Archive | June, 2013

Are Street Children Witches in the DR Congo? Or Victims?

10 Jun
K. Nickerson 2009

K. Nickerson 2009

Street Children have an unassuming but marked presence in every third world country and if the truth be known are prevalent in many prosperous nations as well. The amount of children forced to live out on the streets in the DR Congo are staggering and according to the United States Department of State, 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Democratic Republic of the Congo there are an estimated 8.2 million displaced children, orphaned or vulnerable, living this way. According to this report a startling 91% eek out their daily living in any way they can and only 3% of them have access to medical care. In 2006, The UNICEF/ World Bank Initiative estimated that 30,000-40,000 children were living on their own without adult supervision on the streets of the DR Congo with the highest concentration in the larger cities like Kinshasa, Goma, and Mbuyi Mayi. Many of these children were forced to leave their homes by members of their immediate or extended families while others ended up in the cities by way of displacement camps as refugees or war orphans. With the fighting in the eastern districts continuing to escalate since 2006, it is a fair assumption that the number of “ street” children have steadily increased.

A common occurrence children experience after the death of a father is watching their relatives descend into their homes on the day of the funeral and physically cast out them- mother and children out into the streets with only the clothes on their backs. And the question of inheritance may depend on just how the deceased’s property has been passed down within a tribal system- through a matrilineal or patrilineal source of ownership. The prevalence of an entire family’s eviction is far greater in cases where the husbands’ extended family is involved in the funeral preparations but is also known to occur when the wife is a much younger woman and a member of a different tribe. In all patrilineal tribes throughout the DR Congo when a husband dies even in a monogamous marriage the widow is required to share the running of the household with one of the husband’s males relatives.

And what threatens these children’s futures even more is that polygamy is an accepted form of marriage throughout Central and East Africa especially prevalent in rural areas no matter the governments’ official positions on the practice. Rwanda, Burundi, and the DR Congo claim that polygamy is not legal in their respective countries yet there is no doubt that it has been and is widely practiced in each one of these three countries. In November 2012, the Kenyan government actually passed a bill legitimizing the practice within the country. Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia acknowledge the practice of polygamy under civil law while Kenya and Tanzania support polygamous practices under customary law. In all of these countries as long as a man is able to provide for and maintain a separate household for each wife and her children he is allowed to have more than one wife so when this man dies, his death and the conditions of his will can affect the livelihood of several different families. And although the Constitution of the DR Congo prohibits parental abandonment of children this is a daily occurrence on the streets of Mbuyi Mayi and other large cities around the Congo. Congolese law stipulates that the sentence for child abandonment is imprisonment for parents and any other adults found guilty of the crime but as of 2013 the government had yet to arrest or try any adults for breaking this law.

But there is a unique twist connected to the abandonment of children in the DR Congo- a darker, more even more dangerous reason for throwing the young away. As fantastical as it sounds many parents in the DR Congo feel that they have no choice but to cast their children aside because they are convinced that these children are witches (ndogi).  These parents are certain that these witch children are slowly ruining their lives and that in time will eat them or turn them over to other witches who will devour their bodies and souls. The idea that witchcraft, sorcery, and witches are all acceptable daily occurrences is so ingrained in Congolese society that it is believed by everyone- no matter their station or calling in life. And where witches in rural villages are elderly men and women capable of performing both good and bad deeds the belief in “child witches” is connected to sorcery and  spawned from a whole different set of magical outcomes created and practiced exclusively in urban areas. The idea of “evil children” seems to be an entirely new phenomenon  beginning about  ten years ago which many community leaders believe is a reaction to the stress and the uncertainty of life in a modern city.  The urban street myths used to explain away unexpected tragedy and  human suffering seem  to place children in an even more vulnerable position. Everyone living in East Africa has heard the justification that “when parents die of AIDS- it is their children’s doing” and or the advice that “having sex with a young virgin will cure a man of AIDS.”

And the cruelest superstitions of all brand children as witches merely because they have been born with physical or mental disabilities. Children, who in the United States of America would qualify for Special Education classes and special services, are thrown out onto the street to fend for themselves in cities all around the DR Congo. It is common midwife folklore in the DR Congo that a woman who gives birth to a physically disabled child has sinned during her pregnancy and a mother who gives birth to a mentally disabled child was cursed by a witch during her pregnancy. And these birthing tales are not just unique to the DR Congo when I was living in Kitui, Kenya the Kamba women there told me the exact same stories about “children of the second world.”.
A mother and father might begin to suspect a child of being a witch if he/she suffers from epilepsy and has physical seizures, or if he/she becomes moody, disrespectful, contrary, violent- all signs healthy adolescents might exhibit as they move through their teenage years. These children could also be displaying symptoms related to severe stress, worry, or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But any one of these behaviors is enough to alert families to the presence of a witch in their homes and parents begin to distance themselves  physically and emotionally from the child  during a very important stage in the  his/her life.  According to UNICEF 2011 it was reported that as many as 70%  of the street children it assisted in its outreach programs in DR Congo claimed to have been accused of witchcraft.

