A Series of Small Leaps

Kids in front of gas flare in Niger Delta, 2007 (© Elaine Gilligan)

Editor’s note: Jessica’s essay, “On the Far Side of the Fire,” was first published in Ninth Letter, and recently featured as a Longreads Member Pick. Read an excerpt here, or just go ahead become a member of Longreads and read this entire, remarkable piece of literary journalism.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford: For this story, you took off to the Akwa Ibom region of the Niger Delta, a place the State Department warns about and where your guide to the region claims the chances of kidnapping are 4 in 10. Can you describe what drew you to this place to begin with, and how you balanced the fear and curiosity?

Jessica Wilbanks: So many writers have a territory they circle around again and again. For me it’s the religion of my childhood, an exuberant, spirit-filled Christianity. It can be an exhilarating way to worship, but it has a dark side as well. That’s what I saw in the story of Pentecostal pastors in Akwa Ibom who are accusing children of being witches and the families who decided these accusations were true.

A writing professor of mine in college, Michael Lesy, said you’ll know you’ve found the story you’re meant to write when you think about it half the time you wake and sleep. I’d never felt that before, but when I recognized it I followed this urge to get closer and closer to the story. I flew to New York to attend the HBO premiere of “Saving Africa’s Witch Children”—a terrific documentary by Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk. At the premiere I met Gary Foxcroft, a British activist who has devoted much of his life to exposing the story and helping these kids. I also met Sam Itauma, a Nigerian man who took some of the children into his home and later established the CRARN center. From there I took a set of small leaps—getting funding to travel to Nigeria, and then, once I was there, finding a way to make the trip to the Niger Delta.

I didn’t become afraid until just a few days before I left for Akwa Ibom. I became obsessed with trying to get a clear sense of exactly how dangerous it was, thus my friend Yemi coming up with the four-in-ten statistic. But in the end I decided I was in good hands, with people who knew the region well and took a lot of precautions.

BWL: At several key points in your story you connect back to stories of your youth in the Pentecostal church, and especially to conversations with your father. At one point you imagine what his response would be if you asked him if a child could be possessed by an evil spirit. How does he answer, and what do you think it says about our willingness to stretch our beliefs that far?

JW: In that scene, I wanted to illustrate the way that conversation moved from surety—yes, definitely, there are demons, to discomfort when the question became whether or not a child could be possessed by an evil spirit. I imagined that my father would say something like, yes, it’s possible—but all you have to do is pray and the spirits will come out. That’s something I’ve heard from a lot of people in both Nigeria and the United States.

When I first told my parents about the phenomenon of children in Akwa Ibom being accused of being witches, they were horrified. But, like many Americans, they subscribe to a belief system that allows for the possibility of demonic possession. Even those of us who don’t believe in demons are still guilty of magical thinking—for instance, the compulsion to knock on wood. It’s a human impulse to try to control the physical world through ritual. Think of those Bud Light commercials with the tagline, “It’s Only Weird If It Doesn’t Work,” in which football fans eat quinoa burgers and stay in basements because they want their team to win.

BWL:  And tangentially . . . a writerly question . . . at several points you recreate scenes for us that are sort of composites of things that happen, both in your childhood and in the “deliverance houses” of the Niger delta. What would you say about the power and usefulness of imagination in terms of constructing a powerful scene?

JW: I think imagination is incredibly important in all kinds of writing, including nonfiction. One of the most important ways it comes out for me is through unexpected associations, such as figurative language in descriptions or by putting two things that don’t seem connected in dialogue with one another. The writer Dave Madden talks about the generative power that comes from compelling juxtapositions, for instance in Harper’s Index, where a set of unconnected statistics end up telling a surprising story when they’re placed next to each other.

For the scenes in this essay, though, I’m not sure that they’re fueled by imagination as much as by a heavy focus on detail. Whether I’m remembering something or taking notes on it as it happens, I try to bring in as much specificity as possible—the names of churches, the shoes I was wearing, what the roof looked like. When I was in Akwa Ibom I took notes about the clothes the women were wearing and the way the deliverance houses looked from the outside, and when I got back home I watched lots of YouTube clips of deliverance services. I’ve been to countless Pentecostal churches in Nigeria and knew how services were structured, and I had also seen pastors call people up to the altar for prayer and deliverance. What I didn’t know was what fed the pastor’s desire to pin the troubles of the village on a child, and that’s where imagination came in.

BWL: You deal very elegantly with a set of beliefs or practices that many people find completely foreign or hard to fathom. I especially admire how you put into practice one of (KtB co-founder) Peter Manseau’s rules of thumb about how to get beyond the surface problems of writing about subjects with uncomfortable, ludicrous-sounding, or in your case, extremely troubling beliefs. He writes that it is “not the suspension of disbelief we should strive for, but rather the elevation of empathy over agreement.” Anything you want to tell us about the challenge of creating empathy?

JW: I have very little empathy for people who abuse children, no matter what their circumstances might be. But when it comes to people who believe in demonic possession—which according to a recent poll is 57% of Americans—I didn’t have to work very hard to build empathy. I grew up speaking in tongues and believing in signs and wonders, and for a long time I thought evil spirits that could slip into you if you weren’t walking the right path. In writing this essay I tried to return to that worldview and remember why it attracted me so much at the time.

I also think a lot about how slowly beliefs are formed. There’s a fine line between believing in heaven and hell and demons and angels, and believing evil can infect you and has to be expelled by a holy man. And there’s a great distance from that to the idea that a child has to be tortured in order to bring peace to a community. I found it hard to believe someone would do such a thing unless it offered a tremendous pay-off. I still find it hard to believe, but I understood it a little more when I saw how desperately poor and environmentally devastated Akwa Ibom has become.

BWL:  And finally…what can you tell us about Akwa Ibom or the Niger Delta today? Any way in which readers can put that empathy you’ve created into practice in the area?

There have been a lot of changes since I was there in 2010. The CRARN center is not operating in quite the same way it was before, but Yemi has set up another organization that’s housing children and doing a lot of good. Unfortunately the government of Akwa Ibom still seems much more focused on public relations and coddling up to oil companies than protecting children, who are still being victimized by rogue pastors. One more positive development is that a set of churches in Africa have started to speak out against witchcraft accusations, which I find incredibly powerful.

If anyone would like to make a donation to organizations working on several fronts to protect children who are accused of being witches, I would recommend Yemi’s organization, HAPSTA, or an international NGO founded by Gary Foxcroft, the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network.

Jessica Wilbanks (@creativenonfic) is a writer based in Houston, Texas. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ruminate and Ninth Letter. She is working on her first book, a memoir entitled Bigger than Any Single One. For more information, visit http://jessicawilbanks.com.