Saturday, April 23, 2011

Demons, ghosts and evil spirits

‘Can we close a school if it’s being attacked by evil spirits?’

I thought I’d come across most of the questions people like me tend to be asked when carrying out professional training.  I hadn’t come across this one before, though.  With the help of my Ugandan colleague we had already established that you could – and should – close a school if the wind was threatening to blow it down, if the rebels were on their way or if cattle rustlers were in the vicinity. Apparently the latter are more dangerous on the way back from a raid than on the way there, for you would then be witness to the crime.  I didn’t quite know how to answer the evil spirit question, however, particularly as it was asked in all seriousness and the other 40 people in the room were all nodding solemnly.  Fortunately my colleague took over at that point and, very sensibly, talked about getting medical advice.

‘Do you have evil spirits in Scotland?’ was the next question. 

Non-plussed again, I ventured, ‘People in Scotland don’t believe in evil spirits.’ 

It was not a particularly strong answer but it was all I could think of at the time.  It would have been better to explain that schools in the UK also have instances of mass hysteria, though they tend to involve fainting fits and breathlessness rather than gabbling in strange tongues, barking like dogs, undressing and breaking the furniture.  In Britain we tend to look for rational explanations for strange phenomena and, as my colleague had already suggested to these Ugandan officials, call in the psychologists and medical people. 

According to the newspapers, evil spirits have been pretty busy in Uganda over the last few months, particularly, though not exclusively, in schools.  A health centre in Nakasongola, for example, recently had to close as the medical staff and the community had abandoned it following attacks by spirits.  As a result of such demonic action, religious figures, both ostensibly ‘Christian’ and traditional, have also been pretty busy.

Last month, local district leaders brought in ‘pastors’ to cast out demons from children in a privately-owned school in Luweero and destroy the evil powers ‘suspected to have been planted in a yet unknown area within the school compound’.  The headteacher believed that the demonic powers were associated with another nearby – and rival – private primary school.  Her pupils started beating up other pupils, throwing stones and wrestling with the pastor and ‘praying team’.  The local police have apparently not been able to find out who is behind the witchcraft. 

As in the case above, it seems more than coincidental that demonic attacks often occur in schools where there is existing conflict within the local community.  It is not uncommon, for example, for evil spirits to ‘attack’ pupils when there are property disputes involving school land.  Quite conveniently, they may attack when the school community is in the process of being evicted by an unscrupulous developer. 

Experts like Marjolein van Duijl, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Mbarara University, also relate such attacks to the levels of stress within a population, particularly in a country like Uganda where many people suffer from undiagnosed clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Indeed, as James Onen in a recent article in the Sunday Monitor explains, many primary school boarding hostels provide fertile conditions for such mass hysteria to develop. In such hostels, children with depressive conditions, many of whom may have experienced life-threatening illnesses, death or violence within their family circle, are confined together and subjected to considerable levels of psychological stress, particularly within the examination-obsessed Ugandan educational system.  As soon as one pupil presents as ‘possessed’ by evil spirits, anxiety causes the rest to start exhibiting the same symptoms, giving rise to outbreaks of mass hysteria.

In October last year, a number of pupils in a private primary school in Nakasongola district were apparently injured after being physically attacked by evil spirits.  The headteacher and board of governors decided to close the school.  'Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirits for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents,' said the headteacher. 

Only last week, a government-aided primary school in Kampala, founded by the Church of Uganda, was also reported as suffering from demonic attacks which, according to New Vision, led to about a hundred pupils trying to kill a teacher alleged to have had some sort of relationship with the headteacher.  Significantly, the incidents took place during examination time and the customary Lenten fast which left the pupils without any midday meal. The demonic events had begun about a year or so ago when one pupil had run berserk claiming that the teacher had hidden charms in the school compound.  Others followed suit and local people entered the school causing even more chaos. Demons (mayembe) had apparently taken up residence in a mango tree.  

The Independent reports that last week children were screaming at teachers, throwing stones and generally running wild.  Some parents have apparently been tying their children up with ropes to control them.  Headless snakes have been seen.  The headmaster has already ritually slaughtered a cow, sprinkled its blood all over the classrooms and compound, and offered libations to appease the spirits.

New Vision reports, ‘The school authorities who are professed Christians by day, and apparent believers in witchcraft by night, have publicly responded with prayer.’  A Christian Pentecostal pastor has carried out some sort of exorcism.   Unfortunately, the ghosts have apparently continued to attack the school. 

And this is where it gets really serious.  A parent has said that the demons, speaking through the children, are demanding “cows with two legs” a common euphemism for human sacrifice. She says they want two girls and two boys to be sacrificed. 

Child sacrifice is an ongoing news topic in Uganda, we have discovered.  In fact last November, the Daily Monitor reported that ‘ritual murders have been on the increase in Uganda, in which children are the major target.’  The incidents which the article quoted included one where a mother in Kasese, short of money after her husband had abandoned her, tried to sell her 11-month daughter to a traditional healer (or witchdoctor, depending on your point of view) for Shs60 million.  The healer rejected the deal and reported it to the police as he had already been accused of suspected child sacrifice and wanted to save his name. 

Most weeks, newspapers contain reports of children’s bodies being found, with private and other parts removed.  Readers may recall a similar incident in Britain a few years ago - the ‘Adam’ case - in which the mutilated body of an African child was found in the Thames.  The Central Police station in Kampala has a specialised unit which deals in child sacrifice, as we found out when we were asked to wait there on a visit to the police station for a completely different purpose.    Last month a witchdoctor received a sentence of 50 years for cutting off the genitals of a seven-year old child in Masindi-Kiryandongo.  Last week a 26 year old received a 70 year sentence for sacrificing a five year old boy.  The perpetrators prefer those with ‘perfect’ bodies, so many Ugandans (including people we know) pierce their daughters’ ears or circumcise their sons, making them ‘impure’, in order to protect them. 

