change the world badge

change the world badge


Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another "Child Witch" Tragedy, and Some Explanation of Those Mermaid Spirits

**The child witch issue: If you have the stomach for it, you can see a documentary about accused African child witches at's+Witch+Children, or, if this doesn't work, Google Saving Africa's Witch Children documentary. It's tragic, pitiful, and deeply disturbing.**

Not long ago, I commented on the invitation of Liberty Gospel Church in Houston to the Nigerian Pentecostal minister Helen Ukpabio to visit and carry on a “mammoth deliverance”. Ukpabio’s history of accusing children of witchcraft and exorcising them, as well as the deaths of some children accused of being witches, would suggest that her influence is not needed in the United States. A petition at is in agreement with that suggestion and asks the President to deny entry to Ukpabio. Among others, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children has also written to the State Department about this matter. Ukpabio’s visit to Houston has apparently been delayed, in any case.

In London, where exorcism has injured or killed other African children, a Congolese couple has just been convicted of killing the woman’s 15-year-old brother in the course of an exorcism or “deliverance” in December, 2010 ( The boy was tortured and finally drowned as he was accused repeatedly of sorcery. The couple had previously practiced “deliverance” on a friend by making her cut her hair and fasting for three days.  Although many in the United States think of exorcism as being carried out by a clergyman, with appurtenances like holy water and a cross, in fact those Christians who accept the idea of demonic possession also generally accept that any believer can perform an exorcism. (A 1972 report of the Church of England, edited by Dom Robert Petitpierre, even said that a non-believer can do it by using the name of Jesus.) This means that it is a mistake to assume that “deliverance” practices are the work of trained and educated clergypersons who have the good of their “client” at heart; as in the London cases, these practices may be performed by those who have no understanding of physical or mental illness, or whose motives are malicious.

It’s for these reasons that people concerned about children’s welfare have asked that Helen Ukpabio be excluded from the United States.

Another aspect of Ukpabio’s “mammoth deliverance” in Houston has been puzzling to readers, and appeared so even to the Nigerian Sahara TV interviewer who discussed the Ukpabio visit with the pastor of the Houston church. This was the reference on the advertising flyer to the help Ukpabio could offer people under attack by “mermaid spirits”. The Sahara TV interviewer asked whether these were to be found in the Gulf of Mexico, while others simply said “mermaid spirits??”. An article by the religious studies scholar Rosalind Hackett, of the University of Tennessee, clarifies the “mermaid spirits” issue ( According to Hackett, the people of the Nigerian city of Calabar traditionally were under the protection of aquatic spirits who could give blessings, fertility, and forgiveness. These spirits preferred light colors of skin and clothing, and albino girls were sometimes sacrificed to them (similar to current practices of using albino children, or their body parts, in sorcery). Among, or perhaps ruling over, these water spirits was “Mami Wata”--  not a mermaid in the usual sense, but perhaps imaged as one because of European pictures. As Hackett says, “These stories of spirit-human relations provide insight into the contested images of water, women, and misfortune. Addressing perennial concerns about wealth and sexuality, they find new life in the worldviews of modern pentecostal Christians with their elaborate and vivid spirit [imagery]—that of a dualistic world inhabited by warring spiritual forces.”

Mami Wata may possess a person and cause mental illness, or may make women infertile. Other personal water spirits, Hackett says, may “seek out a ‘spouse’ and reward the person with worldly success but deprive them of progeny and happiness in marriage.” According to Hackett, belief in the water spirits has diminished for members of mainline churches. However,they are of great concern for Pentecostals. Hackett quotes “well-connected” Nigerian friends as claiming that “the newer churches are perpetuating, if not reviving, beliefs in aquatic spirits as sources of people’s problems, and that the appropriate spiritual remedies” are advised. Church members are made to change their names if they have a name that is associated with water spirits, and their parents are blamed for having “satanic” connections if they have used one of these names. This concern goes as far as suspicion of any church that baptizes in water that is not clear to the bottom.

Hackett raises two issues about the marine spirit beliefs: “First, the fact that these ‘marine agents’ are now able to penetrate the hallowed and presumed safe territory of the pentecostal church  generates new fears and new quests for protection. As I was told in hushed tones by one deliverance specialist, so sophisticated are some of these newer ‘manifestations’ of Mami Wata as virtuous church virgins, that they can manipulate through their… charms not just the bodies but also the minds of men. He added that this type of spirit is the most dangerous and deceitful, and attacks pastors only. [! J.M.] Second, the maintenance, if not resurgence, of Mami Wata beliefs in these new religious contexts may be linked to millenialist claims that the increase in the number of ‘Jezebels’ inviting the people of God to compromise with the world is ‘part of the operations of Satan and his demons in these last days’.”

Hackett’s description shows us how important evil spirits are to believers, and makes it plain why some “deliverers” may feel moved to go too far when they think a child is a sorcerer or demon-possessed.   My question: is Houston waiting for Helen Ukpabio to bring them news about “mermaid spirits”--  or is that belief already firmly in place?


  1. We have the same thing in North America. It is called schizophrenia.
    “Rebecca Riley (April 11, 2002 – December 13, 2006), the daughter of Michael and Carolyn Riley and resident of Hull, Massachusetts, was found dead in her home after prolonged exposure to various medications, her lungs filled with fluid."
    Her parents believed there was a psychotic molecule for an antipsychotic to attack in their ill child, as their child was misbehaving, and the explanation from psychiatry is that it was psychosis.

  2. Can you give more information about this, Mark? And are you thinking that it was the child or the parents who were schizophrenic?