Monday, March 19, 2012

‘the great majority of accusations of ritual murder – common as they are throughout the continent – are unfounded’

This post picks up where the recent post Countering The Big Lies Against African Traditional Religion left off. That post was little more than a list of links. Here I will be almost as lazy, but instead of merely posting links, I will actually go to the trouble of copying and pasting some of the good stuff at the other end of one of those links.

The link I have chosen is Bizarre Rumors, by Adam Kuper, Chair Anthropology, Brunel University, retired (published on the London Review of Books blog, January 12, 2010). The comments section of Kuper's blog post turned into a forum for other anthropologists to air their frustration and disgust at the racist misrepresentations of Africa in the western media in general, and in one BBC Newsnight "report" in particular (Witch-doctors reveal extent of child sacrifice in Uganda, which aired the first week in January, 2010).

There's much more at the link, including responses by Tim Whewell and others at the BBC, attempting to defend themselves.

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.

Enter Tim Whewell of the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme. He found a Pentecostal preacher, Polino Angela, who claims to have murdered his own son and dozens of other children for potions. He has repented and is crusading against ‘witch-doctors’. Curiously untroubled by the police, he tells Whewell that he hopes for an amnesty from the government. In the grand tradition of generations of British missionaries crusading against barbarism, Whewell follows the repentant Angela, in the garb of a Pentecostal prophet, as he traipses through the bush destroying ancestor shrines.

The BBC swallowed the dubious story whole, broadcasting it on Newsnight, and endorsing all sorts of bizarre rumours: ‘it is widely believed’ that bodies are buried under new buildings to ensure prosperity etc.

Whewell has his own theory about these horrors. Convinced, quite wrongly, that medicine murder is ‘something new’, and that children are the preferred victims, he notes that paradoxically these horrors come ‘just as Uganda is becoming more modern’. Perhaps, he reasons, it is actually connected to modernity – born of greed spawned by consumerism.

Medicine murders are rare – after all, only the very powerful can get away with them – but the poor have more immediate worries, and these are sometimes translated into fears of witches. At times of drought, war and disease, anti-witchcraft movements may sweep the countryside, now often led by Pentecostal preachers. (The individuals fingered by Angela for the BBC are at risk of vigilante violence.)

Whewell confuses belief in spirits with belief in witchcraft, and when a Ugandan cabinet minister tells him that evil spirits really do exist, he fails to register that this is a Christian doctrine, eagerly propagated by local and visiting preachers. The current priority of Uganda’s evangelicals is a crusade against homosexuality. Egged on by American activists, they have persuaded the government to draft a bill that imposes life imprisonment for homosexuality, and the death penalty for aggravated cases, such as the grooming of minors by school-teachers.

There are important stories here. Anthropologists and local intellectuals are following them closely. Our media should treat them with the same care as stories of child abuse in religious communities in Ireland or Jersey or the Orkneys.
Adam Kuper
Chair Anthropology, Brunel University, retired

Prof. Adam Kuper’s riposte to Newsnight’s piece on ‘child ritual murder’ in Uganda is remarkable in its contrast with the report by BBC journalist Tim Whewell. Where Whewell presents to us – without so much as a shred of evidence – lurid and sensationalist tales derivative of 19th century clichés of the Dark Continent, Kuper’s comments stand out for their clear exposition of the facts, and also for pointing out the unintended ironies of Whewell’s report: his endorsement of real evangelical violence as a fillip against imagined witchcraft violence. The BBC reporter’s willing participation in iconoclastic shrine-torching and his manipulation of local rumours for a Western audience are reminiscent of the worst kind of colonial evangelism, and his unquestioning endorsement of the accusations he elicits represent an open invitation to would-be vigilantes and lynch-mobs.

Prof. Kuper could have emphasized still further that the great majority of accusations of ritual murder – common as they are throughout the continent – are unfounded. The fact that similar accusations commonly made against alleged sorcerers include turning people in zombies, visiting people in their dreams as a means of ‘eating’ them, thus causing the victims to fall ill in waking life, and engaging in nocturnal flight by means of home-made airplanes (to name but a few), should give Whewell pause for thought when gruesome mass-murders are alleged. The fact that impossible accusations of witchcraft activity abound should suffice to cast doubt on the apparently possible accusations.

Nor is ‘confession’ any form of evidence: alleged sorcerers regularly endorse accusations made against them as a mark of their power and efficacy as healers, and vulnerable members of society are easily coerced into confessing to witchcraft. Whewell’s gullibility regarding the literal veracity of child-murder allegations is clearly irresponsible and dangerous for those he accuses, but his uncritical journalism is potentially still more harmful if the BBC should choose to post him to other parts of Africa. In Kinshasa, it is currently not adults who are accused of killing children, but children who are accused of killing adults. One shudders to think what the consequences would be if Newsnight were to report uncritically on these children’s ‘ritual murders’ as fact.

But the greatest harm that this sort of reporting does is perhaps not to Africa, but in Britain, where it spreads disinformation and perpetuates and revives myopic prejudices. By means of precise, long-term, empirical research, academic experts on Africa in British Universities have been working to rid society of such prejudices for decades, but while public broadcasters throughout Europe regularly invite cultural experts to comment on current events abroad, the BBC seem positively averse to this free resource on their doorstep. Why, when they enjoy an assured public subsidy, do they feel the need to stoop to such sensationalist rumour-mongering?
Nicolas Argenti
Senior Lecturer, Social Anthropology, Brunel University

This is not the first time that BBC’s Newsnight has broadcast an inaccurate and misleading story about northern Uganda. Last time, following a barrage of complaints, the Newsnight editor of the time accepted that errors had been made. It would seem, however, that no lessons were learned. The new exotic trip by Newsnight to the region was presented as no more than an interlude in the serious news, sandwiched between the problems with the snow and a speech by President Obama. No space was made to comment on the remarkable revelations and allegations that had been made about ‘primitive’ Africans. What was the purpose of showing it? It clearly was not really about presenting facts and trying to interpret them. Was it because such salacious tales have a ready audience in the UK?

