By Caroline Six                            

This feature was realized thanks to the support of the Gloriamundi Foundation

It was difficult to discern the sleeping bodies lying disorderly across the concrete floor. It is another night without electricity in the shelter for street children of Matongue, a district of Kinshasa. Still dripping from the bath he takes here every evening, Patrick, known here as 'Michigan', the nickname he chose in the street, takes me to his fellow street children who are still awake. Under a covered courtyard used as a classroom during the day, about fifteen street boys, "schegués" or "phaseurs" as they are known in the Democratic Republic of Congo, joke with their educators from the 'Foyer Père Franck', who will watch over them as they sleep tonight.

Among them is young Sankas, thirteen, who has been living on the street since the age of eight. "My mom chased me away because I ate too much. I was complaining. They insulted me and hit me with a stick until I said that I was a witch. Mom took me to the Church of Bima (an evangelic Church in the municipality of Bumbu). There, they said that I was a child-witch. They poured oil into my eyes for my salvation. But when we went back home, Mom took my clothes and told me to leave, saying that I was a child-witch."

Like 80% of the 30,000 to 50,000 children who work, sleep and even give birth in the streets of Kinshasa, Sankas was chased away by his family after being accused of witchcraft by an independent church.

More than 7000 in the Congolese capital, the evangelical churches play an essential role in the process that lead to numerous Kinshasa families abandoning their children. By giving a spiritual guarantee to the worried families, these communities of diverse and combined faiths, often stigmatized under the name of 'awakening churches' (or evangelical churches), have transformed a limited phenomenon into an ordinary and acceptable social reality within a period of 20 years.

With an absence of basic services, state support, and even of the state itself, families are often distraught by the numerous problems they face; accidents, disease, death and unemployment are common reasons for the accusations. These churches have become a key local landmark. Not only answering a very real call for support, the pastors moreover offer an effective remedy for these disoriented households.

But in addition, they actually initiate and participate in an escalation of the violence which drives children onto the streets, into the rough everyday life, which, between rule of might and getting by, then seems more bearable.

Far from traditional Congolese values that have always considered the child as an asset, these 'visionaries' rely on a fallacious use of the popular belief in witchcraft and give it a distinctive urban slant. Of its ambivalent initial nature (being both protective and threatening at the same time), remains only the malicious side, using the easily influenced children to carry out its work. Once declared evil, they are considered become dangerous burdens for their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but most often step mothers, who consider it safer to get rid of them than to keep them; because once the 'demonic' nature of a child has been declared, there is no turning back. In most cases, even after a 'spiritual operation', as expensive and violent as they are, the child-witch remains a child-witch.

Bedwetting, agitated sleep, a bloated stomach, epilepsy, slow growth, appetite, insolence and disability, the list of symptoms and 'strange behavior' indicating that the 'evil spirit' has entered a child’s body is long. Leaving the door of your bedroom open is also a sign, as Nana, 19, learned: chased away from her home and hunted down with machetes because of her bad habit, she survives today as a prostitute, like all the girls questioned about their livelihoods.

But these 'signs' are not sufficient to establish that a child is a witch. A spiritual authority must validate the suspicions of the worried family. In certain cases, a Nganga (witch-doctor) can play this role. More often however, prophets do it: thanks to the spirit invested in them, they can 'see' everything in the child; its soul, its nature and 'even the color of his underwear', asserts the threatening prophetess Maman Landu Jolie. Only the relatives too poor to pay for a 'revelation' do without and throw their child directly onto the streets.

Once declared witches by the 'visionary', the children old enough to express themselves have to confess their demonic nature. It is a step toward salvation.

The 'intercessor' (a devoted member of the Church) of Maman Jolie summarizes it thus, "to persuade the children that they are witches is no easy task". To do it, every Church has its own method. Psychological pressure, considered the 'soft' way, is rather rare.

The treatment undergone by Exaucé, 13, during a two week reclusion in a church, is more common. In the 'open center' (the children come here of their own free will to have a bath, food and to sleep at night) of the Oseper in Matete, he recounts, "I was in Brazzaville with my father. When we returned to Kinshasa, my grandmother had died. We went to the church of my grandfather for the mourning. The pastor pointed at me. He said that I had eaten my grandmother. They locked me in the church, my hands and feet tied with ropes. I could not see outside. They did not feed me for three days (a common practice aiming at “starving the evil spirit invested in them"). Then they purged us: one liter of palm oil to be swallowed (so that the child vomits the human flesh he ingested, the means by which the witchcraft was given to him). They poured water into my eyes, a water that made us cry (salt water mixed with herbs). I said that I was not a witch and that I understood nothing of that kind. But they wanted my salvation anyway. They poured candle wax on my feet and forehead. I ran away to find my family. They beat me so that I would confess. I ran away to the streets.”

