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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mermaid Spirits Rejoice! Ukpabio Cancels Visit

Does anyone remember Helen Ukpabio? She’s the Nigerian “lady apostle” who was scheduled to visit Houston, first in March, then later in May. But now she’s not coming at all.

Ukpabio was going to do a “marathon deliverance” at Houston’s Liberty Gospel Church. She was offering her services to those plagued with “mermaid spirits”--- pesky water creatures that can give you worldly prosperity but also cause infertility and unhappiness in marriage. (As I mentioned at, some of these beliefs have been described by David Tonghou Ngong in his The Holy Spirit and Salvation in African Christian Theology.) The mermaid spirit belief is not far from the “prosperity theology” offered in some years ago by Oral Roberts and others, but it involves an integration of the messages of American Pentecostal missionaries with African traditional religions.

It’s easy to make fun of mermaid spirits and similar beliefs, but there’s much more to the story than that. The events that led up to Ukpabio’s cancellation were not about deliverance from those spirits, however reprehensible it might be to exploit unhappy people who think they have water spirits distressing them. In fact, the objections to Ukpabio’s visit had to do with her role as an accuser of “child witches”--  ordinary children whose parents became convinced that the children flew off at night to meet in covens, children thought to enjoy the power to kill, to injure, and perhaps most importantly, to make electrical and electronic appliances break down.  

Ukpabio’s accusations, and her film called The End of the Wicked, have encouraged a belief in child witches. Although Ukpabio claims that she simply prays over accused children, large numbers have been attacked, burned with acid, abandoned, beaten, and starved by adults who were convinced that these apparent innocents in fact were exercising demonic powers. The children’s terrible fear and misery are shown in heartbreaking detail in the documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children ( As I mentioned in the earlier post, the deaths of children thought to be witches or demon-possessed have not been confined to Africa, but have also taken place in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The organization Stepping Stones Nigeria ( deserves much of the credit for publicizing Ukpabio’s activities and mobilizing resistance to her entry into either the UK or the US. According to information sent me by the ethicist Leo Igwe, Ukpabio claims that she received written death threats warning her away from her trip to Houston (see The article quotes criticisms of Stepping Stones leader Gary Foxcroft and suggests that he has orchestrated a campaign in order to profit financially. However, according to a press release from Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA),  a recent summit conference of concerned British political leaders and others was convened by Chuka Amunna, a Member of Parliament. The discussion included the suggestion that the Home Secretary prohibit entry into the UK of persons who have encouraged the branding of children as witches. This discussion paralleled the recent campaign in the United States, asking the State Department  to refuse entry to Ukpabio. It’s clear that resistance to her visit was strong and that no death threats would have been needed to show Ukpabio what the consensus was.

The concerns about Ukpabio’s visit raise  questions about freedom of speech and religion in the United States. If Ukpabio genuinely believes in mermaid spirits and witch children, is she not entitled to hold those beliefs here--  even to speak publicly about them? If she has not herself harmed children, but her preaching has been taken as encouragement for others to do so, is it legitimate to exclude her? (I ask these questions even though I myself very much want her to be excluded.) The famous exception to the First Amendment  is that one cannot claim a First Amendment right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, when there is no fire. But what if you actually think there is a fire (as Ukpabio presumably does, metaphorically speaking), and people are trampled to death because of your mistake?

In Ukpabio’s case, these points are somewhat moot. As a non-citizen, she has no presumed right to enter either the U.K. or the U.S. to begin with, and those countries have responsibilities to protect their citizens. However, the points are far from moot with respect to citizens, and they go far beyond religious beliefs. I have discussed elsewhere the repeated cases in which parents have received inappropriate advice from therapists or coaches, have harmed their children as a result, and have ended up in prison, while their advisers remain free to pass along harmful suggestions. How far do things need to go before we become aware that although parents who do harm should not be excused, the givers of potentially harmful religious or other advice are also culpable?

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