Bizarre Rumours

Adam Kuper · BBC Missionaries

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.


  • 12 January 2010 at 1:54pm
    nicolas argenti says:
    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?

  • 12 January 2010 at 2:16pm
    allent says:
    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

  • 12 January 2010 at 7:54pm
    Sverker says:
    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

  • 12 January 2010 at 8:54pm
    paul richards says:
    I agree with the general gist of the comments by Adam Kuper, Tim Allen and Nicolas Argenti regarding the BBC Newsnight item on alleged ritual killing of children in Uganda. This was not good or responsible journalism. Having worked on two wars in West Africa over the last 20 years (Liberia and Sierra Leone) I have encountered this same mixture of hysteria, gullibility and lack of common sense on the many occasions among Western journalists reporting on alleged atrocities associated with these two wars. Something troubles me, however. When atrocities are committed they often display evidence of being shaped by the kinds of magical beliefs here being discussed. It is sometimes too easy to point this out, and thus to imply that these alleged events are the stuff of (socially shaped) dreams. But I still have a nagging sense that some of these events may have been real. War is a state of mind in which sometimes people put into practice their own worst imaginings. How do we allow for this possibility, while deploring cheap jouranlistic sensationalism? I was fascinated to note that George Orwell - commenting on atrocities in the Spanish Civil War - reflected that "the same horror stories come up in war after war, and this makes it rather more likely that these stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides an opportunity of putting them into practice" (Looking Back on the Spanish War). I think it would be wise for us to at least entertain this possibility, and perhaps then to develop some theory about when fantasy passes into opportunity.

  • 13 January 2010 at 12:31pm
    Richard Bartholomew says:
    Whewell seemed very laid back when presented with what may or may not have been a human liver - which was then destroyed rather than handed over to the police - and he didn't seem to have any problem with the shrine being burnt, rather than fenced off and subjected to a detailed forensic investigation. And just who was the supposed "boss" behind it all?

    We know that certain ideas have been promoted in parts of Africa that have led to tragedies, such as the "child-witch" hysterias in Nigeria and Congo. These should be investigated without fear of accusations of racism. But Polino Angela strained credulity - he reminded me more of those evangelical supposed "ex-Satanists" who created panics in the UK and USA in the 1980s with lurid and bogus paperbacks.

    Nsaba Buturo's explanation for not arresting a man who has supposedly killed 70 people was feeble - why didn't Whewell challenge him on this? It's also worth noting that Buturo is a ridiculous authoritarian who has played a big part in the alarming direction that Uganda has taken in recent years.

    I've got more about this on my blog:

  • 13 January 2010 at 3:18pm
    PabloK says:
    I am greatly heartened to see so many qualified experts commenting on this piece (which I saw on Newsnight) and providing correction for its laziness. I know that Johan Pottier of SOAS has also written very interestingly on the role of rumour and hyberbole in accounts of cannibalism in Uganda and the northern DRC.

    Have any of you contacted the BBC directly? Might there be a chance for Whewell's account to be challenged, whether on air, through email correspondence or a BBC 'clarification'?

  • 13 January 2010 at 4:22pm
    JP says:
    Perhaps someone should send Whewell a link to this post, so he could answer the charges himself?

  • 14 January 2010 at 12:14am
    allent says:
    The previous posting asks for a request to be made to Whewell - to answer the charges made himself. He has done so to me, and so has the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon. With their permission, here is my original letter to Rippon, his response, my reply, Whewell's intervention, and my reply. The communications are in reverse order. Rippon and Whewell have been invited to add any further comments to this blog.

    Dear Mr Whewell,

    On geographic issues, the broadcast report was obscure about such things, but I am aware that there are similar accounts in other parts of the country. I am also well aware that rich individuals seem to be linked with these activities, as indeed they are in other parts of Africa. My reference to Lango was based on what was shown in the Newsnight broadcast.

    You say you are a journalist, not an anthropologist, but is that really a good explanation? The criticisms I made were about poor journalism, and I have been copied into communications about your stories that have been written by fellow journalists. With respect to anthropologists or other scholars, why not talk to them about these things? There are several who have worked on this kind of murder. They would certainly help you gain a more adequate perspective on your information.

    Like Peter Rippon, you suggest that I, and others, have denied that such crimes occur. Why? I have explicitly stated the opposite, and I am unaware of anyone else who has asserted that ritual murders do not occur. The points I made were that they have occurred in many parts of Africa and have been reported for decades. They occur in batches, and they are linked to mass panics and sometimes violent witch-cleansing. Your report implicitly encourages the latter.

    You also say that you have been 'slightly shocked' by the lack of reference in the complaints you have received from Western-based academics to the pain of losing children or seeing them mutilated or psychologically traumatized. On the contrary, the communications I have seen have been motivated by an acute awareness of such suffering - and irritation about the manner in which you chose to represent it.

    You seek to dismiss criticisms by suggesting that they are not coming from Ugandans, but only from 'British-based anthropologists'. It is hardly surprising that people in the UK who work on Africa should complain, given that Newsnight is shown in Britain. That is also the case with respect to the Harry Potter version of the story told on BBC Radio. I have had some communication with Ugandans about the broadcasts, but they had not seen or heard them. In any case, most Ugandans would not know how to send a complaint to the BBC. I might also add that there is certainly a market for such reports in Uganda. That is why the Red Pepper newspaper is popular among some people in Kampala and other big towns. But that is not a reason to emulate it. Most Ugandans do not read Red Pepper, and have a high regard for the BBC, mainly because of the World Service. With that comes responsibilities.

    Finally, like Peter Rippon, you have written to me in a measured tone . You have also provided some facts as you understand them , and have made reference to some evidence. Why not do the same thing in the stories that you broadcast? That is what would happen if you were reporting on the UK. When it comes to Uganda, you both seem to think that, because there is evidence and things that can be assessed to be facts, it is not necessary to explain this. Rather it becomes acceptable to play on popular stereotypes and elaborate events with rumour, hearsay and children's fiction. It is not. For Ugandans, these are - literally -matters of life and death.

    Tim Allen

    Dear Prof Allen,

    Thank you for your additional comments, which the editor has passed on to me.
    Without wishing to carry on this correspondence indefinitely, may I make two further points - one specific, one general?

