Saturday, February 27, 2010

No Smoke Without Fire?

*Photo from BBC link below
By Holly

In January the BBC aired a Newsnight special on ‘ritual child murder in Uganda.’ It provoked an unfavourable reaction, where a number of critiques were brought against it that I talk about below. I wrote this about a month ago, but didn’t get around to posting it and then attention had moved on until child sacrifice splashed out in the news again on the BBC and, this time, nationally in the New Vision. The Ugandan Government was evidently embarrassed by the piece and arrested the primary BBC informant, a “reformed witchdoctor” Pollino. The word on the street is that he was given a choice: be charged with 70 counts of murder that he confessed to the BBC and subsequently the police or be charged with lying (less jail time for the latter). Whether this ultimatum was truly delivered, I don’t know. But those close to the situation say that he was certainly involved in numerous child sacrifices even if 70 might be an exaggeration and he is now being held for giving false information to a police officer. Since I wrote this I was finally able to listen to the radio version of the programme (a new café in Gulu opened with faster internet!). I still haven’t been able to watch it. The friend that I mention was with the BBC film crew who hadn’t seen it, finally did. More than a month after it had aired they received a DVD copy that the BBC sent.

I’m in a village a few kilometres from Gulu town sitting in a grass-thatch hut with a group of about a dozen people, my laptop and a portable modem. We load the BBC website and navigate to Newsnight’s special on child ritual murder in Uganda that aired several weeks ago. Five or ten seconds play at a time, broken by a rotating circle assuring us it’s ‘loading’. The Internet is slow here. In an exchange between the BBC and several anthropologists, the BBC pointed out that criticism has only been from British-based academics. People in Uganda must like the report since they haven’t complained. Looking around the room, this defence is perceptibly feeble. I hoped to remedy the paucity of Ugandan voice in the discussion by showing the piece today and sharing reactions. But after repeated broken promises from the twirling icon we finally give up and discuss a few issues raised by people far away on a report that none of us have seen:

Generalized use of the term ‘witchdoctor’ is unhelpful
There are diverse practices of people involved in the supernatural: people born with uncontrolled power to harm or help, herbalists, those involved in divination, séances, exorcisms, curses and charms. The group lists titles in English and Acholi: wizard, witch, night dancer, Ajwaka, Lajok among others. Categories I draw from their descriptions and that anthropologists have outlined (p’Bitek, Girling) are much more neat than the complex fluid social understandings. I asked how they would feel if the BBC referred to them all as ‘witchdoctor’? One woman responded, “If they misrepresent the situation, it doesn’t bother me since all of them are doing bad things.” Another person disagreed citing positive work of herbalists. Unfortunately, the Ajwaka who lives next door wasn’t around. Her main activity is to bang her shoes together, throw them on the ground and read your future by the way they fall. She would certainly be appalled at the idea that she belonged in a category accused of brutally murdering children.

Perpetuating fear poses danger to the accused
If there were any indication that Ugandans were watching this would be a significant worry. Northern Uganda is in transition, when such issues should be handled with extra care. Disordered times create space for the enactment of widespread fear in extraordinarily violent ways. In the lat time of transition a predecessor to the Lord’s Resistance Army, Cilil, was infamous for torturing ‘witches’ forcing them to carry hot coals or burning them with melted plastic. One person in the room admitted she set a trap seriously injuring a night dancer.

Everyone has a story about ‘witchcraft’ usually speculative and told as fact. A few months ago, one of the young women recounted how her friend had fallen sick after stepping on charms placed by an old woman in their village. It took a lot of prodding before she admitted she had not seen the charms and her reason for suspecting the woman was that she “looks sideways when she fetches water from the well.” One day I passed the apparently witchy lady while we were collecting water together. The young woman looked at me triumphantly, “You see!?” she said, sure that I witnessed manifest evil. I have an untrained eye, but the woman appeared quite ordinary and not unfriendly.

They all assured me, however, that the six known Ajwaka in their village were in no danger as long as they continued activities within the law. I would add, as long as there are no rumours to the contrary.

Such stories revive myopic prejudices
Unfortunately, we could not comment on whether the ‘stylistic requirements’ of the BBCs audience that Whewell defended in his correspondence were fair or sensationalized. It’s clear that the target audience was not in Ugandan. Even a friend who helped Whewell’s crew in Lira was not shown the final product and, like me, has been unable to access it online. But, I asked in general, how they felt about such stories in western media. A young man said he worried that people would think Ugandans are “backward.” Another woman wondered how BBC decides which stories to report. She paused thoughtfully, “Well, we’re tired of people always giving attention to the war. At least now they are reporting on something else.” Yes, it’s nice to see media breaking from perpetuating the image of Africa as a place of endemic political violence to focus on witchcraft for a change.

