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'Why we need to understand Voodoo'

CRIME: Killers Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi

STORIES ABOUT human trafficking have shocked Britons in recent years. Tabloid newspaper stories about young men and women smuggled into the UK from Africa and other parts of the world to work as sex slaves and domestic servants have spurred child protection authorities into action.

But as the case of failed Nigerian asylum seeker Anthony Harrison – convicted last year of smuggling two teenage girls into Britain – shows, there is an even darker side to an already disturbing trend.

There is growing concern that traffickers are using cultural beliefs in witchcraft and spirit possession as a tool of coercion. Victims of this crime do not try to escape from the exploitative situations they find themselves in, because of the fear that if they speak out they will be punished by evil spirits.

It’s a problem that reduces the effectiveness of the organised fight against traffickers.

Men and women trafficked from countries such as Nigeria are forced to swear an oath with their traffickers at a shrine organised by a voodoo priest. The oath-taking involves a ritual which can be seen as a form of contract between the trafficker and the victim to increase trust, exert control and debt-bondage.

Often the ritual includes things such as fingernails, blood, and pubic hairs, which give the voodoo priest possession of some part of the victim, creating a sense of fear and an unwillingness to speak out.

This type of exploitation is being recognised by charities such as AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse), who have held conferences and conducted research into the issue. And the recent murder of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu by his sister Magalie Bamu and her partner Eric Bikubi has again put the cultural belief in voodoo in the headlines.

Nevertheless, there is a need to come up with an objective understanding of voodoo that holistically explains it rather than sensationalising it. Feeding into such sensationalism unfortunately demonises the African community. The use of voodoo in human trafficking, or indeed human trafficking itself, should not be condoned. But we may lose the plot if we continue to demonise a practice rather than its consequences on a particular problem.

Voodoo, vodun or juju as some may call it, has long been part of African traditional religion. This tradition has seen a decline since the coming of both Islam and Christianity to the continent. As with many things African, it has taken a back seat – perceived as archaic – and has been driven underground.

It has been used as a form of healing in many African communities, but it also embodies some positive moral doctrines. However, others have used it to commit evil deeds. Although it is widely practiced around the world many, including Africans, still live in denial of it. For some, it is against the Christian doctrine, and thus should be cast away. Some practice it underground and use Christianity or Islam as a cover up.

Driving this practice underground only compounds the problem and inhibits the understanding of its role in human trafficking. Voodoo practice is not the problem but the role it plays in human trafficking that raises concern.

While I would not advise local authorities to start proposing regulations for the practice of voodoo, there is a need to work with African communities, key charities and the government of some source countries where this practice is prominent as it relates to human trafficking.

Local authorities should begin to utilise one of their strongest assets, their relationship with the African community, to build an understanding of this problem. They must also put aside their stereotypical perception of such practices and approach them as a belief system rather than a form of ‘brainwash’.

The latter approach undermines the significance of a belief system practiced by millions across the world, including the UK. It also creates mistrust amongst those who believe in voodoo.

Practitioners have to understand that the enemy is not the belief system; it is how it is abused and the effect on the individuals that really matters.

In 2011, Haiti recognised and regulated the use of voodoo. I think it is time countries in similar situations do the same. It would make a positive contribution to cracking down on traffickers.

May Ikeora [pictured], works with African communities in Manchester, across the UK and Africa on children’s and women’s rights. She is currently researching ways to combat human trafficking to the UK as part of her Phd.

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