Witch hunt: Africa's hidden war on women

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In villages across Africa, old women suspected of witchcraft are hacked to death, while young girls are mutilated to preserve their virginity. But attitudes are changing – and thousands of lives are being saved. Johann Hari reports from Kenya and Tanzania

Across Africa, a war is being waged on women – but we are refusing to hear the screams. Over the past fortnight, I have travelled into the secretive shadow world that mutilates millions of African women at the beginning of their lives, and at the end. As girls, they face having their genitalia sliced out with razors, to destroy their "filthy" sexuality and keep them "pure". As old women, they face being hacked to death as "witches", blamed for every virus and sickness blowing across the savannah.

For decades, we have not wanted to know, because it sounded too much like the old colonialist claims of African "primitivism", used as an excuse by our ancestors to pillage the continent's resources. Our bad memories stop us hearing their bad experiences. But today, a rebellion of African women has begun, in defence of their own bodies, and their own freedom. They are asking for our support, and receiving it from Comic Relief and the tens of thousands of people raising money for them tomorrow. This is the story of the great African feminist fightback – and how you can be part of it.

Witch-killing country

I am driving deep into witch-killing country, with the address for the latest lynching. To get to Kagaya village, you take the single asphalt road that rolls for hundreds of miles through Sukumaland, Northern Tanzania. The land is flat and dry and thirsting on to the far horizon. It is interrupted only by great fists of granite that punch through the earth towards the sky, and by bush-trees that look like mutant broccoli, vast and out of perspective. Somehow, my guide knows which of the endless dirt tracks, feeding off the road like tributaries, takes us to Kagaya. We swerve out into the bush.

Everybody in Kagaya knows where the lynching happened. "There," they say. "That house." The village is small and seems to be in the process of being swallowed by the greenery that looms and spreads its branches over every shack. Outside the victim's house – a small, sturdy red-brick building with two bare rooms – 11 people are lolling. Some little girls are peeling potatoes. An old man with a wooden leg is playing a board game with a child. A group of women are weeping and shaking their heads, because the blood just won't wash out.

They are bemused by the arrival of a muzungu (white man), and reluctant to talk. But gradually, they tell their story. Two days ago, Shikalile Msaji – a woman in her eighties, living alone – was here in this house, looking after her eight-year-old granddaughter. She had spent the day tending her crops in the fields out back, and cooking. But at six in the evening – when it is pitch-black here, the only light coming from the moon and the stars – three strange men appeared.

"Your days are over, old woman," they said after smashing in her front door with a rock. Her granddaughter ran into the next room. "Stay there and shut up, or you will die, too," they shouted after her. Then they slashed into Shikalile's skull with machetes, and tried to cut off her hands – suggesting this was a witch-killing. Her granddaughter hid until morning, then ran for help. It was too late. Shikalile's blood still stains the walls, and the small wooden chair where she sat in her last moments of life. Her family – huddled here for the funeral – have to sleep in this room. They have nowhere else to stay until they return to their own villages.

Shikalile's youngest son, Matseo, is wandering around, dazed. "My mother was a very kind person... I am worried people think she was a witch, she wasn't," he says, looking down, almost mumbling. A neighbour speculates: "Her grandchildren have had sicknesses and fevers lately. They have not been well. So maybe she has been blamed. Maybe they said she bewitched them." Others huddled here, in the shade and the sadness, believe her children just used the charge of witchcraft as an excuse to get her out of the way and claim their inheritance. The villagers have petitioned for them to be arrested, and her eldest daughter has been taken away. Nobody will tell me the details. At the back, in the fields of maize and cassava she planted, Shikalile has just been buried. A dog digs idly at the grave, only to be shooed away.

Witch killings are a daily event in Sukumaland. The victims are almost invariably old women, living alone. These women are frightening anomalies here: they have a flicker of financial independence denied to all other females. It has to be stopped. "Of course witches must be killed!", Emanuel Swayer tells me, leaning forward. "They are witches!" We are sitting in the nearby town of Nasa-Gin now, in the soft breeze by Emanuel's fields. A skinny dog is lolling at Emanuel's feet. He is regarded as a local expert on witches – and how to dispose of them.

