Monday, November 06, 2006

No spells, just sorrow

CONGO | Accused of practicing witchcraft, children are ejected from homes

No spells, just sorrow

Blaming the kids for troubles gives guardians and parents an excuse to get rid of a dependent.

McClatchy Newspapers
Shashank Bengali | McClatchy-Tribune
Kipasi Kama, 15, was kicked out of his house when relatives accused him of witchcraft. Sorcery allegations are now the No. 1 cause of child homelessness in Kinshasa, Congo.

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.

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.

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 growing revivalist churches where spurious pastors offer to exorcise spirits. There are thought to be more than 2,000 such churches in Kinshasa, a city of about 9 million people.

Aid workers estimate that there are 25,000 to 50,000 children living on the streets, 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 behaviors such as bedwetting, 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.”

Jean-Marie Kalonji, a pastor who runs the Fountain of Adoration of God Evangelical Center, claims to be Kinshasa’s expert on the subject.

“Witchcraft is a bigger problem in Congo than AIDS,” said Kalonji.

Kalonji renounces the “false methods” of other pastors, which include 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 says his technique involves a lot of prayer but no physical abuse.


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