Jan and I completed the Pendle Witches Walk this past Saturday, all 23 miles of it, in 10 hours! Phew! It was a bright, dry midsummer’s day with a light breeze. We started in Lancaster and first drove by coach to Laidburn where the actual walk started ending at Lancaster Castle, retracing the steps of the Pendle witches across hills and fields, meadows with buttercups in profusion, and skylarks singing in the background. There were sheep and cattle in the fields and 6 of the ten tercets inscribed in posts. All this, in aid of Stepping Stones, a charity working to assist children accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. It was Jan’s birthday too and her choice for how to spend the day was completing this feat. And, we managed it despite not being the youngest in the group, not being spring chickens.
Witchcraft. Well, that’s a thing of the past, of the Dark Ages, isn’t it?. But, no, it is current, it is happening as we speak and sadly it affects mostly children and often vulnerable elderly people too.
The trial of the Pendle witches in August 1612 and their execution by hanging, the execution of the ten found guilty is itself a story worth telling. Briefly, a young woman, Alizon Device encountered a peddler and asked him for pins. It is unclear whether she was begging for these or asking to buy them. Anyhow he was reluctant to sell. Pins were recognized in the 17th century as requisite instruments of witchcraft: in healing warts, making love potions and for divination. Soon after the encounter, John Law the peddler stumbled and fell, most probably suffering a stroke. As the Yorubas say ‘Aje ke loni omo ku lola, tani o mo pe aje to ke lana lo pa omo je’ The witch cried today and the child dies tomorrow, who is it who does not know that it is the witch who cried yesterday that killed the child? In Alizon Device’s case she too firmly believed in her own powers and confessed to witchcraft and asked for forgiveness. That was the start of the Pendle Witches’ trial.
Alizon Device’s grandmother mother Elizabeth Southerne (aka Demdike) was a well known witch. Alizon, Demdike, Elizabeth Device (Alizon’s mother), & Alizon’s brother James were summoned before Roger Nowell JP in March 1612. Alizon confessed that she had sold her soul to the Devil. Her brother, James confirmed that Alizon had also confessed to bewitching a local child. Elizabeth Device only admitted that her mother, Demdike, had a mark on her body that could only have been left by the Devil when he sucked her blood. When Alizon was questioned about Anne Whittle (aka Chattox) she accused Chattox of murdering 4 men by witchcraft and of killing Alizon’s father because he had failed to pay protection money to Chattox! So was the scene set for the trial at Lancaster Castle.
The accusations and counter accusations that flowed between the two prominent families involved in witchcraft, Demdike and Chattox’s families, eventually led to committal and trial under Sir James Altham & Sir Edward Bromley.
In Nigeria, it is estimated that approximately 15,000 children, principally in Akwa Ibom and Cross River have been branded (stigmatized) as witches and end up abandoned by their families and become street children. This, in Africa where children are regarded as the jewels in the families. CNN reported in August 2010 about a 5-year old boy Godwin whose mother had died. The pastor of the local evangelical church accused the boy of witchcraft, claiming that the boy was responsible for his own mother’s death. Absolutely ridiculous claim, monstrous actually, but yet peddled to an ignorant laity.
The pecuniary aspects of these accusations are not inconsiderable. Pastors charge a fee of between $ 300-2000 for spiritual deliverance. Very convenient, indeed.
When you’re up in the hills above Lancaster and you look across at the landscape as far as the eye can see, Beacon’s Fell, Parlick, Pendle Hill, and all the wonderful hills with names such as Fair Snape Fell, Brown Wardle Hill and so on, what you think of is not witchcraft, not superstition, not the tragedy of seeking untruth because of incomprehensible and dismal outcomes, definitely not projecting fear and darkness unto little children. But, there we have it, fear is ever ready seeking a focus, an easy target to settle on if only to assuage that amorphous anxiety that is terrifying to acknowledge, death anxiety.
The role of the Church, The Roman Catholic Church in the Inquisition underlines the role of organized religion in giving breath to primitive impulses and structuring the archaic beliefs associated with these impulses partly to more consolidate ecclesiastical power. Innocent VIII (not very innocent) in 1484 in his papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus instigated severe measures against magicians and witches. Natural disasters such as freezing weather, failing crops and mass starvation were blamed on witches. Heinrich Kramer and Jacobus Sprengler systematized the persecution of so-called witches. The Malleus Maleficarum published in 1486 blamed bad weather on witchcraft, for example. Kramer wrote “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable”. It is not surprising, then, that most of the accused in the Pendle Witches trial were women; very obviously their insatiable lust was at the root of their witchcraft!
In Akwa Ibom, Nigeria, Helen Ukpabio of the ironically named Liberty Gospel Church in a peculiar self-aggrandizing statement said “Witches and wizards, they started getting afraid. I never gave them rest!” Well, it is easy to see why the vulnerable and weak, mere children would be afraid of her, their persecutor, whose self-importance and incorrigible but false beliefs puts their lives at risk. For Upkabio, it is not a case of ‘suffer the little children…’. It is the fixity of her beliefs, the inability to admit error or to respond rationally to counter argument that reveals the true nature of her crude beliefs, namely that like others like her, she is a wildly deluded individual, and that is if one is being generous spirited.
The Pendle Witches Trial is an example of the victims and the persecutors too, all being in the grip of ignorance. This was well before the Age of Reason. But, in 21st century Nigeria…
Photos by Jan Oyebode
My first train journey was from Kano to Lagos in 1961. We were in first class and travelled in luxury. Dinner was in the dining carriage with livery service. And, I slept in the top bunk in our cabin. My memory is of a single track with stops at sidings to allow the train from Lagos to go past. And the crossing over the Niger was spectacular. And, of course the inevitable grit in the eye as you leaned out of the window to look out. This was after all the day of the coal-fired engine. There was much talk of electrification and diesel as there was of other modern developments. When we arrived in Lagos at Iddo terminus, it seemed as though we were at the end of the world. The train came to a stop practically where the land ended and the Lagos lagoon started. To a child’s eyes, this was as close to travelling to the end of the earth as was possible. The 700-mile journey had taken 2 days.