    Firstly, the geographic issue. We concentrated in the Newsnight film principally on Lango. But our research was much wider. Shafik Kyazike, whom we also featured, who alleges - and will allege in court - that he was the victim of attempted sacrifice, comes from central Uganda. He is not Langi. The boy Mukisa whom we featured in Crossing Continents, whose penis was cut off, allegedly by a 'traditional healer' - in another case that will come to court this year - is from Bugiri, eastern Uganda. He is not Langi either. I have checked with several sources, including the police, that the 'boss' to whom the practising Langi witch-doctor we feature pays protection money, is from Kayunga, central Uganda. He is a Muganda.
    We have also checked out reports of actual or attempted sacrifice from around Masindi, and from West Nile, where several authorities believe the practice is on the rise.
    Our reports were based on detailed conversations with Kampala-based agencies such as ANPPCAN (African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect) - and one of their Western partners, VSO - who are also becoming more concerned about the practice. That growing concern is further evidenced by the march through Kampala last year by campaigners, led by members of Uganda's association of traditional healers, calling for new legislation to crack down on human sacrifice and to regulate the profession of traditional healing more effectively.
    There are now credible reports of human sacrifice from all over Uganda. And the widespread perception by many different actors in Lango is that it is now becoming commoner there, spreading from other regions.

    My second point is wider. I am journalist, not an anthropologist. Nevertheless, I have reported on Africa for many years and am, like you, deeply concerned about the problems of the continent - and, because it is my profession - with the portrayal of Africa in the western media.
    I believe that the media in general - both in what they choose to report and what they fail to report - often get it wrong. But I believe that in this case we got it right. I fully anticipated the kind of criticisms that you and some of your colleagues have made. But I think it does Ugandans no favours to ignore crimes that they are suffering from, and that they themselves are battling - on many levels, to end. To deny, or ignore, those crimes would implicitly be, in my opinion, to suggest, wrongly, that Ugandans were less horrified by them than people in other places might be.
    In the making of these reports, almost everybody we have spoken to has been Ugandan. There are thousands of traditional healers in Uganda who do a great deal of good. But it is Ugandans - and not only the committed Christians among them - who have told us that the term 'traditional healer' is sometimes a euphemism - their word - for witch-doctor. Indeed, it is often traditional healers themselves who have made that comment to us. They rightly do not want the reputation of their profession to be sullied. In the longer BBC World version of the report the head of the traditional healing group PROMETRA, Dr Yahaya Sekagya, makes that point very clearly.

    One of the things I believe is sometimes wrong with the western media's coverage of Africa is the failure on occasion to individualise Africans - their achievements and their sufferings - as we might individualise Europeans in similar contexts. I set out in all my work to try to avoid this failing - and I believe I succeeded in these reports from Uganda, giving people a greater insight into the country and - equally importantly - a respect for it. And in this context of telling the stories of individuals that I must add that I have been surprised - indeed, slightly shocked - by the lack of reference, in most of the complaints we have received from Western-based academics, to the pain of losing children or seeing them mutilated or psychologically traumatised, the pain that some of our interviewees testify to so powerfully. These individuals have a right to have their voices heard - and we would not even begin to question that right if they lived in Britain.
    Peter 0dongo, the schoolteacher from Lango, said to me as we stood where his son Chrispus is buried - as quoted in my Crossing Continents report - "Bear strong witness, as you stand by this grave. This activity - child sacrifice - must end." I have faithfully carried out Peter's request.

    Our disciplines are different. But while our resources in terms of study time are not as great as yours, you must understand that the limited amount of material we produce on radio, TV or online is underpinned by enough extra unseen research to make us confident about our conclusions. And also that the BBC has a wide variety of different outlets, each with a slightly different purpose and slightly different stylistic requirements.
    It is in that context - for a particular audience likely in many cases to have already heard or seen my very harrowing Today Programme, Crossing Continents, Newsnight or BBC Online reports - that I adopted, in the opening paragraphs of the From Our Own Correspondent piece two days later, the intentionally slightly surprising and apparently irreverent tone that some of your colleagues have taken exception to - though the overall point of that report, of course, was the same, as the later paragraphs made clear.

    Finally, I want to point out that overall we have received very few complaints about these reports, and almost all of them have come from British-based anthropologists - indeed from the people cc'd on the first letter we received.
    To date, we have received no complaints that I am aware of from Uganda. Indeed, all Ugandans I have spoken to since the first online story was published six days ago are pleased with the reports.

    If you are posting other parts of your correspondence with the BBC on a website or academic publication, I would be grateful if you would also add my above comments in their entirety. I would also be grateful if you would send them on the original cc list that you were copied in on.

    Many thanks and best wishes,

    Tim Whewell
    BBC Newsnight and Radio 4

    Dear Peter,
    Thanks for your reply. You will of course be aware that much of what you tell me was not actually dealt with in the Newsnight broadcast. Was it considered irrelevant?

    I know about the police reports that you mention dealing with these kinds of murders. I think there were 28 reported cases in 2009 and 26 in 2008. I did not state in my email that ritual murders do not occur. They do, but they are rare and they are not a new development. In Uganda I have worked among the neighbouring Acholi, Lugbara and Madi peoples rather than the Langi - the main focus of your story. Among these groups I have been aware of several incidents in which body parts have been removed, some of them dating back to my early fieldwork in the 1980s. I have also encountered such incidents in Kenya, Sudan, South Africa and Tanzania. Many other researchers have described them in other places too, and there are accounts of them in the earlier anthropological studies from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Researchers have also noted that accounts of such killings tend to occur in batches, as appears to be the case at present in parts of Uganda - or in Tanzania in 2007.

    You are confident about the way you used the term 'witch-doctor'. You shouldn't be. The English term is often used in Uganda for specialists who are involved in treating various kinds of witchcraft and sorcery. It is also used by - mostly Christian - activists in a derogatory way for people who allegedly perform 'satanic' rites or who are alleged to be witches and wizards themselves. This was a perspective promoted in your report. In addition your report made reference to belief in spirits and to local healers advertising their services as if these things are all tarred with the same brush. Catholics and Anglicans, it might be worth noting, also believe in spirits.

    You say about your report that: “There was nothing to suggest there is anything specifically African about the crime, or the reactions to it." I don't think you can possibly really think that. Your report was largely about the exotic African elements of the story. You then go on to deny that you are guilty of 'double standards', and claim that: "If there were reports of human sacrifice in Britain, backed by official reports and statistics - and by credible testimony of victims - we would treat them equally seriously.” On double standards, I do not accept that rumours and hearsay would have been used in the same way if you expected to be held to account for what you reported. On the last point, it is of course the case that there have been similarly salacious tales about African sacrifices in the UK. You will recall that when forced to investigate more seriously, the rumours turned out to be specious.

