Maryland County

You’re forgiven if you thought this was about black people—it is. The U.S. is deep into race riot season, triggered by the perennial conflict at the edge of society, but today the action takes place in the town of Harper, Maryland.

Ergo te absolvo if you scratch your head because your encyclopedic knowledge of US geography fails you here: Harper was once the capital of the Republic of Maryland, a West African country that may hold the record for the shortest-lived independent nation—it lasted three years, from 1854 to 1857.

It was an area populated by slaves and free men who came from Maryland, US. Over the years, Maryland County and its capital city Harper, population 17,837 souls, has been home to some rather bizarre activities.

Tiny 14-year-old Precious sits on her orphanage bed in the southern port town of Harper, accused of witchcraft six months ago and exiled from her family and nearby community. She says she was publicly beaten and tied up to burn at a stake, until the Harper police were tipped off and saved her.
“Precious told us her stepmother asked her to give her biological mother as a human sacrifice,” says Moses Davies, a police officer with the Women and Child Protection unit in Harper’s town centre.
“This is very hard to explain – but her stepmother was a witch and initiated Precious. They asked her to kill her mother as a contribution. But Precious refused, saying, ‘If I did that who would take care of me?’” Precious’ father has two wives, her mother being the first.

This took place in Maryland County, Liberia. I’ll also excuse you for thinking this is a nineteenth century tale—the story of Precious occurred in 2009.

Now that we’re in Liberia, perhaps the topic of Ebola will pop up. Two transmission vectors are the consumption of bush meat, and the contact rituals of the death ceremonies.

But ritualistic killing is a lesser-known part of Liberian society, centered around witchcraft and performed by secret societies—Maryland County, in Southeastern Liberia, and the northern areas of Lofa and Nimba, are known for these organizations.

The practice of human sacrifice is known as Gboyo: it involves the extraction of human body parts eaten while the victim is still alive.

Power is in the blood, and most people use the blood. The medicine men would help you do that to extract the power. So the people in town were seen as prey, to be taken and carried away…

In the twenty-first century, this seems an extremely powerful description of events a few hours flight from the European mainland. It is fair to assume these practices occur in other countries in Africa—you can find references to Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Ghana, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria,  Tanzania, and Uganda.

Three African countries have a witchcraft act. I went in search of the Nigerian act, part of the country’s criminal code. You find it sandwiched between Chapter 19, which deals with religion, and Chapter 21 which concerns morality—the first article in Chapter 21 is to criminalize active homosexuality, the second sex with animals, and the third punishes anyone who ‘permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature.’ For these crimes you can serve up to fourteen years in jail.

I wonder whether Article 3 would include oral sex. Bad juju. But I digress.

Chapter 20

Ordeal, Witchcraft, Juju and Criminal Charms

207.   (1)         The trial by the ordeal of sasswood, esere-bean, or other poison, boiling oil, fire, immersion in water or exposure to the attacks of crocodiles or other wild animals, or by any ordeal which is likely to result in the death of or bodily injury to any party to the proceeding is unlawful.

208.         Any person who directs or controls or presides at any trial by ordeal which is unlawful is guilty of a felony, and is liable, when the trial which such person directs, controls or presides at results in the death of any party to the proceeding, to the punishment of death, and in every other case to imprisonment for ten years.

210.         Any person who-

(e)            is in possession of or has control over any human remains which are used or are intended to be used in connection with the worship of invocation of any juju; or
(f)            makes or uses or assists in making or using, or has in his possession anything whatsoever the making, use or possession of which has been prohibited by an order as being or believed to be associated with human sacrifice or other unlawful practice;

is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

I can’t help feeling that possession of human remains for juju and human sacrifice, a two year misdemeanor sentence, is rather more serious than mutually consenting sodomy or oral sex, classed as a felony and subject to a sevenfold penalty.

The bottom line, if you excuse the pun, is that witchcraft goes on happily all over Africa. Undoubtedly, witchcraft will have been observed by the Portuguese when they first arrived in West Africa, and the withdrawal of colonial governments over the twentieth century has led to a resurgence of such rituals.

From the testimony in Liberia, the societies that practice the black arts strike abject terror and submission into local populations—one of the most vulnerable groups are children, often singled out when they are considered ‘possessed.’

A bush devil in Sierra Leone. Witchcraft in West Africa.

A bush devil in Sierra Leone. Witchcraft endures in West Africa and elsewhere.

The Poro is Liberia’s largest secret society operating in the witchcraft segment of the market, and among other things features an incarnation of the devil—this disguised creature is known as the Poro Devil. Whether it practises ritual killings is unknown, but it is involved in murder.

When the Poro come to town, they bring with them a masked devil. Non-members stay indoors until the group returns to the bush. People disappear on a regular basis, and the investigation of such killings is hampered by various factors—in Liberia, a person is not officially missing for up to seven years after they vanish, if the body is not found.

Given the rate at which biomass decomposes in the tropics, seven years is a very long time.

And the fact that body parts may be served up as a snack before the victim is even dead will certainly not promote habeas corpus.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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