Read also the interview released by The Huffington Post, April 17, 2014
If evaluated by the number of innocent children falsely branded as witches and killed by their superstitious parents and relatives, Nigeria is a country that has sunk deep into a spiritual and moral darkness. Self-styled pastors, prophets and evangelists are perpetuating this darkness through their manipulative deliverance churches and ministries. A number of those religious gurus preach their own brand of “prosperity gospel” that makes their parishioners ever poorer, while filling the pockets and accounts of the pastors with incomes that are obscene in the light of the overwhelming Nigerian poverty.
This is possible because Nigeria is a country, and not the only one in the neighborhood, where Christianity has the blended with native paganism, occultism and demonism of many kinds. In many churches in Nigeria deliverance services do not look in any way different from pagan séances; nor their Christian “spirit filled” worship services look much different from the native experiences of demonic possession.
It helps to understand this if one is to begin to comprehend how it is possible that in a community that prides itself with being made of mostly “born again” Christians, blossoming with many prophets and healers, those same people are ready to reject, torture and mutilate their own children under the superstitious obsession that they are witches. Some sources claim that in the past fifteen years several thousand children have been killed by their parents and relatives in the country where the government is either weak or unwilling to do anything to decisively stop the genocide of children; and where the churches that remain within the spheres of normalcy are turning a blind eye.
Those who are trying to help are not many. In the past ten years there have been only a few international organizations, and a handful of people that have undertaken a noble mission to try to save as many of the unfortunate children as possible. Some have given up in the process due to different reasons. One organization that has been actively saving young lives in Nigeria since 2010 is a Brazilian organization “Way to the Nations”.
In this interview Leonardo Rocha Dos Santos, its founder and director, graphically illustrates the blanket of darkness that veils the country of Nigeria.
Tihomir: It seems that the problem where the children are being accused of being witches, and then mistreated, abused, even killed is a major problem in Nigeria. Several years ago it was covered quite extensively by some British media. Somehow lately we do not see much written or televised about it. Does this mean that the problem has gone? Or has it increased?
Leonardo: I have been working in Nigeria for the past four and a half years, and I can tell you for sure that the problem has not gone. I’ve seen too many cases, and some very dramatic ones. We’ve been dealing with new cases every month. We are concentrating only on one state in Nigeria at the moment. There are two other states and we hear awful things from there. There are other countries around that we have not even touched. The UN report says that Congo is one of the worst places, and Cameron as well. Also, some problems are beginning to surge in the countryside of Angola. I don’t think anything has changed really.
Tihomir: There might be people who are hearing about this problem for the first time. What are we talking about? Are we talking just about a tiny group of people, parents, children, or is the problem widespread?
Leonardo: It is really something that exists within the mentality of the Nigerian community. It has spread incredibly during the past fifteen years. But basically what has happened there is a phenomenon that is mixing Christian beliefs with paganism. Most of the cases that we are dealing with started unfortunately in the so-called church, with false pastors, in a situation when a family comes to them, saying: “Look, I have been tithing, I’ve been giving offerings. You said that God would bless me and I would not go through bad times any more, but my husband has just become ill, or lost a job, or someone died in my family.” Then these pastors, who have already been teaching the things that do not have anything to do with the Gospel, like this prosperity theology, have been selling blessings to those people. They say: “Bring your money here and God will protect everything for you, bless you, and you will become rich sometime soon!”
Then suddenly, in this poor region without work opportunities, those families would start questioning: “Why is it so that we have so many health problems? Why are our children dying so young?” Then, the pastor would say to them: “The problem is that one of your children is a witch, and if you want to get rid of the problem, you should bring the child here, and I will cast out the witch spirit from this child, and you will be free, and the things will work out for you.” And then he charges those families.
Many of those families cannot afford to pay, and when they go back home they start guessing which of their children is a witch. Usually they have four, five, sometimes even eight children. What comes to their minds is that particular child who has something different about him or her, one who is stubborn or disobedient. Sometimes it is a child that is clumsy, who breaks things. Sometimes it is a child who is extremely intelligent. Other times it is child that is ill, like a child that we knew well who had epilepsy. His parents thought that the child was possessed by the witch spirit.
