While studying the phenomenon of child witchcraft we came across various other spiritual problems affecting children, most commonly “having eyes” (the ability to see in the spiritual realm), seeing devils, and marriages to “night husbands or wives” (spirits or demons). While these conditions are of concern, our participants made it clear that they are distinctly different from child witchcraft. In this paper we therefore limit ourselves to children confessing to witchcraft. This reduced our number of individual case studies from fourteen to nine children who were accused of practicing witchcraft, of which five children also confessed.
Our Results section is organized as follows. First, we present a case study that relates the story of “Tamba” (pseudonym), one of the children we interviewed. We chose this story not because it was unique (we heard many similar stories), but because it was the most complete narrative related to one child, with access to multiple actors. The story was reconstructed by the first and last author based on interviews with Tamba himself, his foster mother, his cousin/classmate, his teacher and a pastor related to the school.
The Case Study is followed by three sections that describe findings related to child witchcraft as an idiom of distress: (1) stressors faced by children and adults in Sierra Leone; (2) children’s emotional/behavioral responses to distress; and (3) witchcraft beliefs that provide the language to communicate about distress. After this we present our findings related to risk and protective factors for witchcraft confessions, both at the child’s personal level and in the widening socio-ecological systems: family, peers, child professionals (teachers and social workers), healers, pastors and society. A witchcraft accusation is a significant predictor for confession and can take place within different ecological systems. We dedicate a separate paragraph to this and conclude with a section on witchcraft confessions.
Case study: “Tamba”
When Tamba was 20 months old, his father – who lives abroad – gave him to his older sister to raise. Tamba is now nine years old and still living with his paternal aunt (hereafter referred to as his foster mom), who has no children of her own. She has recently entered menopause and is grieving the finality of her infertility. He says he is treated well by her family. It is not unusual for children in Sierra Leone to be raised by their relatives, and as is common in these situations, Tamba got to spend a recent vacation with his birth mother who lives about ten miles down the road. While there, he sustains an injury to his hand which leads to prolonged and costly treatment. During the same vacation, Aminata, a stepsister of his mother (sharing the same father but not the same mother) gives Tamba a meal containing meat. Shortly after this, Tamba has a disturbing dream. He cannot remember the details, but when he tells his mother about it, she concludes that Aminata – whom she believes to be a witch – is about to initiate Tamba into witchcraft. Tamba’s mother takes him to the traditional healer to obtain protection from being initiated. However, Aminata begins to appear to him in his dreams. She orders him to destroy his father, mother and extended family, but Tamba refuses because he knows his parents support him financially. Consequently, he falls sick. In the following weeks and months he experiences stomach aches, vomiting, dizziness and malaria, causing his family to now spend a lot of money on treatments from healers.
After the Christmas holidays Tamba returns to his foster mom. There he tells one of his cousins, a girl who is also his classmate, that he is a witch. He tells her to keep it a secret. “He was bluffing”, she later tells us. His foster mom notices that since his return he is more “stubborn” in his behavior. Others observe that Tamba starts spending more time away from home, and that he does not seem to be afraid of anybody. Back in school, two young teachers with little teaching experience are taking care of Tamba’s class. One of them describes Tamba as a troublesome boy who mocks him behind his back. The teacher reprimands Tamba, but does not seem to be free from fear. In our interview with him he narrates how he told Tamba: “My friend, the way you are behaving, it’s like you are a witch. (…) Let me tell you, if you are demon-possessed, you won’t be able to do anything to harm me.” On another occasion Tamba and some of his friends get in trouble over some video games that are brought to school. Unacceptable behavior in Tamba’s classroom is met with various forms of discipline, most frequently flogging.