Since that first journey, I have made many more long train journeys. Indeed, I made one from Ilorin to Bussa to visit family friends in December 1966 whilst Kainji Dam was being built. I had travelled from Ado-Ekiti by ‘Mammy Wagon’ to Ilorin and then by train from Ilorin to Bussa (before Bussa was flooded), travelling 3rd class. The train was packed full of traders with their produce of hens, baskets, etc. The seats were hard planks and we felt every jolt. I imagine I was sandwiched between two market women of enormous bulk, every movement of the train squeezing me even tighter between these massive stores of fat! And, in-between carriages, the rails, sleepers and land rushing backwards were a sight. When you used the lavatories, it was a long drop to the ground below. At the end of my trip to Kainji I returned to Lagos by train. That holiday was memorable for other reasons too. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for the first time and Ezekiel Mphalele’s Second Avenue, Ngaio Marsh and Denis Wheatley novels. The young man who picked me up from the station, in his small Fiat car that had doors that opened backwards, a civil engineer newly graduated from Imperial College, died not long afterwards in a car crash! When you’re a child, you have no sense of the permanence of death. You somehow pick up on the tragedy of the reported event, you learn that the demeanor of the adults speaks of sorrow and may be of fear too. I recall thinking of the laugh and smile of this young man, of his quickness, of the way that his eyes flashed, I suppose of the life that quickened his spirit.
It is not accidental that Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid are about journeys. Since our ancestors stood up on the East African Plains and migrated across Africa and into the Levant and then into Europe and Asia, travelling has come to stand for the journey of life and the trials and challenges depicted in poetry, in symbolic terms, speak to the nature of legend and myth-making but also to heroism and courage, chiefly to mastery of the course of life. But, the experiences need not be epic in form, although it helps for the travel to be long and arduous, as in Ibn Batuta’s travels.
One year we travelled from Osaka to Tokyo by Shinkansen. We had learnt not to blow our noses in public, this was apparently as rude as farting loudly. You had to sniff and in our case surreptitiously wipe our noses. Yet, it was seemingly all right to read pornographic magazines in full view of others. This was not taboo or frowned upon. Journeying reveals the fragile sometimes imperceptible boundaries of what is morally, socially, or culturally acceptable and what is likely to provoke disgust. It points out and underlines the arbitrariness of value systems. When is it right to eats termites but not frogs? Do you look a person in the eye as you speak to them or not? What about holding hands, if you’re two men walking down the road? One man’s meat is another’s poison.
The 7-hour journey from Perth to Kalgoorlie by train was especially memorable. This was a genuinely different terrain. The vista, the colors, the vegetation, the unending and far horizon, these manifestations of a previously unknown life kept our attention. All travelling, in any case, provokes a particular kind of attentiveness, a clamoring of the heart that is both anxiety and expectation, a straining and perplexity that can be unsettling yet pleasurable with anticipation. The destination was as far from our imagination as was the journey. That particular train journey like that from Nanjing to Chongqing was much an exploration of our own inner lives as it was travelling in the physical world. There are journeys that drive the mind inwards to reverie, journeys that dislocate the familiar, unmooring metaphor and signals, and for a brief ever so transient moment, making possible a reconfiguration of the grammar of existence.
And, there are other train journeys where it is the surprising company, the unplanned for intimacy of a carriage that facilitates congress. Across Morocco and USA, from Memphis to New Orleans on Amtrak, we made friends that lasted the length of the journey. In one it was a young man from the Emirates trying to impress two young Moroccan girls with his wealth and generosity. He insisted that we enjoy his largesse, Coca Cola and peanuts, freely given. In America it was an elderly retired couple, the man a railway enthusiast and his wife, both seasoned railway travellers across continents including the UK. An unlikely conversation between these Bostonians, an English woman and a Nigerian spouse ensued. We sat in the dining car and spoke of trains, of stations including the new St Pancras station in London, of the marvel of seeing the country light up at dawn, of the vastness of America, of mist and wisteria, of the mystery of Southern forests, the swamps and bayous, button bush and bald cypresses. Particularly we exchanged stories of other train journeys.
But, the train journey need not be long or through novel, unfamiliar territory to be memorable. Of course, a degree of alienation helps. I often travel the line from Hebden Bridge to Manchester. This route takes in Todmorden, and to my left would be hills and trees that in April are yet to sprout new leaves. Houses nestle against the hills, the stone grey and the slate roofs black in the evening light. The Pennines rounded with fullness to them that are pleasing to the eye. Then there is Castleton, with boarded up buildings, a decrepit air and Moston that is not really a place but a station.
I remember one Xmas when we lived at 46a Colby Avenue (later Ladoke Akintola Avenue), our next-door neighbor an English man invited me over to see his train set. Here was a grown up with his train set on a large table in his garage. There were miniature hills, bridges, stations, pretend trees, railway crossings with people and cars. He was a red faced man, portly, with stomach hanging over his trousers but kindly. I marveled at the incredible display. He too, stood back from the table and I think saw once again, through my eyes, as if for the first time, this ingenious scaled down world. The movement from one place to another, like the stations of the cross, but observed in toto from above, as if we were God, gave us a sense of power. It gave me a preview of what it is like to stand apart from oneself and observe the world, discovering what is to be human in an inanimate world.
Photos by Jan Oyebode