Witch Hunt: New surge in human sacrifice, or another case of hysteria?

“They go and capture other people’s children. They bring the heart and the blood directly here to take to the spirits.”

In January the BBC aired an episode of Newsnight on what it claims is a rise in human sacrifices and ritual child killings in Uganda:

One man said he had clients who had captured children and taken their blood and body parts to his shrine, while another confessed to killing at least 70 people including his own son.

The fairly shocking report, which has received sharp criticism for what academics have argued is sloppy journalism, is the latest in a series from sources both within Uganda and worldwide on increasing numbers of children being kidnapped and ritualistically murdered by “witch-doctors” in the past year.  The trend is allegedly spurred by an intensifying pursuit of wealth amongst Ugandans, and hence caught up in the wider imbroglio of globalization.

(A re-enacted demonstration of a sacrificial ritual performed for the BBC crew)

In February of last year — after a gruesome lead-in describing how a young mother found the mutilated body of her beheaded infant in a polythene bag (which, curiously, was not linked to witchcraft in the end) — Uganda’s The Indepedent blamed ritual murders on poverty, inadequate legislation, and even lazy parenting:

Negligent parents leave their children with uncouth friends, relatives, or even strangers, who in turn connive with witches to kill the children for money.

Timothy Opobo, a program coordinator at the Africa Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect claimed that money was a motivating factor, citing children’s purity as the reason they are so attractive as sacrifices.

In September, the Guardian quoted Moses Binoga, commissioner of Uganda’s anti-human sacrifice and trafficking task force, who confirmed that sacrificial killings were on the rise, with parents even selling their own children as sacrifices.

Yes, it all sounds very spooky. Now take a look at the BBC’s film.

Journalist Tim Whewell interviews a reformed witch-doctor in Northern Uganda, who now campaigns to convert similar practitioners to renounce the trade in children’s blood and body parts.  He accompanies him on a conversion and even looks on as a shrine that supposedly houses dark spirits is burned in the shrubbery.

Several British academics and anthropologists have taken issue with what they call the report’s simplistic, sensational, and irresponsible handling of what is a remarkably complex issue.  When blown out of proportion and taken out of context, they argue, such a topic is damaging not only to those who might fall victim to mob hysteria in Uganda but also to the status of Africa in the Western mind.  Propagating rumors of exotic and primitive practices like witchcraft, child sacrifice, and ritual killings only sets back the work of those who seek to free Africa from the darkly fascinated and salacious assumptions of popular imagination.

In the London Review of Books blog, anthropologist Adam Kuper counters the overeager claims of Whewell’s report with a level-headed summary of the issue:

Most African herbalists cause no more damage than dispensers of alternative medicines on our high streets. Every now and then, however, a sinister practitioner will advise a very special client that while roots and animal parts are useful, the most potent medicines are made from human blood, liver, spleen and heart. Yes, it is dreadful, he whispers, but there are unscrupulous people about, and I have heard that your rival is in the market for the stuff. What choice do you have? When one big man is persuaded, his peers are immediately alerted. In consequence medicine murders tend to crop up in clusters, the clients typically rich and powerful men. The anti-human sacrifice and trafficking unit of the Uganda police recorded 26 cases in 2008 and 28 in 2009, and a number of suspects were brought to trial.

It is the rich elite, Kuper argues, not the poor, who can get away with murder, occasionally offering a human sacrifice to sanctify and ensure one’s fortune.  What is perhaps of more immediate concern, Kuper and his colleagues suggest, is the hysteria often provoked in atmospheres of intense hardship where much is at stake and truth gets muddled.  Sensationalizing what Kuper calls rumors can turn into, well, a witch hunt.  Literally.

When it comes to the practice of and battle against witchcraft, Africa’s recent history is undoubtedly fraught.  In Northern Uganda itself, Joseph Kony, who gained notoriety for abducting children to be initiated as soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been accused of communing with spirits and practicing ritualistic witchcraft.  And let’s not forget the tens of thousands of children in the DRC and Nigeria who were suspected as witches and sorcerers, subjected to brutal exorcisms and ostracism from their own families and churches as a result of mass panic.

In a published letter to BBC editor Peter Rippon, Professor Tim Allen of the London School of Economics warns of the aftermath of the LRA’s reign of Northern Uganda:

Accusations of witchcraft will be on the rise as hundreds of thousands of people leave the displacement camps and struggle to make ends meet.  That was the case in the 1980s when the population of West Nile returned from Sudan, and it is again now in the central north.

In response to the published complaints, Whewell and Rippon cite the evidence and very real suffering of their interviewees and argue that the problem is indeed significant and growing and deserves media coverage.  (For a very long correspondence between all parties on the topic, see the London Review of Books Blog).

A suspected albino-hunter last year rode his bike straight at Ephreim, 7, in an apparent attempt to fake a road accident and make off with the boy’s body. But Ephreim was pulled back by his non-albino friends, and his attacker narrowly escaped being lynched on the spot by vigilant neighbours, jumpy since a small albino boy was snatched and killed in the neighbouring district.  (image: Alex Wynter/IFRC)

Indeed, Uganda is not the only place where witch doctors are accused of trafficking in human body parts to gain spiritual leverage.  Tanzania has also been in the news for the apparent rise in murders of albinos, whose bodies are believed by some to have powerful magical properties:

Surely this report is flawed as well, but it seems that frenetic reporting environments and pressurized deadlines, which obviously foster journalism that is much shallower than work nurtured by twenty years of research is, are reflective of the amount of time and attention the public is able to give to any item on the inundated daily menu of issues.  How deep do any of us really get in ten minutes?

I recommend an ethnography.

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