May 20 2012
– It’s a story that could be taken from a novel – but every word is true. When Dr Richard Hoskins, an expert on African religion, was asked to investigate the murder of a young boy in London, he was driven to revisit his own terrible experience of death and witchcraft in the Congo…
London, September 21, 2001
Aidan Minter was lost in thought as he climbed the steps to Tower Bridge. Crossing to the South Bank of the Thames, the young IT consultant glanced idly at the river below and in that instant he caught sight of something floating in the water – a dummy, perhaps, with what seemed to be a red cloth attached to it.
Minter ran down the steps on to the south side of the river and stepped closer to the water’s edge. His curiosity turned to horror. He was staring at a body. Or what was left of one. He pulled out his mobile and dialled 999.
Drawing level with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, the crew of the police launch saw a flash of colour against the bank. Moments later an officer hauled the mutilated torso of a little boy from the water. The child had no name, so the police called him Adam.
Lost children: Dr Hoskins’ daughter Abigail, pictured in her father’s hat, shortly before she died in 1989, left, and a photo of the boy believed by police to be Adam, whose torso was found in the Thames
I was at my desk when, the following January, they called. My room was in a temporary building at Bath Spa University campus with a window looking out over fields. Dry stone walls and clumps of ash and oak trees stood in the winter light.
‘Dr Hoskins, I’m Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly from Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Group,’ said the voice.
I was a senior lecturer in African religions and had spoken on the radio about the Adam case. Now DI O’Reilly wanted to pay me a visit.
I showed my visitors to a conference room. DI O’Reilly spread eight A5 colour prints of brutally high quality in front of me. A brown torso lay on a post-mortem slab.
There were several shots of the body, most showing it dressed in orange-red shorts, and close-ups of the cuts that had severed the head, arms and legs.
I had seen some pretty tough things during my time in Africa, but for a second I felt sick.
O’Reilly cleared his throat. ‘We have next to nothing to go on, Dr Hoskins. We don’t know who the child is, or where he comes from. We don’t know what happened to him.
‘According to our Home Office pathologist, the cut to the neck is very precise. He thinks it was made from back to front, and that his body was drained of its blood.’
Pain: Dr Richard Hoskins, specialist in African magic, was forced to confront the tragedy of his own daughter’s mysterious death
‘I hear you think it’s a muti killing,’ I said. ‘Linked to South Africa in some way.’
Muti is a Zulu word, which means ‘medicine’. The practice centres on the belief that parts of certain plants, animals, and sometimes even humans, have special curative powers.
I had heard stories that human organs were regularly used in muti. It didn’t look as if any internal organs had been removed.
‘He’s still got his genitals,’ I said. ‘And he’s circumcised. Leaving his genitals intact would not seem to be typical of muti. Also, I’d expect his internal organs to be taken.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I think I can help.’
My first marriage had ended, but it had given me two wonderful children, David, now 12, and Elspeth, ten, and my relationship with Sue, their mother, remained warm.
While at Bath, I’d met Faith. Now in my mid-30s, I was close to being a contented man. When I got home Faith led me into the kitchen, poured a healthy quantity of gin into a couple of glasses and splashed in some tonic.
I started to tell her about the photos. When we sat down on the sofa the tears streamed unchecked down my face. She put her arms around me.
She said: ‘It’s not just this boy, is it? It’s not just Adam . . .’
I shook my head.
Bolobo, Congo, 1987 to 1989
The temperatures in the Congo basin sap the strength of everything that moves. The rivers snake their way from the mountains in the east to the ocean in the west, and a vast tract of dank, steaming forest lies in between.
We had been working at the Baptist Mission medical centre in the village of Bolobo, 300 miles from Kinshasa, for more than a year when Sue told me she was pregnant.
But after less than seven months, when she was working in the kitchen, I heard her take a sharp breath and place a hand on her belly.
‘Something’s happening,’ she said.
As I hurried between the trees to get David Masters, the head of our station, I told myself that everything would be fine. Sue was healthy and a midwife herself.
‘You’re going to have twins,’ he said. ‘And pretty soon, too.’
