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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 July 2005, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Congo's child victims of superstition

By Angus Crawford
BBC, DR Congo

Aerial view of Kinshasa
Poverty in Kinshasa has led to it being called "the dustbin"

Poverty, civil war and a widely held belief in witchcraft means children in the Democratic Republic of Congo can be extremely vulnerable. Angus Crawford hears the stories of some of the young victims in the capital, Kinshasa.

When Maria starts to cry, she does not make a sound. She sits rigid and silent, staring straight ahead.

She allows just a trickle of tears from each eye. She does not even blink.

She has good reason to be sad.

Three years ago, she lived in London and went to primary school. She still has photographs of the friends she made there.

But her stepmother made a discovery - she decided Maria was possessed, that she had what the Congolese call "kindoki" - witchcraft.


Her father bought a single ticket and within days Maria was getting off a plane in Kinshasa.

Poverty, ignorance and a twisting of traditional beliefs mean Maria is now a pariah

She spoke little French and almost none of the local language, Lingalla. She was told it was just a holiday.

When I track her down, three years later, she is living in a two-room house in one of the poorest areas of the city. She shares it with 29 members of her extended family.

She has braided hair and a shy smile, and is fashion-conscious like only girls desperate to be teenagers can be.

She is dressed in shocking lime green from head to toe.

The tears only start when I ask her what she remembers of the night she arrived back in the city.

It is the terror of that chaotic airport, with its bribe-taking officials, its guards and their guns, the choking heat, the pungent smells.

A seven-year-old girl abandoned and lost. You can read it all on her face.

Street children

Map of DR Congo

Maria, at least, has a roof over her head.

Christian, like 20,000 other street children here, sleeps anywhere he can.

He is tiny. He looks about five or six but tells me he is nine.

He is filthy and his clothes are in tatters.

When he speaks I can barely hear him. Because I am an adult - and so command respect - he calls me "Papa".

I ask him why his family threw him out. Again that word "kindoki" - witchcraft.

Objects of fear

His grandmother says he tried to eat another relative. He tells me that all he hopes for in life now is for the bad spirits to leave him.

I asked pastors how they knew a child was a witch - the answer was almost always that God had shown them

It seems extraordinary but aid agencies believe the vast majority of street children are there for the same reason, as are countless others in orphanages.

It is almost as though this country is in the grip of a collective paranoia, where children have become objects of fear.

It is not that the Congolese do not love their children. Of course they do, they are still the heart of community life.

But the belief in a second, invisible world where witchcraft thrives is widely held.

Combine that with a country in economic freefall, where the extended family is collapsing under the weight of Aids and poverty.

Remember, too, that the foot soldiers of the armies which deposed former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, were children.

Social cleansing

A child soldier in DR Congo
Children as young as eight were recruited as soldiers, the UN says

The image of pre-pubescent boys with machine-guns striding into Kinshasa is etched onto people's memories. They call them the "Kadogos", which very roughly translates as, the "little ones".

Add to that an explosion of evangelical Christian churches which advocate muscular - sometimes violent - exorcism, and you have a gigantic exercise in social cleansing.

And often it is the children who become the scapegoats for all society's ills.

For salvation from these so called "witch children", many families turn to people like Mama Gena.

She is obviously powerful.

It is not just her three mobile phones or even her two designer handbags. Her diamond encrusted watch is impressive too, almost as impressive as the picture of her in police uniform hanging above her desk.

Exorcisms for a fee

But her real power comes from the fact that she is a self-appointed prophetess, who will both identify your child as a witch and then perform an exorcism - for a fee, of course.

And business appears to be good.

Congolese friends tell me her ceremonies are mild. She only starves her charges for five days.

Other pastors burn, hit and sexually abuse the children. Some are killed.

Again and again, I asked pastors how they could tell that a child was a witch. The answer was almost always that God showed them.

The head of one non-governmental organisation put it more bluntly. If you are too fat or too thin, too quiet or too noisy, if you wet the bed or you are disabled as a child you are at risk.

Even more so if you are not a blood relation of the person pointing the finger. It is no surprise that stepmothers frequently appear as the chief accusers.

If they are not yours and you cannot feed them, they are possessed.

So Maria really has good reason to weep.

Poverty, ignorance and a twisting of traditional beliefs mean she is now a pariah.

She knows her old life in London with her school friends is over. Her new life in Kinshasa is one of poverty, fear and the threat of disease.

And so she cries because, she says, she wants to go home.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 July, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
04 May 05 |  Country profiles
Is witchcraft alive in Africa?
27 Jul 05 |  Africa
From schoolboy to soldier
20 Sep 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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