Intervening in cases of witchcraft allegations and witch hunting is a moral duty. It is a social obligation that should be fulfilled. Victims of witchcraft allegations are usually defenceless, helpless vulnerable members of the population, children, elderly persons and people living with disabilities. Witch persecution takes various forms: torture, banishment and trial by ordeal. Witchcraft accusation is a form of death sentence. Witch hunters want to avenge the harm that the accused have supposedly done. If the accusers do not immediately kill the accused, they murder them at a later date. If they do not get the accused to quickly die, they make sure that they die slowly. Alleged witches have limited options.
On June 30, 2019, someone sent me this message via the Facebook drawing attention to the plight of an accused woman:
“Hello Sir, my name is Ben. I need you assistance for an Auntie at my maternal side called Idumoza-Irrua in Esan Central LGA of Edo State, being accused of witchcraft and whose fate is hanging on the balance for life/death decision tomorrow 1 July 2019. Kindly give your number to brief you and get support from you. Please help to save another innocent life”.
I do not visit my Facebook messenger very often. I read the message on July 4. I contacted Ben, via the telephone number that he left on the message, and he confirmed the story. I have been discussing details of a new role as the campaigns director with a Non Governmental Organization, Witchcraft Human Rights Information Network. Due to limited funds, such interventions could not be done. So I was unable to travel to Edo state in July. I could not do much to respond to the urgent request. And my inability to do so haunted me.
Meanwhile, I never gave up exploring ways of intervening in this case. I continued to explore every opportunity to visit and support the woman. I wanted to use this accusation as a test case. I wanted to send a message of hope and solidarity to alleged witches and their families. I wanted to notify all witch hunters and their enablers that their days of operation are numbered. An opportunity came late in November. I was returning from the controversial ‘witchcraft’ conference in Nsukka and decided to stop over in Edo state to visit the accused. Meanwhile, in the past months I have tried to address issues related to my personal security.
Risks and Worries Over Safety
Intervening in cases of witchcraft allegations is associated with risks. A witch is perceived as the enemy of the society. And anyone who tries to save or support an alleged witch is equally seen as an enemy. People usually refrain from getting involved in witch hunting cases due to fear of being implicated and subsequently killed by the accusers. I was warned to stay away and not to make the trip to Idumoza. But I wanted this culture of impunity to end and for alleged witches to receive the support that they desperately needed. Ben gave me the contact of another relative who would guide me to the village. I called him and he said that Idumozza was a rural community that could easily be accessed with a moto bike, or Okada as popularly known in Nigeria. Some of the friends that I told that I would be visiting this village to try and save the life of the accused woman asked me: What if this was a set up? What if they overpowered and killed you there? There were so many questions regarding my personal safety and security. I had to reasonable replies or explanations. Risks and concerns over my safety did not perturb me more than the dangers that I believed that this alleged witch faced. I have always known that such missions would be associated with risks. The only thing in my mind was to do all I could to see this woman and be sure that she was safe.
Ben gave me another contact of a lecturer at Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma. He said the lecturer hailed from a neighbouring community and could provide me some information on allegations of witchcraft and also some assistance. I called the lecturer and explained my mission. But he denied knowing anything about witchcraft accusations in the community. He is from a neighbouring village, Ozalla where some years ago over 20 suspected witches died after taking some concoctions. I rang up another university teacher in Abuja who used to lecture at AAU. I have known him for so many years. I asked him to link me up to someone who could accompany me to Irrua. He asked me the purpose of my mission. I told him that I was going there to intervene in a witch hunting case. He remarked: Hia! He said that he would get back to me. And he never did. After the attempts to get more people to support my mission failed, I decided to go it alone relying on the contact that Ben sent me. I bought a bottle of whiskey, which I planned to give to the head of the Idumoza community or the King (Onojie) of Irrua.
Planning a trip
My contact person, Austin, is in his 30s. He is an electrician. Calm and soft-spoken, Austin studied electrical engineering at the polytechnic. He asked me to alight at Uromi, not Ekpoma as I had intended. He said Uromi was nearer to the woman’s village. I checked into a hotel and waited for him. He came to see me about 7 pm. We discussed and firmed up our trip to Idumoza the following day. Austin advised that we go there in the evening because people used to go to the farm in the morning. He did not have the telephone contact of anyone. He noted that it was in the evening that we would likely see the woman. I was actually happy that the woman was able to go to the farm, at least he could ‘freely move around’.
Azen: The Esan Witch
I had nothing to do in the morning of the day that we were to visit Idumoza. I decided to go to the nearby market to converse with people and to understand the local notion of witchcraft. I went to a book shop and after purchasing an exercise book and a pen, I asked the sales boy what they call a witch in the area. He looked at me and smiled. He then looked in the direction of some elderly persons sitting beside the shop as if he was telling me: “Ask them”. I repeated the question looking at one man who was repairing a footwear. The man was also slow to answering my question. Another man in his company, who retired from the military said: It is Azen. I repeated it several times to make sure that I correctly got the pronunciation . According to him, these are people who fly like birds at night; they beat and press people while they are sleeping. He recounted a personal experience where witches attacked him. He claimed that witches hit him on the arm at night and he had pains for a long time. The man later went to an Oboh (native doctor) who gave him something that he applied on that part of the body and also something that he tied and placed in his house. And since he did that, the man said, the witches had not come again. I inquired to know the Oboh that gave him the anti witchcraft medicine. He said the doctor was based in Uzea, a distant rural community. I told a motorcyclist to take me to Uzea but he said it was far from Uromi. I wanted to know how native doctors in the area detected and treated witchcraft. The motorcyclist said we should visit native doctors that were within Uromi town. I agreed and we took off.
