Convinced that the eight-year-old girl in her house was a witch, Sita Kisanga aided and abetted her abuse. Severin Carrell reports
Sita Kisanga was one of three people found guilty of child abuse at the Old Bailey on Friday, in an alarming case that has fuelled fears of an epidemic of cruelty within tiny churches that mix traditional West African spiritual beliefs with evangelical Christianity.
Kisanga, from Hackney, east London, was convicted along with her brother Sebastian Pinto of aiding and abetting the girl’s aunt and guardian, who was found guilty of child cruelty but cleared of attempted murder. All three now face long terms in prison.
In a BBC radio interview yesterday, Kisanga denied the girl’s allegations that she helped in the abuse, but said she was convinced the child was a kendoki – a witch. She admitted that the abuse began after her son woke one night to complain the girl had “hit me with a big stick in the head” in his dreams. The aunt then roused the girl who, Kisanga claims, said: “Yes, I hit him with the stick. I want to sacrifice him for the New Year.” Kisanga added: “That means that she really is kendoki.”
The case exposed a harrowing catalogue of abuse, where the girl, an orphan brought by her aunt to Britain in 2002 as her “daughter”, was beaten with belts and a stiletto shoe, cut with knives, and had chilli pepper rubbed into her eyes. It culminated in a plot – abandoned at the last moment – to drown the girl in a canal after she was zipped up in a laundry bag.
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Crucially, Kisanga claims their pastor, an influential priest who ran the Church of Spiritual Warfare, had confirmed the orphan was kendoki – although he never sanctioned the abuse.
The trio’s conviction has raised uncomfortable questions for the police and child protection experts, ranging from evidence that local officials failed to protect her, through to fears that such abuse could be far more widespread than realised. The “witchcraft” case has raised so far unproven claims that hundreds of West African children may have been ritualistically abused, and even murdered, in London, with others sent back to countries such as Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo for exorcism.
Metropolitan police child abuse intelligence unit officers believe there have been at least 31 similar cases in London since 2000, although only five have led to charges. Detective Superintendent Chris Bourlet, the unit’s deputy head, said: “I suspect there will be a lot more than that. This report identified a gap in our knowledge.”
Hackney council took action when it emerged that the eight-year-old, who cannot be named to protect her identity, had first been found – cold, crying and hungry – in the stairwell of a council block by local wardens in November 2003.
She blamed Kisanga for beating her, and was returned to her aunt. Over following weeks, her aunt, 38, who also cannot be named for legal reasons, resumed the abuse. In January 2004, the girl was referred to hospital by social services, where doctors found scars and marks across her body – including “odd-looking linear marks in groups of twos or threes. There were about 20 in total”.
According to Kisanga, she and her brother tried to stop the aunt’s assaults. But she was adamant that kendoki was real. “In our community kendoki happens, because it is killing people. It is doing bad things. Because in our community it is a serious matter,” she told Radio 4’s Today programme. “Kendoki is something that you have to be scared of because, in our culture, kendoki can kill you and destroy your life completely. Kendoki can make you barren; sometimes kendoki can ruin your chances of staying in this country.”
The police and agencies such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are extremely anxious to ensure that other abuses are not driven underground by appearing heavy-handed. This harrowing case led the Metropolitan police to launch Project Violet to build links with the African “splinter” churches where such beliefs are widespread, and win their trust.
Agencies such as the NSPCC already work closely with African community groups, led by Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, and have recently set up the Africa Child Alliance. Pastor Katei Kirby of the African Evangelical Alliance said last week that it was “quite right” to prevent such abuse. “It’s quite right to say ‘what on earth is going on?’, and appropriate then for the church to find a response. If it’s inappropriate behaviour, then we do something about it.”
Tensions are already emerging – about the way these evangelical churches are policed, about respecting religious beliefs – including witchcraft – and about protecting children from emotional and physical abuse. Det Supt Bourlet was adamant yesterday that the force had no right to police religious beliefs. It is also keen to avoid charges of racism. “We don’t have the resources or the will to police churches or people’s homes. We don’t go into English churches because something might happen there.”
But what about telling a child it was possessed, and then using non-violent cleansing rituals in a church service? Pressed to explain how that could be tackled, he said: “Physical abuse is fairly clear cut, but it gets much greyer when it becomes emotional abuse. We need to work out what the threshold is, and we can then enforce it.”
Mary Marsh, the NSPCC’s chief executive, said yesterday that the law was very clear on this. The United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child explicitly rules out any form of psychological abuse. “Ritualistic treatment of a child in a context where they’re being frightened or threatened, that has to be wrong – that’s not protecting their rights,” she said. “Children are entitled to protection. I’m not against people’s beliefs, but I am against them harming children. We mustn’t be seen as disrespectful, but be very clear what the boundaries are.”
RITUALS AND ‘DEMONS’
The ‘torso murder’
The dismembered body of a young Nigerian boy was found in the Thames in 2001. Detectives believe he was killed in a muti ritual, where body parts are used in traditional magic.
Her relatives and their pastor believed the girl was possessed by evil spirits. Murdered by her great-aunt and the woman’s boyfriend, Victoria, eight, had 128 injuries on her body.
Police believe hundreds of African boys disappear from London each year, in social security frauds and child trafficking. Some fear that a few children may be used in rituals.
A Metropolitan police inquiry, ordered after the latest “witchcraft” case, uncovered 31 suspected cases of child abuse linked to African evangelical “exorcisms” in London since 2000.
Exorcisms by fire
One case involved a 10-year-old boy being repeatedly burnt with matches and scalding water. His parents were convinced he was possessed. They were hospitalised and deemed unfit to face trial.