Over a year ago, Selene's 9-year-old daughter Emma began waking up every morning and saying that witches were taking her to the woods at night to teach her witchcraft. Selene, a gentle farmer in rural Malawi and fiercely protective mother, soon noticed that Emma was also experiencing weight loss, mood swings and chronic morning fatigue. Determined to help her daughter, Selene tried to save enough money to bring Emma to a powerful witchdoctor, despite her nagging suspicion that many are charlatans. And then Selene heard about our mobile legal-aid clinic, which was offering free legal services for witchcraft cases in her rural community. She came to us for help.
My law students and I were in southern Malawi partnering with a Malawian N.G.O., the Center for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance, to run the mobile legal-aid clinic. In the months before our arrival, the students researched the legal and social contours of witchcraft accusations in Malawi and other African countries, guided by our Malawian partners who work on witchcraft cases year-round.
Their research revealed that witchcraft accusations against children in countries including Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria have increased in recent years, sparked and sustained in part by unrelenting poverty and conflict, family structures weakened by HIV/AIDS, and burgeoning religious sects that encourage child witch-hunts. These accusations often result in tragic tales of child abuse and abandonment.
During the mobile legal-aid clinic we proposed potential solutions tailored to each client's case, such as legal advice dissuading clients from making witchcraft accusations and police referral letters in serious cases of violence. But with some cases, we had to humbly accept that the power of the law is not always enough. During our initial consultations with Selene, she found our explanations of Malawi's witchcraft law, which outlaws accusations of witchcraft, to be unhelpful. She didn't believe the law offered an appealing solution to her predicament.
We had to look beyond the law. We switched gears and asked Selene to bring Emma into the clinic. When we first met Emma she was wearing a blue dress the color of the sky. She was painfully shy but obviously a special, magnetic child. We all noticed her beautiful eyes, deep pools of curiosity.
We sat in a small circle with Emma underneath a tent. She told us that the witches had punished her for discussing their nightly trips to the forest. "I've heard of other children who are also taken at night by witches," she said sadly. At one point, she said the "spirits" were watching her, and she became quiet and withdrawn.
Selene and Emma truly believed something terrible had befallen Emma. In order to help them, my students and I had to understand the context in which we were working. Many Malawians hold similar beliefs about the possibility of bewitchment, and we had heard numerous disturbing tales involving children and witchcraft from other clients in the clinic.
We moved to solutions. The goal of our "intervention" was for Selene and Emma to reject the idea that Emma was bewitched. They told us they were devout Christians and had fervently prayed for Emma's protection. So, even though the students and I were a motley crew of atheists, Jews, Sikhs and spiritualists, we decided to try and dislodge Selene's and Emma's belief that Emma was bewitched by appealing to their unwavering confidence in the protective, positive elements of their faith. We understood that our personal beliefs were irrelevant.
We first suggested that Selene and Emma chant nightly affirmations rejecting the idea that Emma is a witch. We also told them to repeat these affirmations when Emma awoke in the night and when other school children teased her. Then we all held hands in the circle and chanted in unison, "Emma is not a witch. Emma is a daughter of God." As we repeated the chant in both English and the local language Chichewa, Emma eagerly looked at all of us, intently following the movement of our lips, a smile as warm as summer slowly appearing on her once forlorn face. And then the rain suddenly began to pour, a thunderous percussion to our chants.
The next day we invited Selene and Emma back to the clinic for a follow-up session. We were relieved when they told us that for the first time in a year Emma had peacefully slept through the night. The "witches" hadn't come to take her. Instead, Emma said she had dreamt of all of us forming a circle of protection around her.
We wrote a "contract" to bind the group -- a written affirmation in Chichewa rejecting the idea that Emma is, or ever was, a witch -- and we all signed our names and gave it to Emma for safe keeping. Selene also confidently, lovingly signed her name to the contract. And then we held hands and again chanted, "Emma is not a witch. Emma is a daughter of God." Curiously, as soon as we started to chant, the clear sky once again began to thunder.
Our Malawian partner N.G.O. conducts monthly follow-up checks with Selene and Emma. Selene happily reports that Emma is thriving and blossoming. My students send Emma care packages with notes in Chichewa telling her how special she is and encouraging her love of math and dreams of becoming a teacher.
Many other stories involving children and witchcraft do not end on such a bright note of hope. To confront the relatively recent phenomenon of accusations of witchcraft against children, governments struggling with this issue must develop public sensitization campaigns that firmly dispel the crippling, destructive notion that children can be witches. Governments must also rally NGOs, religious organizations, traditional healers, police, and the justice system to join in the fight against child abuse and abandonment linked to witchcraft, drawing on the deep reservoirs of love and care for children that exist in African communities.
When I think of Emma, I remember her moonbeam smile and her radiant innocence. But I also think of the thousands of children accused of witchcraft whose futures will not be as bright, absent critical child protection intervention and support.
Names in this article have been changed to protect client confidentiality.