One day, as Tamba shares some juice with his friends during lunch time, the teacher asks him where he got the juice. After Tamba refuses to answer, the teacher stretches him on a table and flogs him 24 times. The chronology is not completely clear here but around this time a pastor who is related to the school (and who believes he is called by God to deliver children from evil) speaks to the students and invites anyone involved in witchcraft to come forward. He warns that anyone who does not respond will die within a week. Tamba is one of eight children, four boys and four girls, who respond to the call. The four boys are the same boys who got in conflict with the teacher about the video games. In the lengthy confessions the different roles of the children in the witch realm are explored, and Tamba is identified as the one who initiated all the other students. This theory seems to be accepted by all involved, even though Tamba tells us later he had no idea that the other children who went forward were witches. In fact, up till then, he himself had not believed that he was a witch. The students confess that they are weary of the teachers’ discipline and frequently report the teachers to the “Mamie Queen”, their leader in the witchcraft realm, in hope that she will take revenge. At one point during confession Tamba attracts attention when he shows off his supernatural skills by “stealing” money out of a teacher’s pocket. While nobody denies that the money never physically left the teacher’s pocket, all believe that Tamba supernaturally took it and, after being ordered to do so, placed it back.
Tamba’s mother, grandmother and foster mom are invited to the school where they receive the news that Tamba has confessed to have wrought havoc on the family: he claims to have caused his foster mom’s recent accident and taken both her and his mother’s money to the underworld by having them spend it on hospital bills for him and another child.
Tamba impressed the research team as a shy boy, who sometimes seems hesitant to talk but repeats multiple times that Aminata initiated him. Although he usually feels happy, he feels sad and ashamed that people believe he practices witchcraft.
Both children and adults mentioned multiple stressors in the lives of children in Sierra Leone, and more specifically, their personal living situations. Inductive analysis revealed two broad categories: stressors related to poverty and stressors related to tensions in relationships. Poverty affects children’s housing, nutrition, education, basic resources such as clothing, and access to healthcare.
“We are hungry when we come to school. (…). And our teachers find it difficult to teach us. They teach us, but they don’t pay them. (Primary school student who is aware that many teachers go without salaries).
The effects of poverty are exacerbated by natural phenomena such as the heavy rains that affect the country every year during the rainy season and that cause an increase in deaths from malaria and other diseases. Participants from one community mentioned the problem of flooding. The decreased life expectancy and high child mortality rate that often accompany poverty were reflected in the frequent mentioning of early deaths of parents and siblings. It is important to note that all these stressors affect not just the children, but the systems around them as well. As illustrated in the quote above, teachers in Sierra Leone may receive minimal or no wages. A healer described how mothers can be gone from their homes all day to earn an amount barely enough to feed their family. One key informant with multiple wives had lost seven of his twenty children.
Relational stressors that were mentioned included complicated relationships between children and stepparents, conflicts within families, severe physical discipline, abuse and neglect. Relationships with teachers can become a source of distress when children are forced to pay teachers in order to pass their tests, or when physical discipline is severe.
Emotional and behavioral responses to stressors
When asked about feelings children can have in relation to stressors, children mentioned sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, and disappointment. In one of the FGDs children explicitly denied anger as an emotion in response to injustice. Adults responded that in distressing circumstances children may experience sadness, envy of others, a lack of peace in their heart, hatred, inner conflict, etc. In a discussion around a vignette some children acknowledged negative feelings but also immediately stressed the need to bear with an abusive situation in hopes that things will get better.
Both children and adults understood the causal connection between the feelings of a child and his/her behavior. Former homeless children frequently mentioned that negative feelings would make them go out to the street, sometimes accompanied by stealing. Others mentioned cursing, being stubborn, disobedient and wayward, but also withdrawn or absent-minded (thinking about other things). One participant observed:
“… if you are staying in a place where you do not want to live, the tendency is there to do some bad things that will make them associate you with witchcraft.”
Children grow up with witchcraft beliefs around them. Witchcraft confessions are public; they take place in the community or in public places such as the Chief’s compound or a church. Adult participants generally freely shared their beliefs, opinions and experiences. It was obvious in the FGDs that children are very familiar with witchcraft narratives. With minimal prompting they told multiple stories of child witches in their homes, schools and communities. Children learn from Nigerian witchcraft movies too and may not always interpret these movies as purely fictional.
Despite the participants’ vast knowledge of witchcraft beliefs and narratives, and their confident descriptions of child witch characteristics, adults frequently emphasized that they would not be able to determine whether a child is a witch or not. Some of the children had learned to show a similar reluctance. Only traditional healers or pastors have the skills and authority to give a verdict on a witchcraft accusation. While people may express suspicions, any other person who takes authority in this regard is suspected to have supernatural powers or even be a witch themselves.
