In 2010, an African woman petitioned for political asylum in the U.S. on what seemed to be rather far-fetched grounds: She claimed her life was in jeopardy because she had been accused of being a witch. The woman, who was from Guinea, said villagers believed she was a witch because she had given birth to an intersex child. The woman contended that she needed asylum because when she was a girl she had witnessed another accused witch burned alive.  

While this statement may seem straight out of 1690s Salem, it is far from an isolated case.

“Violence driven by beliefs in witchcraft is widespread and a critical problem on the African continent,” says Katherine Luongo, an associate professor of history at Northeastern and the first scholar to undertake a serious study of witchcraft-related asylum petitions.

In Tanzania alone, more than 3,000 accused witches were murdered between 2005 and 2011, according to a 2011 Tanzania Human Rights Report. In Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of children as young as 2 years old have been murdered, burned, or tortured after being accused of witchcraft. The Tanzania report says that “the most susceptible group is elderly women with red eyes,” noting that the condition is most likely caused by cooking over fires made of dried cow dung.

Witchcraft-related violence has become so widespread in Ghana that five “witch camps” hold nearly 1,000 accused witches who have been forced to flee their villages to avoid being murdered, according to a 2012 report in the BBC News Magazine. These people, mostly women and children, typically live in such camps for decades. They are housed in primitive mud huts with no electricity or running water, no school, and little food.

While the government sees the camps as an embarrassment and would like to dismantle them, there are serious concerns about the safety of the inhabitants should they be returned to their villages.

Witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa poses an even greater threat to albinos, who are often considered less than human and referred to as “ghost people,” according to the U.N. News Center. In a number of African countries, albinos are viciously attacked by profiteers with machetes or murdered for their body parts, which are considered particularly potent for witchcraft practices.

In Tanzania, which has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, 71 albinos were killed and 31 maimed between 2006 and 2012, according to a story on National Public Radio. In a two-week span earlier this year in Tanzania, vigilantes hacked the arms off a 7-year-old boy, a mother sleeping with her children, and a 10-year-old boy on his way home from school.

Fueled by Fear and Profit

As with the Salem Witch Trials back in 1692, the brutal attacks in modern Africa are often fueled by fear. There is a widespread belief in this region that witches cast spells that cause disease, accidents, poverty, business failures, famine, droughts, earthquakes, infertility, and every other calamity known to mankind. To people who believe this—50 percent of the region’s population, according to a recent Gallup poll—the only way to protect themselves is to banish or kill the witch.

There is also a link between witchcraft and financial gain—what Luongo refers to as the “occult economy.” Pentecostal and evangelical ministers use the power of television, radio, and the Internet to sell exorcisms to accused witches. Meanwhile, witch doctors profit from selling protection from witchcraft or provide evil spells that people can cast on their enemies for revenge. There is money to be made by robbing graves for body parts used in witchcraft ceremonies and, on an even more gruesome level, huge profits from selling albino body parts. Other industries profit as well—when children accused of witchcraft are banished, they often become homeless and are forced into cheap child labor.

“This is a human rights issue, and it shows us the power of perceptions to really affect the material conditions of life and people’s basic safety in the world,” says Luongo.

The Accidental Scholar

Yet the issue of witchcraft accusations in Africa remains largely hidden from the public. Luongo, herself, learned of it by chance.

Katherine Luongo is associate professor of history. She was recently awarded a spring 2014 fellowship from the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, where she’ll continue her research on political asylum for alleged witches before returning to Northeastern. She also received a Library of Congress John W. Kluge Fellowship.
After developing an interest in Africa as a history and political science major at Vanderbilt, she earned a master’s degree in contemporary Kenyan history at the University of Iowa. While researching another subject as a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she stumbled on records from the 1930s in which a member of the British Parliament asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what he planned to do about 60 Wakamba men who had been sentenced to death for murdering an alleged witch. Since the defendants sincerely believed their actions were a form of self-defense—and the community agreed—executing them would have been disastrous to respect for British law. The colonial governor commuted their sentences.

Luongo was intrigued, and began to explore the intersection between colonial governance and Kenyan witchcraft. This led to her dissertation and her first book, Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900–1955, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. The book examines the legal and cultural conflicts between British colonial authorities and Kenyans over witchcraft-related crimes.

While working on her PhD, Luongo learned Swahili and spent the summer of 2001 in London, Tanzania, and Kenya researching British programs aimed at eradicating African witchcraft during the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising of the mid-1950s. She describes Britain’s ill-fated attempts to solve the problem through a variety of social and legal programs. One attempt was to persuade the Kamba people to swear off witchcraft in ceremonies in which they publicly burned their witchcraft paraphernalia. In return, they received a certificate saying they were now loyal subjects of the empire.

What observers are beginning to realize is that the belief in witchcraft is so deeply ingrained in African culture that it cannot be easily eradicated by the Western legal system. In fact, the imposition of British law may have actually made it easier for witchcraft to flourish.