Medicine murders are rare, not new and not the result of modernization (as the BBC suggests)
The only thing new modernisation contributes to ritual murder is media’s effect on public perception. According to the group, ritual murder has “always been there” but tends to have clusters of popularity followed by lulls. Competition among powerful people resorting to similar dark methods is followed by negative attention that forces practitioners to withdraw until the popular imagination moves on. I asked them, what they believe prompted this particular perceived cluster of child sacrifices. They suggested politics. Some politicians are rumoured to use witchcraft to secure power, or in campaigns to manipulate fear in their favour. One person had personally witnessed evidence of child sacrifice. She saw the body of two-year-old boy that was used in ritual. The police stopped a crowd of people from stoning the man who was later convicted.

There have been a small number of similar cases documented by police. In addition to these reports, the BBC included a child rights NGO consortium among their main sources. I worked for one of the member organizations for three years. It’s worth noting that sensational violence against children is more likely to tug at the heart and purse strings of potential donors. Past funding to the consortium has been used on advocacy campaigns such as bumper stickers urging people to ‘Stop child sacrifice.’ It’s difficult to imagine that someone who kills children for ‘medicinal’ purposes would read this and suddenly see the error of their ways. Instead, the message feeds the “growing concern” that (those who have seen the report say) the BBC has taken as evidence of growing practice.

“We have a saying in our language,” a woman offers by way of conclusion. As she says it, you are reminded how universal some things are: “There is no smoke without fire.” I pushed the issue, recalling an instance a few months ago when a severed hand in the middle of a road sent people into superstitious panic until a one-handed woman turned up in a hospital. She was driving with her arm out the window when a lorry carrying sharp cargo passed. Well, sometimes, they concede, there is smoke without fire. However, on the issue of child sacrifice, “there is fire. But it seems the BBC also reported the smoke.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sex is a mental thing

by Holly
It was a hard day. For vicarious reasons. I have little claim to feel sad, angry and betrayed. I’m trespassing on someone elses pain and I have no right to take it home with me. But I do and I can’t help it. I always come home to a violence-free house and a partner that loves me madly. I never, ever worry what he might do to me tonight.

No one I talked to today* could say the same. I've decided I need several hours in the presence of really wonderful men to each hour of hearing about rape. Thankfully, there are amazing men in my daily life—Ben—and many excellent Ugandan colleagues and friends that help me balance out my over-exposure to the wake of other men’s depravity.

A couple of days ago I went to a meeting with some agencies working on Gender Based Violence. Suddenly, I was taken back to Lira, 2005. It’s funny how little “coordination” meetings change in 5 years. But that’s beside the point. (the point, is still to be determined—perhaps it’s just the catharisis that comes after sharing things too heavy to carry alone) Sitting there, I kept thinking of how many women have no idea these NGOs exist or what services they could provide them. I’ve been asking women who they would go to for help if something happened to them. They typically say something like, “Well, I hear that there is a group in town called ‘Human Rights’ but I don’t really know what they do.” Several different NGOs have hotlines—one for counselling, another for legal advice, etc. I suggested they make a joint card with all of the available hotlines—written in Acholi and distribute it as widely as possible. I’d like to have such a card to leave with some of the women I talk to.

It might do a little good. I recalled one of the women. She’s not going to report her husband to the police or seek legal advice. She just wants him to stop. She wants to talk to someone without them making her feel more ashamed than she already does. “If I tell anyone,” she lamented,” they’ll just ask me why I got married if I don’t want to have sex. They’ll say it’s my duty to satisfy him.” She wants someone to tell her it’s not her fault. She wants someone who can commiserate. “My sister,” she touched my arm and shook her head, “when he comes home so drunk and violent and with the smell of alcohol, how am I supposed to begin?”

A card with phone numbers isn’t going to help her. She can’t read. She doesn’t have a phone.

And then I remembered (the gist of) a provocative question my supervisor asked me. (I think/hope he was going for a reaction and not reflecting his opinion.) If marital rape is a normalized experience, does it do more damage than good to problematize it? Maybe, if women don’t perceive being violently forced to have sex as wrong they are less traumatized by it’s occurrence, accepting it as a normal part of interaction with husands.

Preposterous. (this is my obligatory more refined substitute for what I really think: b*** sh**. My mom always said that using vulgar language was a sign of a poor vocabulary—but honestly, once in awhile profanity is simply most apt.)

Every woman I’ve talked to that shared her experience of being raped by her partner experienced it as something wrong. They KNOW it’s not right. To suggest otherwise is demeaning. “What I know,” one of them told me after sharing the violent forced conception of her first child, “is that making love is supposed to be an agreement between a man and a woman.” Living in a village in Africa, makes this no less true than anywhere else. Another woman told me how she has never talked to anyone about it except for her husband. “I tell him, ‘What you’re doing is bad! This is the wrong way to treat your wife! Strangers do this to strangers but you should be ashamed to do it in your own house!”