These families then start torturing their children. I know that it is difficult to believe that a family will torture their own child. But it is happening, and I saw many cases. They would start beating up their children saying: “Why are you doing that to us?” Sometimes the child is two, three years old. They start torturing the children, trying to extract a confession about who initiated this child in witchcraft. They would get to the point when the child – after being bitten up, saying “Are you a witch? Are you a witch?” – would admit, “Yes, I am a witch.” Then they would cast out the child into a dark place, a forest, on the streets, where we have been rescuing them.
This is a result of syncretism between Christianity and paganism that has been brought inside the church. It is causing chaos and breaking up families.
Tihomir: Let me just go back for a moment. I think several things are happening here. At one level, there is this abuse that comes from the so-called church leaders, pastors, churches, which is actually a shame because it brings the name of Jesus Christ into disrepute. At another level, superstitious parents are willing to mistreat, abuse, and kill their own children under the suspicion that they are witches. I heard that if it does not rain, or if the harvest is not good, or for whatever is going wrong – and basically most of those people are poor, so many of them will have bad times more than enough – when they are trying to find causes for those misfortunes, they are told (by the so-called prophets and pastors) that this is because they have a child at home who is witch. This is what I am getting from what you are saying. And then the innocent children who might be a bit naughty, or who are a bit different, or who might have some health conditions, in every other respect they are as normal children as they could be, are being accused of being witches, and then mistreated.
Leonardo: I will briefly mention some cases now. The case that caused much pain in me was the case of Michael. It happened around October 2012. He was a little boy, eleven years old. He was brought to our base with a big gash on his had, and he almost died. We rescued him, registered the case with the police and with the social affairs as we always do, and then we located his family. He said that it was his father who had beaten him. Then we started investigating the case. Basically it was his uncle who tried to kill him thinking that he was a witch. But his father, who calls himself a prophet of the church, accused him inside the church of being a witch, blaming the boy for the lack of success that he had. He never got a proper job. His wife had left him, leaving the boy behind. So he called himself a prophet in the church, and blamed the boy.
We wanted to keep him in our base because he was very seriously injured. His uncle could have killed the boy. But then, when we registered the case with the police, the police put the pressure on the father saying: “You need to take the child back, otherwise we will arrest you. When the father came and took the child away we said to him: “Are you sure that you can look after this child and protect him from his uncle?” The father said, “Don’t worry, I will look after him.”
The child stayed with the father for a few more days. I said to our team: “I want to go there to see Michael, to see how he is. We went to the village. Michael was there. It was about 3 pm. Michael was wearing shorts. He was barefoot, hungry, with deep eyes, very dirty, and outside the house, because the house was locked. When I talked to him, he said: “My father doesn’t let me go inside the house. He leaves at 7 in the morning and goes somewhere to work. He locks me outside of the house. He comes back late in the night, and he lets me only to sleep inside. He is not feeding me, and I am not going to school. I am here all the time, trying to find something to eat.”
So, Michael was starving. I took him to a restaurant. We ate there. We talked a lot. I said to my team, “We need to get the documents from the government. I don’t want to leave boy there. Something is going to happen to him. Then the team said, “We will go to the Social Welfare again and tell them that the situation has not improved, that we really want to get the documents from the father for us to look after the boy, because too many people in the village are saying that Michael is a witch”.
Then suddenly, few days later the father called the Social Welfare. He said, “Ok. I am going to sign the document tomorrow!” And the Social Welfare called us and said: “Look, the father is coming to sign the guardianship papers for you, so you will be able to look after the boy. Come tomorrow morning and the paper will be signed.”
When we heard this I told a friend: “Go straight to the village right now, find Michael there and ask him if he wanted to walk by himself to our base and sleep in our base, because this would be one night less on the streets, and tomorrow we will have the documents anyway.” When our friend arrived to the village, he couldn’t find Michael at all. He asked in the neighborhood. He asked everywhere. His father wasn’t around. The house was locked. He disappeared. And then we called and told the social welfare person: “ Don’t let the father sign the guardianship documents, because the boy is not here. We need to see the boy first.”
I spent a month literally visiting every village around in the radius of 30 kilometers. Michael disappeared. We offered money to anyone who could bring some word about where this boy was. We spent more than a month trying to find Michael. The chief of the village, when I was talking to him two months later, saw that I was still hoping to find Michael some day, said: “Leo, you need to rest now. Knowing the father as I do, and the uncle as well, I know that they are very violent people. I am quite sure that this boy has been buried somewhere around his house.” This was very hard for me, because I had this boy sitting on my lap, eating with me. I talked to him, he was very bright, very sweet – and then Michael was gone.
