From time immemorial, those that have been accused of causing suffering and pain through witchcraft have included: Widows, Parents of deceased, elderly people, children, women, and prosperous people. I’d like to briefly reflect on each group before providing some summary considerations.
In much of Africa, among the individuals most commonly accused of witchcraft are widows, or in rare instances, widowers. If a man dies, the first person likely to be accused is the widow of the deceased. In many Nigerian communities, after the death of the husband, the wife is made to sleep with the corpse for several days and is forced to drink water used in washing the corpse, to take an oath, to wear a black dress for at least a month, to not take a bath for many weeks, to shave her head, or even to drink poison as a test of whether she is truly a witch. It is often believed that the guilty will die after taking this poison, but that the innocent will survive the ordeal.
Even today, many widows are made to undergo various health-related rituals and anti-social and inhuman activities for alleged involvement in killing their spouses through witchcraft. There are instances when the widow is forced to have sexual intercourse with her father-in-law. Many widows have been driven away from their matrimonial homes because of being accused of witchcraft.
Parents of deceased
This is especially so if the father and/or mother are older. Worse still if the children start to die one after the other, the parents are often the most accused of bewitching their children. In my wife’s village, a widow lost five of her grown sons, one after the other. The villagers sent her packing because she was believed to have bewitched and killed all her male children. A grandmother in my village was also sent away because her grandchild died and her son accused her of being responsible. When I asked the son why his own mother had been sent away from her matrimonial home, he told me that his mother did not deny it when she was accused. According to him, not denying it is accepting responsibility of witchcraft.
Elderly people, especially those who have no wealthy children to support them in their old age, are often accused. If death happens, especially of a young man/woman, the most elderly is usually a suspect. In most African societies, it is believed that a young person does not die from natural causes; witchcraft must have caused the death of such young ones.
Children, especially orphans. Orphans are often accused of killing their parents and even siblings. My father in-law was raised without a mother because she had left to marry somebody else soon after he was born. He was often picked up and identified as the witch whenever anybody got sick or died. Today, there are countless numbers of children and especially orphans who are accused of witchcraft. They are coerced, beaten, intimidated and even tortured to make confessions.
Women, especially the elderly are often at risk of being labeled as witches. In my experience, over 80% of those accused of witchcraft are women. When I was a pastor in a local church almost thirty years ago, an elder in my church who was in his late sixties lost his wife. He accused his daughter-in-law of being a witch who was responsible for killing his wife. The two of us pastors and five elders went to discuss the matter with the elder, and he told us that he was sure that the daughter-in-law was responsible for bewitching his late wife. He therefore directed his son to either divorce his wife or they should just vacate his own compound. The son and his wife decided to leave the house, and relocated to the city.
Prosperous persons whose family members, especially children, die. A well-to-do person who loses his child or children can easily be accused of being a witch. A prominent chief whom I know had lost his wife, and then lost two of his adult sons and one daughter and grandson within a period of five years. One son, the daughter, and his grandson died suddenly from sickness. In fact his grandson died while in Europe. His other son was shot dead by unknown persons. He told me how people had accused him of being a witch who was responsible for the death of his children and grandchildren. His accusers alleged that he used his children and grandson to gain popularity and his current status as a chief. Those who are materially wealthy and those who suddenly become rich are often accused of witchcraft.
As one looks at the identity of those accused of witchcraft, it is clear that they are all vulnerable and are incapable of defending themselves. The widow, widower, the orphan, children, and the bereaved who have suffered great loss are major targets of witchcraft accusations. Accusing fingers are pointed at them from all directions; they are rejected and scorned by the community, and are under serious emotional trauma. They are not in position to fight back, argue, or even defend themselves, and they are by themselves without defenders or supporters. Even in cases where these false accusations are reported to the police, the cases do not see the light of day, as nobody would want to be seen defending or supporting an accused witch for fear of being seen as a partner in crime (witchcraft)!