Africa: Child-witchcraft or Autism symptoms?

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Across Sub-Sahara Africa, children from underprivileged backgrounds who sometimes exhibit symptoms of Autism, are often labeled as witches or wizards, and victimized – poisoned, drowned, hacked to death with machetes or buried alive in an attempt to deliver their soul from the snare of the ‘devil’.

Autism, according to the U.S. autism science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, is a “complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others”. But in countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda, many churches organize fellowships and revival meetings to cast out the demons of witchcraft in children who exhibit such characteristics.

While witch hunting is considered a thing of the past in the entire western world, the practice remains a reality in Africa. A lack of scientific analysis or understanding of certain anomalies in children has perpetuated the belief in such superstitions as child-witchcraft.

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The children, often accused of witchcraft or wizardry and victimized, exhibit uncommon physical, mental, social and behavioral characteristics which may include acting up with intense tantrums, showing aggression to others or themselves, stubborn, preferring solitary or ritualistic play, do not startle at loud noises, and often refer to themselves in third person. In some cases even children who exhibit signs of physical ailments like allergies, asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, feeding disorders, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, etc, tend to find themselves doubly penalized by a society they helplessly depend upon for their existence.

But these characteristics, medically considered as symptoms of autism, are traditionally seen as unusual by some rural communities across Africa. Usually, illiterate parents, guardians and sometimes neighbors readily accept witchcraft as an explanation for extraordinary events. An act that shapes the future of autistic and underprivileged African children. And responsibility, more often than not, may be leveled at the whimsical pronouncements of powerful religious leaders at extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have usually combined to produce an entrenched belief in witchcraft.

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The belief in witchcraft is predominant amongst the underprivileged rural class, and it holds that child-witches bring destruction, waste, hardship, disease and death to their families. Other identified symptoms that worsen the plight of the so-called child-witches are crying and screaming in the night, hallucinations which sometimes arise from a high fever or other illness involving a fever, and worsening health – symptoms that can be found among many children in an impoverished region with poor health care.

In November 28, 2008, the reported the story of Mary, a five-year-old girl who was driven into the streets by her father, after the local priest denounced her as a witch and blamed her “evil powers” for causing her mother’s death.

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Ostracized, vulnerable and frightened, Mary wandered the streets in south-eastern Nigeria, struggling to stay alive. According to the report, Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa Ibom province with 150 other children who have been accused of being withdrawn, hardly responding to eye contact or smiles, treating others as if they were objects, preferring to spend time alone, rather than with others, and showing a lack of empathy.

Although attitudes are changing across Africa, many still believe that children like Mary who are often branded child-witches organize nocturnal meetings in the seas, oceans and forests where they feast on human blood, flesh or fetuses, and inflict harm or undermine the progress of people especially their family members.

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