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Birds fly in Lausanne in 2017.
Birds fly in Lausanne in 2017.
Etienne Dubuis

GENEVA — It may sound like hocus-pocus, but with the growing influx of African migrants, social services in Switzerland are having to tackle a new and perplexing problem: witchcraft.

The phenomenon specifically involves African women — mostly prostitutes from Nigeria — who were "bewitched" before leaving home and suffer serious psychological consequences as a result. For Swiss social services, the challenge is twofold: to understand the issue, however irrational it may seem; and to treat it — to ease the suffering these women experience.

The criminal networks that send the Nigerian women to Europe demand they pay vast sums of money, between 50,000 and 80,000 Swiss francs (46,000 to 73,000 euros) — about 10 to 20 times the real cost of the journey. To keep these women under their control, they use all means at their disposal: direct physical threats, threats against their families back home and religion.

They're so certain that something will happen to them if they disobey that, once the ritual is over, they behave like their recruiters' slaves

Before they leave their home country, the future prostitutes are taken to a sorcerer. The man takes samples of hair, pubic hair and nails; and he puts it all in a box. Simultaneously, he incises their skin and introduces in the wounds a decoction made with herbs and blood. In doing so, according to the African tradition "juju," the sorcerer gains control over the young women to such a degree that he can kill them or drive them crazy remotely if they don't repay their debts.

"Prostitution networks very often use the figure of Eshu, the god of players and cheats, a character known for traveling inside people's dreams," says Stephan Fuchs, a Nigerian migration expert and founder of the website Trafficking.ch. "From early in childhood, these girls have been living in a world where magic was everywhere, so they're terrified. They're so certain that something will happen to them if they disobey that, once the ritual is over, they behave like their recruiters' slaves."

Their distress is such that it causes great psychic disorders. Fuchs mentions the case of one African woman who lives safely in a Swiss home but is hounded by her fear of the curse. One day, the woman was found convulsing. She was taken to the hospital. A few hours later, however, she couldn't even remember the episode. And over the next few days, the same thing happened repeatedly.

"These women would like to be free, but they don't know how to do it," says Gifty Amponsah, a young migrant woman from Ghana. "Since they don't have any other means of living than prostitution, most of the time they choose to obey their pimps and pay their dues. But it takes them years. And by the time they no longer have anything to fear, they've often become incapable of empathy. Many of them then become pimps themselves and recruit girls."

Some of them sleep with a Bible on their pillow to stop Eshu from invading their dreams

Still, there are ways for them to free themselves sooner. "To neutralize the juju gods, you need to turn to a more powerful God, to Jesus," Amponsah says. "It's not easy convincing African women of his power. But it works. If sorcerers do magic, the God of the Christians performs miracles. So long as you believe in him, he gives us back our self-confidence and frees us. You'd be surprised by the number of illiterate African prostitutes who own a Bible. They're incapable of reading it, but they all hope its presence will protect them."

Stephan Fuchs confirms this. "Some of them sleep with a Bible on their pillow to stop Eshu from invading their dreams," he says.

Maria Rio Benito, a psychiatrist working for an association in Lausanne, gave psychological help to one such victim of juju. She was a Nigerian asylum seeker who was terrified of two people living far away: one female pimp established in a southern Spain and a man still in Africa. "This young woman had classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: repeated nightmares, invalidating anxiety crises and deep social isolation. In all cultures, there are influence mechanisms that can either cure or harm," she says. "The juju phenomenon must be considered in the wider context of the social precariousness of its victims. And it needs to be treated as such."

Rio Benito tried to relieve the young woman using a multi-step psycho-traumatology treatment. Step one was to help the woman feel physical safe. From there the doctor and patient could begin confronting the symptoms. The experience was positive. The patient made great progress. She learned French and got involved in female socialization groups. But then she abruptly terminated the whole process after she was denied asylum. Having become an illegal immigrant, she stopped coming to the consultations.

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