And what makes this a double tragedy is that the very organizations and institutions that should be supporting these children do not exist or have found ways to exploit the parents and children even further. Currently, the DR Congo  government has no social service agencies in place to help these parents. Therefore parents who are concerned over the likelihood that one  or all of their children may be witches have no choice but to bring them to a certain Pentecostal churches where cruel and inhuman exorcisms are performed on these children for a price. Each pastor conducts his/her own unique form of exorcism by starving, isolating, beating, whipping, and feeding purgatives and laxatives to these supposed witches against their will. In rare cases some children are cured and sent back to their parents but most children continue to reside on church grounds, kept as prisoners and requiring that their parents pay out even more money to church authorities to maintain their residence there. In instances where their parents can no longer afford the children’s upkeep, the youngsters are quickly turned out into the street to fend for themselves. According to 2012 UNICEF reports around  50,000 children may have been currently turned over by parents to churches claiming that they are capable of  curing the child of witchcraft.

According to the 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The constitution of the DR Congo prohibits parental abandonment of children who are believed to have committed sorcery. Nevertheless, parents or other care providers sometimes abandoned or abused such children, frequently invoking ‘witchcraft’ as a rationale, regardless of whether or not they believed their child was a “witch.” The law provides for a sentence of imprisonment for parents and other adults who accuse children of witchcraft. Authorities have yet to implement this law effectively.”

So just who is a street child? In the DR Congo it is an unwanted child usually under the age of fourteen or eighteen seeing that minimum legal age for consensual sex in the DR Congo is 14 years for females and 18 years of age for males. But either way it is a legal minor who has ceased to be supported in any way by the adults in his/her immediate or extended family and forced to live on the streets or in market places for any number of reasons. For many of these children their immediate families disintegrate when either: mothers and fathers die off from AIDS or Malaria: the living parent remarries due to the death of the other partner: members of the extended family such as grandparents, aunts or uncles die off or move away: or when either parent deserts the immediate family to seek work in other sections of the country. And when unexplainable, life-changing events such as this happen to families it is the child who suffers the most dire repercussions and may suddenly find him/herself unwanted and alone.

The street children of East and Central Africa have learned to band together into a unique underground culture. They have assembled into one body like a scene out of Lord of the Flies and most have joined loose-knit “family units” run by the older boys and girls from whom they receive protection and to whom they hand over a large percentage of their daily profits. During the day you’ll see them sleeping in the parks and tree-lined boulevards around the city when everyone else is up and busy moving from one place to another. Or you will observe them begging motorists for money at stop lights and ‘turn-arounds’ especially during the morning and evening commutes. You’ll know them by their dirty clothing and their street-wizened smiles even on the faces of the youngest who have a certain edge to them that lets you know they can handle themselves in any situation and do not fear violence. Some of them will have a dazed, dislocated look in their eyes from sniffing glue sold to them by pushers in grimy plastic bottles for five pennies a go but even these poor souls would slice your throat in an instant if they got you in an alley way alone and you were unarmed and carrying something of worth. The daytime hours are far kinder to these youngsters than the nighttime ones when predatory adults appear looking to exploit or harm these children. But encased in sunlight they move with a dogged determination and display a certain pride in their accomplishments because they have perfected the skills needed to survive on their own. Whereas the others- the more timid, peaceable ones, they are already dead -because they could not.

A few very lucky street children grow into adults and the really blessed ones somehow manage to find a wealthy sponsor and maybe a wonderful, new home but that only happens to a small percentage of this population. Many of them will die of simple things like blood poisoning or dysentery from which they could have recovered had they been given the proper medicines or treatment. Others will be killed by all manner of human predators from policeman who will use them for target practice to slave traffickers who want to exploit their young bodies. Another group will be picked up off the streets by police during the day and sent to Remand Centers where the older children will receive vocational training and some will excel in these careers like tailors and seamstresses and  leave the streets to open their own businesses.

The most vulnerable street children are those who make their living through some form of prostitution and they will die from all manner of sexual diseases including AIDS. According to a 2010 World Bank report, 26% of children living on the streets of the DR Congo were girls, and of those, nine out of 10 were involved in prostitution while seven out of 10 had reported that they had been raped.