Some traditional healers we spoke to believed child witchcraft is increasing in Sierra Leone, and attributed it to the high population growth and intergenerational tensions:
“… as the number of children they give birth to is increasing, so the witchcraft increases (…) the system they grow up with, compared to the one we grew up with, is very different. (…) at that time, we feared our mothers, we feared our fathers. But now, there is no fear.”
Risk & protective factors for witchcraft accusations and confessions
Given the wide variety of child witch characteristics, it is almost impossible to identify specific individual characteristics that put a child at risk of being accused of and/or confessing to witchcraft. Our impression is rather that accusations and confessions take place in the context of life events (especially the occurrence of misfortunes) and interactions with or within the surrounding systems (e.g., a child’s disobedience; a pastor hinting at witchcraft as a cause for structural tensions in polygamous or blended families).
“He [the child accused of witchcraft] won’t confess. Except if something happens with the parents or the guardian, something extraordinary happens in the house, for example there is hardship in the house.” (White Garment Church leader)
That being said, characteristics that most frequently were named as typical features of a child witch were being bold, outspoken, stubborn, not afraid of anything, and especially not afraid of adults. Other suspicious behaviors may be stealing, lying, frequently breaking things, being very quiet and withdrawn, or not fulfilling social expectations such as not crying when a relative or close acquaintance dies. Some participants described girls behaving like women, or children who are frequently sick. Some of the physical characteristics seem to indicate poverty or neglect: children who are skinny, dirty, or wear clothes that don’t fit. An important characteristic witnessed in school is that the child cannot concentrate and does not perform well academically. Dreams play a significant role in the identification of child witches, especially dreams in which the child consumes food. In an environment where food is often scarce, these dreams are likely common, but in combination with other factors they may lead a child to believe that they have been initiated into witchcraft.
A child dreams that a friend offers him food. In church the next Sunday, the pastor identifies him as a witch. The boy does not believe him, but since he had the dream, he accepts the allegation, as does his family.
Children are aware that dreams will frequently be interpreted in terms of witchcraft. Some may therefore choose not to share their dreams. This discernment could potentially be considered a protective factor.
Although participants said that witchcraft accusations can be made by biological parents, we did not see much evidence of this. Rather, participants frequently mentioned an increased risk of witchcraft accusations for children who do not live with their biological parents, especially children who come from the provinces where witchcraft is believed to be rampant. Of the nine children we spoke to who were accused of witchcraft, only two were accused and/or confessed while they lived with one of their biological parents.
Some mothers we spoke to differentiated between witch accusations and name-calling, a rather commonly used method to stop undesired behavior. While in the view of the parent this may be effective, we do not know if children are always able to make the distinction between serious accusations or name-calling in relationships with people of authority. This practice can thus become a risk factor.
Families can play a protective role when people outside the family accuse a child of being a witch. A mother advised her son not to respond to others calling him witch:
“But my mother told me not to say anything. God for sure knows that I am not a witch. So she says that I should just let them talk.” (Former homeless child)
When children are believed to be falsely accused of witchcraft, families will usually defend them. They may take the accusation to the local Chief to vindicate the child. One father successfully stood up for his son who was called a witch and subsequently expelled from school. When the suspicion or accusation is raised within the biological family or the family raising the child, the caregivers usually seek counsel with a traditional healer or pastor. As we will see below, this may increase the risk of an accusation or confession.
Children talk among themselves about witches. In the case study we see how Tamba boasts about being a witch, even though he apparently does not (yet) really believe he is one. Children may put themselves at risk with this behavior.
A child tells her friends she wants to kill her teachers. Shortly after this she “changes into a snake” [the description suggests she may have had a seizure]. This prompts the other students to tell the teachers what the girl has said. The head mistress expels the child from school.
Accusations may lead to bullying, and the child’s response may only confirm the suspicion.
A young boy in a village is accused of being a witch. Back in school the other students start provoking him. The boy pushes one of them over, who consequently breaks his arm. This makes the teachers conclude he must be a witch. The boy is expelled from school.