"Witches are people who use the power of our ancestors to harm others," he explains, with a jeer. Most people here believe there are two realms: the physical one which we can all see, and a higher realm, where the spirits of our ancestors reside, eternally watching us. Everybody can appeal to the ancestors for help, by making offerings to them – but only witches ask them to do harm. "The worst thing about witches is if you make a tiny mistake, they'll kill you," he says. "It happened to my grandfather. One day he got pricked by a thorn, and he died the next day. How can a thorn prick kill somebody? He must have angered a witch. It is the same with my father. He was a mentally well man. But then he was bewitched and became confused and disappeared and we haven't seen him since."

But the witches' most evil act in their war on Emanuel Swayer was to kill his baby son, Yusuf. "He got severe diarrhoea and died," he says. "It was the witches. Of course, they deny it – they say I'm not, I'm not, I'm not – but they are. Long ago, in 1984, the Tsungu-Tsungu [a local vigilante group] captured some witches and they admitted it. They admitted it was all true, and this is what they do."

As I speak to the witch-believers, it becomes clear what is happening. In this bitterly poor, bone-dry land, death is constantly swooping above their heads, ready to strike at any moment. But to accept that their lives are precarious and arbitrary – that something as small as a thorn prick, or diarrhoea, can end their story, and soon – would be excruciating. So it is, perversely, easier to imagine they are in a celestial war against evil, represented by the old women all around them. Suddenly, the grief has a meaning – and can be killed. A witch is death made flesh – and who has not dreamed of slaying death?

As they sip beer and talk into the dusk about these "evil witches", it becomes clear they have developed elaborate fantasies to maintain all this. Bobu Masha, a rather plump 39-year-old farmer, tells me: "Witches are a big danger. They can kill you. I know because I have participated in their evil." He says that one night, when he was 14, his aunt woke him in his sleep, and revealed she was secretly a witch. "She told me to come with her to a place but it was eight kilometres away. I said I couldn't get there, but she produced a hyena, and we rode on its back very fast. She took me to a witch's convention, where they plan their work. We saw people dancing naked. There were people who died years ago there, dancing and partying. This is what I saw, vividly." Is he consciously lying? Or has he convinced himself this dream – or hallucination – is true, to give a purpose to all the grief he has been soaked in? "There is a special substance you can rub around your eyes, and then you will be able to see witches," Bobu tells me. Good. Bring me the medicine, I say. "Oh, it is very rare. It is not easy to get hold of."

A few miles away, I meet one of the monsters Emanuel believes should be wiped from the earth. Sato Magdalena Ndela is a shrunken, hunched old woman, but she smiles awkwardly as she offers me her stump to shake. She is sitting in the shade, eating sweet potatoes her grandchildren have peeled for her. She can just about hold food with her remaining hand, although it juts from her wrist at a strange and painful angle.

Sato can remember when they came to kill her. "It happened in the night. I heard people opening the door without knocking," she says. "They shone a light in my face. I thought – what is happening? What can I do? That was when I felt the first cut into my body. I looked down and saw my hand was cut right off. Then they cut into the right one and it was hanging. Then I felt a blow against my head and I lost consciousness."

She keeps repeating this part of her story, mumbling. She doesn't remember when she was first called a witch, or why. She was old. She was alone. It was enough. Her daughter, Salome Kashilima, is suckling a baby in the corner. She says: "My mother totally changed after the attack. She can't work, she can't hear very well, she feels sick all the time. If there is any noise in the night, she screams.... It is so sad, because she was a very good farmer, and so hard-working."

Sato tugs off her headscarf to show me the wounds. Her head is one long scar, and her ear is a twisted lump. Ever since the attack in 1995, her right eye has been weeping salt tears and pus. She mutters: "Now I can't do anything. I wasn't born like this. I can't do anything." And she tells the story of the attack again.

Only words

The women of Sukumaland – with nothing but their dignity – have begun to fight back. Juliana Bernard is a small, firm 36-year-old woman with an air of indestructibility, and a mission: make witch-hunting history. She grew up across Tanzania, travelling with her father, who was a primary school teacher, and her mother, who was a nurse. She felt instinctively that charges of witchcraft were "nonsense" – and she learnt from her mother that "illness is caused by disease and germs, not bad spirits". I sit in a van belonging to HelpAge, the organisation she works for, as she takes me to a village where she is – inch by inch – helping women to speak out and answer back.