The majority of street children have learned to survive in a world where they have neither the power nor the resources to succeed. And most find out very quickly that the rules protecting “wanted children” do not apply to them. According to World Vision in September of 2004 adult miners in Mbuyi Mayi hunted down and killed sixteen street children many younger than ten years of age and wounding hundreds more until stopped by the municipal police force but no one was arrested for these murders. Again in 2005 a nine year old boy was knocked to the ground and burned alive by truck drivers in the courtyard of the Longo School because he was suspected of being a witch and no charges were ever filed against him.

Whenever I consider the reason for “street children” I think of wise Mzee S. owner of his own clothing shop on the second floor of a building in Karen, Kenya. I am including the transcript from his interview  in July of 2006. I think what he had to say was the most straightforward and meaningful account of the reason for the existence of street children I have ever heard. I thank him for his honestly for revealing the truth of the matter in the sincerest way he knew how. Read what he had to say then think of his words whenever you’re inclined to make a hasty, impractical judgment.

Mzee S: Things use to be different when I was a child and people didn’t have AIDS. The families in my village would take in every orphan right into their own homes like they were born into the family and they treated these new sons and daughters just like the other children.

Mzee S: But then people started to get sick and it made them very weak- some could not even get out of bed and then they would die. Other villagers left to work in Nairobi and we did not see them for years. Some came back but they had married out of their tribe without the leaders’ blessing and had children from these marriages. We treated them well when they visited here but didn’t think of them as Kikuyu any more.

Mzee S: And then I went to live near Nairobi too and after working hard for twenty years opened my own clothing store. I used to see these small children walking around outside my shop. A couple times I even called the police because I would notice a young boy crying by one of the kiosks asking for his mother. The police came and took him away. I didn’t think then to ask them where they were taking him.

Mzee S: Soon there were a lot of the children on the streets of Nairobi and you could tell that they had nowhere to go. I even talked to my wife about it but there were just too many of them for one man to do anything about it- and it frightened me.

Mzee S: You know there are just too many orphans around here now- too many of them and its making Kenya too crowded. These streets kids have no one to lookout for them so are treated as goods by savy adults just looking to make a profit any way they can. I will not do that but I understand why they do it.

Mzee S: You know this can happen to every family in Kenya. One day your business is doing well and the next your wife dies and your shop catches fire. Then what happens to your own children? Before they know it they’re out on the street too and cannot afford their school fees. All the shop owners I know around her are just one day ahead of catastrophe and you have no idea how thankful I am to God every night I get to lock my shop doors cause everything is OK.

Mzee S: But you are a white person ( m’zungu) from the United States of America- a professor. What would you know what I and the other shop owners face each and every day? Sometimes I forget my fears but not often. I am a father and my responsibility is to my own children. But I know deep in my heart that someday if things do not go well I could find myself out on those streets along with those children.

Kat Nickerson                                                                                                                            Kingston, Rhode Island USA


Saving the African Rhinoceros? Is Poison an Option?

3 Jun





Two weeks ago my son Micah sent me an email and this link urging me to listen to the following story Vietnam’s Appetite for Rhino Horn Drives Poaching in Africa ( May 13, 2013 ) about the danger to the rhinoceros as a species in East and Southern Africa written by Frank Langfitt for NPR News, 2013. I have included the link here for these of you who wish to read the original article or listen to the audio version. It is an excellent summary that discusses three options for eliminating the threat to rhinos living in East and South Africa and explains why  international poachers take the severe risks they do to kill these animals and “dehorn” them.

I must admit I knew very little about the African White or Black rhinoceros when Charles, my guide and driver, suggested at the end of a long safari on the Mara in 2005 that my students and I go meet one. So I said yes without really thinking it through but insisted that I would only let my students near the rhino after I determined that it was not an immediate threat to them. Now when on Safari anything and everything can be a threat in some way so it becomes a matter of the degree of the peril. So I left the car ready to evaluate this particular level of danger in greeting a White rhinoceros. Charles and I are old friends and he is a highly respected safari guide in his own right so when he assured me that I would live past this meeting I trusted his judgment and summoned up the courage to walk towards the ranger on duty at the reserve and introduce myself to him.  This was the first time I had visited a rhinoceros reserve while in East Africa and I would go on to visit two more while in Kenya during the summer of 2006.

