“Me, I’m Rachel, Rachel Mwanza. I was born in 1997 in Mbuji Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had a nice and easy childhood with my family. But in 2004, my father loses his job at Gécamines and my mother, my brothers and I are forced to move to Kinshasa to my grandmother’s. In 2008, my mom decides to go to Angola to look for money because the financial situation of the family has deteriorated. And she never came back. After her departure, a false prophet makes my grandmother believe that I am the source of all the ills of my family and decrees that I am a ‘ndoki’, a witch in Lingala. My grandmother then kicks me out and I become a ‘shégué’, a child of the street.”
Exaucé, 13 years old, testifies. “My grandmother was dead. We went to my grandfather’s church for mourning. The pastor designated me. He said I had eaten my grandmother. They kept me locked in the church with ropes on my hands and feet. We fasted for three days. Then, I took the purge: a litre of palm oil to swallow. They put water in our eyes that made us cry. I said that I was not a witch and that I didn’t understand anything about it. But they wanted me to deliver. They poured melted candle on the feet and the forehead. I fled to find my family. They beat me so I would confess. I fled to the street.”
Like Rachel and Exaucé, 120 million of children worldwide live on the streets. They are thousands in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are considered witches. Their number is difficult to estimate and constantly change, but they could be more than thirteen thousand only in Kinshasa. Thirteen thousand children. Thirteen thousand lives. Thirteen thousand accused of witchcraft and undergoing exorcism sessions. Thirteen thousand to plead guilty after atrocious suffering.
But where do these accusations come from?
According to the Larousse, witchcraft is “a magic practice that has a harmful effect on a human being, an animal or a plant”. And according to Congolese culture, bed wetting, restless sleep, a bloated belly, a disability… are proof that the child is a witch.
The factors are multiple: economic, political and social. First, general impoverishment doesn’t allow people to provide for themselves. Parents who are poorly paid can’t afford their children’s schooling or feed them properly. Add to this, because of the war the number of orphaned children increases. Housed with their family or part of a step family now, they are often out of school, unlike their half-siblings.
These children live completely ignored by the better part of society
Being ignorant and above all sensitive to superstitions, the Congolese population is blind. The children, allegedly guilty of poverty, the death of a family member, the lack of success… are left in churches led by false prophets and pastors. Acting under the pretence of fighting Evil, they associate witchcraft with the devil, claim to see an evil spirit in the body of a child. And that this is the origin of all the misfortunes of the family.
Each church has its own method of torture and an exorcism session can range from 5,000 to 50,000 Congolese francs [from 3 to 30 euros]. The child-witch would contain the bewitching substance in his abdomen, so sometimes the traditional practitioner cuts the child’s belly with an unsterilized knife and amputates a small piece of his bowel, symbolizing witchcraft.
Knowing that restless sleep, a bloated belly or family poverty is not solved with liquid or torture, children are abandoned by their entourage and find themselves in the street. There, they should be supported by the State. However, when they arrive at the street, most of them stay there. And physical and sexual violence is everywhere. The children cannot live anymore but only survive while working; girls prostitute themselves from the age of 6 or 7.
Changing the current situation is proving the die isn’t cast
Every child in the world has basic rights. According to Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child shall be “protected against all forms of violence, physical or mental harm or abuse, abandonment or neglect, ill-treatment, or exploitation”. Article 160 of Law No. 09/001 on the protection of the child states that, “in case of accusation of witchcraft against a child, the author is punished with one to three years of main penal servitude and a fine of 200,000 to one million Congolese francs.” Yet it is not applied. Many children perish every day but solutions exist.
It is essential that the state establish a research unit of former street children, as well as children’s homes and specialized clinics to accommodate children considered as wizards. Greater knowledge of the phenomenon can raise awareness and combat these practices. The dialogue between communities, local authorities, traditional practitioners and church leaders must start by emphasising children’s rights. For these rights to be applied, the sensitisation of the magistrates also seems necessary, as well as the regulation of the activities of the churches involved, and the licenses dispensed to the traditional practitioners.
Plea presented by Asaël Kimfuta and Liora Amsellem during the memorial of Caen. They won the third prize.
Translated from French by Ariane Apodaca
Firstly published in May 2018