Leo Igwe , a Nigerian human rights advocate and humanist who I’ve had the deep privilege of meeting, has a nicely written and truly skeptical article within New Zimbabwe all about the daft belief in flying witches. He writes about the rather bizarre claim issued by officials in Swaziland …
Some months ago, the aviation authorities in Swaziland issued a statement which surprised many people around the globe. They warned that high-flying witches would be penalised. High-flying witches? Be penalised?
Swaziland Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini actually said, “A witch on a broomstick should not fly above the [150-metre] limit.” Wow!
Of course, on hearing this directive one may think it was something made up by someone bent on discrediting Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Far from it, it was a policy statement from the aviation authorities in Swaziland to regulate ‘witch-flights’ in this 21st century.
Oh and they apparently have evidence …
…two alleged witches were arrested by the police in Zimbabwe after they ‘crash-landed’ outside a house in Harare. They were found with a ‘live owl, two winnowing baskets, and an assortment of witchcraft-related paraphernalia’. The two women have been charged in court for ‘engaging in practices commonly associated with witchcraft’.
…Witch flight makes so much sense to the people in Zimbabwe that the authorities could take these poor women to court and not be laughed out of office. The idea of flying witches is of such significance that the government of Swaziland has now decided to regulate it.
So why does criticism of stuff like this matter?
Apart from the rather obvious flaw of it not being true, the belief also has had dire consequences for many innocent people who have been accused of being witches and are then murdered
- Kenyans burned alive as witches – it was actually a scam to grab land. Deploying the superstition made the murder acceptable to everybody.
The above is not a unique incident, just a recent one. Witch hunts are being continuously reported by the UNHCR of the UNO, and the victims are usually woman and children. here is an even more bizarre example, it concerns a government sponsored witch hunt in Gambia that impacted thousands …
- In March 2009, Amnesty International reported that up to 1,000 people in the Gambia had been abducted by government-sponsored “witch doctors” on charges of witchcraft, and taken to detention centers where they were forced to drink poisonous concoctions.
A belief in things that are not actually true needs to be robustly challenged, because not doing so has consequences.
Rather sadly this is going to be a long struggle, one comment on the article by Leo reads … “This Leo Igwe is a complete idiot devoid of any knowledge of what he’s writing about. simple research could have informed him that witches are known to fly world over whether in winnowing baskets, brooms, on the back of wild animals etc etc.”
But let’s not let that be the last word, I’d far rather end with a far for rational quote from Leo himself …
“We must break the spell of ignorance that hangs over Africa. Fearful ignorant minds wasting precious resources fighting imaginary witches in winnowing baskets must be replaced with educated, honest people administering the forward progress of an emerging continent with real needs” – Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe – A Warrior for Reason
I’ve checked his Wikipedia page, this is not a one-off article, Leo, the author of the article, is a very impressive individual and has been engaged in a valiant struggle against superstition for quite some time …
In a Fall 2000 article in the quarterly journal Free Inquiry, Igwe enumerated different ways in which religious extremists in Nigeria have co-opted the local government and used it to enforce religious codes of law, hindering the upholding of human rights in those areas.
Igwe wrote in 2004 that in his own country of Nigeria, contemporary belief in witchcraft leads to ritual killing and human sacrifice, noting that women and children are more likely to be said to possess or practice “negative” witchcraft abilities, while men are more often depicted as possessing benign witchcraft abilities.
In 2008, a BBC documentary, Saving Africa’s Witch Children, featured an appearance by Igwe, as one of the primary subjects was “witch hunter Helen Ukpabio.” The documentary detailed reported “terrible crimes committed against children accused of witchcraft,” and premiered as an HBO feature in 2010. The documentary also follows the efforts of Sam Itauma, a human rights activist and founder of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) who offers shelter and protection to children who have been abused or abandoned, and Gary Foxcroft, who founded Stepping Stones Nigeria, a UK registered charity.
In 2009, Igwe represented the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, Gambia, where he spoke out on the IHEU’s behalf against caste-based discrimination in Africa. In his talk, Igwe brought attention to discrimination against the Osu, a group of people perceived by some to be of lower class, who Igwe says “continue to suffer discrimination and indignity particularly in the areas of marriage and family, right to own property and inheritance, access to land, political rights and representation, education, development, infrastructure and distribution of basic amenities.”
In 2010, according to a release by the European Humanist Federation, Igwe’s home was invaded by soldiers and police officers “following a fictitious murder charge,” which was allegedly brought on by a man that Igwe had attempted to have prosecuted for allegedly committing sexual crimes against a 10-year-old girl in 2006. According to the report, Igwe had been arrested three times since beginning work on the rape case, as a result of allegedly malicious petitions,prompting David Pollock of the EHF to write to then Vice-President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, on Igwe’s behalf.
According to the EHF, later in August 2010 Igwe’s home and family were attacked when two unidentified men assaulted and blindfolded Igwe’s father, causing “extensive injuries to his face and head,” and resulting in the elder Igwe having to have his eye surgically removed. The case has been taken up by Amnesty International, after police reportedly refused to open an investigation.
On January 11, 2011, while attempting to rescue two children who were victims of witchcraft accusation in Uyo Akwa State in Southern Nigeria, Igwe was “imprisoned and beaten by police,” in an effort, according to Sahara Reporters, New York City, by the state governor Godswill Akpabio to begin “clamping down on activists involved in the rescue of children accused of witchcraft.” Igwe was later released without charge, according to Gary Foxcroft of Stepping Stones Nigeria, and “in good spirits.”