David kept his face averted while he washed his hands. ‘I’m afraid I can only feel one of them properly, but it’s breech.’
Twins, and a breech birth, well over two months premature. In this place. I had the most acute sense of approaching catastrophe, as if the door of an enormous iron vault was closing on us all.
It was a nightmare scene, hot and sulphurous, full of pain and blood. I had never imagined that an event so masked in rosy myths could be as barbarous.
Lost child: Author and criminologist Richard Hoskins with his daughter Abigail
David worked in the feeble glow of a small oil lamp. The night was filled by Sue’s screams, the slick glint of blood, the shadowy figures of the Congolese women helpers blocking my view.
She was born dead, our first daughter. I never saw her face. I don’t know what happened to her. Somehow the child, no bigger than a paperback book, was spirited away.
David was bending over Sue, who shrieked again, and I watched the tension bunching in his shoulders as a second child was dragged into the world, mewling, gasping for breath. But somehow alive.
Abigail, as we named her, was tiny – just 2lb – and it seemed certain she would die too. All through that suffocating night I lay listening to her pathetic struggles to breathe.
Despite the odds, Abigail grew into a delightful impish toddler. Life settled into its slow rhythm. Sue became pregnant again. Then, one day, I had a visitor.
I could hear Abigail giggling as I stuck my head round the door of the back bedroom. Abigail was playing with our cat Marmalade’s tail.
I walked back through the house. A man stood there deferentially; he wore a stained white T-shirt and shabby brown trousers. I knew him – Tata Mpia, a carpenter.
‘Mr Richard, may I speak with you? It is an important matter.’
‘Of course. Come in. Come in.’ I showed him to a chair.
‘Mpia Hoskins is not well, I think,’ he said. Mpia is the name in the local Lingala tongue for a younger twin; an older twin is called Mbo.
‘Abigail? Just a slight fever, that’s all,’ I replied. I began to feel as uncomfortable as he looked.
‘You know that I too am called Mpia because I am a younger twin?’ he said. ‘So . . .’ He paused. ‘I understand these things.’
‘I’m sorry. What things?’
‘She is being called.’
I felt the air in the room thicken around me. ‘My Mpia? My Abigail?’ I leaned forward. ‘What do you mean, called?’
‘Mr Richard, do you understand what we mean by the living dead?’
‘Well . . . only vaguely.’ I tried to shut out images of B-movie zombies.
‘You must understand this, Mr Richard. It is very important. We – you and I and everyone – we are the living living. The living dead are those whom we once knew on this Earth, but who have passed on to the shadowlands beyond the grave.’
His expression intensified. ‘They guard us, Mr Richard. But they can also harm us. Our living dead are more alive than we are.
Emotional: Mourners gather at Abigail’s graveside – she was buried next to her twin sister
‘The living dead control this world and everything in it, Mr Richard. They bring life, and they take it away. They tell us what to do.
‘And twins have a special power, Mr Richard. Mbo is calling your Mpia to come and join her in the shadowlands. I am sure of it.’
‘Her twin sister? Calling her? But she’s . . .’ I stopped myself.
‘No, Mr Richard,’ Tata Mpia said gently. ‘Mbo is not dead. That is the thing I am trying to say to you.
‘She is one of the living dead. And she is calling out to her twin sister, calling her to the world of the living dead.’
I stared back at him. I didn’t want this vile superstition in my home. Yet I could see it had taken great courage for Tata Mpia to tell me this. And I realised he too was scared, scared for me, scared for my family.
‘You need to see the nganga,’ Tata Mpia went on urgently. Though sometimes called witch doctors, ngangas were really traditional healers or shamans. ‘The nganga will call upon the living dead to give your first daughter rest.
‘You must spill some blood, Mr Richard. If you spill blood it will satisfy the living dead. If you do not wish to lose your daughter, you must perform a sacrifice.’
In the background I could hear Abigail’s giggles.
I remembered the time the nganga had told Mama Lutondele that she needed to offer a goat to the living dead before building her house. The goat had been tied upside down and I could hear it bleating piteously. The animal was crying like a baby.
