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Monday, 2 January 2012

Child Sacrifice in Uganda and the Response of the Church

Child Sacrifice and the Response of the Church in Uganda

30 December 2011

The issue of child sacrifice in Uganda has been highlighted in the media over the past three years with ABC and BBC producing compelling reports and documentaries (ABC 2009; BBC 2010). Also journalists for various media houses wrote about the issue.[1]  The media attention coincided with media campaigns by Ugandan NGOs such as RACHO[2] and FAPAD[3] (Whewell 2010), ANPPCAN-Uganda[4] as well as faith based organisations such as Kyampisi Childcare Ministries (KCM). An undercover BBC investigation made with the help of KCM shows witch doctors explaining how they can sacrifice a child and that they have done it many times before (BBC 2010).  The media attention has put the government of Uganda under pressure to be seen doing something about the issue of child sacrifice and has resulted in the formation of an official government taskforce to deal with this evil in Ugandan society. Unfortunately, the taskforce consists of only one officer with a motorcycle and works without a proper budget (Vernaschi 2010).  Consequently, many Ugandans[5] believe that the gesture of the Ugandan government is more a matter of window dressing to avert local and international criticism than a genuine attempt to root out this evil.

Origins of Child Sacrifice
The killing of human beings for magical purposes is a common phenomenon in Sub-Sahara Africa (Akosah-Sarpong 2007; Kante 2004; Igwe 2010) as it is believed that human body parts have magical proportions, particularly the ‘life-giving’ genitals, the ‘life-sustaining’ blood, but also the heart and other body parts[6].  Amulets, charms or traditional medicine made with such body parts are believed to make the wearer victorious in battle, provide protection against evil spirits or bad magic and/or provide health, fertility, long-life and prosperity (Jonker 2006). These beliefs are not uniform and among different tribes one may find different preferences such as the preference for albino body parts in Tanzania (ABC 2009; Allen 2008) and its neighbouring countries (BBC 2008), Pygmee body parts in Gabon (USDS 2010) and DR-Congo (BBC 2004)  and so on.  From the various investigations and reports as well as recent research by the author of this report, ritual killing and mutilation has reached epidemic proportions in Uganda. It is a worrisome scenario which, given the right circumstances, may be repeated in other parts of Africa as well.
While the media has been using the term child sacrifice, a better term would have been child ritual mutilations and child ritual killings. The term sacrifice suggests that a sacrifice is made to a spirit or deity which in most instances is not the case.  People are ritually killed because of the belief that their body parts can provide protection, success, power, health and wealth. In other cases victims survive ritual mutilation as for example in the case of the boy Alan who is being taken care of by KCM.[7] One could, however, argue that people are sacrificed to satisfy human greed and selfishness. It is also important to note that we are also dealing with human sacrifice in general as in many cases sacrificing a child rather than an adult is simply a matter of convenience as an adult can put up a good fight while a small child is easy to overpower.

The Ugandan Context
Until a few years ago ritual killings happened occasionally in Uganda just as it does in many African countries and consequently the issue did not get much publicity.  In recent years the gruesome discoveries of scores of mutilated bodies of children have been discovered at roadsides, the victims of a growing belief in the power of human sacrifice. In a few years time child sacrifice became rampant (Rogers 2011; Vernaschi 2010; 2010a).  Communities that surround Uganda's capital, Kampala, have been badly affected and are gripped by fear.   On the roadside are posters warning children of the danger of abduction by witch doctors for the purpose of child sacrifice.

A study of the Ugandan context shows great disparity between the rich elite and the average Ugandan who struggles to make ends meet. It is almost impossible for someone born in a poor family to climb up on the social ladder.  The gap between the rich and the poor combined with discontent with the political status quo, endemic corruption and general feeling that the country has lost direction breeds a lot of discontent and frustration. It is in such an environment that any religion promising health, wealth and success thrives.  Evidence of this abounds with the one charismatic church promising even more blessing than the other and all kinds of miracles, anointing and other spiritual quick fixes to the shared problems of poverty, ill health and lack of success in life. If the miracles fail the pastor, prophet or apostle is quick to point out that the power of the devil, demons and evil spirits are preventing the miracles from happening through curses, bewitchment and other such spiritual evils. 

The witchdoctors operate in a similar religious environment and are quick to attribute misfortune, poverty and illness to the work of malicious spirits who need to be appeased in order for someone to obtain health, wealth, success and prosperity.  Just as some of their unscrupulous ‘Pentecostal’ counterparts[8], the witch doctors thrive when desperate people turn to them for a miraculous way to bridge the gap from have-not to have, from failure to success and from poverty to wealth.  However, the means of the witchdoctors who ironically are also called witches[9] are way more violent and damaging than the methods employed by the prosperity preachers.  

In a context where a small elite has become rich in a relatively short time during Uganda’s economic boom or enriched themselves using political patronage the witchdoctors of Uganda claim that they have aided many of the nouveau riche to gain their wealth. Such claims are likely not true at all but once such rumours are circulating they advertise the witch doctors’ skill. Some witch doctors even advertise openly in the media. Some of the poor driven by desire for wealth, health and success and looking for a quick way to achieve this may use their last resources to consult the witchdoctor.  According to the head of the country's Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the child sacrifice is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly (Whewell 2010).

The witchdoctor will consult the spirits for anyone who approached him and is willing to pay the fee. The spirits via him will communicate what kind of sacrifice of appeasement they want.  Often these sacrifices comprise of chickens and goats but when such sacrifices fail to make the client prosper instantly ‘the spirits’ demand human sacrifices. The witchdoctor himself may believe that this is indeed a powerful magical ritual but in some cases the aim is to give the client an impossible task so that the witchdoctor does not appear to have failed. In other cases the witchdoctor actually gains a lot of wealth by facilitating and carrying out human sacrifices as the fee charged is normally very high.  Young children are often the victim because they are relatively easy to abduct.  The desire for instant wealth on the part of the client and greed on the part of the witchdoctor has created a ready market for children to be bought and sold at a price. They have indeed become a commodity of exchange, child sacrifice has become a commercial business (Rogers 2011).

Fact finding trip
The author of this report was requested by Across Outreach to go on a fact finding mission to Uganda.  This fact-finding mission was a response to reports from Pastor John Richard Mubiru of one of the local Pentecostal churches Amen and Amen ministries that the problem of child sacrifice is a very serious issue in Uganda which is insufficiently addressed. The mission took place from 11 December to 20 December and included a consultation on the topic of child sacrifice organised for heads of Christian denominations and other church leaders.  Prior to the trip I extensively reviewed all I managed to find  related to child sacrifice on the internet and as a result came in contact with Peter Sewakiryanga of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries. They have been campaigning against child sacrifice in Uganda for several years and are taking care of some child survivors of ritual mutilation. I have also contacted organisations who had been involved in addressing the evil of child sacrifice in the past such as RACHO and ANPPCAN Uganda.

Besides meeting representatives of KCM,  I also met with Anselm Wandega, the programme manager for ANPPCAN Uganda but I was unable to meet with representatives of RACHO due to a communication breakdown. Whereas KCM was still very active in addressing the issue of child sacrifice, ANPPCAN who were very active in 2009/2010 were now mainly focused on other child rights issues. However, Anselm Wandega expressed a desire to rekindle the campaign against child sacrifice in collaboration with the local churches.

In the course of 10 days I met with various church leaders, former witchdoctors, academics, students and people from different walks of life and obtained a lot of information using semi-structured interviews with 30 people and informal unstructured interviews with another 22 persons.

Although all interviews took place in Kampala, the respondents came from various regions in Uganda.  All respondents agreed that child sacrifice and child ritual killing was still a serious problem in their region and district in Uganda but that it appears to be the worst in and around Kampala. All respondent bemoaned the fact that there is little political will to root out the problem and deal with witchdoctors and their clients in a manner that would frighten off would be offenders.  All respondents were convinced that police, the judiciary as well as other officials were easily bribed by witchdoctors and their clients to drop prosecution against those who committed ritual killings or mutilations. The majority of the respondent felt the church did not do enough to address the evil of child sacrifice and only a few were able to name an NGO or activist who was active in addressing this matter.  I also met with some surviving victims of ritual mutilation, an experience that brought home the severity of the issue.

Consultation with church leaders
As about 80% of the Ugandans are affiliated with a Christian church it is important that the church is mobilised to address the issue of child sacrifice.  With this in mind I organised a consultation with the help of my host, pastor John Richard Mubiru, and met with 15 church leaders at Namirembe Guesthouse in Kampala to discuss the problem of child sacrifice.  Pastor Peter Sewakiryanga and Karen Lewis of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries showed part of the investigative documentary they made about child sacrifice together with the BBC. This compelling documentary, partly made undercover, is a very good introduction to the issue and led to a lot of discussion.  The final outcome of the consultation was that an interdenominational ecumenical church taskforce should be formed to guide the church in addressing this evil in Uganda and to pressurise the government to take more action. The taskforce will be formed by Peter Sewakiryanga with the help of pastor John Richard Mubiru. In order to further equip pastor John Richard Mubiru I enrolled him at Makerere University for a short course in administration and management in order to build his capacity.

How to help
What can foreign organisations and donors do to support true transformation in Uganda and to eradicate evils such as child sacrifice, domestic violence and other forms of abuse?

*     Promote international awareness as done by the Jubilee campaign (UK) and Kyampisi.
*     Network with other international and local NGOs to address this evil practice in Uganda
*     Lobby your government and multi-lateral organisations to exert pressure on the Ugandan 
       government  to act firmly against child sacrifice and violence against women and children in general.
*    Support local activists and organisations who are already actively fighting the evil of child sacrifice in Uganda so that they can be more effective:

-    Provide structural financial support to organizations involved in the campaign against child sacrifice such as KCM and Across Outreach.[10]
-   Capacity building of activists by facilitating further training, both formal and informal training. For example by helping them to attend international conferences and seminars on relevant topics.
-   Make the stories of victims and activists known and help to advertise their work through social marketing
-   Provide technical support, assistance and advice by means of long-term volunteers or resident expatriate specialists (anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, human rights specialists, medical personnel etc).
-  Monitor and evaluate activities of local partners on a regular basis in order to promote accountability and transparency.
-    Plan, organise and facilitate ongoing research in accordance with accepted international standards in order to inform, modify and develop policy on the ground in order to improve the efficiency of the various interventions.
-     Encourage international students, researchers and academics to do their research in areas relevant to addressing child sacrifice in Uganda and help them where possible.
-   Encourage reporters and other media personnel to investigate the issues in Uganda as part of documentation as well as international awareness creation.
-   Facilitate for national, regional and international consultations on the issue of child sacrifice to promote better networking, cross-pollination of ideas and form strategic alliances.
-   Facilitate for activists and experts to be given various international platforms to speak out on the issue of child sacrifice. These may include both academic and popular platforms in Universities, colleges, churches, human rights clubs etc.

The issue of child sacrifice in Uganda is still a very serious problem which can easily spill over to other African countries. The issue should be high on the agenda of human rights organisations, churches and non-governmental organisations as well as the various government bodies in Uganda and the region. There is little use in blaming and accusing the Ugandan government of doing too little as some have done in the media for this may create resentment and an unwillingness to work with other stakeholders.  Positive engagement with the government combined with non-aggressive pressure in the form of creating a national awareness of the problem through the media and in the pulpits as well as extensive lobbying is likely to produce more results. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors should also be engaged so that they make funds available to local and national government agencies including the judiciary to address this scourge. Documentation, information sharing and ongoing media attention is essential to keep up the momentum. Finally the issue of child sacrifice and other forms of ritual mutilation and violence against women and children should be addressed from multiple angles: legally, politically, sociologically, psychologically, theologically and even through the music and the arts until the practice becomes totally discredited, abhorrent and impossible to continue in the Ugandan context.

Dr. Erwin van der Meer

Across Outreach Africa
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Sources cited:

ABC 2009.  Men severed albino boy's legs in ritual killing. ABC News (23 September):


Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi 2007. Mozambique tackles Witchcraft and Human Sacrifice. Modern
hana (5 August): Http://    


Allen, Karen 2008. Living in fear: Tanzania’s albinos, in BBC News (21 July): 


BBC 2004.  DR Congo pygmies 'exterminated', in BBC News (9 July):

BBC 2008. Albino girl killed for body parts, in BBC News (17 November):

BBC 2010. Human sacrifices 'on the rise in Uganda' as witch doctors admit to rituals, BBC
Investigation quoted in the Telegraph (7 January): Http://

Igwe, Leo 2010. Ritual Killing and Human Sacrifice in Africa, a statement made at the
            African Commission on Human and People’s Rights , 48th Session (November 10-24)
            in Banjul, Gambia. Http://

Jonker, Kobus 2006. South African police accused of ignoring ritual murders, quoted by
            Stephen Bevan in the Telegraph (Mar. 26).

Kante, Sadio 2004. Mali's human sacrifice - myth or reality? BBC News Africa (20
            September): Http://
Mulondo, Moses 2011. Christianity, ancestral worship cannot mix, in Sunday Vision
            newspaper – Uganda (18 December): 30.

Rogers, Chris 2011. Where child sacrifice is a business, BBC News Africa (11 October):

USDS 2011.  United States Department of State,  2010 Country Reports on Human Rights

Vernaschi, Marco 2010. Child Sacrifice in Uganda. Pulitzer center (April 16):

Vernaschi, Marco 2010a. Uganda: A lawyer's brief, a mother's grief. Pulitzer center (April

Whewell, Tim 2010.  A BBC investigation into human sacrifice in Uganda , in BBC News:
Newsnight: (7 January):

[1] See for example Vernaschi (2010).
[2] Restoring African Cultural Harmony Organisation, a small Ugandan NGO (Vernaschi 2010).
[3] Facilitation for Peace and Development
[4]African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, see
[5] This view was often expressed by Ugandans in interviews and discussions with the author of this report.
[6] See for example the reports on ritual killings in West Africa: Http://
[7] The author of this report has had the privilege of meeting the boy on several occasions at Kyampisi Childcare Ministries.
[8] Just like one may find unscrupulous clergy in for example the Roman Catholic church who abuse the system for personal benefit to the detriment of others so one can find them among African Pentecostal churches.  This is not to say that all African Pentecostals are like this but as they generally have received little or no theological training they are easily swayed by such inherently non-Christian ideas.
[9] The sharp distinction found in many African cultures between the witch-doctor, as the one who sniffs out offending witches, and those who are considered to be witches, in the sense of those who are believed to cause mayhem in the community by evil magical means, appears non-existent in Uganda. The role of witch in the sense of bewitching someone by magical means and the role of witch-doctor in the sense of providing protection against bewitchment are usually fulfilled by one and the same person.  This ambiguity is often hinted at in other African cultures but is very obvious in Uganda.
[10] For local organizations and activists to do their work well a consistent small donation on a regular has more impact than an occasional large donation as it enables the organization to budget and plan rather than operate on an ad-hoc basis.

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