She says: "Witch-hunting is the most extreme end of the extreme views towards women held by many men here. Women do the vast majority of the work. They build the houses, care for the children, and work in the fields. They work 24 hours a day – but they have nothing at the end of it. We are seen as the property of our husbands. Women are not allowed to decide anything about our own lives. We have no rights, no property, and no say. Widows are the exception – and that is why they are targeted. Anything bad is blamed on us, and we can't answer back. It ends with us being blamed even for disease and death."

Juliana trained as a lawyer in Dar es Salaam, but she came back here because she did not feel she could forget the old women living in terror. "Of course, I have seen terrible things," she says casually. "I have been to villages where old women have been chopped to pieces and their legs were sticking out of the bonfire. I have seen a mother and daughter hacked to death, because the mother was accused of being a witch, and the daughter tried to defend her. But I believe in these women."

When Juliana first turned up in the villages of Sukumaland to explain she was there to defend women accused of witchcraft, "everybody thought I was mad. They said if I sat down with the witches, I would be poisoned and die. But I ate with the witches – and I lived. It was a useful sign." Juliana and the organisation she worked with – Maparece – had a simple programme: show the local people the real causes of the evils they attribute to witchcraft.

Women in Sukumaland spend a lifetime working over ovens fuelled by chopped wood. This causes acrid smoke to sting their eyes every day – and by the time they reached their fifties, their eyes are bloodshot-red. This is seen as a sign of witchcraft – and triggers killings. So Juliana started with something strikingly simple. She provided old women with adjusted ovens that blew the smoke not into their eyes, but up a funnel and out into the sky. Their eyes soon healed – and the villagers started to listen.

Juliana has been working in Ngwasamba village for more than five years – and it has been transformed. At the village meeting – where everyone gathers in a broad circle – a young man called Bahati Madirisha tells me: "Before, we thought old women were wicked and we could beat them or do anything we liked to them to stop them. But then Juliana explained that disease and germs make you sick, not witches. [Her organisation] Maparece proved it... Before, we blamed polio on witches and punished them, but it didn't stop polio. Then we got the polio vaccinations, and we all stopped developing polio. We could see that modern medicine works." The village nods as one. "We can see that we were deceived by the traditional healers who blamed witches," a woman adds.

Just the smallest drop of rationality can – it seems – kill these superstitions stone dead. One old woman in the village, Lois Mukwiga, tells me: "Before, you couldn't sleep at night. You were just waiting for the accusation. Witch. Witch. Now we can walk the village freely, even late at night. Now I'm just like anyone else." Juliana's work was able to spread further across Sukumaland because Comic Relief provided hard cash. They were able to lobby the Tanzanian government to crack down on the "traditional healers" who blamed illnesses on witchcraft. Now the government is registering all of them, and refusing a licence to anyone who makes such claims.

Driving from village to village where Juliana has worked, old women openly weep with relief – and for the friends they have lost. Monica Abdell is a lined old woman swaddled in bright colours. She stands up at the village meeting and declares: "In the old days, women never slept peacefully in their beds. We lived in terror. You could never settle. You always thought – I could be next." She knows. It happened to her.

Monica was thrown out by her husband for a younger woman, and forced to leave her two babies with them. "It was the saddest day of my life," she says. "But men own the children here, and women have no rights." When she arrived in this village, she was poor and alone, and whispers soon began that she was a witch. "Nobody would say it to my face, but people would shout it at my house," she says. "I couldn't understand it. I hadn't done anything wrong. Nobody would dare to help you. Your own relatives would send you away broken hearted, because they were terrified of being accused of being witches, too."

She lived like this for decades. Then, one day, she saw a notice pinned to the primary school notice board. It had her name on it, next to a drawing of a huge knife, and a pool of blood. It said: "These are the last days of your life. Go and sacrifice a goat. You will die soon." She was being blamed for the mysterious death of several local children. Monica angrily wipes away a tear and says: "I stopped eating. After a while, you don't even feel the hunger. I was so confused. It was as if I was no longer of this world. I realised I had to run away, so I left everything and fled into the bush. I slept on the floor. I was so frightened I would be killed by a snake or wild animal. I was starving. But nobody would help you. You had to carry the cross on your own shoulders."

But then one day, weak and exhausted, Monica took a risk and returned to her house. She half-expected to be hacked to death – but while she had been hiding in the bushes, Juliana had been to her village. People knocked at her door and explained they now knew she wasn't a witch. Soon after, Comic Relief money built her a new house, where she has an oven that won't redden her eyes. Monica weeps and shakes her head, but can't quite say any more. Finally, she adds: "It is seared on to your bones. Being shown a letter with a knife and blood and your name... I have starved in my life several times, and this was much worse."

