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Story Publication logo April 16, 2010

Uganda: Child Sacrifice Not a Cultural Issue


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Searing images capture a disturbing Ugandan trend -- the recent rise of charlatan priests and the...

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Multiple Authors
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Marco Vernaschi, for the Pulitzer Center
Kampala, Uganda

Please be advised the following project contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all audiences.

I meet Paul Odida in the busy and crowded center of Kampala, before heading to Mukisa's family, in the outskirts of the capital. Paul is the Ugandan founder of RACHO (for "Restoring African Cultural Harmony Organisation"), a small NGO whose goal is trying to stop child sacrifice - an increasing phenomenon that claimed at least fifteen documented victims in the first three months of 2010.

Mukisa is a 3-year-old boy, whose genitals were cut off during a ritual sacrifice, after he was abducted by a neighbor. He was found by his mother, in the bush by their house, fainted in a pool of blood. Now he's back home from the hospital, after a precarious surgery saved his life; he barely walks, with a catheter hanging from his body as he tries to heal from a bad infection that he recently suffered.

Mukisa's father looks at his child with deep, endless sadness; when he wonders what life will be for his only son, he sees no friends, no hope, no future. Mukisa's mother left him after the incident and now he's alone, facing something he doesn't know how to handle.

When I ask him what happened to the man who mutilated his son in such a horrific way, his voice gets weak: "When Mukisa was found in the bush, the police came; they found the genitals in the courtyard of my neighbor, a traditional healer, but someone from his family sold his land and went to the police with the money. Then he was released." Gruesome stories like this one are frequent. Child sacrifice in Uganda is a rampant phenomenon that emerged about five years ago, and has slowly embedded itself within traditional customs, although it is not genuinely related to the local culture. The claim that it falls within Ugandan "cultural beliefs" is just an excuse used by so-called traditional healers to justify their crimes, and by the Ugandan government to avoid taking action. The government tries to minimize the magnitude of the problem, as politicians are afraid of losing votes in a country where witchdoctors yield such influence as to define election results.

One year ago, however, the Police inaugurated a special task force named "Anti Human Sacrifice Department" after receiving pressure by the families of the victims. Despite receiving $500.000 from the US Government to train the local forces, the problem is growing. Inspector Moses Binoga tries to do his best but his hands are tied. No funds for his staff, no cars, nothing to help him to work properly. But the lack of funds is a lesser problem when compared to the pressures from above and the corruption around him.

In Uganda everything has a price and corruption is a major issue. Mr. Binoga is definitely a committed, honest inspector, but most of his colleagues can be easily bought. This is why most of the cases end up with the murderer released, as happened in the case of Mukisa.

Most victims are children because traditional healers need "pure" human blood and body parts. Behind the torture, mutilation and killing of the victims lies just one single cause: money. This fraudulent business moves through every social class, from the poorest villagers who live out of the capital, to the rich entrepreneurs and generals who determine the wealth and stability of the country.

The first case that was largely covered by the local media involves Godfrey Kato-Kajubi, a local tycoon who is currently on trial for the murder of a 12-year-old boy who was beheaded. Nobody knows if he will be ever convicted, the suspect has strong connections with the high powers.

"Children are usually beheaded when new buildings are under construction" – explains Paul – "as their heads, which are buried beneath the foundations, are believed to bring success to business". People looking for money, better sexual performance or love visit healers that don't hesitate to kidnap children from their families or from the streets to acquire body parts, thus enabling them to charge their clients more. The fraud is sophisticated and is built up step by step; at first the healer will go through a series of rituals, charging the client as much money as he/she can pay. When the client is running out of money, he will then propose the final stage of "the cure", that often culminates with killing or mutilation of a "pure" child and the disbursement of a huge amount of money.

Mike -- a "traditional healer" and master of fraud – leads me to his shrine, a dark place where he calls for the ancestors before performing his rituals. He uses a dried pumpkin with a small mechanic device inside, which shakes after pushing a button: "This is the presence of the ancestors that are guiding me" - he says. Than he breaks two eggs on the head of his client, and inside he finds a small dried lizard. "This is what made the patient sick, you see?" A few blocks away from Mike's shrine there's a market selling a variety of bizarre objects, from dried rats and lizards to eggs containing a stinky, rotten mud to spears and knives. He probably got his "magic" eggs from one of these merchants, who specialize in healers' products.

Clients are easily cheated, blackmailed or threatened and are often turned into killers. It is unlikely for a traditional healer to kill a child with their own hands; they often prefer to assign this task to someone else or in same cases they manage to have their clients commit the murder.

These "witchdoctors" are respected and feared among their community, they are often armed and in some cases escorted by bodyguards. People give them cars, land and even their own kids. These children are then enslaved and sent to the street to beg, with the order to bring back money for their master. Because of the ties to local or national politicians, governors or generals, witchdoctors are virtually untouchable in front of the law. On the other hand, families like Mukisa's are powerless; in most cases they can't afford to hire a lawyer, and this means they have little chance to receive justice.

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