Why I have a problem with Hallowe'en
by Susie Howe
In a few days time, my lounge will be packed with teenagers from my church youth club, carving up pumpkins and trying not to slice off their fingers in the process! But instead of creating faces of witches and demons, we’ll be carving heartfelt messages of peace and love that will glow warmly once the candles are lit on the 31st October.
So why not witches and demons? The truth is: I have a problem with Hallowe’en. It’s not just because it’s become yet another mass consumerism exercise. It’s also that children are paraded around dressed as witches and demons. Although this may be just a bit of play-acting fun for children and families in the UK, in other parts of the world there are many thousands of children who are brutally abused, rejected and abandoned because they are genuinely thought to be ‘witches’ and ‘possessed by the devil.’ These children suffer unspeakably. Being branded as a witch is a death sentence for some. It certainly robs them of their childhood, their true identity and scars them for life.
Much of my life is now devoted to working with others to end witchcraft accusations against children. It seems extraordinary to me now that prior to 2008, I hadn’t even heard of the issue. But that’s before I heard of the case of Aristote.
I first read his story in an email from a pastor in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, who leads EPED, a project devoted to working with street children and those accused of witchcraft. I direct The Bethany Children’s Trust (BCT) and as an organisation we had just started working in partnership with EPED. We were excited to contribute to this amazing project that would be a lifeline to so many vulnerable children.
By the time I had finished reading Pastor Ngolo’s email, I was in tears. He described in great detail how 11 year old Aristote had been accused of being a witch by his auntie and uncle because the uncle had lost his job. They believed that Aristote had cursed them. Upon taking him to a so-called ‘prophet and prophetess’, they had their suspicions confirmed: Aristote was declared a ‘witch’. He was taken to a clearing, a bonfire was lit and he was held over the flames. Having burned the flesh off his buttocks and groin, the perpetrators locked Aristote up for 4 months and starved him of food in an attempt to get him to confess to being a ‘witch’. EPED came to hear about this shocking case of child abuse. They enlisted the help of lawyers and were able to not only rescue Aristote, who miraculously survived, but also to get the perpetrators imprisoned. EPED managed to find a safe and loving new home for Aristote where he went on to heal and flourish.
After reading Aristote’s story, I knew that BCT had to do all we can to help children like Aristote. The more we researched the issue, the more we realised the enormous scale and complexity of it. Many thousands of children across the globe suffer the same horrifying abuse. It seemed overwhelming.
As a Christian agency mobilising churches to respond to the needs of marginalised children, BCT knew that we needed to help churches to address the issue and to lead the way in bringing about change. We could see that not only were some churches part of the problem, but that many also wanted to be part of the solution but didn’t know where to start. At BCT, we knew that we couldn’t hope to make an impact on our own. We needed to act together with other agencies who shared the same vision to stop child witch accusations. Because of the contentious and complex issues surrounding this abuse, many organisations and individuals we spoke to were reluctant to get involved.
But, on 20th January 2012, we found ourselves sitting around a table with a few other agencies that could not turn a blind eye to the suffering of children like Aristote. Stop Child Witch Accusations (SCWA) was born! One of those agencies around the table was Safe Child Africa, who had invaluable experience in advocating for children accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. We were ready to combine our skills, influence and experience to bring about change together.
Since that first meeting back in 2012, SCWA has worked with our partners in Nigeria, DRCongo and now Togo to raise awareness and to bring together academics, theologians, church and community leaders find ways to change the understanding, beliefs and practices that drive witchcraft accusations. We have helped to organise roundtable action forums and create spaces for people to speak out and share knowledge, teaching and training. We have helped to fund and organise vital research; created training tools and resources that address the roots of this abuse and empowered local organisations in areas where witchcraft accusations are prevalent to intervene effectively and protect children. We are starting to see children accused of witchcraft being fostered and cared for; families being reconciled; church leaders and parents renouncing harmful beliefs and beginning to champion children’s rights.
This work is a marathon, not a sprint, and we plan to be on the ground for a long time, delving ever more deeply into the issues. But change is coming and makes all the hard work worthwhile. We need more running partners and would love you to join with us so that we can turn this issue around together. Go to SCWA's website to find out how you can get involved.
During one of my visits to DRCongo, a couple of people said in a matter of fact manner, ‘you have child witches in the UK and the States. We see they make themselves public during your Halloween.’ On pressing them further on this, I learned that they had seen via television children in the UK dressed as demons and witches walking the streets and believed them to be real.
This Hallowe’en, remember the Aristote’s of this world. For children like him, it’s no laughing matter.
Susie Howe is Founding Director of The Bethany Children’s Trust and Chair of Stop Child Witch Accusations, which she helped to set up. During 17 years of directing BCT, Susie has travelled frequently to different nations on the African continent to help train churches and local community groups in the care and protection of marginalised children and to encourage them to address harmful beliefs and practices that put children at risk. Susie is the wife of a church leader and lives in London.