Last week I found myself at the British Museum with a couple of hours to fill. Having exhausted the possibilities of the café and the gift shop, I ended up in an exhibition entitled “Living and Dying”, which focused on how different cultures try to maintain health and well-being, averting danger and illness and reaffirming relationships and community. A fascinating exhibition and well worth a visit. Then, in one of those coincidences, this week I have had two separate people wanting to talk about work with parents who claim to be the victims of black magic.
Mention voodoo in a staff room and you’ll get the whole range of responses, however many diversity courses people have attended. Whether or not people consider themselves religious, there is a general acceptance and understanding of the mainstream religions (in all their various forms and denominations) but the “primitive” religions are still seen by many as just that – primitive, the stuff of films, in need of conversion. We need to suspend our disbelief just long enough to understand their roots and internal coherence. However strange things may seem to our modern minds, the mental fear and physical symptoms generated in those who do believe are real enough and deserve our consideration and attention.
How then are we to respond to a child who is brought to the school’s welfare room experiencing what looks like a panic attack? She and her mother blame the neighbours and the spells they are putting on the family. The doctor says there is nothing wrong with the child. The school’s family worker visits and spends some time with mum and learns of the steps the family are taking to counteract the magic. These include payments to intermediaries who are seeking to negate the attacks with their own spells.
Arguments about the legitimacy of the belief system now have to be put aside, for here is a child whose health and welfare may be compromised by the actions of the family. Whatever the cause, the child is being prevented from fully accessing education by high levels of anxiety and the drain on the family’s emotional and material resources. How professionals respond in practice will depend on a fuller assessment but also on their level of understanding and sympathy towards those of another faith, however alien it may seem.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker