Friday, November 03, 2006

Accused of witchcraft, children kicked to the streets in Congo

Accused of witchcraft, children kicked to the streets in Congo

By Shashank Bengali
McClatchy Newspapers
Kipasi Kama, 15, was kicked out of his house when relatives accused him of witchcraft. Witchcraft allegations are now the No. 1 cause of child homelessness in Congo's capital. (Shashank Bengali/MCT)
Kipasi Kama, 15, was kicked out of his house when relatives accused him of witchcraft. Witchcraft allegations are now the No. 1 cause of child homelessness in Congo's capital. (Shashank Bengali/MCT)

KINSHASA, Congo - When Mando Mengi was 5, his mother died and his father remarried. His stepmother, a tall, mercurial woman with two children of her own, saw Mando as a burden and gave him endless chores while the other kids did nothing.

One day, Mando refused to sweep the dirt floor of their home. His stepmother found a sinister explanation for his stubbornness: He was practicing witchcraft.

She began to withhold food and sometimes beat him, saying it would purge the evil spirits. Finally, she gave his father an ultimatum: "You've brought a sorcerer into this house," Mando recalled her saying. "Either he leaves or I do."

Mando didn't wait for him to decide. He ran away, joining tens of thousands of children who live on the streets of this broken-down African capital - most of them, aid agencies say, rejected by families who accuse them of witchcraft.

In Congo, where belief in the power of spirits and black magic goes back centuries, boys and girls as young as 5 are bearing the brunt of witchcraft allegations that once were reserved for rural women and widows. Aid workers blame the social toll of decades of economic depression, disease and conflict, which have torn apart countless families and made daily life desperate for most of the country's 60 million people.

With 4 million Congolese thought to have perished mostly from illnesses and hunger since a civil war began in 1998, and with eight in 10 surviving on less than a dollar per day, children are sometimes seen as encumbrances, just more mouths to feed. For some parents and guardians, calling a child a sorcerer offers an easy explanation for their troubles and a chance to rid themselves of a dependent.

Feeding these beliefs are mushrooming revivalist churches throughout the country, where spurious pastors offer to exorcise spirits - sometimes charging fees, sometimes subjecting children to physical or psychological abuse. There are thought to be more than 2,000 such churches in Kinshasa, a city of perhaps 9 million people.

Aid workers estimate that there are 25,000 to 50,000 children living on the streets here, and their numbers are growing. As many as 70 percent have been abandoned for allegedly practicing sorcery, according to a report this year by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In most cases, the group said, victims of witchcraft allegations had lost one or both parents. Their accusers are usually stepparents or guardians, and the children most often targeted are those with seemingly strange behaviors, such as bed-wetting, sleepwalking or aggression.

"Poverty and desperation are the basic causes," said Mike Mwamba, the director of a center for abandoned children in Gombe, a busy commercial section of Kinshasa where hundreds of street kids prowl about the main marketplace.

"It's a typical case: You see someone losing their job, and they look at home for an explanation. Where is this bad luck coming from? They see the child, who has certain negative characteristics: Maybe he is difficult, maybe he wets his bed.

"That becomes enough to accuse them of sorcery."

One of the children living at the center is Kipasi Kama, a 15-year-old who's small for his age and bites his nails incessantly. He was living with his father and stepmother when a neighbor said she'd dreamed that Kipasi came to strangle her in her sleep.

Immediately, Kipasi said, his father ordered him out of the house.

"If I am a sorcerer, I don't know it," Kipasi said. "They never gave me a chance to prove that I wasn't."

Others, such as Mando, who's now 15, are deprived of food at home and sent to churches that perform "deliverance" ceremonies. Mando was sent to so many that he remembers them now only by the methods they used: the one where the pastor made him eat pigeon meat, for example, or the one where a group of boys pummeled him with their fists.

It was during that episode that Mando, a lanky boy with sunken cheeks, admitted to practicing witchcraft. It was the only way the beating would stop, he thought.

Jean-Marie Kalonji, a pastor who runs the Fountain of Adoration of God Evangelical Center and advertises his deliverance services on Christian radio, claims to be Kinshasa's expert on the subject. On a recent afternoon, a dozen people waited in the dirt courtyard of his one-room church for consultations.

"Witchcraft is a bigger problem in Congo than AIDS," said Kalonji, a young, professorial man with eyeglasses perched on the end of his nose. He displayed a 2-inch binder crammed with loose-leaf sheets, each of them a witchcraft case, he said.

Kalonji, who claims to have performed hundreds of exorcisms, renounces the "false methods" of other pastors, which he said don't work. He listed some of these methods in a slim paperback volume he authored three years ago titled "African Sorcery: Strategies of Deliverance," which he sells for about $7.

Among them are burning the sorcerer, extracting flesh from his mouth, beating him with an iron rod, trampling him, making him drink a bottle of palm oil daily for a week and forcing him to stare at the sun.

Kalonji was cagey about his own technique, which he said involved a lot of prayer but no physical abuse. As for payment, he said, "If a grateful parent offers me money, I don't refuse."

Aid workers say Congolese authorities have begun looking into cases of abuse by these pastors. But investigators are overwhelmed and most churches just take their services underground.

Less can be done about the abuse that street children must endure at the hands of older, bigger peers. Kipasi said he was tormented because of his size, made to wash other kids' clothes and subjected to a hazing ritual in which scalding liquid is poured on a child as he sleeps.

In its report, Human Rights Watch said older children often sexually abuse younger ones.

Social workers who know Mando's case have tried to persuade his father to take him back. Over the past several months, they said, the man visited the center a handful of times and re-established contact with his son. The last time, he promised to take the boy home at the end of October.

But it's now November and Mando is still sleeping in a steamy, crowded dorm room at the center. Social workers haven't told him about his father's promise, afraid of raising his hopes.

"I just want to go back to my family and live in peace," Mando said. "I regret that they've made me think about this so much. I never thought I was a witch. I thought the whole thing was a little weird."

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