Side by side: Flowers lay on the graves of Mbo Hoskins and Abigail Jane Hoskins
I could hear the nganga chanting to the living dead. I could see him lift the knife, then bring it down and draw it across the goat’s throat. Blood poured on to the ground and the head was severed. Mama Lutondele knew that the living dead would give their blessing to her house.
I couldn’t possibly get into this. The very idea was absurd. Yet I had not instantly dismissed it. Perhaps I had spent too long out in the villages. And besides, I loved Abigail so. Could it really do any harm to cover all the bases? For the cost of a single goat, it would be over and done with. Back in England, in time, I would laugh about it at dinner parties.
But I knew it would not be as simple as that. There is a bridge to be crossed when stepping into a strange culture, and once crossed there is no way back. If I made that sacrifice, I would cease to be Western. I would open a door in my mind – and perhaps in my soul – to alien demons. I wrestled with my conscience as the vast brown river slid past. Here the river was ten miles wide.
But I knew I was not prepared to cross that bridge. There would be no sacrifice.
London, April 2002
The Embankment glistened that wet spring lunchtime. I was nervous. I had looked into my own past during the preceding weeks, probing into dark corners I had never wanted to visit again. I knew the conclusion I had reached, but I didn’t like it.
HOW A BIZARRE CONFESSION LED TO ADAM
A breakthrough that helped lead to the boy’s identification came in 2002 – in extraordinary circumstances.
A woman called Joyce Osagiede told Glasgow social workers that she belonged to a cult and her daughters must attend a ritual ceremony.
Osagiede had already told immigration officials that she had married a member of a cult called The Black Coat Eyes Of The Devil Guru Maharaj.
She claimed he had sacrificed her youngest child.
In December 2002, she was deported, and when later interviewed by British police in Lagos, she said she had been a cult organiser and had bought a pair of orange-red shorts similar to those found on Adam.
She added: ‘I know he was killed in Lewisham.’
She also claimed in 2008 to an ITV journalist that she had brought Adam to London and even had a photograph.
His real name, she said, was Ikpomwosa. She remains free in Nigeria.
No one has ever been charged with Adam’s murder.
I had gone over and over this, but when I reflected on my own experiences in the Congo, and cross-referenced that with my academic work, it was clear that Adam’s killing was a sacrifice.
The meticulous nature of the crime; the draining of blood; the clothing of a particular colour; and the disposal of the torso in a flowing river . . .
The thought that a young boy could be the victim of a human sacrifice, here in London, one of the great capitals of the Western world, simply beggared belief.
Muti is about the harvesting of plant and animal parts for use in medicines. No one cares much how those parts were taken or whether the victim lives or dies.
Sacrifice is all about a transferral of power via the spilling of blood, the life force.
The blood is in some cases splattered on the ground, in others over the effigies of deities. The only crumb of comfort is that the victim’s death is usually relatively quick.
I had narrowed down the ethnic groups to which Adam might have belonged. There were some fringe possibilities: one or two groups in Ghana, perhaps; another in Senegal, but one in particular had stood out for me. The Yoruba of Nigeria.
The Yorubans are a powerful group, mostly from central and southwest Nigeria. Many Nigerians living abroad are also Yorubans. They have about the most complex and sophisticated religious belief system of any ethnic group on the African continent.
In Yoruban religion, the many deities forming a bridge between this world and higher realms require sacrifice. Not necessarily human sacrifice, of course, and especially not nowadays, but the practice persists in some deviant offshoots of Yoruban religion.
I had other reasons to link Adam to the Yoruba area. Yoruban males are circumcised soon after birth.
The following month, I spoke at the headquarters of Europol, the Europe-wide police agency, in The Hague. I turned specifically to the Adam case and, for the first time, explained my conclusions to a public audience.
Grim discovery: The spot where the torso of a young boy who became known as Adam was discovered floating in the River Thames
It had been 48 hours since the last media inquiry and I was back at my desk in Bath, sipping my coffee, when the phone rang.
‘Dr Hoskins?’ The caller was a woman with a West African accent.
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Who’s this?’
‘I am Princess Tania Olesungo. Dr Hoskins, you have done the Yoruban people a very great wrong.’
