George Thindwa are supported by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Readers can find out more about Malawi’s Association for Secular Humanism on their website.