    On encouraging witch-hunts, your observations indicate a lack of awareness of what has been occurring in Uganda. Such superficial and misleading coverage by the BBC can only lend credence to violent attacks on alleged witches, in which Church groups and local political leaders have been directly involved. In the 1980s, there was a spate of witch killing in the northwest of the country that was reported on enthusiastically in the Arua Catholic newsletter. In a nearby home to where I was living at Laropi, two women were tortured to death with fish-hooks following rumours that they were witches. More than a dozen others were killed in a similar way in the vicinity. More recently, last summer I was researching in Moyo and Adjumani districts on a new system whereby the local councils organise 'elections' of witches. Those with the highest numbers of votes are beaten, raped and chased away from the neighbourhood. In one case I investigated a victim was effectively forced to commit suicide.

    With respect to the main location of your report, a point that has been made by researchers on the LRA war and its aftermath, including some of those working among the Langi, is that accusations of witchcraft will be on the rise as hundreds of thousands of people leave the displacement camps and struggle to make ends meet. That was the case in the 1980s when the population of West Nile returned from Sudan, and it is again now in the central north. There is a need to look at this phenomenon in context, and engage with evidence analytically and critically. It is not an appropriate exotic diversion for a flagship news programme.

    You will be aware, there has been a great deal of interest and concern about this Newsnight report and the Harry Potter orientated version that was broadcast on BBC Radio. I hope it is acceptable to you if I circulate your explanation and my response, and perhaps include it in the blog site that has been set up to discuss the topic.

    Yours sincerely,

    Tim Allen
    Professor of Development Anthropology
    London School of Economics


    Thank you for your comments on our recent reports from Uganda. But I am afraid I cannot accept the suggestion that our reporting on human sacrifice has been superficial or unsubstantiated. Our story is based on compelling evidence we present from victims of very serious crimes.

    We interview, for example, Peter Odongo, who found the corpse of his three-year-old son with several internal organs cut out. The body was taken for post-mortem by a district medical officer who concluded that the boy was the victim of child sacrifice. In this case, it is not easy to think of another likely explanation. There would be unlikely to be much demand for such organs as the liver or the pancreas for transplant.
    And evidence we have gathered suggests the local authorities in northern Uganda are keen where possible to play down, not to encourage, talk of ritual killing.

    We also interview the parents of a three-year boy called Mukisa from Bugiri, eastern Uganda, whose penis was cut off by an assailant. They cannot prove that the culprit was a witch-doctor, or acting for one. But again, it seems the most likely explanation - and the crime fits with what we know of the activities of some witch-doctors.

    These are just two cases. But we report also on others. Several of them will be examined later this year in criminal trials. Even according to police figures - as we report - there were at least 26 murders last year thought to be linked to human sacrifice. In 2007, there were only three.
    That is a clear increase. And several highly responsible agencies involved in child protection believe - based on their own tally of reports - that the police statistics represent an underestimate.

    We also interviewed a former witch-doctor, Polino Angela. There is no evidence to suggest that his testimony is 'bogus'. His story is quite well-known in the Lango sub-region. He was a witch-doctor for 22 years - enough time to be involved in 70 human sacrifices. An academic study confirms that he was the personal witch-doctor of the former president, Tito Okello. I do not think he has boasted of murders he didn't commit.
    He has no protection. On the contrary, since our report was broadcast, police have demanded to interview him - and he is now having to find a lawyer to defend himself.

    As for the practising witch-doctor we interview, his admission that his clients brought human blood came only towards the end of a difficult interview in which he initially insisted that he only received dogs'
    blood. The visit to his shrine was not laid on for the BBC. He did not even know we were coming.

    I am confident that we were correct to use the term 'witch-doctor' as we did. It would have been odd to have asked a grieving father to say that his son had been murdered by a "healer". All the Ugandans we spoke to - from ordinary villagers, through healers themselves, to police and government officials - used the term 'witch-doctor' when referring to those guilty of criminal acts - and had no difficulty distinguishing them from genuine healers. This was a story, as we emphasised, about how Ugandans are suffering from - and battling at various levels to end - a crime that horrifies them as much as it would horrify people anywhere.
    There was nothing to suggest there is anything specifically African about the crime, or the reactions to it. I do not agree that we are guilty of 'double standards'. If there were reports of human sacrifice in Britain, backed by official reports and statistics - and by credible testimony of victims - we would treat them equally seriously.

    Finally, I do not think we have encouraged a witch-hunt. The apparent increase in ritual killings has been covered extensively for some time in the Ugandan media. There is little new for Ugandans in our story - a fact confirmed by the muted way the BBC's coverage has now been reported there. Nevertheless we have ensured that our interviewees understood clearly the implications of agreeing to be filmed. And in the case of the practising witchdoctor, we decided - although he himself did not ask for anonymity - not to show his face or give his name on versions of the reports that can be seen in Uganda.

    Yours sincerely
    Peter Rippon

    Dear Peter Rippon,
    Dr Nicholas Argenti has written to me below about the Newsnight piece concerning witchcraft in Uganda. I have just watched it on-line. I agree with him that it was dreadful. Both misleading and misinformed. Matters were also not helped by the fact that it was presented as an exotic interlude between the snow and Obama's speech. These kinds of stories about primitive practices may have a ready audience in the UK, but that is not a reason to present them in such a way as to feed prejudices and stereotypes.

    Perhaps I am not the most popular person at Newsnight after the issues I raised about the manipulated and factually incorrect report on the Lord's Resistance Army and interview with Kony in 2006. But why not contact someone else who has worked on these issues - there are several in the UK - before putting out this kind of story?

    It is just nonsense to suggest that your reporter is the first person to have visited these shrines. It is also singularly unhelpful to use the term witchdoctor in such a generalised way. The Christian churches have been waging a campaign against local healers in various parts of Uganda for decades, and have been involved in destroying shrines. But this is a far more complicated situation than your 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.

    There are certainly shocking things that occur in Uganda that are linked to ideas about spirits and witches - from the mass killing at Kanungu, to the activities of Joseph Kony, to the new mechanisms of 'democratic'
    witch-cleansing. 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 - although tales need to be treated with caution, as in this case, they are likely to be as much about asserting certain ideas about moral probity as presenting facts.

    I am not suggesting that such sensistive topics should be avoided.
    However, as I wrote to Brian Barron at the end of my exchanges with him over the LRA report, surely it is appropriate to use the same standards of journalism and news presentation when covering northern Uganda as covering northern England. Maybe next time.....?

    Yours truly,
    Tim Allen
    Professor of Development Anthropology
    London School of Economics

  • 14 January 2010 at 11:06am
    allent says:
    It has been pointed out to me that in my original email to Peter Rippon - the current editor of Newsnight - I had muddled BBC Barrons. The editor of Newsnight in 2006 was Peter Barron, not Brian Barron. Peter Barron left Newsnight to plough greener pastures at Google. Brian Barron was the fine BBC journalist who sadly passed away last year, and was not involved with these controversial Newsnight broadcasts.

  • 14 January 2010 at 1:02pm
    TimWhewell says:
    Prof Kuper makes some mistakes about Polino Angela, the former witch-doctor who features in our reports. He is not a Pentecostalist, at least not in the sense that the term is most commonly used to indicate a member of an evangelical Protestant denomination. He is a Roman Catholic. Secondly, Angela is not “curiously untroubled by police.” On the contrary, since our reports have been published, the head of Uganda’s Anti-Human Sacrifice and Trafficking Taskforce, Asst Commissioner Moses Binoga, has asked to interview him. He is currently in the process of hiring a lawyer and is now worried about his future, despite having freely consented to his interview being broadcast worldwide.

    Prof Kuper claims “the individuals fingered by Angela for the BBC are at risk of vigilante violence.” But Angela’s work with the practising witch-doctor we featured was not motivated in any way by the arrival of the BBC. It was part of his regular activity. We have never given any indication, anywhere, of where the man lives. In any case the Ugandan media have been running stories about the apparent increase in human sacrifice cases for many months. There is nothing new for a Ugandan audience in what we have reported – as evidenced by the limited reaction to our coverage in the Ugandan press, despite the fact that our report has been widely available on BBC News Online for a week.

    Prof Kuper quotes Asst Commissioner Binoga’s statistics for suspected ritual murders in 2009 and 2008 – 28 and 26 respectively – but fails to mention that Binoga’s figure for the previous year, 2007, is just three.

    The evidence for our reports is powerful and compelling. It comes from the parents of murdered and mutilated children – backed by medical and police evidence suggesting a link to witchcraft. It comes from respected local child protection agencies. It comes from the police, and from a government minister.

    To describe the evidence of such an array of individuals and agencies as “bizarre rumours” is surely at the very least disrespectful towards Ugandan victims and Ugandan authorities. Would Prof Kuper be so dismissive if similar evidence came from the British police or other British authorities or agencies?

    He chooses to put the word ‘witch-doctor’ in quotation marks, as though it were a meaningless term. But the Ugandans we spoke to at all levels distinguished clearly between benign “traditional healers” and “witch-doctors” who commit crimes such as murder and mutilation.

    I do not confuse belief in spirits with belief in witchcraft, as is clear from my interview with ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo. Dr Buturo believes in the existence of spirits but unequivocally condemns witchcraft. That is a clear position for him to take. I merely question whether proclaiming a belief in evil spirits is the most effective way for a government to combat witchcraft.

  • 15 January 2010 at 9:36am
    paul richards says:
    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.

  • 15 January 2010 at 10:53pm
    allent says:
    Tim Whewell and Peter Rippon claim that what was shown on Newsnight was carefully researched and grounded in evidence. They have both listed examples of that evidence. Paul Richards and others have pointed out that the evidence might not be as robust as they suppose.

    But there is a further issue here that should not be lost. Where is all this evidence in the Newsnight broadcast? Why was it not included or discussed? The fact that they both feel the need to highlight information that is not in the broadcast would seem to suggest that, at some level, Whewell and Rippon recognize that it was inadequate.

    Without repeating points I have made already, could I ask them to watch again what they showed on Newsnight.

    The broadcast begins with a man dressed up as a born-again Christian in northern Uganda who we are told in positive terms is leading a crusade to torch shrines, armed with a good supply of paraffin. He is attempting to end a practice that ‘appears to be killing more and more children’, and that is known to be ‘widespread’. Later in the programme, ‘appears to be’ is dropped in favour of a bold assertion by Whewell that child sacrifice is on the increase. Whewell also tells us that it is ‘widely believed’ that bodies of dead children have been placed in the foundations of some of Kampala’s buildings– a point that would seem to contradict an earlier claim that this was all a new phenomenon.

    Evidence presented for these statements includes a vague reference to police reports about ‘two dozen’ murders. But Whewell invites us not to take these seriously, because people think there are lots more killings than are recorded. We are not told what is in the reports, or if they relate directly to two children that Whewell has been told by relatives were killed in child sacrifices. In addition, Whewell meets a boy who had been abducted by a frightening witchdoctor, but was subsequently released. Apparently this was because the witchdoctor was only interested in killing perfect specimens, and the boy was circumcised.

    In the course of the broadcast we do eventually have an interview with a policeman, but he is not questioned about specific evidence. Instead he talks generally about the use of witchcraft by rich individuals, and also about how some traditional healers have responded to the demand. This is followed by a statement by Whewell that traditional healers ‘now’ advertise their services on the radio stations. At first is seems we are to assume that these are the healers that the policeman means. But no. Tim Whewell tells us that these healers, the ones that advertise, are ‘innocent’. It is others who are really ‘witchdoctors’.

    How does he know these things? We don’t find out.

    Also here we have a good example of the confusions that several contributors to this blog site have noted. In the first place, local healers advertising services in Uganda is nothing new. Secondly, Wherwell uses the term witchdoctor in a specific and loaded way. He understands the term to mean someone who is themselves a witch or wizard, and who specializes in things like child sacrifice.

    In this respect it is worth noting that the rituals we have seen earlier in the broadcast are associated with particular kinds of specialists in northern Uganda, usually called ajwaki. They deal with afflictions associated with witchcraft, with interpretations of misfortune, with herbal remedies and with cases of spirit possession. They are a kind of local healer. The sort of shrine shown in the broadcast is not so secret as suggested. Similarly, the staged initiation and possession in the broadcast are relatively common. I have myself attended many such events. None, I should hasten to add, were associated with human sacrifice. At some rituals sacrifices occur of a sheep or goat or perhaps even a bull. Internal organs are sometimes offered to spirits and placed in pots, including livers like the one shown on Newsnight.

    After making assertions mentioned above about children in the foundations of Kampala’s buildings, Tim Wherwell takes us back to northern Uganda. Now the broadcast really does enter the world of the absurd.

    The key informant, a self confessed mass murderer of 70 people who has become a ‘witchdoctor converter’, is seen doing his work. After a chat, a witchdoctor sees the error of his ways and agrees to abandon his practices. He then admits on camera that his clients have been bringing him human blood and body parts required by his spirits about three times a week!

    Even Tim Whewell sounds a bit incredulous at this point. It suggests an awful lot of dead children.

    Off we then go to the shrine – where apparently no outsider has been before. Here we see the grisly remains of what the spirits have been fed on. A liver is pulled out of a pot with a stick. Is it human? Tim Whewell’s informant thinks so, and it would seem so does he.

    If I thought that, I would have been rather more disconcerted. The liver looks fresh, as if it has just been removed. Where was the rest of the body? Did Whewell take a bit of the liver for an autopsy. Maybe we will be told the result at some point. Not, it transpires, in this Newsnight report.

    The mass murderer at this point explains that he has converted more than 2,400 of these witchdoctors. Yet there are, we are told, ‘many many’ more shrines like the one we see being burned existing in this part of Uganda. They flourish, it is explained, because the belief system is very deeply rooted.

    If that is so, there must be mutilated bodies of children all over the place! Where are they all? It is odd that my Langi friends have not mentioned falling over them!

    We are then beamed by Newsnight back to Kampala, where we are told people also believe in spirits. The implication is that these are the same kinds of spirits as those that demand child sacrifices through the witchdoctors they possess. We are also told that some government ministers consult witchdoctors – does Whewell really mean they are involved in child sacrifices? Which ones? Who says so? We are not told.

    More concretely, it transpires that the particular government minister interviewed believes in evil spirits himself. This, it is implied, is a bad thing – although don’t all religious people believe in some kinds of spirits? For Whewell it reveals that Ugandans believe in the power of demons and so legislation will not have much effect. We are not told what legislation is meant here, but back we go to the north again, to end the report, and to be told that the most effective campaign against child sacrifice in Uganda is being waged by Whewell’s mass murderer.

    What was shown by Newsnight - sandwiched between a report on the snow and a speech by President Obama, and without any discussion in the studio - was this bizarre, exotic and irresponsible mixture of half truths, staged incidents and rumour mongering. It was not, as Whewell and his producer now want to claim, a serious investigation of disturbing evidence from Uganda.

    For me, it is what was shown on BBC television that is objectionable, not the better report that might exist somewhere in the journalistic imagination of its creators.

  • 20 January 2010 at 8:51am
    shannonbrivers says:
    I am a student at the UEA taking Social Anthropology and International Development. We watched the Newsnight piece in our first class this semester. I emailed the BBC yesterday. I thought the topic was handled negligently; we didnt find it well-researched at all.

    Having taken Journalism at Georgia State University in the United States, I found this sensationalised and uninspiring. The BBC attempted to elaborate in an Our World report (Our World: Ritual Killings, last broadcast Sunday, 17 Jan 2010, 14.30) over the weekend, but it wasn't any further researched, it seemed to just be 15 minutes of more of the aforementioned witch doctor.

    I just don't understand how someone could argue that this was well researched when it wasn't.

    Shannon Rivers
    Undergrad Student: Spanish with International Development
    University of East Anglia

  • 22 January 2010 at 2:35am
    Ben says:
    Though plenty of water has flowed under the blog since I wrote this, I still want to stand by what I wrote then, and to add a few more observations. Then I did not receive a password from the LRB, so could not add to the blog.

    Tim Whewell refers to ‘this practice’ of ‘human sacrifice’ as though we all knew, or at the least the Ugandan media and cabinet knew, what it was? Is it propitiatory, expiatory, a fellowship meal, or a gift? What are the marks of human sacrifice as opposed to slaying, so that we know if it be on the increase or not? The criminal justice systems of African states have always had immense difficulty in dealing with these issues. If killing a human is merely a means of supplying body parts for some other rite or just for sale, there may be nothing sacred about it at all. Indeed defining sacred with Durkheim as that which is good for society, occult murder is as far away from sacred as you can go. This is not to deny that human sacrifice is inconceivable, for a human may conceivably be cultically offered up in public for the public good, but this is not the case here. If we are dealing here with ritual slaughter here, and we only have some rusty interpretations to go on here, then we have occult or magic, no religion or salvation, nothing sacred, nothing valued as traditional by the society that owns the rite. The same distinction is needed, when it comes to ‘witch-doctor’. A good witchdoctor is a professional healer in traditional society with a wide clientele, though there may be herbalists who claim they do not operate by witchcraft at all. If Polino should deliberately kill a human, he thereupon crosses a boundary and becomes, as most traditional societies would agree, a witch, the opponent of the witchdoctors, individual targets, society, and the common good. Now since both are practitioners in witchcraft, it can seldom be denied that a witchdoctor does not know how to use destructive magic against a person, and the Maasai suspect their witchdoctors of also acting as witches. There are always different terms for this opposed pair; the ajwaki of which Tim Allen and Sverker Finnström write are witchdoctors. But you can hardly kill 70 human beings and then say you were a witchdoctor.

    It is Christian discourse that adds so much confusion here not just in the minds of Western observers, but certainly in the minds of many Ugandans. Practising witchcraft or mediumship are both proscribed in Scripture. East Africa has had Christian traditions for a century and a half dismissing much traditional religion as witchcraft, evil spirits, or superstition, putting the witchdoctor in the realm of Christian tabu, even when he was working for the good of society. Polino (should his name not be spelt Paulino Angella, which would be more normal in Lango?) is operating along the lines of Christian discourse of spiritual warfare, not according to well-known traditional oppositions. Witchdoctors today may be the new ghouls and ogres of yesterday’s fairy tales. Where theism is not strong, all deaths may be attributed to witches.

    If the interview with the visited witch/doctor was so difficult, why should anything said be believed? Was he not bullied and pressed into confessing what was wanted by an unprecedented invasion of his space? Did anyone have any evidence that he had killed anybody? If Polino did as he said, then he was a witch, and incidentally by the Ugandan Criminal code, a murderer who should be investigated by the police. If the reporter really believed his testimony, he should have reported him to the police, rather than exposed him in the media. Did either subject give their permission to be filmed and broadcast as past or present practitioners of witchcraft? Polino may now be subject to more than unpleasant treatment by the police, and it will be unjust, if his claim were not literal. How can 2,400 conversions of witchdoctors be literal? There are many practising traditionally in northern Uganda, but they are not generally susceptible to Roman Catholic laymen telling then to desist. If he were presenting as a Roman Catholic evangelist, could not enquiries be made of the local diocese and clergy as to his standing in the church? He is the central figure in the broadcasts, but we are given no check on his veracity, other than those shown who believe that his discourse explains what has happened to their family members, and no connections were proved, when so many different phenomena were lumped together. Yet does the iconoclast care?

  • 22 January 2010 at 2:57am
    Ben says:
    From: Dr Ben Knighton
    Sent: 09 January 2010 23:02
    To: ''
    Subject: RE: Newsnight and Ugandan witchcraft

    Dear Peter Rippon,

    I heard reports on Radio Four, including ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, and have now seen the Newsnight report 8.1.10. I have been a keen student of traditional religion in northeast Uganda, beginning 26 years ago, and on Monday I was interviewing an old man about his use of witchdoctors (arathi/andu ago) on Mount Kenya. Though I cannot claim that the practice of what used to be confidently called ‘magic’ may not very occasionally involve death of selected individuals in a traditional society, the report from Uganda brings together such a variety of claimed phenomena that the only uniting theme is the sensationalism of casting Africa as the benighted opposite of our safe, clean entertainment of Harry Potter. Prof. Terence Ranger’s review of 28 recent publications on the occult speaks to this situation very clearly, 'Scotland Yard in the Bush. Medicine Murders, child witches and the construction of the occult: a literature review', Africa, 2007, which is set reading for our MSc. elective in the African Studies Centre, Oxford, on African religion and society. It is high time the media wised up to such academic reflection.