I held my tongue.
‘You must retract this at once,’ she hissed. ‘Or we are going to ruin you.’
Her voice was tight with malice. ‘I am warning you of this. There are more of us. We will ask Oshun for help to bring you down.’ She hung up.
Oshun is the wife of the fiery Shango, lover of the colour red and of sacrifice. Orange was only her secondary colour. But Oshun was a river goddess. I sat for a long time staring at the telephone.
Bolobo, June 1989
‘I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked through the door’
I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked through the door. It was about a month after Tata Mpia’s visit.
Abigail always filled the house with laughter. But today everything was quiet. The front room was empty.
In Abigail’s bedroom her toys were strewn around in cheerful disorder. It was unthinkable that our chattering 18-month-old daughter, our little noise machine, could possibly be here. And suddenly there she was.
My heart swooped with relief. She was standing at the window in our bedroom, her finger in her mouth. ‘Abigail? What are you up to?’
She turned her head, and the expression on her small face, normally as bright as a new flower, lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.
There was something in her eyes I had never seen before. Something that made her look old beyond her years. She turned away to stare out of the window again.This was the only point in the house from which it was possible to see the graveyard.
Beyond the railings a haphazard collection of canted headstones and sun-bleached crosses clung to the side of the hill overlooking the Congo River. We had buried her sister there. It marked the final resting place of those who had lost their lives here, in a place that suddenly felt very far from home.
Abigail died a few weeks later on July 24. She had been suffering a light fever, no more. When I saw her there – eyes and mouth open – my rational brain knew that all hope was gone. But just the same I swept her up in my arms, calling hopelessly: ‘Abigail! Abigail! Come back to me, my darling! Come back!’
The child in my arms was quite cold by the time someone was able to persuade me to lay her body down. We buried Abigail next to her twin sister.
London, June 2003
Traces of Physostigma, the Calabar bean, had been found in the contents of Adam’s intestinal tract. In anything but very small quantities, it was deadly. In small doses, though, it was known to paralyse the victim. They would know what was happening, but they wouldn’t be able to scream. I didn’t like to think about that.
One direct outcome of the discovery was that the police described Adam’s death as a sacrifice for the first time on the television news that evening. It was, I suppose, a victory of sorts.
No one had yet proved what had happened to Adam. But we knew he had travelled from southern Nigeria to Germany, where the orange-red shorts were purchased, and had not spent long in London.
Hunt for clues: Police issued a graphic of the five-year-old’s severed torso with the distinctive red shorts in a bid to get more information about the boy, who has not been identified
I leaned against the balcony rail in the darkness outside our flat. In my imagination, I reconstructed his final days and found myself sitting with him in a stiflingly hot room in Benin City. What had they told him before he was driven to the airport? Almost certainly Adam would never have been on a plane before; I liked to think the stewardesses were kind.
The plane landed in Germany, a country he had never heard of, on a chill morning. Some time later he was probably taken on a ferry from Hamburg. More strangers drove him away from the docks. He was kept in a room in that house for two weeks. The curtains were closed, the doors locked.
Then, one night, they drove him to another house in the back of a car with blacked-out windows. They seemed less gentle than before and the journey was in silence. They gave him nothing to eat.
The next day, in the early evening, the door opened, and for the first time he felt real terror. For there in front of him was a babalawo – a West African mystic master – half-naked and smeared with white chalk. He came in carrying a pot with a spoon sticking out of it.
As the babalawo drew near, he muttered some incantations, took the spoon and gave Adam a black, paste-like mixture which made him retch.
What had that poor child been thinking? And on his last night, how quickly did the drug begin to work? I had no doubt he had known something terrible was about to happen.
I turned away from the view, and slid the door closed behind me. I poured a couple of drinks. At least I’d been able to do something, I told myself fiercely. Adam would get justice and I would have played some part in getting it for him.
‘Are you all right?’ Faith asked.
I looked at her. Was I all right? Yes, perhaps I was all right.
Because if Adam could be laid to rest, then so could my own ghosts. Couldn’t they?
© Richard Hoskins 2012.