I agree whole-heartedly with Adam Kuper’s points about what was shown. It is nonsense to suggest that the Newsnight reporter is the first person to have visited these kinds of shrines. It is also singularly unhelpful to use the term witchdoctor in such a generalised way, muddling it up with diverse beliefs about spirits and the equally diverse practices of local healing. The Christian churches have been waging a campaign against ‘pagan’ and ‘satanic’ practices in various parts of Uganda for decades, and have been involved in destroying all sorts of ritual objects and places. This is a far more complicated situation than the report suggests. There are, for example, big differences between different kinds of shrines. Also, so called ‘witchdoctors’ are often themselves closely linked with Pentecostal Christian sects.

Those of us who research on Uganda and other parts of Africa are well aware that shocking things linked to ideas about spirits and witches do occur – from the mass killing of millenarian Christians at Kanungu, to the activities of Joseph Kony, to the new mechanisms of ‘democratic’ witch-cleansing in which church groups and local political leaders target and violently persecute accused individuals. There have also long been rumours about the killing of children, albinos and rich men for ritual use of body parts and cannibalism. Certainly some murders do occur, as they do in all societies. Also, as Adam Kuper explains, they sometimes occur in clusters. But a few horrific incidents go a long way in spreading mass panics and all tales need to be treated with caution. In common with this case from among the Ugandan Langi people, they are likely to be as much about asserting certain ideas about moral probity as presenting facts.

It is entirely appropriate for the BBC to cover sensitive issues in Africa. But surely the same standards of journalism that apply in the UK should also apply to Uganda. These events are, literally, a matter of life and death. They are not appropriate for exotic diversions on a flagship news programme.
Tim Allen
Professor of Development Anthropology
London School of Economics

Having struggled with badly informed and sensationalist-driven journalists since the very day I began my research in Uganda in 1997, Tim Whewell still managed to take me by surprise. Needless to say, perhaps, I agree with the critique of Kuper, Argenti and Allen, and I only want to add to their comments by way of quoting another anthropologist, Michael Taussig, and his classic description of the construction of the colonial mindset. Whewell’s story is nothing but an example of the “colonial mirror which reflects back onto the colonialists the barbarity of their own social relations, but as imputed to the savage or evil figures they wish to colonize.”
Sverker Finnström
Associate Professor (cultural anthropology)
Stockholm University and Uppsala University

Tim Whewell’s response on this blog to Adam Kuper’s initial critique of his reporting from Uganda has a familiar ring to anyone, like myself, who has delved into historical accounts of “ritual murder” in Africa. The evidence of his report (he claims) is “powerful and compelling” because it comes from distressed witnesses and victims, or reputable authorities (in this case “the parents of mutilated and murdered children” and Ugandan medical and law enforcement agencies). He takes scepticism regarding the actual evidence as lack of sympathy for the victims or lack of respect for the authorities. In effect, he wonders how in such emotionally distressing circumstances anthropologists could be so unfeeling as to prioritise speaking truth to power over emotional responsiveness to acutely distressing circumstances. Well, the answer is that its our job. We work on cases where exactly the kind of evidence that has so convinced Tim Whewell evaporates in the colder light of hard analysis and further data gathering. My experience of this analytical task makes me curious about what happened to the (allegedly human) liver he filmed? I presume Tim Whewell informed the Ugandan police of his suspicions, and handed over the evidence, and that forensic analysis has since established whether it was human in origin or not. No anthropologist denies the Orwell hypothesis – that widely believed myths are sometimes put into practice in disordered times. But anthropologists are also aware of lynchings and witch burnings where emotional distress, and the misguided attention of authorities willing to pander to popular superstition in the interests of public order, lead to huge miscarriages of justice. Even in colonial times in Africa wiser heads sometimes prevailed. The British in Sierra Leone believed evidence of witnesses and mutilated bodies pointed to “cannibalism” killings for body parts until the Attorney General in 1911 noticed that although witnesses in court repeatedly described in graphic detail the four clawed device made by village blacksmiths for “leopard men” to kill their victims and rip out their entrails, no one had ever produced this device in court. In the same country, penises ripped off young boys were repeatedly ascribed to the murderous work of “baboon men”, until it was established that the damage was compatible with attacks by chimpanzees. The British then stopped executing prisoners battered into confessions of ritual murder. It was not until the advent of post colonial politics that this “crime” was revived, in a climate of political despotism that later drove the country into civil war. Anthropologists are right to be sceptical about “evidence” that can have such massively damaging long-term consequences. Tim Whewell wonders whether Adam Kuper would be “so dismissive if similar evidence came from the British police or other British authorities or agencies”. In turn, I would suggest that Tim Whewell re-reads press accounts of the “Satanic abuse of children” cases in Britain about two decades ago, and then turns to the (government commissioned) investigation undertaken by the distingsuihed anthropologist Jean Lafontaine. He might then see his own work in a different light.
Paul Richards
Emeritus Professor, Wageningen University, The Netherlands