Thursday, August 05, 2010

True Crime: "I still have 83 more women to kill."

The francophone Afrik News has a story on the proliferation of serial killers across Africa and the unique problems they pose to nations that often lack the investigative and communication infrastructures to identify, track, and capture such criminals. Drawing extensively from the work of St├ęphane Bourgoin, an expert on African serial killers, the article paints a nightmarish portrait of these predators. Along with the police organization and data sharing issues that would hound detectives and researchers in any country, the article points out the way in which local cultural traditions can, for lack of a better word, normalize serial killing in some African communities. From the article:

And while these rampant murders are are sometimes not linked to tradition, most of them are. In southern Africa, sangomas [midwives, healers and soothsayers] call on hired killers who, for the pleasure of killing end up as serial killers, provide them with some of their tools of work. The sangomas sometimes prepare concoctions containing human body parts. A beverage brewed from a child’s sexual organ, for example, is believed to cure impotence.

"Muti killings", murders committed by puncturing the organs of a living person, is the cause of hundreds of deaths per year. "Africa registers more crimes related to cannibalism and vampirism than anywhere else in the world". Eating someone means capturing the soul and spirit of that person. And the victims’ blood are believed to contain life. It is no secret that fetish priests and some traditional worshipers believe that by drinking human blood they either become immortal or are reborn. "This kind of belief explains the acts committed by the two Kenyan serial killers: Philip Onyancha, who drank the blood of his victims and George Otieno Okoth, who collected human hair.

Besides the "muti killings", it can be noted that across Sub-Sahara Africa, many of those often labeled as witches or wizards, mostly by fetish priests, are poisoned, drowned, hacked to death with machetes or buried alive at will in an attempt to deliver their souls from the snare of the ‘devil’. Here again, a killer could evoke witchcraft in order to be given the leeway to kill to satisfy his whim. Only last year, a Zimbabwean judge, Justice Ndou, ruled that 32 year old Vusumuzi Ndlovu’s unshakable belief in witchcraft was an extenuating factor to spare him from the southern African country’s legally imposed punishment, after he killed his neighbor whom he accused of witchcraft.

The title of this post comes from Philip Onyancha, shown under arrest above.


Jose Cruz said...

Chilling and thought-provoking material you've provided here. We lightly touched on some of these aspects in a sociology class I took, but not on accounts quite as ghastly as these. If you don't mind saying, what's your take on the matter?

CRwM said...

Mr. Monster,

I'm not sure I have a "take" on it, in the sense that I have a sort of "here's the answer to this." But it brings several observations and questions to mind.

First, there's a cultural narrative of serial killers in America that chooses to see them as manifestations of a Western culture in decline. From American Psycho to true crime retellings that imply that serial killers are some manifestation of modern anomie, there's this sense that serial killers are a first world, Western problem. This would seem to put paid to that notion. Which raises the question: What is it about wealthy Westerners that makes them so erroneously assume that they've got some corner on the serial killer market?

Second, there's the weird "normalization" of serial killing in some communities. I had drinks with a friend tonight and we discussed the story. She noted the use of witch killing as a cover for serial murder in modern Africa and wondered how many European Inquisitors might have been normalized serial killers. Which got me thinking: What normalizing cultural norms do we have that integrate serial killers?

Third, there was a TED talk I linked to earlier that suggested that brain structures in violent murderers might actually be selected for in violent contexts. The researcher suggested that there might be a biological vicious cycle in violent countries. If so, how do we break that? How long before such a cycle could be disarmed?

To me, this raises more questions than it answers.

CRwM said...

I should add that the article has been accused of racism for perpetuating a stereotype of Africa that's all ritual murder and violence and savagery. I can see where such critics are coming from, but I think that accusation is unjust. It is an article about serial killers. It's going to be about violent people doing crappy things. It is, by the nature of the topic it discusses, not going to focus on the best and most wonderful aspects of the many different and varied countries of Africa. Certainly, if this was all a reader knew about Africa, they'd have a profoundly skewed view of an entire continent. But are we really going to hold every person who writes anything about Africa to the standard of "you must represent every aspect of life everywhere in the continent or you must not write"? Seems like an impossible standard.

Jose Cruz said...

Great points that you've brought up, but like you said, they bring up more questions on the matter than giving any definite answers. I don't think there really can be surefire solutions in a situation like this.

When you mentioned the normalization of serial killers in the Western world, it made me think of those trading cards that detailed the exploits of murderers (John Cozzoli discussed one series in this post: Now the average person may only see these as gruesome tidbits, but depicting serial killers through a medium such as trading cards might impress upon somebody's mind that these murderers are not REAL people who committed REAL crimes, thus taking away the gravity of their acts. In a world that's seen the likes of Pokemon and the gang, it could be possible that these murderers might be seen by some as nothing but fantastic caricatures in their trading card form.

You also brilliants defended the article against the accusations of racism made on its account. To me it seems a bit ridiculous that people should look at this as a vendetta against a certain race. Like you said, it's about MURDERERS! There's not much in the way of praise to say about them, no matter what the color of their skin may be. Sometimes people try to uphold politically correct standards more than should be legally allowed.