The increase in child sacrifice is regarded as so serious that a number of well-known politicians and musicians have thrown their weight behind a campaign called Mutima Gwa Ggwanga or National Spirit.  In 2008, 318 children were reported as having disappeared and of these 304 ended up being sacrificed.  In 2009, there were 80 cases in Kampala alone.  Who knows how many cases are never reported?  Members of the campaign have asserted the need to tighten up on judicial procedures which have let many of the suspects go scot-free.  The perpetrators are not necessarily from rural areas or among the less educated.  Mukono, only a few miles down the road, is considered to be a centre for the practice.  The guilty parties are often very influential. In fact, some well-known and well-connected people have been accused of involvement in child sacrifice, including a famous financial tycoon who ended up being acquitted.  The victims can come from any stratum in society though they are often from poor households.  A common accusation is that housemaids, essential to the running of a middle-class household, steal the children of their employers and sell them for child sacrifice – the African equivalent of being stolen by the gypsies.

Such demonic activities may seem to be completely out of keeping with the culture of a country which prides itself on having been Christian for more than 150 years.  The figures are roughly 85% Christian, 10% Muslim and just 5% animist.  Uganda is nothing if not a god-fearing country.  God shouts at you from the backs of buses, from billboards and from crazy-looking people standing in the middle of the street brandishing Bibles.  It’s enough to put you off Christianity for life.  Ugandan churchgoers know their Bibles off by heart, backwards and upside down, and can quote a scripture reference at you at the drop of a hat.  Indeed matatus are frequently emblazoned with mysterious Biblical references which remind me of crossword clues.  One is, presumably, supposed to whip one’s Bible out of one’s handbag, look up the relevant decontextualized verse and immediately see the error of one’s ways.  A literal reading of the Bible combined with a traditional belief in ancestor-worship and continuing contact with the domain of the spirits results in a view of the world as ‘a cosmic battle between good and evil,’ as James Onen put it.

Interestingly, in Uganda a belief in traditional healing is not necessarily seen as incompatible with an avowed belief in Christianity.  Missionaries may have been remarkably successful in converting the Baganda and their spiritual leader the Kabaka during the nineteenth century.  However, what they also (and probably inadvertently) succeeded in doing is combine elements of traditional religion (animism) and Christianity so that sometimes it is difficult to tell one from the other.  Both religions do, after all, refer to ‘sacrifice’ and a fundamentalist or naïve reading of the Bible can elicit many examples of possession by demons.  Born-again and Pentecostalist Christians, a very powerful section of society and including some very well-known people, may hold services which are not significantly different from an animist ceremony.  Such services may involve incantations, exorcisms and apparently miraculous healing.  

Barnabas Kazibwe, a spiritual healer in Masaka, has recently been banned from his local church for performing miracles which, much to the annoyance of his local bishop, have been attracting thousands of fellow Catholics, Anglicans and even Muslims.  Pastor Yiga Abizayo, another such healer, conducts miracle crusades in which he casts out demons. His newspaper advertisements show before and after pictures of exorcisms carried out on five year old children who probably have autism spectrum disorders, delayed speech or physical disabilities.  Ascribing such conditions to demons is common in a country where childbirth is still a dangerous experience and complex learning difficulties a mystery.  Uganda has three television channels devoted to such ‘shows’.  The programme we watched one Sunday morning would have led to arrests for child abuse in Britain. 

In the religion of the Old Testament Hebrews and ancient Egyptians, God or gods were ascribed powers that were often an attempt to explain the apparently inexplicable or to control the uncontrollable.  For example, God sent the pestilence, the drought and the plague of locusts.  Osiris was reborn with the spring and the fertile flooding of the Nile.  In Africa, if you don’t know what ‘causes’ autism or mental illness on the one hand, or conspicuous financial and social success on the other hand, you may ascribe them to witchcraft.  A family of five were recently burnt to death because the father had worked hard, done well and bought his own house, some land and a motorcycle. He could only have succeeded, his neighbours said, because of witchcraft.  Sometimes the rationale is more mundane.  Wives in polygamous marriages are often accused of cursing a co-wife.  Curses also feature quite a lot in property disputes.

More ‘benign’ versions of ‘juju’ are often described in the weekend newspaper supplements, where women describe the steps they take to catch their man.  Traditional healers, found all over Uganda, including Kampala, provide love potions and recommend rituals to control an errant husband.  Diviners and witchdoctors of both sexes minister at shrines attended by women who come to smoke pipes and utter supplications to ancestral spirits.  Such healers may claim to cure childlessness and even HIV/AIDS, a rather less benign use of their powers.  One such healer, holding her rosary, was quoted in the Sunday Monitor as saying, ‘By the way, I am a deep-rooted Catholic as well.’  She believes God sorts out her clients’ problems through her.

However, time moves on; we have science, we have advances in medicine and we have a national education system.  As Onen concludes, 'It's high time we started trying to solve our problems rationally.  We should get psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors to deal with this problem [demonic attacks on schools] - not pastors, priests and witchdoctors.'  

It is the responsibility of schools and education professionals, particularly teachers and headteachers, to help young people to understand the world in which they live; not to reinforce the prejudices, the literal and simplistic explanations and the magical interpretations of the universe which they bring to school from their charismatic Christian backgrounds or their traditional religion.  A greater emphasis on science instead of the supernatural, medicine instead of juju would be more in keeping with the modern forward-looking society which Uganda aspires to be.

NB.  Having read this article, you may be interested in BBC news in pictures: child sacrifice in Uganda  

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