Myths and reality

We have been told to sing along to pop songs to “save” Africa, and
that the white man must own the burden of duty to carry out this
manifest destiny.

The aims are good, noble even, but they betray a set of age-old
stereotypes about that vast and extraordinary land mass which is
thought to be beyond understanding, primeval. The continent is seen
as caught up in endless barbarity, bloodletting and disasters of
biblical proportions – all generating a production line of innocent

By coincidence, at the same time as we are supposed to be doing
good for Africa, a horrific case arrives in our courts not unlike
that of Victoria Climbie, who was murdered by her aunt and her
aunt’s boyfriend and failed by various agencies. This time an
eight-year-old unnamed African child living with her aunt was
tortured and beaten by Sita Kisanga and Sebastian Pinto with the
collusion of the aunt, a woman with low IQ, who believed the girl
was a “kindoki” (a witch). Child “witches” are thought by the
superstitious to make women barren and to destroy family

Mercifully, this time the child survived. Nevertheless the story
brought out people’s worst fears. The media, as ever, helpfully
pushed people further into terror. According to the tabloid press,
the Africans living in our midst are capable of unimaginable
crimes, and are disease-ridden too, which will lead to pandemics in

A Metropolitan Police report, which has been leaked, asserted that
300 African children had gone missing this year and that this was
probably evidence they had become victims of ritual abuse. Then,
preposterously, the Met itself denied its own report and claimed
there was no truth in these allegations. It insisted there were no
ongoing investigations into any of this bloodcurdling business. Met
commander Dave Johnson says now that there is a “perception” but no
evidence of widespread abuse.

Theologian Robert Beckford rightly objects to such demonising of
African beliefs. Exorcisms happen in many Christian churches; the
idea of the “devil’s child” goes across all cultures. The responses
of white Britons, he says, are reminiscent of 19th century racist

Social workers need to take great care that they are not
subconsciously swept along by this collective hysteria. But what do
they do when African children are known to be vulnerable to
violence and inhumane treatment by their own? They must intervene
as professionally and fairly as they can and not allow themselves
to be paralysed by the possibility that they might be stereotyping
African families.

It is a tough call. The only way to deal with such situations is to
imagine what would be done if the child were white.

Anti-racism has never been about arguing that black and Asian
miscreants should not be called to account. Or that black and Asian
children should be left to their “cultural” fate. Genuine equality
means applying the same standards of care and behaviours for all
groups. But professionals involved in child protection work must
remain vigilant about possible personal prejudices and their own
cultural baggage.

John Azar, an adviser to the Met, was brilliantly clear about this
on Radio 4’s Today programme. He said this latest case was
only the tip of the iceberg and that African communities themselves
needed to take action against the churches and families which were
torturing children. Azar was prepared to say the unsayable. Some
African churches in the UK foster appalling attitudes towards
children who are chastised or worse for being “possessed”.

Africans Unite Against Child Abuse is an organisation which could
prove to be invaluable if it is prepared to honestly tackle this
hidden crime. The Met, local authorities and relevant agencies all
need to consult or co-opt British African human rights activists,
teachers and other professionals so that interventions are both
appropriate and untainted by bigotry and a history of

A recent journalistic investigation found that the promise made by
agencies to liaise after the murder of Victoria Climbie has come to
little. It could easily happen again. The only way to avoid it is
for professionals to co-operate with each other and with the
different African communities who care deeply about their

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and broadcaster

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