As we saw in the case study, sharing food with friends – a very common and appreciated habit in Sierra Leone – can become a reason for suspicion. Teachers told us that even sharing pens, pencils or erasers could be a way of initiating others, making sharing practices a risk factor.
Teachers and other professionals
Our sample included two groups of people who relate to children professionally: teachers and social workers. A teacher of Tamba’s school (see case study) told us: “… there are other pupils in this school that are demon-possessed. In fact, most of them [pupils in the school] are children of the night.” As we saw in the case study, the suggestion of being a witch was first made by Tamba’s teacher. Teachers of another school seemed to have a different mindset. They did not deny the existence of child witchcraft but said they had never encountered it in their school. They also considered other explanations for deviant behavior.
“… as a teacher you will look at the psychological behavior of that child. (…) if a child comes into the class, if they come up with a snake movie, then we can normally ask: ‘Why?’ (…) In our own world, you observe maybe their mother, it is domestic harassment or it is hunger that is affecting them.”
One key informant who doubled as a pastor and teacher told us how he had handled a situation in his classroom with both a traditional, spiritual and psychological approach. Nobody was blamed and peace returned to the classroom. Contrarily, at another school a girl dreamt that someone was trying to offer her food. Her father made a complaint to the teacher, a pastor was consulted and a child was identified and forced to confess. Knowledge about child development and mental health in professionals interacting with children can be a protective factor. A lack of training can be a risk, but so can be the fear that affects professionals. A social worker was only willing to relate to a child accused of witchcraft after he promised not to harm her. Despite her willingness to help, she corroborated the witchcraft allegation.
Traditional healers play a significant role in the lives of children accused of witchcraft. Healers may perform with their devil mask (“ariͻgbo”) in local communities and actively find witches. They are also consulted by families or caregivers who suspect a child of witchcraft. When a chief is asked to rule in a witchcraft case, he may invite traditional healers to give a verdict on the witchcraft accusation. The relationship with traditional healers is complicated and ambivalent. Children expressed extreme fear of them:
“I panic, I tremble everywhere when I am close to them.” (Teenage boy, former homeless child)
Children can easily be intimidated by the fearful looking costumes and ceremonies. They may not understand what is going on and answer questions just to show their submission to the adult:
“He may not even [know] what the implication is; he just says, ‘Yes, Sir.’” (Social Worker)
Adults also report discomfort with traditional healers and their role in the community. They are considered both powerful and manipulative. People depend on healers to cure diseases, offer protection from witchcraft, predict misfortune and prescribe ways to prevent it. However, both adults and children acknowledge that the healers have a strong economic interest in their witch finding activities. Traditional healers are believed to have power to make people say or do things against their will and in some cases even kill people with their ceremonies. Once a traditional healer becomes involved and even more if he expresses the verdict of witchcraft, it becomes almost impossible for a child to withstand the accusation.
“So there is no way out again because they say, ‘anything that a “Mͻreman” [Muslim diviner or healer] says, is final.’ So I just have to accept, because they say I am a witch. I just have to bear the punishment.” (Former homeless child in FGD)
One social worker observed that children who confessed during public witch finding ceremonies often had nothing to say anymore once the witch finders had left. There were a few stories where accusations of children were not confirmed by healers. However, we do not know enough about the dynamics around these cases to know what the interests of the healer could have been. In one situation, a healer diagnosed an alternative spiritual condition that was less stigmatizing but still would require money to be healed. In another situation, a boy was vindicated of a witchcraft accusation but instead a girl of the same household was accused and made to confess. Healers often live in the community they are serving. They may be familiar with structural and temporary tensions in the family and the community, and thus seek to manipulate the dynamics of the context around a child. We did not see evidence of healers ever questioning the witchcraft narrative. Their strong financial interest in the outcome of the process is a risk factor for accusations.
With the growth of Pentecostal churches in Sierra Leone, pastors have increasingly become important actors in witchcraft allegations. Vulnerable or sensitive children attending emotionally charged worship services with charismatic pastors may feel a need to come forward when claims are made about the presence of child witches. Attendance of these services can be a risk factor for these children.