A year after Monica returned, two young women arrived in the village. They had been travelling through every settlement in the area, asking for her, knowing only her name. "When they came to my house, they said, 'Monica? We are your daughters.' And I thought – 'Yes, you have my face!'" Monica looks out towards the bush where she nearly died, and says softly: "If it was not for Maparece [funded by Comic Relief], I would not have lived to know my daughters. I would be dead, and the people here would not know there are no witches – only words."

Cutting

Margaret Koilel is telling me how to cut out a woman's genitals. She has done it hundreds of times, and says it is simple. "At seven in the morning, everybody turns up for the ceremony. The girl – who is usually 12 – is seated on a cow-hide. The girls often scream and howl and try to resist, so one woman holds her left leg, the other holds her right leg, and another holds her shoulders back. We pour cold water on her vagina to make her numb. Then I go down on one leg and start to cut with a razor."

First, Margaret puts her finger under the hood of the clitoris, "and then I cut it completely off." Then "I cut out all the meat. I know when to stop when I feel the bone and there's nothing left to cut away." Then "we take her to bed and cover her with a cloth. In the evening, the women come back to check I have done a good job. If I have left anything by mistake, because the girl kicked and screamed too much, we cut her again."

Every year, two million African women have their vaginas butchered. It is called "circumcision", but this is misleading: the male equivalent would be cutting off the head of the penis, and most of the shaft. In many countries – such as Sudan, or Somalia – it happens to more than 90 per cent of women. It kills many of them – and their babies.

I have come to the Rift Valley in Kenya to see this maiming for myself. The valley is a long, dry depression in the earth, ringed by hard rock. As you drive along the lumpy melting asphalt, you see nothing for miles except red-brown earth, and the occasional Masai goat-herd guiding his cattle to the next rare patch of edible scrub. This is where humanity was born: its long blank vistas are encoded on our DNA. Its landscape is soothing to our species, even as if feels like the sun is suspended inches above your head and burning down into your bones.

Outside a tin shack in the emptiness, Margaret explains why they do it. "It is to please the men," she says. "They will not marry a woman who is uncut. They think that a woman with an uncut vagina will be sexually insatiable, and have sex with anyone. But if she is cut, she will not enjoy sex, so you know she will be a virgin on her wedding night, and she will not cheat on you after you are married." There are strange myths to reinforce this practice. Some men believe an uncut woman will kill the crops if she touches them. Others think an uncut clitoris will grow like a snake and strangle them in their sleep.

Dr Guyo Jaldesa sees the consequences every day. "Instead of a normal vagina, these women just have scar tissue," he says. "This causes all sorts of problems. It is basically torture for the women to have sex. One of the purposes of female genital mutilation is to make it terribly painful and unpleasant for women." When he gets married, "the man has to prove his virility by forcing open the closed scar tissue. If he fails to perform this the man is ridiculed, but it can be very difficult. So often the man will use objects – like a knife or broken bottle – causing even more terrible damage to the woman."

During childbirth, the woman's vagina has no elasticity. "The scars cannot stretch to let the baby out – so it often becomes trapped there," he explains. The World Health Organisation calculates this causes a 20 per cent increase in still-born births. I am about to see this is only the start.

The town at the centre of the valley is called Narok, but I think of it as Dust City. The air is thick with dust; every time you walk, you kick up great fireworks of dust. Little whirlwinds form, carrying torrents more dust – where does it come from? – into your mouth, your ears, your eyes. Narok has a small courthouse, and I am here to attend the first-ever trial of a father for killing his daughter – by cutting out her vagina.

Last August, Sision Nchoe – a 12-year-old girl – was held down and cut. Once it was over, she bled and bled and it wouldn't stop. Within a few hours, she was dead. Her father said this was a bad omen from the spirits – nothing to do with the cutting, oh no – and ordered she be buried immediately. Normally the story would end there: another anonymous death. But a local campaign to end this mutilation had a supporter in the community – and they called the police. Her father, Ole Nchoe, was outraged, asking the police: "It is only a woman who died. Why is there all this fuss?" But Sision's mother was wailing "You have killed my daughter! My daughter!"