Legal Loophole

Ironically, it was the imposition of British law in Kenya that laid the groundwork for widespread witch murders, according to Luongo. In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1736 outlawed witchcraft trials and made it illegal to “pretend” to be a witch, thus eliminating the implication that witchcraft was real. This worked well enough in England, but when a similar law was adopted in Kenya in the 20th century, it meant that special tribal councils could no longer preside over accusations of witchcraft, as they’d done for generations. With no way to resolve witchcraft disputes, the door was opened to vigilante justice, a point that defendants emphasized before colonial jurists.

Their argument, according to Luongo, went roughly as follows: “You’ve disabled our local mechanisms of justice, which stop short of murder, so there’s nothing for us to do except kill these witches to protect ourselves.”  She says the same sorts of cases keep turning up in post-colonial Kenyan courts, where defendants say: “I had to murder so-and-so because he or she is a witch.”

Luongo says today’s asylum courts in Europe and North America are in danger of making the same mistake—failing to recognize how much witchcraft beliefs are a part of African culture. She cites a recent Canadian petition as a case in point.
In 2006, a Tanzanian woman petitioned for asylum in Canada, claiming that her husband’s family belonged to a clan that practices witchcraft against educated and prosperous relatives like herself. She claimed they had threatened her and that she feared that if she returned home, they would use witchcraft to kill her.

Canadian immigration authorities were not convinced. Since witchcraft is illegal in Tanzania, they contended that the laws there would protect her. Furthermore, they insisted that her problems stemmed more from internecine jealousies than any legitimate danger from witchcraft. Her petition was denied.

According to Luongo, it’s highly possible the woman would be murdered if she returned to Tanzania. She says the Canadian board’s decision to deny asylum highlights how little Westerners understand about witchcraft beliefs in Africa today—a widespread and deadly serious matter, even among educated people and those who belong to mainstream religions.

The Asylum Escape

Because it is so dangerous to be accused of witchcraft in Africa, and because local authorities offer the accused insufficient protection, one option is to flee to the West and seek asylum as a “member of a persecuted social group.”

Luongo is on sabbatical this year in London and Tanzania to research her next book, Witches and Bureaucrats: Witchcraft-Driven Violence in Africa and Its Relationship to Global Asylum-Seeking. The book will examine witchcraft-related claims by asylum seekers as a window into how witchcraft “exists as an engine of violence in the contemporary world,” says Luongo. In addition to a detailed examination of asylum petitions, it will include chapters on NGO responses to witchcraft-driven violence, and a legal genealogy of witchcraft in Tanzania.

Residents of the Gambaga witch camp in northern Ghana live in mud huts with no electricity or running water.
For the past several years, Luongo has been combing through court and immigration board records from the U.S., Australia, Great Britain, and Canada to research cases of Africans petitioning for asylum on witchcraft-related claims. She says there have been at least 20 such petitions since the early 1990s, when this trend seems to have begun. While Luongo doesn’t doubt that some asylum seekers assert witchcraft-related danger as a pretext, she’s certain that many petitioners face real danger in their home communities.

Luongo, who has testified as an expert in two asylum cases, believes many petitions will be successful because there is ample evidence of witchcraft killings across the African continent.  

Adam Ashforth, an anthropologist and political scientist specializing in African history at the University of Michigan, tells his students that today’s asylum hearings are, indeed, modern-day witchcraft trials. “The courts are trying to determine whether or not the person seeking asylum is considered a witch in their home country. If the answer is yes, they get asylum and they don’t get burned at the stake,” he says. “I think it’s a kind of delicious irony that law is still trying to answer that question.”
Ashforth notes that it’s unsettling for the typical Western judge to deal with such cases.

“They don’t know what to make of it, and get very, very, very skeptical,” says Ashforth, who has also studied some of the witchcraft-related asylum petitions in his home country of Australia. “You can picture someone in a courtroom in Canberra [Australia’s capital] trying to figure out if this Nigerian really would be hounded to death back in the village. Fundamentally, many of the legal people just simply can’t believe this stuff is real in the sense that it really matters in daily life in Africa. They’re baffled.”

A Changing Mindset

Still, some petitioners have been successful. Spain
granted asylum to an albino man who feared being hacked to death for his body parts to be used in witchcraft. Luongo is also encouraged that the Guinea woman—the one whose child was born intersex—won her petition for asylum in the U.S.  It bodes well, she says, that her victory was due largely to the fact that a major U.S. law firm, White & Case, agreed to represent her pro bono. The firm put many hours of research into their client’s strange case.

“It’s so hard for an American audience to understand, or believe, that [witchcraft] is really something that even educated people [in Africa] believe in,” says Lynn Diamond, an associate at White & Case in New York.

Luongo hopes to play a major role in supporting firms that agree to take on witchcraft asylum cases. “In my discussions with immigration attorneys or attorneys who do pro bono immigration work, I have found that they are generally inclined to take on witchcraft cases, but often feel that they lack the necessary expertise. It’s my goal for academic research to provide the knowledge necessary for attorneys to feel confident in representing clients whose cases revolve around the dangers of—to borrow Adam Ashforth’s phrase—‘living in a world with witches.’”

Elaine McArdle is a writer living in Portland, Ore.