I wrote the post below for Radio Free Europe in Azerbaijan, about a controversial local TV show featuring a ‘possessed’ woman; it draws parallels with media policy and ‘possession’ cases in D.R Congo, and explains the context of my novel ‘Child Witch Kinshasa‘.
What happens when a journalist meets an exorcist?
Baku-based British author Mike Ormsby says the devil is in the detail and has a squeaky voice. How does he know? Read on.
The title of my post might sound like a joke, but it’s a topical and serious question, given recent events here in Azerbaijan. I’ll answer in three ways, starting on a personal note.
In 2002, while training journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I met a boy named Kilanda who had been accused of witchcraft and horrifically burned in an ‘exorcism’. You can see the results in this short film. Catholic nuns tended his injuries, but Kilanda was in such agony he could not even speak.
I soon learned that brutal exorcisms happen frequently in DRC. The reasons are complex, but, in brief, kids are targeted as ‘sorcerers’ responsible for everyday misfortunes. Media’s reaction to the abuse seems ambivalent: a case such as Kilanda, that should have been prominently reported, was usually ignored by TV and radio, or buried among the small ads in a local newspaper. Even worse, journalists who did bother to report such cases seemed to prioritize the ‘religious’ and ‘moral’ concerns of adults accusing and injuring kids, as if the power of young ‘sorcerers’ was a fact of life, rather than a figment of overheated imaginations. So, in my journalism seminars around Congo, I urged my local peers to be less blasé and more objective; to report and investigate the abuse of vulnerable kids like Kilanda. Some journalists responded well. Some murmured, “You don’t understand our culture.” Some probably thought I was a witch.
I met a few ‘pastors’ conducting exorcisms for cash, and one invited me to ‘speak with the devil’. I can report that Satan has a squeaky voice. As for our intermediary, the pastor’s earnest sense of vocation was almost convincing but his ragged shirt-cuffs hinted at the real story: in war-ravaged Congo a proper job was about as likely as a visit from an angel, and exorcisms were a lucrative alternative.
I left DRC after five months, with deep concerns about the growing influence of such misguided individuals, some sweet memories of decent people I had met on my travels around that vast country, and an idea for a novel (more of this later).
Here in Baku, recent events provide a second answer to my question: what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? Or rather, what happens when a journalist hears about a young woman who appears to be possessed? In this case, the journalist does not turn a blind eye; he senses a story and invites the woman to participate in a TV talk show – Among The People –with several ‘experts’.
The show airs and the young woman sits passively in the audience, flanked by her brother who, at his wits’ end, had originally contacted the journalist. Occasionally the woman glares and snarls across the studio at one of the invited experts, who responds with mystical, hocus-pocus gestures, as if to hypnotize her. She gasps, writhes, and eventually slumps, as if ‘exorcised’. The producers add dramatic music and the audience squirms or gawps transfixed. The broadcast is melodramatic in tone and I feel as if I’m watching some cranky, late 19th century double-act from American vaudeville. But two things that happen a few days later are even more interesting.
First, Azerbaijan’s media watchdog – the National Television and Radio Company – warns ANS for “causing damage to the physical, mental or moral development of minors, as well as reflecting sensuality and cruelty… which angered the public.”
Second, a member of the public contacts the troubled woman and arranges to help her in private. Someone films their encounter and posts it on YouTube, where, it gets over 150,000 hits in a few days. The wobbly footage shows the same stern-faced young woman; she sits, as if in a trance, on a sofa, staring and hissing like a cat at the man who wants to help her. He yells at her, reads aloud from the Koran, slaps her shoulder, and stubs out lighted matches on her forehead and neck. The scene is disturbing and difficult to ignore, compulsive viewing even, like the scary bits of an irresistible movie; the difference being that this is apparently real life – the location looks domestic and a second, older woman appears briefly and hides her face from the camera, as if fearing for her privacy.
Inevitably, these events have created quite a stir in Azerbaijan and, according to a local reporter for the BBC, the young woman is now staying at the man’s home; she says she is ‘unwell’, that the exorcisms ‘help’ her, that she is ‘grateful’ and would allow him to ‘burn me head to toe, if he wishes.’
The BBC contacted the public prosecutor, and was told that no charges can be filed against the ‘exorcist’ unless the young woman complains. This seems unlikely, perhaps because she feels better. Let’s hope so. On the other hand, what if she feels worse, and the exorcist takes her at her word? Azerbaijan promotes itself to tourists as the Land of Fire, Land of Tolerance, but does it wish to be known as the land that tolerates a troubled young woman being burned head to toe?
There are countless precedents back in Congo, where youngsters often agree they are ‘possessed’ and play along with those who ‘help’ them, often until it’s too late.
In Congo, however, any adult who accuses or hurts a young person, on grounds of ‘possession’, can face up to three years of penal servitude, which would presumably prove a considerable disincentive to zealous bullies, if more Congolese people knew of that law or were brave enough to invoke it. Is there a law in Azerbaijan to prevent cruelty during ‘exorcisms’, or only one to prevent such cruelty being shown on TV? I’m not qualified to answer, but perhaps someone should, before YouTube is awash with clips of other adults ‘helping’ troubled youngsters.
To conclude, I’ll offer my third answer to the question – what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? In my case, I wrote a novel. It took me ten years to complete and was published in December 2013. In my story, a Congolese street kid seeks a home and a foreign journalist wants to help; the devil is in the detail. That’s all I’ll say about the plot.
The novel is based on my experiences in Congo and was inspired by Kilanda, the injured boy I mentioned earlier. The first part – Child Witch Kinshasa – was published in December, and the second part – Child Witch London – comes out in March.
My story does not accuse ‘darkest Africa’, but shows how, when we point, three fingers sometimes point back, and how, in the right/wrong circumstances, such as civil war, we might all lose our moral bearings, even in faraway, leafy London.
Britain has seen horrific torture of ‘demonic’ kids, and even ritual killing, in recent years. My book is not a gruesome tale of murder - at times it’s a comedy – and I hope it helps to illuminate, in some small way, a big and complex subject, not least because child welfare NGOs warn that the abuse of ‘possessed’ young people is spreading worldwide. That might make for controversial TV in Baku but it’s no joke.