An array of prisoners shuffle into the courthouse, each wearing only one shoe: it turns out they confiscate one of them when you are arrested to stop you running away. They each plead on minor charges in front of a stern magistrate, before being dismissed, or jailed. Finally, Ole

Nchoe and the woman he paid to cut his daughter, Nalangu Sekut, shuffle into the witness box.

The father looks angry and uncomprehending. As soon as he is given a chance to speak, he begins to shout. "Forgive me – I was not involved in this incident..." he says. "God did this, not me! I am asking for forgiveness." The circumcisor is even more angry. She shouts, jabbing her finger in the air: "If what I did was wrong, why did the chief accompany me? Why does my local councillor approve? Why?" In a bar, their local councillor Stephen Kudate tells me: "There's a lot of anger in the community at this coming to trial." It is adjourned. There will be a verdict in April.

It's not hard to find the other victims of the cutting: they walk every street in Dust City. Kanako Sampao is a lean, drawn 25-year-old woman who wanders the streets, her head covered with a red bandana. She keeps her distance from everyone, in order to hide the stench that constantly leaks from her. "I was cut when I was 10," she says, looking around nervously, and smirking at odd intervals. "I screamed but they did it anyway." She didn't heal very well – it was months before she could walk again. When she was 14 she was married off and had her first and only baby.

"He became stuck. I couldn't push him out," she says. "They cut me to pull him out but it was too late. He died." The punishment didn't end there. When the baby becomes trapped in a scarred vagina, there is huge pressure on the rectum, the bladder and the urethra – and a lot of the tissue can become damaged and die. This happened to Kanako. Her insides were crushed – and never recovered. She has what is called a fistula: now all her urine and faeces leak in a long incontinent streak from her vagina.

"My husband said I stink and can't even produce a healthy child, so he found another woman and threw me out," she says. "Now no man will go near me. I have nowhere to live. People attack me, saying I stink and I'm disgusting. My sisters let me scavenge food from them, but their husbands won't let me in their houses." She looks down, her eyes dry. She has heard fistula is treatable with surgery, but it is expensive, and she has no idea how she could afford it. All over Africa, you find these women – shunned like lepers, on the streets, abandoned, hoping for a miracle.

The Woman With the Wooden Vagina

I walk into the courtroom in Narok with Agnes Pareiyo, a big, broad 53-year-old woman with immaculately coiffed hair: she looks like a 1950s housewife in Masai tribal dress. She is indeed a warrior – for women's rights. She is here to get justice for Sision – and all the girls like her. Sision's father glares at her with uncomprehending hate. For Agnes, this trial is the culmination of a fight that began when she was 14 years old.

"One day, my father told me I was going to be made into a woman," she says, almost whispering. When he explained what this involved, she refused. She thought it was barbaric and cruel. But she was the daughter of the village chief; she had to set an example. "I tried to fight, I tried to resist – but they forced me. So I was determined not to scream. But because I didn't scream, they cut even more out. They cut me very severely. And afterwards, as I was lying there, I resolved I wouldn't let this happen to more girls."

Agnes grew up to be a housewife and the treasurer for the local district. One day, 15 years ago, they discussed at the district council why so many girls were dropping out of school. Agnes pointed out that it happened after the girls were cut – so she began to tour the schools, telling girls they didn't have to do it. "At first, people said I was a crazy woman. Who is this madwoman explaining what clitorises are to our girls? My member of parliament condemned me, saying I was trying to destroy Masai culture and corrupt our girls. But I kept to my course."

She hit upon the idea of having a wooden model of a vagina carved for her, so she could demonstrate plainly what "circumcision" does to it. "That was when people said I was totally insane!" she says, with a great whooping laugh. They called her "the woman with the wooden vagina".

But after her school tours had been going for a few months, something happened that Agnes hadn't anticipated. Girls who were about to be mutilated began to run away from home to find her – and seek help. "They were terrified. What could I do? I let them stay with me, but soon I realised they couldn't all stay with me." So – with help from Comic Relief, and from Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues – she set up an organisation called the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, and built a shelter for the fleeing girls. She takes me there, to a bright, airy centre filled with freed girls. They are cooking and reading and plaiting each other's hair.

