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.
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.
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.
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.
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.