Fleeing an Ancient Darkness

01 January 2024

Sitting in a home that doubles as a church building in rural Sierra Leone, 24-year-old Miracle Conteh was about to share secrets from her childhood that she knew could put her in life-threatening danger. But then, those who would kill her — members of a secret society to which she once belonged — were already pursuing her for leaving their ranks to follow Christ.

For two years, Miracle, known as Sassa until coming to faith in Christ at age 14, performed ancient rituals that involved interacting with demons, casting spells and performing bodily mutilations. She learned the rituals from her grandmother, who leads the secret society.

During those two years, Miracle said, she felt no fear of the evil spirits with which she interacted. In fact, she felt comfortable in their presence.

“Wherever I went, I sensed the presence of evil spirits all around me,” Miracle said. “There was nothing in me that made me feel like I must come out of it because I never sensed anything like God in me. I was just going forward more deeply into it.”

Marked by a Devil
More than half of Sierra Leoneans are Muslims, and nearly 13% are Christians. Most of the remaining population practise ethnic religions. Despite this public adherence to religion, an estimated 90% are additionally aligned with secret societies that dominate all aspects of life in Sierra Leone. At about the age of puberty, boys are often initiated into the Poro society and girls are initiated into the Bondo society, also known as Bundu or Sande.

Leaders of these societies hold considerable local power, and national politicians even seek their endorsement and promise to protect their rituals and customs. Most politicians approve of the rituals, with some supporting Poro and Bondo houses financially to ensure that the rituals continue throughout rural Sierra Leone. They believe the societies help create social order and preserve cultural values.

Families that refuse to join or participate in the societies, including Christians, are treated as outcasts. They are denied any decision-making roles in their village.

During the Poro initiation ceremonies, boys receive ritualistic cuts on their backs, signifying the teeth marks of a demonic spirit. Likewise, girls who enter Bondo suffer ritual genital mutilation as an initiation to womanhood. Nine out of ten girls undergo this ritual in Sierra Leone, which has the highest rate of female genital mutilation in Africa. The women who administer these rites are revered and are believed to hold supernatural powers.

Miracle was born into a Muslim family and raised by her grandmother from a young age. Her grandmother is a zowei, a Bondo leader for her village. When Miracle turned 12, her grandmother began preparing her to become a zowei as well.

At the end of the school year, when the Bondo initiation rituals often take place, Miracle’s grandmother would send her into the forest to collect leaves for secret rituals. “Before she could send me to the forest to pick specific leaves, she would consult an evil demon spirit,” Miracle recalled. “Then I would be able to find the leaves that she needed.” The leaves are used to make a potion thought to prevent the girls from feeling pain during the ceremony.

As the Bondo initiation starts, the girls have their faces painted with white clay and are led deep into the forest by a ‘devil’. The zowei, who embodies the devil, wears a wooden mask and a costume generally made of palm leaves. The devil typically uses an unsterilised razor or knife to mutilate the girls, who receive no form of anaesthesia other than the leaf potion. The girls are often tied down, and their mouths are covered.

Following the ritual, the girls take an oath of secrecy and are told that if they disclose the society’s secrets they will be killed. Just discussing the ritual with a non-member, including a doctor, could be considered breaking the oath.

As Miracle grew in her understanding of Bondo rituals, her grandmother allowed her to wear the devil costume and conduct the mutilations herself. She was 13 at the time.

“I was the one actually doing almost everything,” Miracle recalled. “At my young age, I initiated 35 girls into the secret society.”

Looking back on those two years of her childhood, Miracle said she felt as if she had lost control of her soul, invoking demons and seeking their guidance. “In the secret society, you are assisted by an evil spirit to carry it out,” she said. “In most of my work, I operated alongside the evil spirits and they directed me what to do.”

From a Dark Dimension
In addition to teaching her the initiation rituals, Miracle’s grandmother also taught her how to enter a spiritual realm through incantations and by invoking demonic spirits. Then, Miracle said, she could interact with the demons to further learn the ways of the secret society and control people.

Miracle ceremonially entered a witch’s coven, or group of witches. In their presence, she said, she could physically control and harm people in ways similar to voodoo, which originated in the nearby West African country of Benin.

“That attracted many young people to me because I gained power in the spirits,” Miracle said. “When I am inside that [witch’s coven], those in the physical realm, whatever I tell you, no matter how big you are, you listen to me and you do what I tell you to do.”

Miracle said that she and her grandmother even killed children by ritually kidnapping their souls. The disturbing details of these ‘killings’ included figuratively ‘eating’ their flesh and ‘drinking’ their blood — all from the spiritual realm. Miracle said that later, in the physical world, parents would find their children’s bodies and have no idea what happened to them.

These shocking claims were corroborated by a Christian front-line worker who had escaped the Poro secret society as a young boy and now helps former secret society members like Miracle. He said stories like hers of demonic-influenced killings are common throughout the region.

