JANE FLANAGAN IN JOHANNESBURG
YOU ONLY have to pick through the piles of monkey skulls, baboon hands and scaly lizard tails at Johannesburg’s ‘muti’ market to realise the importance of witchcraft throughout Africa.
South Africa is one of the few countries in the world with a police unit dedicated solely to investigating occult crimes.
So it was here that detectives investigating the murder of ‘Adam’, the boy whose torso was found in the Thames last year, attempted to discover more about the system of beliefs that led to the boy’s macabre death and mutilation.
Little did they know the trail would lead to Glasgow.
Through their meetings with traditional healers, Commander Andy Baker and Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly from Scotland Yard began to unlock some of the more sinister secrets of Africa’s culture of witchcraft.
But it was the strange behaviour of Joyce Asaguede, 31, a west African woman in a Pollockshaws tower block, which was to lead to their first arrest.
Witnesses told Strathclyde police that the arrested women had spoken of human sacrifices and seemed to perform rituals and chant spells.
She was believed to have had two daughters who were taken into care and a son who has not been accounted for, although police sources say that Asaguede is not the mother of the murdered boy.
After she was interviewed by Metropolitan Police officers, the woman from Sierra Leone was freed on bail on Friday while officers try to discover if there is anything sinister in her perceived eccentricity.
While the vast majority of sangomas - traditional healers - refuse to get involved with such a trade, those with enough money can buy remedies made from human body parts, including a cure for strokes made from human hands burned to ash and mixed into a paste.
Blood is said to boost vitality and brains are used to impart political power and business success. Genitals, breasts and placentas are said to ward off infertility and bring good luck, with the genitalia of young boys and virgin girls being especially highly prized as ‘uncontaminated’ by sexual activity, and therefore more potent.
According to conservative estimates, at least 300 people have been murdered for their body parts in the past decade in South Africa alone, but with so few victims’ bodies ever recovered, the full extent of the practice will never be known.
Two years ago the South African government set up a commission of inquiry into witchcraft, violence and ritual murders after a spate of deaths in Soweto, involving the kidnap and murder of young boys aged between one and six.
According to post mortem examination results, the boys were left to bleed to death after having their genitals and thumbs cut off and their eyes gouged out. The commission’s report revealed a grisly catalogue of facts almost too appalling to believe.
In the course of its investigation, the inquiry discovered the common use of human skulls buried in the foundations of new buildings to ensure that the business there thrived; how body parts were buried on farms to secure good harvests, and severed hands built into shop entrances to draw customers.
A probe into the industry in body parts revealed a thriving trade in which a testicle could raise £80, a kidney £200, a heart £400. With brains and genitals selling for up to £4,000, the organs of white men were worth more since whites were more successful in business.
The report concluded that body parts taken from live victims were considered to be more potent because of "the screams of the victims".
During their visit to South Africa, the Scotland Yard detectives spoke to Credo Mutwa, one of the country’s leading sangomas, who identified Adam’s murder as having a west African connection and suggested the killers were followers of ‘obeh’ - a form of witchcraft involving the human sacrifice of a pre-pubescent child.
Dressed in floor-length robes and his head draped in cloth, Mutwa offered the detectives a disturbing interpretation of the boy’s murder. He said the killers would have drunk the boy’s blood shortly after his death, as a tonic to impart strength and vitality using a ‘skullcap’ sliced from the severed head.
"His finger joints would have been used as charms or ground into a paste as part of a ritual in order to give these criminals strength," Mutwa added.
"I think this is a human sacrifice to some sort of water deity carried out by a gang of people strengthening themselves to do some very ugly crimes. They have made this sacrifice because they are filled with fear of what they have done or what they are going to do."
The boy’s neck had been severed from his spine to remove the first vertebra, which is in mythology said to be the bone with which the giant Atlas held up the world. In muti - the Zulu word for medicine - Colonel Rebus Jonkers, who retired recently from investigating South African witchcraft and black-magic crimes, said the Atlas bone "is believed to be the centre of the body, where all nerve and blood vessels meet".
Adam’s genitals had not been removed, however, suggesting that his killers needed muti potions for some specific purpose for which the sex organs were not required.
The word muti, which derives from ‘umu thi’, meaning tree, has become a byword for any traditional medicine, good or bad, practised by sangomas.
According to research, over 80% of the South African population consults a sangoma more than three times a year - after or instead of going to a traditional medical doctor. The sangoma industry is thought to be worth about £200m a year.
Intriguingly, this brand of alternative African medicine is now beginning to appeal to sections of the white community, who are increasingly responding to discreet mail and phone-order services run by sangomas.
It was reported that the South African national football team used lion fat and hippopotamus grease to enhance players’ performance during the World Cup. One South African newspaper has even used muti to attempt to counter low staff morale and flagging circulation.
Until 200 years ago, witchcraft was as almost as prevalent in Britain as in Africa. Today there are a variety of shops offering cures for bad luck and spells against black magic among the African communities in Tottenham, Finsbury Park, Brixton and Birmingham.
Death threats have also reportedly been made to a health inspector in north London who uncovered what he believes is a muti network bringing children’s amputated limbs into Heathrow airport from Africa.
Since the discovery of Adam’s body, detectives are uncovering evidence that witchcraft involving human body parts is being practised in Britain.
"There is some suggestion of ceremonies taking place and strong rumours that body parts are used," Baker said. "The rumours are that it is opening up. More people are telling us they have heard of ceremonies."
But rumours are all they have to go on and Adam has yet to be identified. Despite national and international appeals no one has come forward to report a child of similar description missing.
The classic muti scenario is of an otherwise well-treated child being ‘volunteered’ for sacrifice by his family with his mother being told the child would have a "better life" with a "new soul".
All of which makes the job of finding the culprits more difficult - and Adam may well not be the last case of muti murder police will have to deal with.
Baker said: "If it is a ritualistic muti murder, then others will follow."
Source:Scotland on Sunday