“Even this last one, that Apostle Suleiman from Nigeria came into Sierra Leone, so many little, little, little children came out (…) running, 'I am a witch, I am a witch'.” (Teacher)
As illustrated in the case study, the invitation to confess may be accompanied by threats against those who do not confess. Some churches have a stronger emphasis on beliefs in witchcraft than others, but those who do seem to be gaining more popularity. Families may no longer always feel comfortable with traditional healers but still want help for their child.
“… they [the churches] bring temporal respite (…) if not for the victims, but for their families. (…) our children, no more we do believe in this traditional approach, but our children need some attention. And there is a religious entity that is willing to give us this attention; we are willing to take them there.” (Sociologist)
Pastors who strongly believe in witchcraft may not question the witchcraft narrative that a family presents to them.
Compared to traditional healers, participants spoke less of possible financial gain for pastors, although one participant implied it by condemning religion as a pathway to making money. It seemed however that the status acquired by delivering witches is just as important. Similar to traditional healers, the involvement of a pastor can become a risk factor for a child suspected of witchcraft. The story of the pastor/teacher who dealt successfully with a witchcraft allegation in his classroom shows that this does not always have to be the case. His knowledge of child development and mental health in addition to his theological training may have made the difference here.
Children in Sierra Leone grow up in a society where witchcraft narratives are widely accepted. None of our participants seemed to deny the presence of witchcraft in society and the involvement of children in it. These beliefs are strong. Even within the research team it was hard to have some people look at child witchcraft from an alternative perspective. After working together for ten days, meeting frequently to discuss our findings and possible alternative interpretations for witchcraft confessions of children, one of our research team members announced his final conclusion about the children we interviewed regarding their alleged or confessed involvement in witchcraft: “They are all witches.”
Because of their position in society, children are vulnerable and an easy target for witch finders. “… how many children will be given the permission to defend themselves? And even if they defend themselves, what is the place of children in our society that people could believe them?” (Sociologist)
Children themselves realize that they are often being taken advantage of:
“… because they have power over us, the little ones, that makes that they always abuse us.” (Primary School Student, FGD)
At the community level, the chiefs traditionally rule in witchcraft cases. They can play a protective role, as was illustrated in a story where a chief ordered traditional healers to release a child held captive on accusation of witchcraft.
Witchcraft accusations set in motion social and psychological processes that are challenging to reverse. Participants made it clear that there are virtually no confessions without an accusation. Once an accusation is made, the pressure on a child is immense. Wanting to avoid the impression of being able to determine whether someone is a witch or not (and thus being an accomplice in witchcraft), it is likely that nobody will stand up for the child. In response to a vignette, a social worker described how a child will feel after an accusation:
“He is always absent minded. He is always thinking about himself. How would he be able to protect himself? Because he already has it at the back of his mind that there is no security for him here: ‘There is nobody who will provide security for me.’ So he always has that thinking.”
The distress and consequent behavior of the child may subsequently intensify the suspicion of witchcraft.
A child was suspected of killing her foster mother. When she was questioned about it, she started stammering. This made the accusers call the traditional healer who confirmed she was the witch.
Children who confess to be witches may do this for different reasons. Many participants believed that the threatening and intimidating circumstances in which the accusation is made make children confess. One child told us he only confessed to protect his aunt (it was not clear from what, but possibly it was a fine). Another child said he confessed to avoid further abuse by his mother and stepfather. Two children were called witches by their peers and decided to agree in an effort to stop the bullying. The seven children confessing alongside Tamba may have responded to the threat that children who did not confess would die within a week. Some children genuinely believe they are witches. One of them was a 10-year-old boy who impressed us as so depressed and traumatized that we had to avoid probing and keep our interview short.
Children who confess are commonly questioned about who initiated them, who they may have initiated and who else they have met in the witchcraft realm. By identifying other children, grandmothers, aunts or neighbors, their confessions create turmoil in families and communities and perpetuate the omnipresent belief in witchcraft practices.
Although we did not formally investigate what happens after a confession is made, we were told multiple stories of lasting stigma, school dropouts and of children being returned to their families in the provinces.
 Traditional healers in one community attributed the increase in deaths during the rainy season to an increase in witchcraft activities, since the heavy rains interrupt the usual witch finding operations.
 The word “fear” in Krio has a connotation of both fear and reverence or respect.