UK witchcraft murder touches a nerve

2012-03-07 00:00

LAST week in the UK, Magalie Bamu and her boyfriend, Eric Bikubi, were convicted of killing Magalie’s younger brother Kristy, who was 15. Kristy and his two sisters had travelled from Paris to visit his older sister in Newham, East London, for Christmas in 2010. There, in a council block, Kristy was branded as a witch, a kindoki, and tortured for days. When police entered the flat, they found the materials of his abuse scattered around the flat — pliers, ceramic tiles, a hammer, and Kristy’s exorcised body lying drowned in the bath. Bamu and Bikubi were subsequently sentenced to 25 and 30 years, respectively.

Following their conviction, the British media, from print (the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent — which provided the most in-depth and interesting coverage of the murder) to TV (Channel 4, the BBC and Sky News), all ran reports of witchcraft in Britain. It seems Kristy’s death, in addition to the high-profile case of Ivorian Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old who was ritually abused and finally murdered by her great-aunt in 2000, touches a nerve about belief, and incites the media to speculate, not only about the beliefs themselves, but our placement — as cultural outsiders — in relation to them. Can a belief be condemned as immoral? Or must we accept cultural difference, and merely condemn the acts that follow as a consequence? These are the questions that the British press has grappled with.

The Guardian took a contextual and soft approach to the issues surrounding the death. The article suggested that “accusations of witchcraft are part of growing patterns of child abuse in the UK”, linked to the rise of Pentecostal churches in Britain. With statistics from Scotland Yard and The Victoria Climbié Foundation, the Guardian reported that “the 83 incidents uncovered in the past decade only scratch the surface of a hidden crime, according to Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe, head of the child abuse investigation command at Scotland Yard. An average of eight children a year in greater London are victims of abuse based on witchcraft-style exorcisms, but this only reflects cases resulting in police investigations.”

Sky News took a different tactic, seeking less to understand how witchcraft beliefs are sustained within Britain, instead producing a short film in DRC on exorcisms, interviewing people affected by the belief of witchcraft. It showed disturbing images of pastors and child witches, giving British audiences a somewhat closed, isolated entry into the practices that surround witchcraft belief within the DRC, failing to mention any kind of contextual or historical factors that might play a role (of course mentioning the buzzword “poverty”). It made the link between financial gain and belief, suggesting that pastors and preachers were exploiting worried parents.

A Newsnight feature on the BBC called the murder “feral”, rightly, but then went on to broadcast images of the implements used in Kristy’s murder: the blood-stained pliers and ceramic tiles smashed and smeared with blood. This kind of reporting succumbs to the media’s tendency to indulge in horror, knowing it will both disgust and attract their audience. Moving on to an interview with African religions expert Dr David Hoskins — who links cultural and historical events with Kristy’s death — the balanced nature of this part of the programme feels undermined by the earlier sensationalist images.

Channel 4, which also ran a programme about the murder, showed an incredibly moving interview with Pierre Bamu, Kristy’s father. Tender, painful and sensitive, the Channel 4 coverage then undermined this approach by the inclusion of the sentence “… the ancient West African rituals of kindoki or the belief that someone is possessed by an evil spirit, have weaved their murderous path into a family which had long left such beliefs behind.”

It’s the “ancient” that clearly rings untrue in this, for what Kristy’s death illustrates is that these are in fact not ancient beliefs, but current, contemporary modes of thinking. It’s easier to think of them as archaic, irrelevant, rearing their heads at moments of extreme brutality. But, as the situation in the DRC and other African countries shows, this isn’t the case. It is a commonplace, widely held belief. Clearly kindoki is not something left behind from the primitive days of central Africa, but rather a powerful, often destructive, belief that aids people in explaining the harsh realities of contemporary life. Few people in the mainstream media would call Christian beliefs ancient.

Hoskins, a senior lecturer in the study of religions at Bath Spa University, links the resurgence in witchcraft accusations towards children with their involvement as soldiers during the war, which has led to a deep fear of children as capable of evil and brutal acts.

He also claims that one of the main problems in effectively dealing with witchcraft abuse and killings in Britain is the “liberal multicultural agenda”, which acts as a block within British politics. Quoted in the Guardian, he says: “We’re quite happy to talk about what is inappropriate belief when it comes to terrorism or paedophilia, but when it comes to fundamentalist religious belief affecting child protection, we don’t seem to want to talk about it.”

The articles and broadcasts reflect a grey area: for they either explain away the fact of its happening in Britain by claiming the witchcraft beliefs originate elsewhere, thereby bypassing Britain’s role in protecting, accommodating or changing these beliefs, or they sensationalise the case, feeding once again into the predictable stream of news reporting that feeds Britain’s anxiety toward foreigners and immigrants. I won’t even go into the reporting in the Daily Mail, whose article about the murder is just offensive.

What these articles and broadcasts show is a sense of unease about migrant beliefs, and Britain’s role in accommodating them. The reporting shows a will to contextualise witchcraft, but merely by linking it to Central Africa, rather than seeking to understand the complex political, social and religious reasons for their resurgence to such extremes, particularly when believers are in other parts of the world. —

About Africa is a country

AIAC is a media blog focusing on Western images of Africans. The tagline reads: “The blog that’s not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama — for that, go to Newsweek.” The blog got its name from the ignorance about Africans that it lampoons and the title is also ironic. Africa is a Country acknowledges the re-hashed images of Africa, undermines those notions, and re-writes the image that Africa evokes. Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town and an international affairs professor based at The New School in Manhattan, founded the blog which has appeared in many different incarnations since 2004. Its regular contributors include journalists and writers, graduate students, academics and film-makers, including a number of South Africans.

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