Agnes' defence of her girls is legendary in the Rift Valley. Everybody knows about the time an enraged father turned up at the gates of the shelter with a sword to reclaim his daughter and have her cut. The gates were sealed; the girls were gathered, unarmed, behind Agnes. The father was howling revenge – and Agnes stood firm and shouted: "Come on then! Try it! We're not afraid of you!" After a moment's silence, he fled. "I am a Masai woman," she says, and chuckles.

The shelter triggered such a mass rebellion of young girls running away from home that the Kenyan government finally made it illegal to subject a girl to genital mutilation in 2001. But the first prosecutions are only beginning now. Almost all the girls who still run away to Agnes are reunited with their families – once they agree to leave them unmaimed. "I go bringing a blanket and sugar, the symbols of forgiveness," Agnes says. "I explain the health risks. It usually works." They take the women who work as circumcisors on to training courses, to teach them the consequences of what they do. When Margaret Koilel learnt the truth about what she had been doing, she was shocked. "I realised I have the blood of hundreds of girls on my hands," she says. "It calls to me in the night."

But Agnes soon realised that mutilation cannot be looked at on its own. After a girl is mutilated, she is almost always forced to drop out of school and sold off for a dowry to an older man. In the Rift Valley, mutilation and forced marriage are Siamese twins. Agnes leads me to a girl who knows this better than anyone. Wangari is a slim, bony 14-year-old who was saved on her wedding day – at the age of nine. She grew up in Taleki village, where she says a normal day involved cooking, cleaning, feeding the animals, and looking after the younger children. "My father goes into the town and drinks. He doesn't work," she adds. She was cut when she was eight – she doesn't want to talk about it – and from then on she had to stay at home. "My brother – who was in his twenties – kept asking my dad: why is she still around? You should marry her off. So one day my father brought home a suitor and told me I was getting married." How old was he? "Forty-five."

She looks away, and breathes a little more deeply. "I didn't really understand what it meant. I just knew I didn't want to leave my mum. But the man gave my father two sheep and one goat, and a wedding date was arranged. On the day, I was covered with sheep fat, which is part of the ceremony. My father explained that I was going to have to stop being a child, and do what I'm told to do, and never come back. You must build your own home now. I didn't know what to say. My father told my husband that he had to beat me to ensure I didn't come running back home."

But a Tasaru supporter saw what was going on, and called Agnes. She alerted the police – and Wangari was rescued on her way to the wedding and brought to the shelter. Agnes enrolled her in school for the first time. "I love school!", she exclaims, her fists unclenching. "I didn't know how to read or write when I came here. Now I speak English and Swahili. I get so much encouragement! They tell me I can do anything I want to." Unusually, her family refused to have her back. Her father considers her a "whore", who could kill the family crops if she touched them.

"I miss my mum," Wangari says softly. "But I could never go back there. I value my school and my body too much."

The Racist-Relativist Alliance

Why are these wars on women verboten in the West? Why do we refuse to hear Juliana or Agnes and their pleas for solidarity? Any discussion of these issues – the persecution of "witches", and vaginal mutilation – is silenced in a pincer movement of racism and relativism. Racists say that black Africans are inherently primitive. Their "culture" will always and ineradicably contain such cruelties, so why bother tampering with it? Relativists say that African culture must be "respected", and it is "imperialist" to interfere, on a par with the vilest parts of our own history.

Both make a basic mistake. Africa consists of hundreds of fissiparous cultures and no culture anywhere is homogeneous and unchanging. The culture of Massachusetts was to burn witches not so long ago – until some people there began to stand up and oppose the practice. In the same way, there are huge divisions within African societies. There are brutal misogynists who want to burn old women and destroy female sexuality with razors – but there are also women fighting back, and their will is just as strong. The funding by Comic Relief, saving thousands of innocent women, is an act of solidarity, on a par with the millions of people who backed the African National Congress even though they were not South Africans, or who backed the civil rights movement even though they were not Americans.

Agnes leans forward, her hands bunched into fists. "These girls don't think [mutilation] is wrong because a white man told them so. They know it's wrong because it's their body." With that, Agnes sits back, and looks out, towards the girls playing in the yard, free at last. Isn't she an African? Aren't they?

Some names in this article have been changed to protect the children. For Red Nose Day tomorrow, the BBC is screening an evening of comedy, starting on BBC One from 7pm. To make a donation, call 03457 910 910 (calls cost the same as calls to numbers prefixed 01 and 02 and will be included as part of any inclusive minutes or discount package)

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Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

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Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick