The myth of crazy-eyed African witch-hunters

The horrific murder of Kristy Bamu by unstable individuals has been used to paint all African Pentecostals in Britain as potential nutters.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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It is a murder that stands out for being so singularly horrific.

In December 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu, alongside his two brothers and two sisters, left his native Paris to spend Christmas in London with his big sister, 29-year-old Magalie Bamu, and her 28-year-old boyfriend, Eric Bikubi. During Kristy’s first night in Bikubi’s east London flat, he awoke and, disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings, wet himself. Unfortunately Bikubi, a man obsessed with Kindoki, the Congolese for ‘witchcraft’, did not view this as an accident. It was a sign that Kristy was possessed by evil spirits.

Over the following four days, Bikubi, aided and abetted by Magalie, tortured Kristy to death. His mouth was smashed in with a hammer, his ears ripped apart with pliers, and his head repeatedly beaten with bottles. Then, with Kristy, starved of food and water and in immense pain, reportedly begging to die, they drowned him in the bath. Last week, the pair were found guilty of murder, and at the Old Bailey yesterday, they were given life sentences.

As heart-rending as Kristy’s death is, and as horrific as Bikubi and Magalie’s actions were, it is a unique case. Bikubi, by all accounts, was a damaged individual. Exceptionally so. Indeed, literally so. MRI scans carried out while he was imprisoned at Pentonville revealed significant brain damage, most probably caused by a childhood fall. And he himself admitted to suffering from ‘abnormal visions’, such as seeing swarms of rats. All of which merely confirmed in his mind that he was, according to Bikubi himself, ‘the chosen one’. In fact, while growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (he moved to east London when he was seven), his behaviour was so disturbing that, as he ambiguously put it, he was kept in ‘isolation’. Magalie, meanwhile, appears to have been little more than a willing accomplice to Bikubi’s twisted will.

Yet what happened to Kristy just over two years ago is not being treated as an exceptional crime committed by a deluded, dangerous individual and his weak but willing girlfriend. It is being treated, much as so-called honour killings are, as a culturally determined crime committed by culturally conditioned individuals. In this case, it is being presented as a manifestation of the darkside of Pentecostal Christianity, an iceberg tip of the witchcraft-obsessed barbarity that lurks just out of sight, but resolutely in our midst. From the police to charities, this jump from a particular murder, with specific morally culpable protagonists, to a general societal trend, with many unthinking agents, has been eagerly made. Little wonder that even the sentencing judge seemed determined to place Kristy’s killing within the context of a broader obsession with witchcraft. So, when Magalie stated, ‘I don’t have any views [on witchcraft] because I don’t believe in it’, Judge Paget refused to believe her, despite there being no reason at that stage for her to lie. ‘[Kristy’s murder] is only explicable if you shared Eric Bikubi’s belief in witchcraft’, he insisted, before feeling the need to remind the public that ‘an explanation’ ‘does not excuse [Kristy’s murder]’.

The police, however, went further than the witchcraft-hunting judge. After the verdict was announced, detective superintendent Terry Sharpe claimed that what happened to Kristy was indeed a large-scale sociocultural problem. ‘Children are being abused and murdered in increasing numbers in Britain because their African relatives think they are “spirit children”‘, he claimed. And the reason for this belief? The rise and rise, apparently, of Pentecostal Christianity. This denomination, we are told, not only encourages speaking in tongues, and a belief in the immediate presence of God, but a belief in demonic possession and exorcisms, too – which, to be fair, is hardly anathema to other well-known strains of Christianity. Untroubled by such considerations, the witchcraft-finding generals are now convinced it is the rise of this belief system, particularly among African immigrants, that has led to an assumed increase in child-abusing, infanticidal believers.

UK Charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, a group keen to promote the idea that a belief in witchcraft is prevalent, was clearly wary of suggesting that all Pentecostal Christians were child-murderers in the making. ‘This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches’, said an AFUACA spokesperson in the wake of Kristy’s murder. ‘But the branding of children as witches is not abating’, she cautioned, ‘it is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.’ Joining in the insinuating chorus, Thomas Bikebi, executive director of Congolese Family Centre, reinforced the impression that damning children as possessed is a widespread cultural problem. ‘There are people within the community who will say that this pair did the right thing, they killed a witch’, he said. Little wonder that one broadsheet reported witchcraft-induced abuse as a ‘hidden crime’, or as the Daily Mail put it, ‘Officials suspect grotesque acts continue to thrive behind closed doors, fuelled by a toxic combination of extreme evangelical Christianity and traditional beliefs’.

‘Hidden crime’, ‘behind closed doors’… these are telling phrases. They reveal the curious logic at work in the witchdoctoring frenzy. For it is not based on evidence of wrongdoing, or knowledge of the prevalence of witchcraft practices in certain British communities. It is based, rather, on an absence of evidence, a lack of knowledge. This void, this space of official ignorance, existing ‘behind closed doors’, has been transformed into an opportunity for official speculation, a precondition for fantasising about just how prevalent the kind of abuse meted out to Kristy Bamu really is. Not knowing has been turned into proof positive that there is something unpleasant to know.

It seems incredible, given the past few days of state-stoked hysteria and charity cheerleading, but the groundless speculation as to the prevalence of witchdoctoring remains just that: groundless speculation. Just pause for a moment to consider the facts. In the most recent English Church census of 2005, it was estimated that there were nearly one million practising Pentecostal Christians in the UK. Since 2005, the number of Pentecostal Churches has risen by around 15 per cent to nearly 4,000. So, given that there is now likely to be well over a million Pentecostal Christians practising this religion, complete with its promulgation of demonic possession and exorcism, you might expect there to be a fair few cases of the type of abuse visited upon Kristy.

But that is the thing. Since 2001, there have officially been 83 incidents involving (non-specified) so-called ritual or faith-based abuse of children. Furthermore, there have been just 17 actual prosecutions. It may be a humanly significant figure, but statistically it is of no import. Of course, the reason for such low actual figures could be that it really is a crime ‘hidden behind closed doors’. Or just perhaps, it might be because most Pentecostal Christians are not actually disturbed homicidal maniacs.

Like the brutal killing of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié by her guardians in 2000, the murder of Kristy Bamu shocks because it is the exception, not the norm. It defies our imagination rather than prompts it. Yet, like so-called ‘honour killings’ and British Pakistanis, because this brutal act has been committed by immigrants it is not simply grasped for what it is: a brutal, repugnant act. It is grasped, rather, as a cultural crime, an act sustained by the beliefs and practices of a particular ethnic grouping. Not only does this type of thinking efface the singular responsibility, indeed the criminal responsibility of the perpetrator, it also damns a whole swath of British society. Because, believe it or not, not every Pentecostal Christian routinely abuses ‘possessed’ children.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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