“A doctor can’t find any blood,” the worker said. “The child is plain white, and when you take them to the hospital the doctor will tell you, ‘There is no blood in this child’.”

Reflecting on her time in the secret society, Miracle recalled limitations to the dark power she gained by invoking the support of demons and witches. Each time her power was limited, a Christian was involved.

“There is something in the Christian … that prevents you from taking that soul,” she said. “I want to tell you that it is not only because my grandmother said it, but I myself tried it and saw it with my naked eyes. I saw it in the children who became Christians; when we wanted to take them, it was difficult. Those children you cannot take. There is a force that fights you.”

Captivated by the Light
One evening when Miracle’s grandmother was visiting another village, a Christian pastor arrived with a projector and a screen. He had come to her village to share The Jesus Film.

As Miracle watched the life of Jesus projected onto a portable screen that lit up the night, she said she felt moved by Christ’s teachings and miracles. She also realised that she had encountered Jesus in the spiritual realm. He was the force who had protected the Christians she and her grandmother had tried to control.

“My heart was fixed to the Lord Jesus Christ,” she said. “I started yearning to give my life to Christ.”

Although she didn’t walk forward at that moment, Miracle later joined the pastor and others at a church in a nearby village, where they prayed together. Miracle still hadn’t come to faith in Christ, but she said she felt at peace during the all-night prayer meeting.

When Miracle returned home the next morning, her grandmother, who was back from her visit, asked her where she had been.

“The people who came, they have a church,” Miracle answered.

That was all her grandmother needed to hear. “I have made you a leader in our society,” she shouted. “What are you doing with these … church people?”

Her grandmother gathered the elder Bondo women and told them that Miracle had attended a church service. “Immediately, a decision was reached that for treading my foot in the church, I should be killed,” Miracle said. “I had violated the law.”

About 30 women took Miracle into the forest, made her take off her clothes and tied her down.

“They flogged me very seriously that night,” Miracle said, crying. “They said, ‘If you ever try to follow that pastor, the next time we will kill you’.”

Find Refuge
Miracle headed for the pastor’s house as soon as she was untied, but the women realised where she was going and recaptured her. They beat her again, and one of the women rubbed a crushed chilli in her eyes and elsewhere on her body. Screaming, Miracle broke free from the women and continued running, eventually reaching the pastor’s home.

Realising Miracle’s life was in danger, the pastor and his wife immediately let her into their home. When the Bondo women arrived at the house a short time later, they ceremonially cursed an area at the pastor’s house where he showed The Jesus Film and led worship services. Throughout the night and into the morning, they threw stones at the house and ordered the pastor to release Miracle so they could kill her.

Eventually, the pastor was able to take Miracle to a church, where she stayed with another pastor for about a month. “You have gone through all of this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ,” the second pastor told Miracle. “Don’t be discouraged. Keep the faith. God is going to provide you a way … to live from now on.”

The pastor who was taking care of Miracle sensed that she was still controlled by a dark spirit, so for one week he fasted and prayed for her.

“I did not feel the physical world,” Miracle recalled. “I felt the spiritual realm. Prayer is what brought me back to the normal way with people. From what I can remember, I fell to the ground. The pastor was praying, and something came out of me. When that thing came out of me, I could remember myself and feel the physical again. It was a spirit that was inside my life.”

In her remaining weeks at the church, Miracle said she felt most vulnerable in the evenings when she could feel the Bondo women attempting to reach her “in the witch way” through the spiritual realm. “At night, the pastor prayed for me,” she said, “that they would not be able to contact me again.”

While still staying at the church, Miracle placed her faith in Christ. After her baptism, she took on the name Miracle to honour the way God had brought her out of darkness and into light.

Walking in the Light
Ten years after coming to faith in Christ, Miracle is part of a vibrant church and continues to grow in faith.

“The church is helping me to understand God’s Word,” she said. “Whatever comes my way, they come around me to encourage me and pray with me. They are also helping me with small things that make me happy.”

In December 2022, Miracle graduated from a three-year sewing programme. She said she is grateful for her sewing machine and the training she received from the school; they are helping her provide for herself and have given her a place in society that doesn’t require keeping secrets.

“I want whoever reads my story to be praying for me to stay in the Lord,” she said. “That is the most important thing, staying in Christ.

Miracle’s grandmother is unable to attack her through the spiritual realm, but Miracle has heard that she is still pursuing her. Still, she doesn’t fear her grandmother or the others who wish her harm. She keeps her eyes focused solely on Christ.

“Until I go to glory,” she said, “I will be with the family of Jesus. My grandmother, I don’t think about her.”

Instead of the demons and witches she interacted with as a young girl, Miracle is now filled with the Holy Spirit and protected by the blood of Christ. She trusts God to continue lighting the path before her in a spiritually dark region of Africa.

“What happened to me in the spirit realm, I didn’t understand,” Miracle said. “Today, I can call on the name of Jesus and I am able to understand that dark realm and the light of the world. I praise God that I am now in the light.”

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