Below is the complete text of Jean La Fontaine's March 1 column in the UK Guardian on the subject of the Kristy Bamu torture-murder case (link to original). La Fontaine is an anthropologist who has made extensive investigations of modern allegations of "Satanic Ritual Abuse", and is the author of Speak of the Devil: tales of Satanic abuse in contemporary England.
There are some important criticisms I could make of La Fontaine's position. In particular she is simply wrong about the meaning of the Lingala word "kindoki", which is not synonymous with "spiritual evil", and in it's traditional usage can refer to spiritual power that can be either ambiguous or decidedly positive and beneficial, in addition to referring to malefic magical power. Fontaine also overemphasizes the specific role of "fundamentalist" and Pentecostal Christianity, whose Satan-mongering and Witch-hunting are solidly based (in both theory and practice) in both Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism. That being said, La Fontaine gets the most important things right.
And if you are unfamiliar with the tragic story of the death of Kristy Bamu, here is a link to an article that goes over the case, but it is not pleasant reading.
The case of Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu that has just ended at the Old Bailey has drawn public attention to one form of diversity that is not celebrated in London. The spotlight has settled on ideas of witchcraft that seem to have been the motivating force behind the savage attacks on young Kristy Bamu that finally deposited him, semi-conscious in a bath of water where he drowned.
Kindoki, the Lingala word for witchcraft, is one of hundreds of words denoting spiritual evil in the hundreds of African languages spoken wherever Africans live. It has no special primacy over other such terms and may not even be understood outside a handful of states in west central Africa. However, beliefs in witchcraft are widespread – in town or countryside – and are also in present in Europe, where Africans have migrated in the last 50 years. They are a means of explaining the unequal distribution of good and bad fortune, and the occurrence of otherwise inexplicable misfortune.
As with some of the more extreme Scottish Protestants, coincidence does not exist: the hand of either God or Satan may be seen in every event. To many Africans, this evil power is witchcraft. In some areas of Africa, where civil wars and economic disasters have left society in disarray, the numbers of allegations have amounted almost to epidemics of accusations. The Congo and southern Nigeria can be particularly singled out, but accusations occur almost everywhere. Not all are taken seriously, but many are. Some are taken to pastors for exorcism, other people attempt their own.
In their present form, beliefs in witchcraft are not "traditional" – changes since earlier times are obvious. Modern beliefs see the power of witchcraft as emanating from evil spirits that possess the witch and endow him or her with the power to harm. This belief in possession by evil spirits has been promulgated in Africa by western missionaries of fundamentalist, particularly Pentecostal, Christian beliefs. It has enabled Africans to retain a modified version of their former beliefs in witchcraft, obtaining the approval and support of Satan-hunting Christians whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of evil. New churches, started by Africans with a self-proclaimed "divine mission", have sprung up everywhere.
These churches do not "control" witchcraft beliefs, although they encourage and profit from them. Nor is it true to say that it is only as witchcraft escapes from the control of the church that it becomes evil; witchcraft is evil from the beginning. Some people may feel protective of Christianity, but Christianity is at fault here. The pastors of independent African churches may identify children as witches (for a fee) and are prepared to "cure" them (for a further fee) by exorcising the evil spirits. Such exorcisms are often violent; beating and the use of cold water to cleanse and purify the possessed being is common in many Congolese churches and elsewhere in Africa, too.
A recent change is the accusation of children, who may be singled out by parents or other caretaking adults for a variety of reasons that distinguish them from among others in the household: bad dreams, bed-wetting, children who are cleverer or stupider, who have different likes and dislikes – almost anything can be the symptom of a possessing evil spirit. Often, the accused are outsiders – either stepchildren or refugees in the chaotic postwar Congolese state; trafficked children or child soldiers.
Once suspected, the "witch" must usually be made to "confess". Denial of accusations is not acceptable, but ensures further efforts are made. Much of the violence of exorcisms in the African-led churches may be the result of attempts to force "confessions" from suspects. Many children are easy to persuade. During the panic about Satanic abuse, it became obvious that children's answers to questions under pressure were unreliable evidence: children may agree that they are witches to end their ordeals. Violence may also be used to induce the evil spirit to leave the body of the possessed. It must be understood that to believers, even the body of a small child that has been identified as a witch is no longer a human being, but a shell within which a frightening demon or other spirit is lurking. If this dwelling is made sufficiently uncomfortable then the spirit will leave. Fasting, abstention from all liquid, lack of sleep are all ordeals designed to facilitate confession and force the evil spirit out of a purified body. It is the spirit that is being attacked, not the person.
Most African politicians do not see the issue of child witches as of primary importance, although the state governor of Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria has passed a law making it illegal to accuse a child of witchcraft (unfortunately with very little effect). Some politicians believe they are suffering a scourge of witchcraft, and understand the problem quite differently. Most NGOs and charities are struggling fruitlessly to find countermeasures, but short of peace and prosperity – which no one can provide – there seems little effective action that can be taken other than rescue and care for the victims.