by Mal Vickers
I had the rare privilege of meeting Leo Igwe during the Melbourne stage of his speaking tour around Australia. Leo is one of my personal skeptical heroes.
There really is no easy or fun way to deal with the issue of witch hunting in Africa. It’s awful on every level. Mostly the targets are older women and young children. Being labelled a witch often means a death sentence if you’re the unlucky one. At the very least, you’ll become ostracised from your family and community.
Whilst being an outspoken skeptic here in Australia can be difficult (just ask Dr Ken Harvey), Leo has been beaten up and put in jail for speaking out against something we’d regard as a ridiculous and monstrous superstition.
Leo’s commitment to clear rational thinking, despite the odds, is astonishing. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh largest by population in the world. It is dominated by two very powerful religions, Christianity and Islam, in addition to its cultural superstitions. Those that Leo identifies as the most notorious of the witch accusers are the leaders of local Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian churches. Leo, at least from where I stand, is the lone voice for humanism and scepticism in Africa.
Leo has also written about and investigated the scam emails and letters from *cough* “Nigerian Princes”, (Ref – The Skeptic, Vol 23, #2, Nigerian Letters, Don’t Get Taken).
However, it’s the subject of witch hunting that was the greatest focus in Leo’s Australian talks and interviews. I’d highly recommend listening to the recorded interviews Leo did whilst here in Australia.
Leo Igwe interviews by Australian Skeptics
Ben Finney of the Victorian Skeptics recorded an excellent interview with Leo. It’s never been broadcast, (insert fanfare); you can listen to it here:
(Alternative audio file types of the Igwe-Finney interview are available here at Internet Archive)
Leo was also interviewed by Eran Segev on The Skeptic Zone podcast. The interview starts at 50 minutes into the podcast download here.
ABC radio interviews with Leo Igwe
Lindy Burns interviewed Leo on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne.
(Or download here)
And Philip Adams interviewed Leo on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live.
(Or download here)
In the short time I had to talk with Leo, I asked him one question. I prefaced my question by mentioning the simple testing of many paranormal claims conducted by James Randi and others. ‘Would it be possible to line up, say, ten people, one of whom had previously been accused of being a witch and ask many witch accusers to identify the real witch?’ Such a test would need to be done ethically of course with everyone informed of the protocols as well as no children involved etc. My hypothesis would be that the witch hunters would choose at random, or perhaps have a bias toward someone with for example, a wart on their nose. The inconsistent choices in such a simple test should be enough to show that the practice is a deadly deception. Leo’s answer was that the witch hunters would never step forward to be tested in the first place.
Hmmm… eerily similar to what happens in many western countries when testing is suggested of paranormal claims and alternative medicine.
That’s what got me thinking; should we be feeling culturally smug about witch hunting? Are there any labels that you can apply in Australia that are as personally devastating to the individual as the ‘witch’ label is in Africa? I can think of a few labels we do give minorities that can also be damaging to their abilities to exist.
I know that the British Medical Association said that homeopathy is like witch craft, however, that’s not exactly what I mean. Homeopathy may be deserving of the label, yet the description has more to do with the western fairytale view of witches mixing up potions in cauldrons. I’m referring instead to the way it happens in Nigeria.
The belief in Nigeria is that witches are real and can bring bad luck to a family. It’s a society wide shared belief. Are there similar beliefs and labels that can be applied in Australia that work in the same way, to discriminate and to ostracise without human regard?
How about immigrants? Homosexuals? Aborigines? Transgenders?
It’s a question that’s difficult to quantify and measure. Is it possible to apply some critical thinking to the problem of discriminatory labels such as ‘witch’ in our society? Although I agree, I’m speculating. I invite your comments below.
Below are a few photos of Leo at his speaking events in Melbourne, plus one or two images from a side trip to Healesville Sanctuary.
Many thanks to those who came along and supported Leo. Many thanks also go to those who helped organise his presentations whilst he was in Melbourne. The money raised goes directly to Leo’s work in saving lives and combating superstition and ignorance in Africa.
Please also consider donating to the charity Stepping Stones to assist children in Nigeria.