When I managed to talk to his father he would just say, “I don’t know! He disappeared!” I talked to his uncle. He would say, “I don’t know where he is at all!” When we realized that the child had disappeared we told that to the police. Nothing was done, no investigation, nothing. He’s gone, just wiped out of the history like that, without any investigation.
Tihomir: I just want to make sure I understood you correctly. You believe that the boy was killed?
Leonardo: Yes. Everybody believes it. The neighbors believe it. The chief of the village believes it. And now unfortunately I believe it.
Tihomir: So the father would rather have his son killed than to surrender him to you so that the boy could be given a proper care? How widespread are the stories like this one? How many children in Nigeria, according to your estimate, are being mistreated at this time, or killed by their parents, relatives or family members under the accusation that they are witches?
Leonardo: At the beginning some organizations were talking about thousands. I have met at least four hundred children in the situation like that. I think we are talking about lots of children. Last month we rescued four children at once. They were not from the same family, but they were to be murdered together, all of them. We received a telephone call in the middle of the night from someone who had heard about us and called us in despair. We went there and rescued four children at once. It is still happening very often in many places.
Tihomir: What is the Nigerian government doing about this? It seems to me, on the basis of my memory going a few years back, that there were some promises given by the government, maybe some steps taken to bring this hunt against the children falsely accused for being witches to an end? Is the government doing anything? Is it able to do anything?
Leonardo: Well, all they did was to pass the law forbidding people to call children witches. The Child Rights Law was approved in 2008, but was not enforced. We do not see any justice done against the parents, or against the pastors who brand children as witches. Last year there was a gruesome case. A child was beheaded by his father who thought that the child was a witch. This child was starving at the street. No one wanted to give him any food. Once he came to the back of his house and asked his brother for a bowl of soup. His father heard his voice, chased him and chopped his head off. And this man worked for the government. He was a public servant.
Also, two or three months ago, a little girl eight years old, who lived with her father who was a policeman, was accused by her father of being a witch. He beat her. Her body was completely hurting. He took all her clothes off and drugged her through the village, embarrassing her naked. In the one hand he was holding AK-47 saying to the people in the village, “Don’t get involved, otherwise I will shoot you”. The father was arrested, and I heard that two days later he was released for the “lack of evidence” against him. Imagine, he was walking in the sight of the whole village, but there was “lack of evidence”? The same was true with the case of the child who was beheaded. The father was arrested, and was released soon for “the lack of evidence”.
Tihomir: This eight-year old girl is now under the supervision of your organization?
Leonardo: Yes. I actually heard about this girl first through a friend who lives in the same village where I live. She showed me the article about the case a day after it was published on the Internet. I immediately got in touch with my team and told them about the girl. I wondered if she had anyone there, any relative to look after her. I told the team, “Let’s find her and see what we can do for her”. Meanwhile this girl was taken to the hospital, because she was hurt very much by her father. She was placed in the bed by the side of one of our children who was treated there as well. So, it was quite easy to find her. Her mother also heard what had happened and came to try to look after her, but her mother could not look after her and the other child that was with her already. Because she could not find any job we decided to employ her as one of the care givers for the children that we have in our center. The mother and her two children are now in our center.
Tihomir: Do you know of any case where someone, a parent, or a family member, or anyone else who has committed atrocity against children, either by killing or mutilating a child because they believed that the child was a witch, was seriously punished and still somewhere in prison in Nigeria? I am asking because you’ve presented the cases of people who were released after a day or two. If this is the prevailing case than those people do not fear because they know that no one is going to do anything against them. Do you know of any case that may serve as a deterrent to those people to think twice before they kill a child?
Leonardo: Unfortunately I don’t know of any. Between several cases that I have seen, when parents or pastors have abused children branding them as witches, I don’t know of any when someone was arrested. I remember there was a case over a year ago when we thought, “Oh, this is the first time that someone was arrested!” Then soon someone said that the murderer did not stay in the prison for more than one day. “I saw him on the streets on Tuesday last week”, he said.
Tihomir: Say something about your organization “Way to the Nations”?
Leonardo: “Way to the Nations” is a new organization. It started in 2010. A movement called “Caminho da Graça”, or “Way of Grace” started in Brazil in 2004 by pastor Caio Fabio. He started this movement by a website. He used online television, radio and his website to teach the gospel in a way we had never learned before. The movement started growing in Brazil and in some other countries too. We wanted to do something for our neighbors, to love our neighbors, the people who are less favored really. And then in 2010 we went to Nigeria for the first time. Since then we also started another project in Senegal. About three years ago we also started a project in Northeast Brazil. We have three main projects, and we are well established in Nigeria, with a staff of eight people.
