Fear of Witchcraft
An attack by evil spirits is not something we had been prepared to discuss on a sunny fall afternoon, but there it was.
We had been strolling through the European Jewellery gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum with our refugee student crew, when Rebecca (from Congo) said: “I like jewellery but I don’t wear it, you don’t know what spirit is inside, many witch they make the spirit inside the jewellery then who wears it can die, so I don’t wear this. The spirit will come.”
Rebecca, who had been in the UK about three months, became increasingly animated, her eyes flitting from one piece to another.
“I am getting scared here, because so much jewellery you don’t know. You don’t know where. Who has the jewellery before, if they are voodoo you know. How did they die, this is what I know. I have to tell you, because you are staying here a long time to looking the jewellery. See, I am not feeling good.”
Anna and I reassured her that voodoo magic is not practised in the UK, and then complimented her on her excellent English.
“I went to the university in Congo, I am proud I speak many language,” she said, regaining her composure.
Which languages we ask, relieved to have the conversation take a happy turn away from the fear of witchcraft and the imminent spell the jewellery may have cast over our volunteers had they continued to gaze at the artefacts on display much longer.
In another discussion a refugee student claimed that women only get upset because they are often possessed by the juju spirit. There were two volunteers and three refugee students in the discussion group and thankfully the Nigerian refugee student gently rebuked the Congolese student for his sexist remark, which left one participant angry (refugee) and another slightly uncomfortable (volunteer). The person who uttered the remark is a considerate, helpful, gregarious refugee student who often stays back to help clean up. It was important to make him see that this framework for female emotion is a sexist one, and that it is unacceptable to espouse these views in mainstream society or even more fringe groups.
We come across the fear of spirits and witch craft quite often in discussions with beneficiaries. We believe it is important to help them confront this fear because if they continue to believe in evil spirits they can often be coerced by quacks and witch doctors to commit acts they are uncomfortable with or coerced into situations they don't want to be in. A gentle way to do it is to laugh it off and explain that in London there are no witches and evil spirits don't have any impact or power here, and explain that you do not believe in their existence, if there is no time to engage in a discussion about logic and rational thinking. These ideas and beliefs are deep seated and can be dangerous to the individuals who are rendered vulnerable because of them. Our field teams have repeatedly been called on to rescue girls who have been sexually abused because they had been told by self described witch doctors that their family members would be cursed if they did not participate in sexual acts.
If any topic emerges that you are uncomfortable or feel untrained for, please flag the issue to the trainer, or to group leader on the day.
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