ABOVE PHOTO: CRARN Academy serves street and abandoned children, some branded as witches and wizards, to stop them from being killed and to ensure their rehabilitation by providing educational services.
Located in southeastern Nigeria, Akwa Ibom State claims to have more churches per square mile than any other place on the planet. But this abundant piety has a chilling dark side: A virulent strain of Pentecostalism, blended with native beliefs, inspires hysteria when bad fortune or illness befalls the area, with preachers and families branding children witches. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that tens of thousands of innocent children have been targeted throughout Africa, including 15,000 in Akwa Ibom State alone.
Directed by Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk and narrated by Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”), Saving Africa’s Witch Children exposes the grimly appalling treatment of children deemed witches, and chronicles the work of two men who have devoted their lives to helping those ostracized by their communities. Winner of an International Emmy® last year, this shocking documentary debuts Wednesday, May 26 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO2.
To many of the superstitious in Africa, no event has a natural, causal or scientific reason. Any tragedy – disease, miscarriage, unemployment or death in the family – is considered the work of witches. And defenseless children, sometimes as young as three months, can be scapegoated and subjected to horrifying punishments.
The lucky are merely ostracized by their families and left to fend for their own, while others are tortured through a myriad of methods, from being set afire to having nails driven into their skulls, or simply murdered.
Saving Africa’s Witch Children follows the work of Gary Foxcroft, a 29-year-old Briton who works to help these vulnerable and innocent children through his charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which raises funds to aid orphans living in the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) shelter. Observes Nigerian Sam Itauma, who runs the shelter and cares for more than 150 orphans, “Putting a traditional [local] religion together with Christianity…makes nonsense of it.”
Says Foxcroft, “It is an absolute scandal. Any Christian would be absolutely outraged that they are taking the teachings of Christ to exploit and abuse innocent children.” The documentary includes footage of children from Foxcroft’s shelter being threatened by angry locals. He adds, “It’s really difficult not to lose your temper when you’re just in the face of pure bloody hatred, and then they say, ‘Oh, I’m a Christian.’ “
Gavan and van der Valk expose the work of “Bishop” Sunday Ulup-Aya, who charges families up to a year’s salary – in Nigeria, many survive on just a dollar a day – to “exorcise” children suspected of witchcraft, feeding them a toxin he calls a “poison destroyer,” which consists of alcohol, African mercury and his own blood. If families cannot pay his fee, he holds their children captive.
Saving Africa’s Witch Children also reveals the disturbing activities of one of Nigeria’s wealthiest evangelical priestesses, Helen Ukpabio of Liberty Church, who has created books and films decrying witchcraft. Her film “End of the Wicked” depicts “child witches” being inducted into covens and eating human flesh; it would be laughable horror-movie trash if the locals didn’t take it so seriously. Ukpabio claims her films and teachings are true to the Bible and a means of spreading God’s word.
In a vague attempt to protect children, Nigeria created the Child’s Rights Act, but some areas, including Akwa Ibom State, don’t enforce it, stripping police of their ability to protect the vulnerable. Foxcroft organizes a demonstration at the residence of Akwa Ibom State Governor Godswill Akpabio, with children bearing placards reading, “We are not witches or wizards.” The governor responds by promising to try and protect them. The film has subsequently helped improve child protection laws in the region.
Directors Mags Gavan and Joost Van Der Valk formed RedRebel Films in 2007 to create documentaries that effect social change. Together with co-producers Oxford Scientific Films, they produced Saving Africa’s Witch Children. RedRebel Films include “Bad Blood,” an investigation into illegal blood transfusions resulting in patients getting HIV, and “Crips: Strapped n Strong,” about the most feared criminal gang in Europe. RedRebel Films is currently working on projects about the far right movement in Europe and child poverty in South America.