The horror! The horror!It isn’t often that I comment on a contemporary news item, but I’ve just read this report on the BBC News website. I was so horrified that my immediate reaction was to post the link on a blog discussion forum in order to elicit comments from fellow bloggers. Among the comments posted was a link to an article describing a similar and equally appalling situation in the same part of the world.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
I should warn you that you will need an exceptionally strong stomach to read either of these reports, which describe child sacrifice and the trade in albino body parts, respectively, in East Africa. Both practices are linked to a widely held belief in the efficacy of magic spells in bringing good luck, good health and, especially, increased wealth, even when they involve the cold-blooded and brutal murder of children and albinos.
I’ve always advocated respect for indigenous cultures and beliefs, even when to a Westerner these cultures and beliefs are no more than ignorant superstition, but there is a clear and sharply defined dividing line between harmless superstition and the kind of practices illustrated by these stories. Unfortunately, the revulsion that all people with a claim to being civilized are likely to feel when reading these reports is likely to be overlain by a feeling of helplessness.
According to the BBC report, a witch doctor in Uganda who has been identified by both a child survivor and a BBC sting operation as a leading player in the ritual murder of children remains free to commit further atrocities, on the pathetically weak grounds that the child’s testimony is ‘unreliable’. Given that the majority of the customers for the services of this disgusting specimen of humanity are alleged to be members of the country’s elite, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that police corruption and/or collusion is a significant factor in the rise in demand for such services in recent years.
Although post-colonial development in sub-Saharan Africa has been patchy—one has only to think of such home-grown grotesques as Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—and the legacy of colonialism still casts a shadow over the continent, this is one area where progress towards a more enlightened and humane world view ought to have been a priority.
It is difficult to imagine that the men now in charge in Uganda and other former colonies might be prepared to acknowledge that they have anything to learn from their former colonial masters, but the example set by the British in other parts of the old empire is instructive. In tackling superstition, the suppression of thuggee in India in the 1830s provides some useful pointers, while the paradigm for the eradication of corruption is the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Unfortunately, whether adopting these or other possible measures stands any chance of success must be remote, given that ignorance and greed form such a potent cocktail.