Ostracised, abandoned and tortured: The chilling truth about witchcraft superstitions

In twenty-first century Britain we might view witchcraft as a harmless superstition from a bygone era. But for many an accusation of sorcery still ruins lives

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Congo Basin they call it kindoki. West Africans use the word juju whilst in the Caribbean it is obeah. Around the world there are many different terms for witchcraft but for those accused of sorcery the effect is often chillingly violent.

Victims are ostracised, abandoned, tortured and – as the murder of 15-year-old Kirsty Bamu has revealed – even killed by those who hold deeply entrenched beliefs that people can be possessed by evil spirits.

In twenty-first century Britain we might view witchcraft as a harmless superstition from a bygone era. But for many an accusation of sorcery still ruins lives.

“It’s difficult for a white person to understand how dangerous it is when someone has been accused of witchcraft,” says Timothee Seke, a London-based Congolese man who works as a translator. “The government has no idea how pervasive this problem is – how many people are accused of witchcraft all the time.”

For more than two decades Mr Seke has interpreted for organisations as diverse as the Home Office, the police, local authorities and charities.

“Sadly the murder of Kirsty Bamu is not the first time I’ve come across kindoki,” he says. “I’ve dealt with police cases, care proceedings, domestic arguments, you name it. Kindoki comes up all the time.”

There are many cultures across the globe that still believe in witchcraft. But observers have watched with alarm as the belief in black magic has become increasingly popular across much of central and western Africa.

Nowhere is the conviction more widespread than in the Congo Basin. In Kinshasa alone there are an estimated 14,000 children sleeping rough because they have been cast out of their homes following an allegation of witchcraft.

Traditional Congolese culture believes in two realms – the physical and spiritual.

“There is another world outside the world we are able to see, touch, smell or feel,” explains Lukengo Diansangu, a social worker who has written critically about his community’s beliefs in kindoki. “If I am ill, obviously something has caused my illness such as a virus or a bacterium. But kindoki teaches people to look for the causation of a disease. We might ask: why did my daughter die of malaria when my neighbours’ daughter lived?”

In other words, when bad things happen it is usually because a witch has made it happen, either by casting a spell or possessing the body of another.

Ironically the growth of evangelical Christianity across Africa has made matters worse, not better. This is especially true in areas were there is a strong presence of Pentecostalism which tends to portray faith in Christ as an armour one can wear against evil.

A recent detailed study of witchcraft beliefs by the UN found that rather than dispel traditional beliefs, evangelical churches have embraced kindoki by charging money to exorcise evil spirits in so-called “deliverance” ceremonies.

“Pastor prophets fight against witchcraft in the name of God, identifying witches through visions and dreams, and then offering treatment – divine healing and exorcism – to the supposed witches,” wrote the report’s author Aleksandra Cimpric. “The persecution of witches has become a lucrative “business” for many pastor prophets.”

Although Islamic tradition holds that spirits – djinns – can persuade people to be evil, researchers have generally found that belief in witchcraft is considerably more prevalent in Christian cultures.

During Kristy Bamu’s trial, no evidence emerged of any connection to a church. But religious institutions often play a key role in propagating belief in witchcraft.

“The idea that kindoki can be eradicated by beating a child doesn’t come from nowhere,” explains Mr Seke. “The seed has to be planted and it is usually planted in churches.”

Even in supposedly mainstream African churches it is not unusual to witness deliverance services, supposedly designed to expel or counter evil spirits. The Independent has obtained video footage of a prominent Nigerian pastor slapping a young girl in the face after she said she was a “witch for Jesus”.

David Oyedepo, one of Nigeria’s wealthiest preachers, attacked the girl at the Winners’ Chapel, one of the Nigeria’s largest evangelical churches in front of thousands of worshippers. But Mr Oyedepo’s church also has a number of franchises around the world including Winners Chapels in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Neither Mr Oyedepo’s organisation in Nigeria, nor his churches in Britain replied to requests from The Independent for comment as to whether they believed in witchcraft or approved of slapping worshippers.

Judging how prevalent witchcraft beliefs are in Britain is notoriously difficult because of a reluctance to speak out and lack of knowledge among professionals that it even exists.

“As a country we are completely ignorant about the harm that can be caused when someone is accused of being a witch,” says Debbie Ariyo of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, one of just a handful of charities that are specialists at dealing with witchcraft abuse cases. “If a girl goes to school one morning and tells her teacher that the local pastor accused her of being a witch, what will the teacher do? They would be completely clueless about the danger that child might be facing.”

But it is inevitable that immigrants from communities where belief in sorcery is prevalent will bring their superstitions with them.

The murder of Ivorian schoolgirl Victoria Climbie[ACC] in February 2000 was one of the first instances where the issue of modern day witchcraft was brought to the public’s attention in Britain. In the months leading up to Victoria’s death she was taken by her murderers to a number of churches who told them that she was possessed. That belief helped fuel the starvation and savage beatings that led to her death.

A year later police found the limbless and headless corpse of a young boy floating in the Thames. Detectives initially named the boy Adam but it is now believed he was Ikpo Mwosa, a Nigerian child trafficked to Germany and later Britain by traditional witch doctors who sacrificed him in the name of magic. His killers have never been found although an ITV reporter tracked down a Nigerian woman in Lagos who claimed she knew the nicknames of the men who trafficked the boy to Europe.

Three Angolans were also jailed in 2003 for child cruelty when a parking warden found a traumatised eight-year-old girl in the street. Child B – her pseudonym in court – was beaten, cut and had chillis rubbed in her eyes in an attempt to “force out” an evil spirit.

In 2006 the first attempt by the government to ascertain the prevalence of belief in sorcery was carried out by health consultant Eleanor Stobart. She found 36 cases involving 47 children from police and social service records since 2000 where there was a clear link to witchcraft abuse.

Victims tended to be children under the age of 14 who were already vulnerable, often suffering disabilities or behavioural problems such as repeated nightmares and bed wetting. Families that were suffering hardship were also likely to blame a “possessed child” for their misfortune.

Abuse was generally meted out in an attempt to “beat the devil out of a child” and could take the form of starvation, beatings, being burned, isolation and long prayer sessions. Shockingly, at least ten children identified were taken overseas following an accusation of witchcraft and disappeared. According to the report, two children tried to seek help from the UK once they were taken overseas but were rebuffed because they were not British citizens. No-one knows what happened to them.

Concerned that front line workers are unaware of witchcraft accusations, the Department for Education will soon publish an “action plan” to coordinate the response of police, care workers and charities. The Metropolitan Police has also set up Project Violent II, a unit specifically dedicated to faith and culture-based crimes such as sorcery abuse, honour violence and female genital mutilation.

“We know this is an under reported crime,” says the Met’s Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe. “That is why Project Violet is working with the community to raise awareness of this particular issue. Intelligence from the community is that it is far more prevalent than the cases reported.”

But charities like Africans Unite Against Child Abuse fear that the authorities have barely begun to scratch the surface of how prevalent witchcraft related child abuse is.

Meanwhile efforts are being made to locate and re-educate churches that continue to practice exorcisms. The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service is one of the few organisations that actively provide advice to African churches where belief in witchcraft is common.

“The stats show that African churches are the fastest growing in the UK,” says the charity’s chief executive Simon Bass. “If we want to confront abuse of children we have to work with those churches.” Since 2006 CCPAS has trained more than 4,000 pastors and church volunteers in child protection and how to spot signs of abuse.

“We don’t go in their and attack their beliefs,” he adds. “But we are very straight about the safety of children and the laws of the country. Some pastors may be part of the problem, but they are also the key and have a vital role to play.”