Consulting an Oboh (Native Doctor)
We moved about 500 meters and left the tarred road, and started driving on a dusty footpath. I was wondering why the native doctors seldom live and operate in decent areas and estate. The motorcyclist suddenly stopped beside a haggard looking man who was coming in the opposite direction. The man spoke threateningly in the local esan language to the motorcyclist as if they were quarreling. As if he was saying “I don’t want to see you in my place again!”. I kept quiet. The motorcyclist did not say anything. He quietly turned back. We drove a few meters and I asked him what was wrong. And he said: “That was the man we wanted to see”. “We had some misunderstanding sometime ago, I thought he had forgotten but he’s still bearing grudges”. What was the misunderstanding about? I inquired. The motorcyclist hissed as if he was experiencing some emotional pain. I asked him to take me to a nearby restaurant. I offered him a bottle of beer and asked him to tell me what transpired between him and the Oboh. He said that it was a misunderstanding in connection with some medicine he asked the man to prepare when he was traveling to Europe. The native doctor asked him to pay 30,000 naira for the medicine that will enable him prosper in foreign lands. Unfortunately he could not afford the money. He travelled without the medicine, went up to Senegal and from there he was repatriated. He recounted the story sighing and hissing intermittently.
After narrating his experience, the motorcyclist asked if I was interested in visiting another native doctor, and I said: Yes. I told him that I wanted to find out how native doctors in Uromi detected and treated witchcraft. He suggested that the best way was to tell the native doctor that I wanted to examine my life. I agreed.
We eventually arrived at the home of a native doctor after traveling down another potholed, dusty road. It was a two-room apartment. In front of the house was a carved piece with some red and white cloth, some needles and sprinkled blood that had turned black due to the heat from the sun.
As soon as we arrived I heard some noise at the backyard. The motorcyclist said that the Oboh was busy attending to someone. As we were waiting for somebody to come and direct us on what to do I peered into one of the rooms and it was filled with all sorts of things, white and red cloth, black and white stones, pieces of metals, bones and sticks etc. A young man in his late 30 came from the backyard and told us to follow him. We sat briefly under the shade where he welcomed us. I was later ushered into a room where the native doctor, another young man in his late thirties was sitting on the floor. He asked me to pay 1000 naira for consultation. I hesitated and waned to pay less but he refused. And I paid. He gave me a black stone and asked me to speak to it, to say my name and my mission. I said that my name was Idris and I had come to examine my life. I used to lie whenever I visited shrine priests and native doctors. I wanted to know if they could use their powers to detect that I was lying but they never did. I told the Oboh that my parents were dead, that all my uncles had passed on. I told him that I had a girl child from a former marriage. All these were lies.The Oboh looked into the divinational bowel containing pieces of metal, coins and stones with silver and black colours. He looked at them as if he was communicating with them. Occasionally, after I made a statement, he would say, that is what the gods are saying.
The Oboh told me that night people were meeting under the banana tree behind my family house and advised me to give them their food to avert further misfortune and calamities. I expressed surprise that the night people were convening behind my family house. And the Oboh laughed. He said that they were not meeting there physically but spiritually. I inquired the type of food that the night people wanted. And he said I should bring a goat, white cloth, a small basket, cassava fufu, cocked rice and stew.
The Oboh told me that the mother of my daughter was a witch and that he would give me special Ukhumu (medicine) that I would use to neutralize her witchcraft. But the Oboh advised me to do ‘the pot of life’. He said the pot of life will open doors to better business and protect me from all dangers. His assistant showed me two other pots of life that they prepared for some people. The Oboh said that the pot of life would cost 150,000 naira (400 dollars). I told the Oboh that I needed to go home and look for the money to procure the pot of life. But before I left I was able to capture a photo of the carved item at the compound and another photo of a section of the consulting room. My motorcyclist asked me to wait outside while he chatted with the Oboh. I thought it was a discussion to get the Oboh to give him some money from the consultation fee that i paid.
Ride to Idumoza
I agreed with Austin that we would leave for Idumoza by 3.30pm. But he arrived my hotel 20 minutes to 5pm. At a point I thought that the visit would not hold. We hired a motorbike and the driver agreed to wait for us and bring us back to Uromi. The trip took us from one local government to another. Idumoza is in Esan Central and Uromi is in Esan North East. We arrived Idumoza by 5.30pm after traveling through some remote communities and forest like areas with very tall trees. Erosion has destroyed the road that leads to the village. It was a very rough ride. A motobike was the best means of accessing Idumoza. It would have been a huge mistake if we had hired a taxi. After making some inquiries we arrived at the family house of the accused woman. In her 70s, the woman was sitting on a white plastic chair. There were three other women in the compound. Austin spoke briefly in the local language explaining our mission and the woman said nodding: “Yes I am the one”. I was relieved. The accused woman looked relaxed and warmed up to us immediately.
She recounted how she was accused on two occasions, taken to the elders, then to the Onojie and the Obor for confirmation. She said that she had not faced any threat to her life since then, and in fact that her life had returned to normal. She had started exchanging greetings with some of her accusers. I was relieved.
My guide, Austin, advised that we refrain from taking any further actions that would reignite the problem. I did not visit the head of the community or the palace of the Onojie. We gave the family members the number to call in case anyone threatened her. It was getting dark and we had a long way to go. We took some photos with the accused woman and left for Uromi. I hope to visit her again as soon as I can. At the moment, I will be in contact with Austin and Ben to ensure that no harm befalls this innocent woman.
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.