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The horror, the horror, of Witchcraft

Andy Newman

The recent case of Sita Kisanga and her brother Sebastian Pinto convicted of torturing an 8 year old girl in their care has brought attention to the seemingly widespread belief in witchcraft by many West Africans. The girl, an orphan brought by her aunt to Britain in 2002 as her "daughter", was beaten with belts and a stiletto shoe, cut with knives, and had chilli pepper rubbed into her eyes because they believed she was a witch. At one point the couple intended to drown the girl in a canal and zipped her up in a laundry bag, but changed their mind at the last minute.

Kisanga claims their pastor, an influential priest who ran the Church of Spiritual Warfare, had confirmed the orphan was kendoki (a witch). Child welfare authorities fear that hundreds of West African children may have been ritualistically abused in London, with others sent back to countries such as Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo for exorcism. Metropolitan police child abuse intelligence unit officers believe there have been at least 31 similar cases in London since 2000, although only five have led to charges, and they found that around 300 African children are unaccounted for. (Although the large number of missing children may not be sinister as many African families move children between different aunts and other members of the extended family). Most famously eight year old Victoria Climbié was murdered in 2000 because her relatives and their pastor believed she was possessed by evil spirits.

In September 2001 the hideously mutilated torso of a small black boy was found floating in the Thames. The boy's arms, legs, and head had all been hacked off. The autopsy report concluded that his throat had been slit. His body was then deliberately drained of blood. Police believe that the boy - referred to as Adam - had been brought to Britain by child traffickers deliberately as a human sacrifice from the Nigerian area of Benin, birthplace of Voodoo. But as Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, says "In any religion there is room for perversion of the religious doctrine ... deviant practices are most likely to occur in countries where there is civil unrest, poverty, and violence It wouldn't surprise me if this strange, cultish behaviour emerged out of the chaos and madness that is modern Nigeria"

The brutality of Adam slaying, poisoned by the Calabar bean that leads to a slow death of convulsive agony, feeds into a Western terror of the Africa, so brilliantly captured in Conrad's novel "the Heart of Darkness". But in the 19th century, as now, it was imperialism that cast the shadow of apocalypse over Africa and overwhelmed its people with war, famine and rapacity.

At a superficial level there is an ideological struggle between the Christian church and animist religious practices, where both sides believe in possession and evil spirits. But is this really what is going on, and why should so many West Africans have such seeming low regard for child welfare?

As a father myself of two young boys, I can only imagine the grief of losing a child. Yet in Europe it used to be common. Until the 19th century it was very unusual to give children under the age of 8 a funeral due to the large number of children who died of disease. Obviously the effect of this on the poor is not recorded, but both King George III and Charles Darwin are known to have suffered severe grief that shook their entire belief systems as a result of losing a favourite child.

I once spoke to an elderly Dutch woman who during the Second World War did not have enough food to feed her children. Fearing that they would all die, she chose to starve the youngest and share his portion with his older siblings. I don't know whether that child lived or died, she didn't say, but she told me that she had no moral or ideological grounding for that horrific choice, and she has suffered terrible guilt ever since.

In the middle ages in Britain the pre-Christian myth of the Changeling was common. Fairies would steel a baby, and leave a fairy child in its stead to be raised by the human couple like a cuckoo. There is evidence that this was used as ideological justification for the murder (by neglect) of children with mental disability, and would also justify infanticide in years of famine.

In Western Europe today our children, typically, do not die. We are mostly sheltered from the grief and pain of poverty and desperation. We surround ourselves with commodities and hide from the bloody animal reality of risk, disease and death. Over the last century we have constructed a cult of childhood bounded by the hundred acre wood, and the guarded by Professor Dumbledore and the talking beasts of Narnia. But this innocence is also a myth, as so many children are beaten, ignored or abused. Even that lucky majority of children whose parents provide kindness and love are not unaware that they live in that pressure cooker of unresolved tensions, frustrations and thwarted dreams we call family life. And the idealisation of childhood spreads into the loathsome and dishonest phenomenon of the "kidult": the extension of a child's exemption from responsibility into adult life. Exemplified by the vapid "Friends" TV series, and the boom in the toys for adults industry.

Of course there can be no condoning of child abuse. Of course we must agree with Mary Marsh, the NSPCC's chief executive who says: "Ritualistic treatment of a child in a context where they're being frightened or threatened, that has to be wrong - that's not protecting their rights. Children are entitled to protection. I'm not against people's beliefs, but I am against them harming children. We mustn't be seen as disrespectful, but be very clear what the boundaries are"

But it is important to understand where this phenomenon has come from. Sita Kisanga and Sebastian Pinto come from Cabinda, an area in northern Angola ravaged by war. They were also under immense personal stress as their asylum applications had been turned down, they were living in poverty and they were awaiting deportation to a war zone ravaged by Aids.

And their experience of childhood was quite different from most people in Britain, because Angola has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, behind only Liberia and Afghanistan. Out of every thousand births in Angola 118 children die before they are 1 year old, and 295 die before they are 5 years old. In the absence of any welfare provision people depend upon their children to care for them as they get older and to bring additional income into the household, so to compensate for high child death rates they have more children: in Angola 48% of the population is under 15 years old. Quite frankly, in Angola children's lives are cheap and expendable.

In these circumstances extreme religious beliefs have grown like wildfire as an anaesthetic. The Guardian quotes Richard Hoskins, an expert in African religion from King's College London and in religiously motivated crimes. He said that in the Congo basin, which includes Cabinda, the past five years had seen a growth in the belief that children could be possessed, and a growth in fundamentalist Christian churches exploiting such fears. "This is not a practice that was traditional. There was a belief that a witch or spirit can affect a person, an external possession. Now there is more belief in internal possession - that you or your child can be possessed, and therefore there needs to be violent exorcism. Poverty and disease lead people to want comfort. People became more religious during the Aids crisis. There are social issues, poverty is a crux issue. The churches are manipulating vulnerable, underprivileged people who are gullible and susceptible to this teaching that, if they follow it, their life will get better. It offers an instant solution."

Within Britain the solution must come from Africans themselves. Child welfare charities, such as the NSPCC already work closely with African community groups, led by Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, and have recently set up the Africa Child Alliance. According to Pastor Katei Kirby of the African Evangelical Alliance "It's quite right to say 'what on earth is going on?', and appropriate then for the church to find a response. If it's inappropriate behaviour, then we do something about it."

But we are entitled to ask who is really responsible for the tragedy of Africa? As an AIDS epidemic sweeps the continent, US pharmaceutical companies prevent cheap generic drugs being produced to combat the disease. Protectionist measures by the US government, and in Europe by the Common Agricultural Policy, decimate African farming. Western arms and money have deliberately fuelled civil wars to destabilise countries like Mozambique and Angola.

We are entitled to ask who are the real child killers? A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report in 1999 concluded that half a million Iraqi children had died in the previous eight years because of sanctions imposed by the US and UK governments. Columbia University professor Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist and an expert on the effects of sanctions, estimated in 2003 that the sanctions had resulted in infant and young-child fatalities numbering between 343,900 and 529,000.

Every individual act of cruelty and violence to a child reflects that we live in a barbaric world. But if we are diminished by these individual cases of abuse, how much more diminished are we by the fact that our governments use famine as a weapon of war and export child slaughter on an industrial scale.


June 2005


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