Listening to the BBC News this morning, I heard a story that literally made me sick: a report on the revival of child sacrifice in Uganda. For a fee, “witch doctors” will kidnap small children, hack them to bits and bury their remains in order to bring prosperity to the client’s business or family.
The story upset me for more than the obvious reasons. Despite never having visited, I have connections with Uganda; my synagogue has sponsored service visits there, and helps support an interfaith coffee cooperative in the country. The horrors described were so at odds with the family loving communities of Uganda we know. The cruelty, the savagery described fits in with longstanding stereotypes about Africa, and people of color in general. Of course it WOULD have to be ignorant black people on the “dark “continent doing this, wouldn’t it.
But then I listened some more. The rise in child sacrifice is not taking place due to an increase in religious fervor or ethnic superstition, but rather due to increased development and prosperity. “Child sacrifice has risen because people have become lovers of money”, one local pastor said. “They want to get richer.”
In other words, it’s not ignorance or superstition that’s driving child sacrifice, it’s selfishness and greed. And that, my friends, is far from unique to Africa.
Ask any non-institutionalized person what they think of child sacrifice and of course they will respond, “How horrible! How backward! How inhuman!” On the other hand, ask them if they avoid buying products made by child labor, oppose drone strikes and bombing, support tougher gun laws and police protection in the inner city, or stricter standards on environmental pollutants and children’s products. Instead of righteous outrage, you’re likely to hear muttered excuses, “well…it’s a complicated issue… trickle down… need to address the problem gradually…maintain economic stability….”
The fact is, we sacrifice children all the time, to our greed, our sense of safety, or our convenience. Clothes made by pre-teen girls in Asian sweatshops are cheap, so we buy them. Coffee and chocolate harvested by small boys who will never be able to afford those delicacies is easier to find than fair trade, so we buy it. Sometimes we even use the well being of our own children to justify sacrificing others. For example…
A few years ago, a friend asked my to buy chocolates to support a local preschool. I was pleased to see that the school was using one of the few candy fundraisers that sells exclusively fair traded chocolate, meaning farmers (and their children) get a fair price and a chance at a better life. The following year when I was approached again, I noticed that the chocolates on offer were now from one of the standard chains, one with a dismal record on fair trade and child labor. When I asked the fundraising chair why they had switched, she stammered, “We-ll, we _tried_ to go with fair trade, but the return on the investment just isn’t as high so…we had to do what was best for the kids”. Translation: what’s best for _her_ kids, her safe, suburban kids, who were more important than some anonymous children in Africa.
We are willing to sacrifice for our safety, or our perception of it. Why else would we have gun laws for “self-protection” which flood urban neighborhoods with weaponry, killing thousands of children a year? Why else would we condone the bombing of civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In the terrifying days after 9/11, two friends argued over attacking Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”. “What about the innocents?” one asked. “Do you realize how many Innocent people, innocent children we’re going to kill?” .
Exasperated, the other exploded, “You know what? If it keeps my wife and kids safe, I don’t care, okay? Call me a bad person but I just don’t care”. Translation: my kids are more important than theirs. Sacrifice those kids, not mine. (Children killed in Iraq 2003-2008: 2146)
So let’s not get all judgmental over Uganda. We may not actively kill children here, but when we ignore the toll of poverty, pollutants, and violence on child health; when we tolerate unhealthy and unsafe products made with slave labor, and base our foreign policy on a narrowly defined self interest, we condone the sacrifice of children.
Here’s a question: which has ended the lives of more Ugandan children, ritual child sacrifice? Or dangerous low paid work in mines and coffee fields? Or maybe preventable diseases and malnutrition?
The highest estimates put the number of child sacrifice victims at 900 over 3 years. How does this compare to the over 3000 U.S. children a year killed in gun violence? Or the high mortality rate from industrial pollutants, unsafe toys and baby products? Every time you see a crib recalled after yet another baby strangles in it, or a lead-laced or magnet-filled toy yet another toddler has swallowed, remember, “Someone was willing to sacrifice a child’s life to sell this”.
It’s so easy to focus on the superstition, the ignorance behind the Uganda story. But that misses the point. Would child sacrifice be any less revolting if it worked? Or if it was conducted in a more… refined manner? It’s not the method or the faulty logic which should horrify us: it’s the selfishness, the cold, callous selfishness that would let someone end a child’s life purely for their own gain. Because no matter the excuse, there is one simple fact on which all civilized peoples should agree: _Sacrificing the safety and health of a child for someone else’s benefit is always wrong._
I can’t begin to imagine the mindset of a person who could hold down a struggling, sobbing 5 year old and rip his throat out. However, sadly, I can picture the people who ordered someone to order the killing, who distanced themselves from the blood and the tears, who told themselves that this was, “the cost of doing business”, that “everyone does it”, that it “makes financial sense”.
And just as there would be no witch doctors without clients willing to look the other way, there would be no sweatshops, no illegal dumping, no child labor without customers, shareholders, and taxpayers willing to look the other way, to shut their eyes and ears to the misery they condone, if not approve.
The excellent film, _Girl in the Cafe_, brings home this point with eloquent force. At a meeting of those power brokers of the world’s economy, the G8 nations; negotiations to lower debt and open up trade for poor countries is resisted by US trade interests. Gina, a bewildered bystander, challenges the complacent diplomats at a state dinner, saying,
“…While we are eating a hundred million children are nearly starving. There’s just millions of kids who’d kill for the amount of food that fat old me left on the side of my plate, children who are then so weak they’ll die if a mosquito bites them. And so they do die. One every three seconds.
There they go.
[pauses, snap fingers again]
And another one. Anyone who has kids knows that every mother and father in Africa must love their children as much as they do, and to watch your kids die, to watch them die and then to die yourself in trying to protect them, that’s not right. And tomorrow eight of the men sitting ’round this table actually have the ability to sort this out by making a few great decisions. And if they don’t, some day someone else will. And they’ll look back on us lot and say – people were actually dying in their millions unnecessarily, in front of you, on your TV screens. What were you thinking? You knew what to do to stop it happening and you didn’t do those things. Shame on you. So that’s what you have to do tomorrow. Be great instead of being ashamed. It can’t be impossible.
“It must be possible.”
Some groups working to make it possible:
Global Exchange -for background on the role of the coffee, chocolate, and clothing industries in child and slave labor and trafficking
Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace” Coffee) – fair trade cooperative of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers in Uganda
Ceasefire – Campaign to stop gun violence in Chicago
Environmental Working Group – Publishes studies on the role of dangerous chemicals in household products and their effect on children
TransFair Fair Trade USA – Promotes fairly traded products worldwide
Children’s Defense Fund – State of America’s Children. Reports on threats to child health from violence, pollutants, hunger, and just plain ol’ poverty.
“Our Children at Risk: The 5 Worst Risks to Their Health” from the Natural Resources Council
Child Trafficking – Works to expose and prevent child trafficking and slave labor worldwide