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Opinions of Friday, 16 October 2015

Columnist: Igwe, Leo

A Critical Look at Beggars and Witch hunts in Africa

By Leo Igwe

The lynching of a female beggar for witchcraft in Kebbi Northern Nigeria underscores the link between begging and harmful magic in African cosmologies. This superstitious pattern that persists in the minds of people across the region motivates many to commit atrocious acts. A lynch mob in the tourist town of Argungu burnt a woman to death after accusing her of going from house to house to snatch the souls of people while begging. Witches are believed to be 'soul eaters' and by consuming the animating principles in other humans, witches are supposedly able to achieve longevity and live healthier lives. Those who peddle this notion do not explain how 'eating the souls' of other people bestows long and healthy life on witches. The report does not contain details of the kind of beggar the woman was – whether she was a menacing and persistent beggar - and how she snatched the souls of people that she approached for help.

In a related development, a middle aged man shot and wounded a woman in Yendi, in Northern Ghana in February. The man accused the woman of killing the brother through occult means. The brother was a civil servant and could not lend money to the alleged witch who approached him for some financial support because he had not received his monthly salary. The man took ill and died shortly after this encounter and some of his family members suspected that the woman who came to borrow money was responsible for the death. One evening, a brother to the deceased went to the woman's house and shot her with a gun. But the woman survived. She sustained some bullet wounds and was rushed to a local hospital where she was treated. In some communities, beggars are feared and demonized because people think that beggars use evil magic against those who turn down their requests for money or help.

Begging is linked to witchcraft because the practice is associated with malice and destructive contagious magic. Some people believe that when they turn down the request for assistance from a beggar, he or she could curse them out of anger, jealousy and frustration or cause them to suffer some misfortune such as sickness or death. So when people experience some strange harm after an encounter with a beggar, they tend to suspect witchcraft or occult harm. There is also the notion that beggars use the alms which they receive from persons to injure or kill the givers through a destructive contagious magical influence. The belief is that a beggar takes something given to him to a medicine man or woman who would perform some ritual that could injure or kill the alms-giver.

These notions are informed by fear, ignorance, anxieties and causal linking and association of unrelated events and phenomena. In the face of undeserved and illegitimate misfortune, some persons deploy these misconceptions and mistaken patterns to cope with pain, loss and uncertainties. People ascribe responsibility for death or misfortune to beggars because these are persons to whom such a label could easily be applied. Beggars are those who could easily be scapegoated.

So the lynching of the female beggar in Kebbi is a disturbing precedent particularly in a region where begging is a common practice. Many muslims give alms as a demonstration of their piety and many indigent persons resort to begging as a means of livelihood. So the association of begging with witchcraft spells doom for the thousands of persons across the region. So there is an urgent need to educate the public in northern Nigeria and Ghana and get them to stop linking begging with witchcraft because such a connection does not exist and has no basis in reason, science or in reality.
Many muslim scholars claim that the belief in witchcraft is incompatible with Islam. So now is the time for such scholars to speak out against this destructive trend before it engulfs the entire region. However tackling the problem of witch hunting should not be left to muslim clerics alone because some of them who subscribe to Saudi wahabi Islam regard witchcraft as a capital offence. They think that witchcraft is a form of heresy or 'jinncraft'.
So a rational and critical thinking-based response is urgently needed to eradicate this social disease. In a region where poverty and misery drive people to beg and borrow, local authorities need to adopt measures to protect these vulnerable members of the population; they should provide response mechanisms to prevent the lynching of beggars in the name of witchcraft and ensure that those who persecute or execute beggars for witchcraft are brought to justice. It is important to make it clear to people that witchcraft is an imaginary offence and beggars cannot be witches. If beggars had the supposed magical powers which people thought they possessed, they would not beg in the first place. They would not allow themselves to be burnt to death by a lynch mob.