VULNERABLE: Children in Nigeria appeal for help in protecting their human rights
STORIES OF child witches and brutal exorcisms underpinned by self-styled men and women of God who promise deliverance – for a small fee, of course – have been luridly reported in the British media.
It has provoked anger and shame among African communities who feel that the publicity on the phenomenon is an unspoken accusation of how ‘backwards’ the so-called ‘Dark Continent’ is.
But doling out judgement where an open mind might be better placed could be counter-productive and force the abuse – which includes biting, beating, scalding, starvation and drowning – further underground and out of reach.
The conversation has reopened following the hour-long BBC3 documentary Branded a Witch, which aired on Monday (May 20) in which 24-year-old Kevani Kanda travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the fear of witchcraft, or ‘kendoki’, is not uncommon.
While there, she witnessed the ‘deliverance’ of a five-year-old boy who is beaten, starved and made to drink hot palm oil and met two children set on fire by their relatives after accusations of trying to kill a member of their own family.
According to a Unicef report, thousands of vulnerable children live on the streets of the capital Kinshasa having been driven out of their homes after being branded as witches.
One of them was Congolese-born Kevani’s own 15-year-old cousin.
She told The Voice: “In every culture, religion or society you will find negative issues, whether it’s young girls being forced into marriage or children being accused of witchcraft.
“It is close to my heart because a cousin of mine was pregnant and on the street with a one-year-old because she was accused of witchcraft. That was the tipping point.”
The mother-of-two said she felt a personal responsibility to break the silence on kindoki.
“I think it is better to have someone from that culture, who understands the issues, to speak against it. No one can accuse me of trying to make the Congolese community look bad. I am proud to be Congolese but I am not proud that this is what is happening.”
Without absolving her community from blame, Kevani added: “In the Congo, there is so much hardship and poverty, people are looking for a scapegoat. If someone who you respect tells you that the reason for your misfortune is your child, you believe them.”
SPEAKING OUT: Presenter Kevani Kanda
In a country that has suffered two decades of violence, there is a long list of social ills that need explanation. And though the existence of witchcraft has always been prevalent, pointing the finger at defenceless children is a new concept.
Sceptics will draw parallels between the acute poverty and the fact that deliverances have a price tag making the saving of children’s souls big business.
Kevani was far less forgiving of the British-based Congolese community who she said had enough access to education to understand the difference between religion and abuse.
“Here [in the UK] witchcraft is sometimes used as a cover-up for child abuse,” said the east Londoner. “When it happens it is never the parents who are the perpetrators – it is an aunt or a family friend who perhaps might want to get rid of you. In the Congo, some parents honestly believe they are doing the best for their child.”
Following the deaths of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie and, more recently, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu who was murdered by his sister’s boyfriend in 2010 who accused him of bringing kindoki into his home, the authorities have stepped up their efforts to engage with affected communities.
In 2012, former children’s minister Tim Loughton approved a working group on child abuse linked to faith or belief which helped formulate a National Action Plan.
And next month, London will play host to an international safeguarding conference called Safeguarding and faith – worldwide perspectives, challenges and solutions.
Organised by the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CPAS) and Premier Christian Radio, the event will bring together community organisations such as the Victoria Climbie Foundation and the Congolese Family Centre with Operation Violet, the Met’s specialist faith-related child abuse unit.
IGNORED: Victoria Climbie, 8
Debbie Ariyo OBE, director of children’s charity AFRUCA, who will also be in attendance, said: “Documentaries like [Branded a Witch] when done sensitively can help spread the right message.
“Not all Africans are barbarians and child killers. For many, witchcraft does not feature in their day-to-day lives and some know nothing about it all.”
But Ariyo is all too aware of the negative impact witchcraft has on communities, and is dedicated to improving the situation. AFRUCA is currently working with 12 churches across Yorkshire, in cities like Sheffield and Leeds, as part of a five-year project on child safeguarding.
Another project is underway in Newham, where Kristy Bamu was killed, working with families and training faith leaders to act as go-betweens when accusations of witchcraft arise.
“These faith leaders can accompany a family to their church and stand with them to say that there is nothing wrong,” explained Ariyo. “Once one family member has been accused of witchcraft, the entire family is ostracised. We have to work to bring them back into the community.”
And following on from the national action plan, AFRUCA has received funding to train 100 ‘children’s champions’ in safeguarding who are then asked to train 25 more, so that 2,500 are created.
The campaigner added: “Our approach is not to charge in and tell them ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t that’. We are not telling you what to believe, we respect your beliefs as a human being, but where we draw the line is when another human being is being emotionally or physically abused or oppressed.”
Kevani agreed that training and raising awareness was the best way to tackle the issue.
“In medieval times, people in the UK believed in witches and wizards, now they have moved on. Sadly, some cultures have not,” she said. “We need to go into schools and give training on how to spot it. There are many children who are petrified and have no one to turn to. If they tried to tell a teacher, that teacher might think they have just read a story or watched a movie. The Government also needs to regulate churches. I can start one in my house if I want to. I am a Christian, and I don’t condemn churches from opening, but a church must open for the right reasons, not to preach that children are witches. It is abuse and it’s wrong.
“There is no more time for tiptoeing around. More than one child has died because of kindoki – how many children will have to be buried before we take serious action?”