Saturday, February 27, 2010
No Smoke Without Fire?
*Photo from BBC link below
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.”