    Across East Africa there would appear to the recent growth of some rich urban businessmen demanding powerful ‘medicine’ to ssure them of success and security. To meet this demand there are some self-inventing ‘traditional healers’ who have offered them what they want for high sums of money, if they will provide human body parts or lives, hence the reports of the threat to the lives of albinos in Eat Africa in the last year or more and the burying of human bodies in the foundations of large houses in Kampala. It would help if there were more research into these. However the thrust of the BBC reports was on rural Northern Ugandan, where the evidence revolved very largely around one man, who now has an iconoclastic testimony and witch-finding vocation. It has been known for revivalists in East Africa to multiply or magnify their sins before being saved in order to put their testimony of salvation into greater contrast. That Polino Angella should have killed 70 people (which would indubitably make him a witch par excellence)) and converted 2,400 witchdoctors is frankly incredible. The latter would need some kind of computation to support it, and indeed there would be abundant witnesses wherever he had been, if remotely true. Northern Uganda may seem a long way to go, but did this investigation go far enough in pursuit of precision?

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr Ben Knighton, FRAI
    Ph.D Stage Leader, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies
    Hon. Treasurer, African Studies Association of the United Kingdom

  • 28 January 2010 at 3:24pm
    Kyla Reid says:
    Dear Peter Rippon,

    I was alerted to your program “Witch-doctors reveal extent of child sacrifice in Uganda” shown on BBC News Night on January 7th, and have just finished watching the online version. While there have been many insightful comments already made about the accuracy and integrity of the program, as well as the sensationalized and exotic presentation of the story and its ill-conceived use of the term “witch-doctor,” I feel compelled to offer a few more for your consideration.

    I recently returned from Northern Uganda where I conducted fieldwork on the intersection of health, justice and witchcraft; additionally I investigated the mechanisms used to distribute justice to alleged witches (or wizards as they are more often referred to). I participated in many in-depth and intimate discussions about witchcraft and while concerns about the activities of witches were commonly expressed, specific fears of child sacrifice were not articulated. This is not to say that these fears do not exist or that child sacrifice and ritual killing never takes place, however it does cast a degree of doubt on the pervasiveness of the problem suggested by Tim Whewell. In many instances, social relations and attitudes in this part of Uganda, (as well as in many other parts of the world) are informed by pervasive fears and accusations of witchcraft, however I found the presentation of these fears and beliefs in your program deeply concerning.

    Tim Whewell tells us that child sacrifice by witch-doctors is on the rise and that this is something “new and deeply shocking” to the affected communities. Of course violence against children in any place, by any means is disturbing and reprehensible, and there may be isolated incidents of child sacrifice in Uganda. However, rumors about witchcraft are not new and Whewell does a disservice to those he features in his program, as well as viewers by failing to qualify these accusation and fears of witchcraft and ritual sacrifice in broader terms.

    Accusations made against individuals alleging their engagement in witchcraft and related murderous activities must be understood as a complex social function that presents itself more with the manifestation of misfortune, social discord and upheaval in communities, than with actual instances of ritual killing or hocus-pocus. Those accused of committing murder by witchcraft are not necessarily “witch-doctors”. In reality, for many communities in Northern Uganda, accusing someone of witchcraft is a means to assert moral probity and justify expulsion or violence against a vulnerable or unwanted member of the community, who in many cases happens to be a disenfranchised woman.

    As Tim Allen has noted above, there have been many shocking events associated with conceptions of spirits and witchcraft in Northern Uganda. I documented several cases of accused witches being expelled from their villages through “democratic” elections who were subjected to sexual, physical and psychological abuse after being voted out by their neighbors. In extreme cases, these elections resulted in suicide or murder of the accused. It seems that allegations made against suspected witches, and witch-cleansings are again on the rise in Northern Uganda, in many cases resulting in disturbing and violent consequences for the accused. You say that your program has not encouraged a witch-hunt. This comment shows a lack of awareness of the situation I have described above. Rather than further fueling suspicions, fears and misunderstanding on this complicated subject by focusing on the dramatic transformation of Polino Angela (the “crusader” against witch-doctors), the rumored rise in child sacrifice or the burning of the shrine, perhaps it would have been more useful to investigate the roots of such accusations and the circumstances they are made in.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Kyla Reid,
    MSc. London School of Economics

  • 13 February 2010 at 11:57pm
    Ben says:
    ‘Reporting Witch-Doctors in Uganda’

    Summary of the meeting of the Africa Research Interest Group held at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies
    2-4pm, 3 February 2010

    Present: 22 graduates from Oxford, all but one with personal research interests in Africa, including ten Africans (two from West Africa, eight from East Africa including a Tesot from close to Lango, one Chinese, and one Japanese)

    1. Terminology / Specificity

     The BBC advertising and highlighting of all its programmes was unquestionably sensationalist, foregrounding terms like ‘Child sacrifice’, ‘Battling the Witch-Doctors’ ‘horrified’, ‘human sacrifice’, ‘astonishingly frank confessions’, ‘murdering children, supposedly to satisfy evil spirits’. ‘In Africa withcraft has played a role in …’, and worst of all ‘mutilated bodies are often found in Africa, with their organs removed presumably for use in magic charms.’ It is this billing, up to which the programmes must play, and inevitably they fail to deliver the substance they claim to have investigated, when a child’s death is ‘blamed on the witchdoctor’.

     There is a terminological confusion between the witch and the witchdoctor, which the programme failed to address. The words witch and witchcraft share an epistemology, so should witchcraft be confined to the witch?

     The polarity between witchdoctor and witch is self-evident in local parlance and it is Christian discourse that confuses good and bad. The witchdoctor is normally known to have a healing practice and clientele. If he becomes known for intentionally killing people, he must be a witch. For the observer it has long been extremely difficult to identify a witch forensically in Africa. The witchdoctor is usually better known across Africa, and charlatans may be exposed by government or society.

     The sociological distinction between cult and occult, and religion and magic or witchcraft should not be forgotten. One is in public for the public good and the other in private at social cost, so was often regarded as anathema in traditional society without missionary assistance.