Say what you want about cultural relativity. Acholi women like foreplay just as much as the next woman. Whether you sleep on a papyrus mat on a dirt floor or a pillow-top king-size mattress, women want the person lying next to them to respect their yes and their no. Perhaps to persuade them—but never to force them. Most of them are angry that they live in an environment where people around them identify ways they are to blame and make excuses for the man’s behavior. One of my personal fravorites: “well, maybe he is just trying to save them both from HIV” –implying that the only alternative to benevolently forcing one’s wife to have sex is to have sex with someone else.

A couple of months ago I had a chat with the Resident District Commissioner for Gulu. A male colleague came along and made a comment I might’ve been tempted to slap him for if I weren’t a pacifist (to be fair, I’ve seen how well he treats his wife and he’s a good guy)—something about how marital rape was a difficult issue because men have “greater sexual appetitites than women.” I bit my tongue. And sat on my hands.

Ochora, (the RDC) leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully before he delivered his verdict. His gigantic belly protruding onto his desk when he leaned forward. “Sex,” he pronounced, “is a mental thing. It is mentally driven. If the wife says she is not in the mood then men should be able to understand.”

(*For confidentiality purposes, I did not post this on the day I wrote it.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"There is no medicine for rape" & "All women are monogamous"

by Holly

I’m a bit of a geek with data--so I really can't wait to play with all the wonderful information I'm collecting right now. Statistics is the only kind of maths I've ever come close to doing well (I almost failed secondary level geometry, did fail algebra the first time, and barely passed amidst a lot of hard work and tears the second time). Loving this stuff as I do, I happily spent days on a papyrus mat under the mango tree in the Local Councilor's compound extracting the names of all the women from 9 books of census data that he collected last year to get the random sample of women I’m interviewing right now. It should have been mind-numbingly boring—but I get kind of a kick out of it. And I couldn’t beat the venue. The kids around would show off their reading skills over my shoulder exlaiming every name they recognized: “that’s my aunty” or, “we always see her at the borehole.” More than once I shooed chickens off of the books and away from my computer.

I came to this village first in 2006 and since then I’ve gotten to know many of the families so I was able to compare the census data with what I know. It’s fascinating to see how social realities translate into ticks and numbers in boxes. By necesity, categories obscure truths. Unlike FB, here is no “it’s complicated” option for relationships. Women I know are separated/divorced from their husbands listed themselves as married. After entering several booksworth of data I noticed that the code for a spouse of a polygamous relationship was only used for men. I asked the LC about it. I wish you could have seen his face. He looked at me incredulously and laughed: “Can a woman have more than one man!?” (this was clearly a rhetorical question) “ALL women are monogamous!” Later I repeated this to a few Ugandan girlfriends--they laughed so hard I started wondering if maybe they were crying.

I also noticed that the Ajwaka (often translated as “witchdoctos” or “traditional healers”) in the area , listed their main source of income as “support from children.” Right.

I interviewed one of them a few days ago—not because she is an Ajwaka. She happened to be in my sample, but I threw in a few extra questions at the end of the interview about her work. When I told her I was interested in learning more about the work of Ajwaka, her eyes got big and she said, "Well, I'm veee--eery good at it!" She proudly explained how her father had chosen her to inherit his power instead of any of the boys in her family and listed the many spiritual ailments she is well known for curing: broken legs, cross-eyes, when people give you unfair portions of food, if your house regularly catches fire, if your eyes close abruptly and won’t open again, blindness, unfaithfulness--especially in men, asthma, all mental illness and many other sicknesses. (I couldn't help but recall that her husband is blind and she had earlier complained that her daughter-in-law never gives her enough food...but I decided this wasn't the right time to bring it up)

I was curious if any women who have experienced sexual violence had ever come to her for help—so I asked. She laughed at me (I get that a lot).

“There is no medicine for rape! I tell them to go and report to the government so that the man is arrested and they will be safe!”


How I do wish there was a medicine for rape.

On hypocrisy...

Why is it hypocritical to be a human rights activist that doesn’t support gay rights?

Seems pretty straightforward—(why is it so darn hard for us to get a handle on what it means to be “human”?), but this was the topic of a lecture, one of many efforts to address issues and attitudes expressed in the Anti-homosexuality bill. You can visit the link here to follow the campaign against the bill and see how you can support the campaign. There is info on legal implications, video of lectures and speeches given (including debate and those who support the bill like a Ugandan MP who wants to be the “hangman” of LGBTI), a one stop shop for any press coverage, etc.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Oh my hypocrisy

by Holly

If you came here within the last 24 hours, you might realize there is a blog missing, “Rescue a Child Soldier: All we need is your money.” I deleted it—indeed I shouldn’t have written it. I often fail to meet my own standards. This time was particularly obvious. Didn’t I just blog a few weeks ago concluding that criticism should be humble, loving and ultimately with the good of the object of critique in mind? My blog responding to this was none of those things. So rather than publicize my unconstructive fury—I decided to be a little circumspect—think it over, and instead of a blog, set a meeting. write a letter.