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The conviction in Britain of three Angolans for the abuse of a girl they accused of being a witch has turned the spotlight on customs in Angola.
Angus Stickler of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme went to Angola to investigate the links between witchcraft, poverty and the rapid growth of churches preaching a powerful blend of traditional African beliefs and evangelical Christianity.
I visited the compound-cum-church of Avo Kitoko, a prominent, government-registered traditional healer. He says he has the power to identify and deliver people from bad spirits.
“Well, I can say that inside a patient we may find different types of sickness, sometimes they have bad dreams, sometimes the patient thinks a wizard is putting a curse on them, someone is wishing bad things on them,” he said.
Stepping inside Mr Kitoko’s “clinic” was like entering Bedlam. Many of the so-called patients were chained to the walls and floor.
A boy of 15 had been shackled here since January. There were nursing mothers, women and children. Many, we were told, had mental health problems — “sickness” caused by evil spirits.
In a darkened room, six men were chained to the walls and floor. A fight broke out over food. One man tried to stab another with a shard of glass.
Mr Kitoko was clearly offended when I expressed my concern. “This isn’t a prison! It’s a hospital,” he said indignantly.
What we saw next was even more appalling.
Lying on the floor of the main hall was the limp, bloated body of an eight-year-old boy. Domingo Jose was barely conscious, his face, belly, arms, legs, even his fingers gorged and inflamed. He was barely alive.
Mr Kitoko took a large swig from a glass bottle and spat water into Jose’s face. The child winced, too weak to cry out. Mud was smeared on his belly. The priest grabbed and twisted at Jose’s groin.
It was clear this desperately ill boy belonged in hospital — but Mr Kitoko insisted he would respond to his traditional medicine. He explained his methods.
“First you start with holy water and mud, two things that are well prepared. Because you know that our bodies are all made of earth — and when we die and rot, the bones remain and the hair remains but every part of our bodies goes back to earth,” he said.
There were 65 patients at this clinic, or church. As we left, Mr Kitoko earnestly asked if we might know anybody who would sponsor him to open a clinic in Britain.
We contacted the authorities, desperately concerned about the welfare of the eight-year-old boy in particular.
Dr Manuela Coelho of the National Institute of Children, the Angolan government’s child protection department, assured us they would act swiftly.
“What we know is that sometimes families think that the best way to treat some types of sickness is to go to traditional healers,” she said.
“If we realise that a child is in a bad way we try to help them and we do it immediately.”
The boy is now dead. Despite repeated phone calls to Angolan government officials and the best efforts of the United Nations children’s organisation, Unicef, it took at least four days for anyone to visit him. The authorities say they have launched an investigation into his death.
Even in more mainstream churches, the belief in child possession is evident.
At the Kimbanguista church, women wearing green dresses with white lace collars rehearsed for the Sunday service.
It is one of the larger churches in Angola, but even here they believe in the power of evil spirits — of Kindoki and fetishism.
Jose Gomes, the national secretary, said: “Well we can find children with witchcraft. The parents bring him here and they explain to the pastor, they explain that we have the children but he has problem, sometimes he says he is flying at night, things like that.”
I asked him what happened if a child was suspected of being possessed.
“If these are children who can speak, the pastor will ask him to confess, confess, confess. Pastor can see if the children have witchcraft or not,” he said.
In the last few years there has been an explosion in the number of breakaway churches. The government says there are more than 100 different denominations in Luanda alone.
On the dusty streets of the Palanca Township, we stumbled upon a small Pentecostal church. Entering a small concrete out-house, we found a shocking sight.
Sitting on the floor was a terrified, near naked girl of eight, her head shaven. She cowered as her mother and a pastor shouted at her.
This was an exorcism, the pastor told us. The mother’s marriage had broken down, it was the child’s fault as she was possessed with Kindoki.
Something had been rubbed into the girl’s eyes as part of this ritual. Her ordeal had already lasted three days, and there was another 24 hours to go.
The pastor dismissed the risk the child could die from such treatment. He said: “Why should the child die? If the child dies, it means the child is evil.”
Again we contacted the authorities in the hope that someone would intervene.
Near the airport of this oil-rich nation, half an hour’s drive from the plush city centre hotels, is a stark reminder of life for the majority in this country.
In a makeshift market, rickety stalls were selling everything and anything. Children were sliding down the banks into absolute squalor. Small boys scavenged among rubbish next to an open sewer.
And this is part of the problem — poverty. Angola has been wracked by nearly 30 years of civil war. Many children have been orphaned, cared for by aunts, uncles, the extended family. But they can’t afford to keep them.
It is socially unacceptable to push a child out because of poverty. But if they are possessed, it’s a different matter.
An orphanage in Luanda, run by Argentine Catholic priests, houses more than 100 children, up to 40% of whom were abused, beaten, cast out from their homes as they were believed to be witches.
Father Pablo Jose Galvan explained: “What we find with these kind of children is that the very clever, very expert, somehow special, are accused of witchcraft.
“Usually they are much mistreated. The ones here accused of witchcraft … suffer a lot of violence, they are beaten with machetes.”
The children still bear the scars. They have been crippled, tied up, burnt, left to die — discarded like rubbish.
One boy was kept in a chicken coop, and parasites ate out his eye. Another was found living in a toilet pit. One was accused of being a witch after his parents died of Aids — he is HIV-positive too.
On the word of a pastor or a fetish priest, children are beaten, murdered, parents jailed. Lives and families are shattered.
(Posted on July 14, 2005)