The word witchcraft conjures an assortment of images. Most, if not all of them, are ones associated with an understanding of witchcraft as it applies to Europe or to the West. Mention Voodoo or Juju however and now a very different set of images emerges. Africa has its own distinctive narrative on the subject of witchcraft. For victims of the continent's modern slave trade this narrative is a living, breathing reality and one of great significance for those trying to understand the plight of Africa's trafficking victims. Its importance cannot be overstated. Lest any think it is overplayed, the U.S. State Department's 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report noted how in France "[s]ex trafficking networks controlled by Bulgarians, Nigerians, Romanians, Chinese, and French citizens force women into prostitution through debt bondage, physical force, and psychological coercion, including the invocation of voodoo". Of Italy, it reported how some African "women and girls are subjected to sex and labor trafficking through debt bondage and coercion through voodoo rituals". Of South Africa, it reported how "NGOs in Western Cape have reported an increased number of ... sex trafficking victims, many coerced through voodoo rituals". A multitude of references to witchcraft have been made by the U.S. State Department in its reports over the years. In the section of its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report addressing human trafficking in Germany it noted how, among the steps taken to counter human trafficking, "federal criminal police provided a series of seminars on labor trafficking, Nigerian voodoo rituals, and NGO cooperation". Other agencies, such as NGOs and newspapers, have contributed extensively to reports on the phenomenon over the years.
At the outset caution is needed in dealing with these matters. Victims are extremely reluctant to acknowledge, let alone to mention, the role played by African witchcraft in their victimhood. A judgemental society is often quickly dismissive, foolishly so. At the very least dismissiveness serves only to reinforce the victim's reluctance of speak of the matter. At the very most, dismissiveness proves to be an irreparable violation of trust. What matters is not whether those supporting victims of human trafficking subscribe to these beliefs, but whether the victim subscribes to them. Witchcraft is such a potent source of control that it often has an inescapable hold on the individual, particularly on one who cannot countenance violating his oath under any circumstance. Caution is needed then when dealing with victims of human trafficking who have originated from Africa. Traditionally it has been understood that these practises are employed in the western part of the continent. In reality however there are undertones throughout the entire continent. Increasingly, it seems, researchers are becoming aware of its presence in places where it was thought not to exist. One might bear in mind then, when dealing with African victims, the possibility that witchcraft has been employed even if it is case that the individual has not acknowledged its presence. Such is the commonality of its use that one could almost take it for granted it has been used when dealing with victims from particular west African countries. A simple question, one which the victim will immediately understand, though one which they may be surprised to be asked, is to enquire as to whether the victim has sworn an oath. An affirmative answer discloses much about the victim's plight and the nature of the powers keeping him in slavery.
How does it work? Let's begin by first understanding some of the differences in how we perceive the world. Here in Europe, and in much of the West, spirituality is often associated with religion. Through the lens of religion one views the spiritual world as defined by ones religion. Among Africans the perspective can be very different. The world is a spiritual place and a spiritual lens with a wider field-of-view is often applied to it. Religion is only part of what is seen through this lens. Standing alongside religion there can be other elements. Voodoo and Juju can also exist in this realm. Unexpectedly perhaps, these practises have sometimes played a role in facilitating social justice. Historically when two parties had a dispute, the defendant in the case could swear an oath proclaiming his innocence in the matter. The plaintiff could be satisfied that the defendant was either entirely innocent of the charge laid against him or satisfied the defendant would pay a dreadful price as a result of swearing his oath dishonestly. Whatever the role it once played, among those who deal with victims of human trafficking witchcraft has now become synonymous with exploitation. So synonymous has it become in fact that some government agencies actively seek out places where these oaths are sworn and act to prevent the swearing of them.
One should not confuse these practises with the persecution of individuals, often children, in the belief that they are a witch or with the murder of individuals as part of sacrificial rites (something that is a form of human trafficking of itself).
The process usually resembles the following pattern. The prospective victim is offered a job in the West by a recruiter. This is welcome news as the individual is quite poor and the opportunities for meaningful employment are sparse. There is an obvious problem of course. Owing to the individual's poverty he or she cannot afford the expense of travel abroad. The recruiter, really a trader in human beings (a human trafficker) who has not revealed his true motive, has anticipated this problem. He offers to cover all of the expense. Often he will hyper-inflate the figure, telling his prospective victim it will run into the tens of thousands. This sounds like a lot of money, but everybody knows just how rich people are in the West, how few are their problems, and how readily money is made there! Needless to say the recruiter wants some assurance that this hyper-inflated sum will be paid back to him. He suggests the swearing of an oath at a Voodoo or Juju shrine in the presence of a witchdoctor. It appears to be a reasonable enough request. After all, how could any person benefit from the non-payment of monies due to them? The ritual itself can be quite elaborate. Once it is done the person is now bound to repay their debt. Violating one's oath is unthinkable. It is clearly understood how any who break their bond suffer some form of calamity including death or the death of some close family member. The reality of course is that they will never be able to repay it. This will soon become apparent to the individual themselves shortly after they arrive in the West. There they will learn how life is not so good as was promised, how job opportunities are often limited, and how none of the opportunities allow for the repayment of the debt. By then their recruiter, having collected his reward, will have passed them on to other people in their destination country. These new people now control the slave's fate. Far from home he or she is nonetheless bound by their oath. There is a sense of something reaching out to them, something that transcends both time and distance, something that holds them eternally within its grasp. There is no escape, not from their oath, from their debt, or from their obligation to repay it. Eventually those who have been entrusted with the victim's fate will obligate them to repay their debt by other means. Many women and children from Africa are coerced into the sex trade in this way.
Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon. Often, arguments around approaches that might be used to combat it are impoverished in their understanding. Witchcraft is an important element. Witchcraft in human trafficking serves as a form of violence, one used repeatedly in the modern enslavement of men, women and children. Its presence illustrates how violence is used in human trafficking and, as importantly, how invisible can be the forces controlling the fate of today's slaves. Its presence also illustrates the sheer complexity and variety of issues one encounters in trying to make sense of modern slavery.
Credit: Al Jazeera