     St Paul’s approach to the Athenians was ignored, when Christian missionaries arrived in Africa, and lumped together the herbalist and the Satanist. The language of witchcraft was diabolized, meaning that much, if not all, of any traditional African religion was dismissed as such. The programme follows this antithetical discourse. Still the widespread perception of bad spirits should not be dismissed.

     One Kenyan respondent to the 2005 BBC debate ‘Is Witchcraft Alive in Africa?’ conflated rainmakers in Western Kenya with other types of witches

     Tim Whewell, the reporter, totally overlooked the distinction between the witch and the witchdoctor, to the extent that it was unclear as to what he was talking about. For example, when he visited the shrine, to what kind of spirits were the sacrifices being made? Ancestral spirits or which kind of spirits? The meanings of shrine and sacrifices were also loose in his usage.

     The language of witchcraft and evil is nuanced and diffuse. If academics and journalists are to discuss witchcraft they must be specific and understand the specific beliefs held by different tribes, (Pentecostal) churches, and regions. A century of revivalism has diabolized traditional African religions.

    2. The BBC’s response

     Terence Ranger felt that the BBC’s responses (both the reporter and the editor) were similar to those academics such as ter Haar and Ellis had made to his article ‘Scotland Yard in the Bush’. They claim that the serious hurts felt by Africans deserve more than a frivolous academic response. In order to take these phenomena seriously it is precisely necessary to make critical distinctions, and not to lump them altogether as the BBC reports do in exemplary fashion!

     The BBC is mistaken in thinking that academics do not take matters of child sacrifice seriously. Terence Ranger, for example, has written supporting case notes for trials in Zimbabwe.

    3. Modernity

     The definitions of modernity in the BBC programme were inadequate and misleading. Pictures of skyscrapers in Kampala and discussions of wealth were presented as if that made a difference to what people are experiencing in northern Uganda

     The notion of Uganda being more modern than it has been in the recent past is questionable.

     In Zambia police caught a woman on a bus with a child’s head in her handbag. Suspicions of witchcraft in new phenomena are occurring widely, as when someone obviously has hidden resources to build a distinguished house. For the same reason a flourishing shop may be burnt by the local populace, because the proprietor claims or presumes ‘to have something under my seat’, and such a phenomenon may have an older provenance in Africa. The witch is one who spurns the social responsibility to neighbour and accumulates selfishly, so in Zambia you have to pretend to your neighbour, that you are not socio-economically independent.

     That an increase in affluence is at the heart of this matter is a reflection of the Comaroffs’ argument. The modernization discourse was not reflected upon, when there is a counter-theory (especially in JDY Peel).

     The inequality divide is widening in Uganda (rich vs. poor), and people are under a lot of pressure from poverty, debt, and material needs. These pressures may be shedding new light for Ugandans on the words of the Bible – Satan may still be walking this world.

     There were accounts of child sacrifice in Ugandan newspapers last year. These were portrayed as isolated incidents, where the children were either orphans or unwanted

     There have also been reports in northern China in the recent past of children being snatched for building projects, and were ultimately sacrificed.

     Terence Ranger raised the issue of the shift in the perceived balance between adults and children in Africa. The Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, for example, had recruited children and contributed to social destabilization. Certainly children can hardly be looked upon as innocent and harmless in Lango and Acholi, when they have been recruited for the LRA as child soldiers, or have been sexually or physically abused or psychologically damaged in other ways, especially by life in a government camp. Children can then be associated with danger, and their mysterious absences with witchcraft.

    4. Myth / Reality

     Whether witchcraft happens or not, the effect can be destructive, whether through violence or fear

     In Kenya, there is a belief that child sacrifice is a recent phenomenon in East Africa. Beatrice Mbogoh contacted four Uganda friends who though that the suspicious deaths were not always ‘human sacrifice’, but a practice that has been learnt from sangomas in South Africa, and, to blame it on Europe, is founded on freemasonry

     As portrayed in the film, there are plenty of Ugandan Christians, especially revivalists, who believe that there are many involved in witchcraft, who are Satanists trying to create a blood bank for their Messiah (for Christian terms, the anti-Christ). It is difficult to establish the facts about the occult, when there is so much fear involved, but there is a spiritual aspect, not just a physical one, when it appears the anthropologists are saying it is all nonsense.

     Makonen Getu noted that the Church is closely linked to the portrayal of witchcraft. In one way, the Church is demolishing the powers of beliefs in witchcraft. At the same time, the Church is becoming that same force, by overplaying the role of exorcism and in that way placing people under perpetual fear as well as loss of responsibility: ‘It was not me, but Satan in me, who is more powerful’. The Roman Catholic church in Zimbabwe only uses exorcism in extraordinary cases, while the deliverance churches can make all church members wonder whether they might not be suffering from a spirit of something with their exorcisms performed at least once a week.

     Fanen Ade observed that Nigerian churches had grown so bi, because they were built partly on a discourse of devil-worship to attract people and to receive the proceeds of their fear. Exorcism is supposed to be a liberation, but it can become a bondage. Witch-spirits, unlike other spirits could not be placated, so the sufferer could not be healed. the Christians wanted to exorcize their hosts, while the guerrillas wanted to kill them, since they could not be liberated.

     For academics, there is a methodological difficulty in discussing something that is secretive and that people refuse to exhibit publicly. There are cases where witches have been arraigned in Nigeria. However, their confessions may have been obtained under torture. The occult and responses to it are therefore difficult and sensitive subjects of research.

     Two vivid examples were given from Nigeria of how those purporting to have practised or observed ritually killing were doing so for cynical, pecuniary purposes: ‘We have to make a living! I did not kill the soldier’s mother.’ Another was paid to say that a child, reputedly removed by witches, was missing. This was a warning that a confession cannot necessarily be taken at face value. Media reports of hild-witch accusations have increased greatly in Nigeria and Ethiopia, with their growing locus in Pentecostal churches. This might be linked to a situation of poverty and hardship, but could equally be the result of watching too many Nollywood videos, suspending disbelief in the child as witch, which could reflect children being seen as more vulnerable (and less valuable) now than women. Often only orphans and street-children would be considered as missing as a result of witchcraft.

     In Kibera slum in Nairobi the fear of witchcraft threatened by ritual specialists was shown to be more powerful than swearing on the Bible for the return of looted property in 2008.

     The lack of verification for the numbers and trends asserted in the clip was striking.

    5. Ritual

     People kill in all societies. When does killing become witchcraft? The trade in body parts is known in the more globalized parts of Africa, so perceptions of a market demand may evoke a supply, which fits nicely with the old perception of Europeans or Asians being witches, enhanced by awareness of the medical demand for organs. Body parts then can become merely a scarce commodity, whose supply may involve killing without any ritual, although rituals may be performed later with the body parts.