If, unlike Exaucé, the child eventually confesses that he is a witch, or if he is simply too young to run away or protest, a collective ritual confession, followed by a spectacular and lucrative deliverance, is organized in the believer’s community by the 'intercessors'.

Numerous pastors, suspicious since the NGO Save the Children published several reports on the topic, describe these sessions as a mere act of anointing, accompanied by prayers. This sometimes is the case, as the testimony of young Sankas, confirms, for example.

But the rituals we witnessed are more commonly carried out.  Among them: the complete covering of the mother and her children in gasoline and salt or a purification represented by a symbolic cutting of the whole body with a machete. The ceremony carried out by the spiritual Community of the Blacks in Congo, of Kimbanguist faith, is even more striking. Among the singing of the congregation and the trance of the intercessors, the temperature of the Church reaches 45°C under the unforgiving sheet metal, the child (approximately 7 months in this case), covered with talc, is positioned on a mat in the sacred space, called the 'spiritual surgical unit'. An intercessor methodically examines the child, strongly pressing his thumbs on its stomach, while it screams and tries to escape.

The surgical-cum-spiritual intervention is carried out with the mouth. The man applies his lips to the child's stomach and applies suction-cum-inhalation pressure. He spits pieces of pale pink meat onto a plate, allegedly human flesh, three times. Probably hidden in the mouth, these pieces of raw meat will have been ingested by the child in the 'second world' and caused him to become a witch.

The intercessor tells me that "cockroaches, snakes, cartridges, groundnuts and chain bracelets sometimes come out of the child's body".

In both cases of deliverance, the children were sick: the first girl had an abscess on the neck, the second often had fever at night and vomited. None of them had already 'eaten' someone, but they were expensive for the family and could not shake their illness (evidence they were bewitched -not that the local health centers were useless).

If suspicions arise, mainly when someone dies, is sick or looses their job, or other events that generate harsh tensions in the family, the violence the relatives are capable of toward the designated child-witches indicate how strongly they believe in it. The relatives are viscerally afraid of their offspring. Some street children educators also whispered to me that "if 90% of the accusations are illegitimate, 10% of the children have real evil powers they use at night when they are amongst themselves". The educators also claim "to be frightened by the strange voices they hear in the courtyard some nights”.

If chasing the child one fears away is an option, trying to kill him is another, more extreme one. Elysée Ngoma, 10, whose parents divorced, was left in her aunt’s care after her mother died, and accused of witchcraft after the death of three children in her new home. At first burned by the prophet Kinda, officiating in the Church Laodicé (in the municipality of Barundu) for her salvation, Elysée was then attacked by her aunt with an iron, leaving unbearable marks on her breasts and body. She eventually fled to the streets, where she lived for several months before a medical center took care of her. Except for when she is in the company of her psychologist, she remains incapable of uttering a single word. The center did not press charges against the aunt because, according to the director, the trial would be too expensive and has almost no chance of succeeding.

Yet accusing someone of witchcraft is illegal. But since January 2011, thanks to the determination and relentless work of some NGOs like Reejer (a local network of educators for children and youths living on the streets), Save the Children and UNICEF, a court in charge of children rights has been set up. "It reports no activity for the moment", regrets Rémy Mafu, president of Reejer. The decrease in the number of street children raided by the police is already considered a victory. "The number of families successfully reunited is also progressing, but with 650 newcomers on the street every month, the total number of abandoned children does not stop increasing", laments Mr. Mafu.

Concerning the mentality, he remains confident in the "quiet revolution” he is setting up, although his discussions with the relatives terrify him, with nine out of ten believing their child is responsible for their problems. As many families maintain a strong connection with a more established church (and go to evangelical churches only for salvation rituals), "a statement from the influential Cardinal Edouard Musangwo on the subject would be helpful". But so far, the Cardinal has not said a word.

As for the pastors, they don’t always understand what they do; during sensitization workshops, Rémy Mafu noticed that they "had no idea what a psychosomatic disease was, and they knew very little about the symptoms of common infant illnesses"; and some truly believe that they are doing the best for the families.

Every month, approximately 650 children are chased away onto the streets of Kinshasa, and 65 babies are born there, yet only a third of the children are in contact with a support initiative They form a parallel, autonomous society, which survives by getting by and prostitution. The treasure they supposedly have accrued in the second world sadly does not help them in the first one, poor devils.