They are condemned as witches and warlocks, the demon seed of sorcery.
Denounced, shunned and ejected from their homes.
Yet they’re children as young as 4 and 5, tossed onto the scrapheap of street life to fend for themselves, chased by predators and running away from police.
Platini — named grandiosely for a former soccer star – is 14 and for the past three months has been sleeping in the doorway of a bakery in Makala, one of the capital’s poorest communes, where he can smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread and beg for morsels.
“My mother died when I was little and they said I killed her, that I ate her from the inside,’’ the youth explains in his native Lingali tongue through an interpreter.
This accusation – feeding off the internal organs of a relative who’s died from an undiagnosed illness – is a common motif in the mystic anthropology of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the growing phenomenon of “child witches’’ driven from their homes.
Platini’s father remarried. His new wife wanted nothing to do with the boy and resurrected rumours of the child’s possession by evil spirits. She beat him remorselessly — 16 surgical staples required at one point, for a broken joint and an attack with the jagged edge of a smashed bottle.
“She told me she was going to kill me by poisoning,’’ Platini recounts, matter-of-factly. When he noticed strange-coloured crystals in his food, he assumed she was carrying out her threat, so he fled. Nobody came after him.
At Ndako ya Biso — it means “Our House’’ — a refuge for street children, social workers have been unable to trace Platini’s family. Not that Platini wants to return to them, though he would like it if his mother’s family expressed an interest in giving him shelter, a home, some bonds of blood and affection.
“There’s no one who loves me.’’
Another child at the centre, 13-year-old Manzambi, was sent packing because he had a deformed right foot — two outside toes of gigantic size, a birth defect. That was enough to stigmatize the boy as a witch, conveyor of misfortune to his family. Although Médecins du Monde performed surgery and removed the offending toes, Manzambi’s family still won’t accept him back. He’s been on the street for two years, clinging to a pack of urchins who sleep together in sheltered terrace near the main market.
“They are my family now,’’ he says. “We protect each other.’’
On the hardscrabble streets of Kinshasa, homeless children — some 300 new arrivals every month — are easy prey for abuse and sexual violence, vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS and other sicknesses. They live by their wits, some working for pennies as porters and shoe-shiners, many thieving, pubescent girls offering their bodies — though, if pregnancy occurs, they will be cast out from their street family. The capital is now into a third-generation of street dwellers, from grandmothers to grandchildren.
“What’s happening now can be traced to the early ’80s,’’ says Jean-Pierre Godding, a Belgian national who opened Our House in 2004 after two decades of humanitarian work in Rwanda.
Homelessness has always been a grim fact of life in the Congo, as elsewhere in the world. But something happened, culturally and socially, three decades ago that drove up the population of street children massively. Godding blames the Pentecostals, apostolic churches that suddenly gained wide traction in a country that had been overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with interwoven traditional beliefs.
“Anyone can call themselves a pastor and start their own church,’’ says Godding. “There is no law stopping them.’’
He calls them “pastor-prophets,’’ poorly educated if charismatic individuals who play on the black magic fears of Congolese citizens with a pre-existing dread of sorcery.
“In the past, there were always people who were accused of being witches,’’ says Godding. “But they were adults, usually old women. They could at least try to defend themselves from these stories. There was never a culture in Africa of children being accused of witchcraft.’’
The apostolics changed that, it seems. Youngsters, even babies, became easy targets of blame when bad luck hit a family, if a parent or sibling died, if a father couldn’t find work.
“A pastor-prophet would say, come join my church, I can perform miracles. Or they say, bring me your child who is causing all this sorcery and I will cast the devil out — for $10. They became like doctors making house calls, curing the possessed.’’
Children have been subjected to terrible mistreatment in the casting out of evil spirits — hot wax poured on their bodies, incisions made on their stomachs (where evil body-snatchers are believed to centrally reside), youngsters starved, allowed only water and bread for weeks at a time. “It’s a kind of torture,’’ says Godding.
Parents who can’t afford an exorcism, or simply wish to rid themselves of a bothersome child will cast off the unwanted one. Godding estimates 60 per cent of the street children in Kinshasa are there because they’ve been fingered for witchcraft by a relative or neighbour.
If these belief systems are primitive and grotesque, it’s important to remember that the Congo is a rural country torn apart by decades of war, where the population has always felt deeply connected to and respectful of ancestors. There is a continuum between living and dying, a traditional sense of the spiritual and mystic as ever-present.
The notion of witchcraft has become more flexible, the occult integrated into modern life in ways not seen before – with children especially targeted as agents of evil spirits – in a “reinvention of tradition,’’ with powers to inflict harm through supernatural realms and malevolent forces.
Child witches are typically orphans, kids with a physical disability — anything from a too-large head to an extra digit or a suspicious cast in the eyes — those suffering from a condition such as epilepsy or Down syndrome, even stuttering, those displaying unusual behaviour, too aggressive or too withdrawn, kids who appear gifted, preemies, twins and, always, albinos.
This is also, routinely, an excuse for banishment in reconstructed families, where a stepparent rejects the offspring of a previous spouse by crying: Witch!
The Catholic Church, which operates orphanages for “child witches,’’ has tried to denounce the witchcraft superstitions but has been careful not to preach against the false gospel of evangelical and revivalist churches. And last year, the Congo government passed a law making it illegal to categorize any child as a witch. It hasn’t made a whit of difference.