The bizarre and the shocking sell newspapers. And London’s Evening
Standard managed to combine both in a headline last month which
screamed: “Children sacrificed in London churches say police – boys
brought to Britain for ritual killings.” The accompanying news
story, based on a leaked Metropolitan Police report, claimed that
children were being trafficked into the UK for human sacrifice in
some African churches.
This sensationalist story came just days after the Hackney
“witchcraft” child abuse court case in which two Angolan women were
found guilty of child cruelty by subjecting a girl of eight to
ritualistic abuse, including rubbing chillies in her eyes and
stabbing her, believing she was a witch. The girl’s aunt, who
cannot be named, and relatives Sita Kisanga and Sebastian Pinto,
who was found guilty on a different charge of aiding and abetting
child cruelty, are in custody awaiting sentencing.
A belief in witchcraft and spiritual possession goes back
centuries, says Richard Hoskins, a senior research fellow on the
sociology of religion at King’s College London. For some Africans,
these beliefs are deeply engrained and are strengthened when they
move to the UK and are surrounded by atheism and agnosticism.
But there is one fundamental difference in the belief system held
by many Africans in the UK as opposed to those in Africa. Hoskins
says: “In the new African churches there is a belief of actual
possession by witchcraft that needs exorcism physically [rather
than exorcism through prayer].”
In the past four years, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca)
has come across 26 cases in the UK of children involved in extreme
exorcisms that resulted in physical abuse. Director Debbie Ariyo
says several factors in Africa’s history lie behind this strong
belief in the spirit world.
Much of the continent has faced – and continues to face – extreme
poverty; it is gripped by the HIV pandemic; and decades of conflict
and war have destroyed the lives of millions of people. With this
in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that some seek to blame
spiritual influences for their difficulties, such as witchcraft,
One such belief is kindoki, cited in the Hackney case. It comes
from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refers to the bad
spirit of a dead person inhabiting – and therefore controlling – a
living person. This possession of an individual leads them to
behave in a way that creates misfortune for those around them.
Another term heard during the trial was ndoki, a type of possession
thought to allow its victim to fly and transmute into other
creatures. Other African countries have similar expressions: in
Nigeria the term used to describe a child who is thought to be a
witch is aje.
When Africans believe a relative is possessed they often turn to
their church for help. In the UK there are more than 3,000
Christian churches whose congregations have a black majority. These
are split into three types: the first covers mainstream Christian
religions, such as Baptists or Catholics; the second is a new wave
of Pentecostal evangelical churches; the third comprises indigenous
African churches that combine ancient African traditions with their
own brand of Christianity.
According to Ariyo, it is the latter that is most likely to
practise the more extreme forms of exorcism that have so
dramatically hit the headlines. However, she emphasises that most
African churches do not behave in a way that would be perceived as
abusive or harmful towards their congregation.
This point is reiterated by Katei Kirby, general manager of the
African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, which represents 1,300
churches, charities, Christian companies and Christian ministries
in the UK. Christian leaders from the African communities have
expressed their dismay to her about the media’s coverage of their
churches. She says: “They have said they don’t even recognise
themselves in these news stories.”
Much has been made in news reports about the role of pastors in
churches in identifying whether a child is possessed. In Victoria
Climbie’s case, it was the pastor at her local church who
attributed her bedwetting to her being possessed. Pastors have a
great deal of status in their churches, which they have often
started themselves, and many of the congregation adhere to their
teachings, Ariyo says. “Pastors have a lot of control because they
are seen as messengers from God.”
Many African cultures are well versed in ideas of spiritualism and
possession but their relative absence in the west may explain why
there is such a gap between how some African communities and social
care professionals relate to each other. While myriad languages may
not necessarily keep people apart, different mindsets do.
All this leaves professionals pondering how to engage with
religious African communities to identify children at risk from
this belief system.
The NSPCC’s national project manager for services to ethnic
minority children, Norbert Marjolin, says practitioners should be
confident enough to work with people from a variety of cultural
backgrounds without having to fear being described as racist.
He says: “It is not an issue of race, religion or culture, but it
is about behaviour. The safety of a child is paramount and a
professional has to be willing to say ‘I am challenging your
behaviour, not your religion or cultural difference’.”
Hoskins argues that those involved in safeguarding children need to
ensure they can reach all communities: “If professionals don’t try
to see the world as some Africans do they will never fix anything.
Once they have walked out of the room and the door is closed behind
them then that will be it – they won’t have got anywhere.”