The next time someone suggests to you that all spiritual beliefs are deserving of equal respect, you might mention "kindoki", an African name used to describe a demonic spirit that can take possession of a person. There's no doubting the sincerity of those who believe in kindoki or witchcraft, sincere beliefs usually being presented as more worthy of our deference. But there's little doubt about their toxic effects either, explored in Kevani Kanda's distressing BBC3 film Branded a Witch.
Kanda first came to Britain from the Democratic Republic of Congo when she was five years old, and endured years of abuse before being taken into care. Now 23, and with two young sons of her own, she set out to examine a lethal new twist to the widespread African belief in witchcraft, which has increasingly come to be associated with the abuse and even murder of children. Not just in Congo, either, but here too. The cases of Victoria Climbié and Kristy Bamu, tortured for days by his sister's boyfriend before he finally died of his injuries, were both connected to belief in kindoki.
Pentecostal Christianity would seem to be one aggravating factor – biblical literalism providing a scriptural underpinning for a belief in satanic possession and exorcism – and it would have been interesting to know whether the activities of Western missionaries had helped create the particularly virulent form of superstition that now flourishes in some African communities.
But Kanda's approach was less academic than personal, involving a return visit to Kinshasa, where she was born, and an investigation into the way in which kindoki had touched her own family. A cousin called Florence had been expelled from the family after her mother fell ill and Florence was accused of being a witch (being rude to adults was the giveaway sign). And although Kanda's uncle disapproved of her expulsion other relatives were scornfully insistent that witchcraft was real and only strict quarantine could protect other family members.
Florence got off lightly. Children are overwhelmingly the target of kindoki accusations, scapegoated for any misfortune and then subject to "deliverance", which looks – and is – indistinguishable from physical abuse. A weeping five-year-old was slapped and forced to drink hot palm oil, the prelude to a three-day fast in isolation. "He has already started killing people, he's already started drinking blood," explained an unperturbed celebrant when she was questioned about this cruelty.
And it can be even worse when believers decide to save themselves the fees charged for exorcism by local pastors. Kanda visited two young children who'd been doused in petrol and set on fire by their aunt, after an older sister fell ill. "Who does that?" she asked, buckled and weeping against a wall outside. True believers do, which is why some of their beliefs deserve nothing but contempt. All very well to campaign for non-violent responses to kindoki, as three young Congolese men were shown doing here through consciousness-raising theatre. But the fact that all three thought kindoki was real was dismaying. Sorry, guys, but your spirituous beliefs are dangerous nonsense.
My hackles go up when I see the word "secret" in a programme title and they were right to with The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars, a history programme about a story so secret that it's actually been the subject of a global best seller, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. Still, credit where it's due, Peter Barton did namecheck Faulks's book and his film about the tunnelling war at the Somme proved to be gripping location history. He has a rather breathless manner when addressing the camera, but it was justified, partly because he was often talking while crouched beneath several tons of unstable chalk but also because the tunnels preserve the front line in a unique way, the candle smoke and graffitied bravado as fresh as they were nearly 100 years ago. "
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