Tihomir: I’ve been looking at your website. I like your vision and mission statement: “Way to the nations is an international organization dedicated to fighting ignorance, eradicating superstition, and to rescue, support and rehabilitation of children branded by “church” leaders and their parents as witches.” Also, you said a moment ago that you originated as a movement led by a minister who wanted to challenge you to put the gospel into practice. With churches in Nigeria we see an ugly picture of what happens when the so called “prosperity gospel” is pushed to the extreme; when certain individuals or groups of people are getting rich on account of others, and they for whichever foolish reason think that God is blessing them. And yet you have decided to go there and challenge that because the gospel is not teaching us to prosper and abuse others, but rather to be with those who are suffering, and to suffer with them, and help them, and be part of them. I think that what you are doing, however small you may think you are, is one of the powerful ways of putting the Gospel of Christ into practice.
Leonardo: We are trying to change the minds of pastors in Nigeria, and if we can change the minds of pastors I think we can get it done much faster. But, many pastors are not really pastors, they are about money. I have some very close friends, pastors there who are not taking a part in the persecution of children. But majority of pastors that I’ve met unfortunately believe it and practice it. We have a long way to go to change their mentality.
Tihomir: First of all we have to make it ever so clear, and you do it through the stories and experiences you’ve shared, that the teachings of Jesus cannot support anything that is happening there. They might be called Christian pastors, prophets or Christian churches, but they have really nothing to do with the Christianity as it is in Jesus Christ. What is really mind boggling is that, on the one hand, we see those self-appointed ministers and prophets taking advantage of their parishioners, and are abusing the parents. They carry the blame too significantly because they are teaching people, who are mostly illiterate, wrongly. They are really providing a wrong kind of education as far as the spiritual matters are concerned. They are teaching them not what the Scripture teaches, certainly not what the Gospel says. On the other hand, much of Nigeria is considered a Christian country, and there are many churches and many denominations there, and what really bothers me is that so many of them are quiet. One does not meet in Nigeria any significant Christian group raising their voice against the persecution of children falsely labeled as witches. It should really start with them, and yet I do not hear that anyone is really raising their voices there. I mean Christian churches, and the leadership of different Christian churches. They should be saying to their brothers, Christians, “This is evil what you are doing!”
Leonardo: Nigeria is 5o% Muslim and 50% Christian. There is almost a line there. The northern part is Muslim, and the south is Christian. In the south of Nigeria I’ve never seen any church with a proper program that addresses the issue. I know a pastor who says that he does not agree with the abuse of children, and that his church does not practice it, but I do not see them doing anything for outside about that. I asked him: “If you don’t agree about it, why don’t you do something about it?” He said: “We have too many problems in the church, and too many things to do right now. Maybe in the future we will do some programs about that.” The children are dying around their church, but this pastor has something more important to do. I am straight with them because we do not have much time. “Do you believe that children are witches or not?”, I asked him. He said: “Well, if Jesus cast demons into pigs, why could not demons go into children?” And his church is a big church. When he walks behind the pulpit to preach, he enters like as if he were a rock-star. No, I have never seen any church with any program that tackles the issue of children falsely accused to be witches.”
Tihomir: I saw the picture you sent me, and I saw also your website with some very promising looking pictures of children whose lives have been rescued and changed. I saw this picture of a group of children cared by your organization nicely dressed, on their way to school. You obviously want to see children rescued, and their lives changed for better; to see those children growing and becoming good people and good citizens and followers of Jesus, and completely rescued from the situation you found them in originally?
Leonardo: That picture really describes well what we are about. We want to give those children their lives back, to help them, to rescue a bit of their childhood that has been lost, give them love and opportunity. Two of them are doing courses in skill acquisition. One day ago one of them started a welding course. There is a girl who is doing hairdressing. One year ago it was such a blessing to have with us Dr. Tony Edet. He spent three months with us in the orphanage treating the children, and his wife was helping too, looking after the children and teaching them good habits, like brushing the teeth… We are happy and feel privileged to have taken this challenge, given to us by our pastor Caio Fabio. It was a challenge that reached our hearts because of God, and God is doing something good through us in the lives of those little ones, and we are happy for that. Listen to the interview