     The BBC documentary was misleading in terms of ritual. According to the second witchdoctor shown, it was the consumers who had to bring body parts. If so, then these would not have been sacrificial killings per se.

     There were none of the obvious signs of conversion in the second witchdoctor, apart from a most reluctant confession that appeared to be pressed on him. If his words could be taken at face value, then it was his clients who were killing people to bring three human hearts a week. In other words there was no evidence that this witchdoctor was killing anybody, although it would make sense that if his clients were intent on having the strongest ‘medicine’, then the witchdoctor is likely to have instructed them what to bring.

     The hint that there was a direct link with the ‘traditional healers’ of Kampala needs exploring, for no-one could produce cases of witchdoctors using human body parts (as opposed to blood, or parts of a hyena’s corpse) in occult rituals in traditional societies in northern Uganda. This appeared to be a recent addition linked to inventions of urban ‘traditional healers’.


    Terence Ranger, Joost de Fonteyn, and Rijk van Dijk are to publish a belated response to ter Haar and Ellis’ rejoinder to ‘Scotland Yard in the Bush’.

    Many thanks to Yolana Pringle for writing good foundations for this report.
    Dr Ben Knighton

  • 14 February 2010 at 10:57am
    allent says:
    One of the points that have been made by the BBC in response to criticism is that no Ugandans have complained about their reports. On this basis it is assumed that Ugandans find the reports acceptable. I have contacted various Ugandan friends to see if they had seen or heard the broadcasts, but none of them have. However, the Ugandan authorities have become aware of them. On the 8th February, the government-owned, New Vision newspaper ran a story about a police investigation into the issues raised. The police dismissed claims that Pollino had sacrificed over 70 people. At a press conference, Moses Binoga, the head of the anti-human sacrifice and trafficking task force, had stated that, “The information Pollino gave to the BBC about his involvement in child sacrifice was ‘a pack of lies’ which has tarnished the image of the country… We have him under custody as we continue with investigations into the matter. We want to get statements from whoever was involved before taking Pollino and his colleagues to court.” He also noted that the police are investigating Tim Whewell’s professional record and the purpose of his visit to Uganda.

    Perhaps it could be argued that the Ugandan police would have good reason for wanting to dismiss Whewell’s claims, but it would be interesting to hear his reponse to the police investigation, or to know whether he has any evidence with which he could counter them.

    Readers may also be interested in the following discussion. It has been sent to me by Holly Porter, one of my PhD students, who is currently researching in northern Uganda, and who used to live close to where Whewell’s film of witch-cleansing was shot. I asked her to try to show the BBC reports to local people.

    Holly Porter's report on her discussions follows below:

    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 was 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 correspondence 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 late 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. 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

    I asked 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. One person had witnessed evidence personally. She saw the body of a two-year-old boy that was used in ritual. 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.

    “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 was found 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 on smoke.”

  • 17 February 2010 at 12:01pm
    Sverker says:
    Now the debate has found its way back to Uganda:

    Priest to be charged over BBC report
    New Vision
    Publication date: Monday, 15th February, 2010
    By Jeff Lule

    THE Police is to charge a Catholic evangelist in northern Uganda, Angelo Pollino, with giving false information to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) last month.

    The head the of Police Anti Human Sacrifice and Trafficking Task Force, Moses Binoga, told The New Vision yesterday that Pollino had confessed that he gave false information to cater for his financial interests. “We have interrogated Pollino and he said the information he gave was baseless,” Binoga said.

    In a documentary by a journalist, Tim Whewell, on the BBC on January 7, Pollino, 60, said he had sacrificed 70 people, including his son, during the 1980s and 90s while he was working as a traditional healer.

    The documentary also showed a group of traditional healers killing their victims.
    Binoga said since Pollino had confessed, he would be charged for giving false information.

    “We have him under a 24- hour surveillance. More investigations are being carried out and a detailed report will come out,” he added.

    Binoga said they were also investigating Whewel overthe origin of the story.

    “Pollino alleged that he was paid by Whewell to dramatise the story,” he noted.

    Pollino said Whewell paid him sh200,000 and others sh50,000 and promised him a donation for his organisation.

    He stressed that investigations established that, Pollino heads the Fr. Russi Foundation, a local organisation whose members come from the families of traditional healers.

    Binoga said they suspect the incident to have been spearheaded by some non- government organisations to create the impression that human sacrifice was deeply rooted and required more attention and funds.

    This article can be found on-line at:

  • 27 February 2010 at 8:34pm
    hollyeporter says:
    There was another addition to the debate here in Uganda on Thursday, also in the New Vision. Pollino is pleading not guilty to charges of lying to police, and Whewell is reportedly wanted by police...

    You can find more on the discussion I had in one of the villages, part of which Tim kindly copied above, at, a post entitled 'No smoke without fire?'

  • 28 February 2010 at 10:58pm
    Ben says:
    There is a history to witch-finding in Lango, which must be brought into the equation. JH Driberg, The Lango 1923:241, relates how an epidemic of cerebro-spinal
    meningitis in 1917 led to a spate of witch-hunting there. Then RG Abrahams, while researching the Lwo-speaking neightbouts of the Lango, the Abwor, picked up a widespread desire in 1967 to punish witches, 1985: 'A Modern Witch-Hunt among the Lango of Uganda' Cambridge Anthropology 10/1:32-44 Available at Accessed 28.2.10. I will invite Ray to join the discussion, but there are a few points which can be made now in comparison.

    These two phases of witch-finding focussed on witches and wizards (ajwok/lajok) rather than witch-doctors, although the cojnlonial witchcraft Ordinance was focussed against witch accusations, especially by witch-doctors. The led to a local frustration with colonial law for preventing the pre-colonial extreme, but rare, punishment of witches. The 1966-7 episode does appear to have more in common with the reported phenomenon of 2010, which make the title 'Modern' pertinent, in that there were fears of rich men being able to purchase the most effective 'medicines' from beyond Lango (pp36,42). this gives further evidence that were witch-finding to be given some enorsement would result in brutality being meted out on a non-forensic basis.

    Returning to Paulino, it is no surprise that his testimony appears more suspect on scrutiny. The history of witch-finding suggests some explanations. In his aiming at witch-doctors (if Whewell's report is accurate), he avoids the old proscription against witch-accusations, but he does pick up on local people's fear of witchcraft, while addressing those suspected of being the cause of children going missing. Also he could have bounced the second witch-doctor into confession on the grounds, given the 1966-7 precedent, that it would avoid physical cruelty. On the other hand, we still need to hear from the BBC, whether they promised or paid any money (and how much) to the Lango appearing in their shots or to the NGO which was their entree. Did it pay the actors involved?

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