Here is the photo of me (see lead photo) standing with that very same ranger who has just called out to a White, male rhino the same way you would summon your cat or dog. And what’s more the animal heard him and was coming down the path  approaching us from behind. If my face looks rather distorted it’s because I’m getting ready to run even as the ranger assures me that everything “is OK”. All of my “fight or flight” responses kicked in at once and I was determined to make it back to the vehicle in one piece.  And the only reason I did not reach the Rover was because the ranger continued to hold on to my jacket in a very gentlemanly-like way as we stood there having our picture taken.  I could literally feel the ground shake under my feet as this several ton mammal advanced convincing me that my luck had run out and that I would soon become rhino fodder. Obviously that was not the case and to my amazement not only did the rhino stop when the ranger asked him to, (very nicely, I might add) but he stayed there and let me rub his face and ears. And the only thing the ranger carried with him was a small thin wooden stick- that’s it ( see lead picture). No gun, no Taser, no weapon of any kind. And it was obvious that the only thing keeping the animal in check was a deep, reciprocal bond between the two of them.

After recovering my nerve and adjusting to the fact that I was indeed standing beside a wild rhino I looked into the animal’s eyes.  Although rhinos have very poor eyesight in general and are forced to take in peripheral information using their sense of smell and touch this male had kind, aware eyes and was enjoying my company. He seemed more than willing to stand there and share a moment with me turning his massive head to the side so I could better scratch behind one ear then the other. One swipe of his tremendous head would have rendered me unconscious and broken my bones. I’m sure the big male was aware of his destructive power and as a wild animal would lash out at any perceived threat real or imagined in the blink of an eye. But it was also evident that this rhino had developed a close relationship to this ranger, enough so that he willingly did whatever his friend asked of him.

I must confess I had previously thought that all rhinoceros were dumb bovine-like  creatures that lived together like cattle with temperaments resembling bulls.  But this male did not seem to thrive on confrontation or domination at all and seemed more than content to spend his days eating grass out on the Mara and interacting with humans especially his friend the ranger. And most importantly, this wild rhino seemed to be in a peaceful mood when my students approached him so I let them scratch behind his ears too. They enjoyed the experience immensely and talked about it all the way back to Nairobi while the rhino seemed to appreciate every pat and rub. I don’t think I ever got the rhino’s name and have since forgotten the name of the ranger but I do remember the overall sweetness of the creature, yes sweetness! There was something very lovable about the animal and the way it related to human beings despite its imposing physique and great capacity for violence. There was a certain cuteness in its over- all ugliness too. And the caring relationship I observed between rhino and ranger? Well that made a lasting impression on me as well.

Once I was back in the Bush Rover my driver explained to me that originally there were five species of rhinoceros in the world and two of these species the White and the Black rhinoceros are found on the continent of Africa.  Rhinoceros have been named not by the color of their skin but by the shapes of their mouths and heads. Actually all of the rhinos I’ve seen although actually grey in color appeared reddish brown because of the red mud they had rolled or waded in to keep them cool under the hot savannah sun. All rhinos love water and wading in shallow pools is one of their favorite pleasures. If you look at my lead picture the rhino there appears more reddish brown in color than grey.  Although both animals have two horns, the White Rhino has a larger and blockier head with a square mouth where both lips meet evenly. Think of the white rhino as a grazer like a cow that enjoys eating grass out on the savannahs. The Black rhino has a smaller, rounder, pig-like head with a definite over-bite where its top lip hooks over its bottom one.  Think of them as browsers more like deer that enjoy eating leaves, buds, twigs, and branches from shrubs and trees in woodland forests but they will also venture out on savannahs even deserts. Of the two the White rhino is the more social and less aggressive one although both kinds can live in families of up to twelve members. Often adult males tend to live solitary lives.

By the turn of the twentieth century White rhinos had been hunted almost to extinction with less than fifty of them living in Kwo Zulu- Natail Reserve.  The South African government engaged in a tremendous country-wide effort to increase their numbers and succeeded until the age of the poacher began at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As of June 2013 South Africa is currently home to about 20,000 rhinoceros- the largest rhino population in the world.

Although Black rhinoceros originally found in Southern and Eastern Africa are native to Kenya the White Rhinoceros was not and has been introduced into Kenya and placed in government and private reserves to help restore the White rhino population in Africa. The White Rhinoceros was native to the countries in Southern Africa as well as the Northern Congo, Southern Sudan and Western Uganda. A subspecies, the Northern White Rhinoceros is considered a critically endangered species and on December 20, 2009 four out of six Northern White rhinos housed at a Zoo in the Czech Republic were sent to Ole Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in order to help restore this subspecies to its original home in East Africa. Only two more animals of this subspecies remain at the Czech Zoo and another two at the San Diego Zoo in California, USA. It was thought that there might be 10 more Northern White Rhino in Garamba National Park in DR Congo but with civil war raging on in this district most conservation groups have given up hope that these animals are still alive .

According to the Rhino Resource Center (2013) the Black Rhino has fared the worst with an estimated 3,610 of them currently left in the wild compared to a total population of 70,000 only 53 years ago (1960). And one of its subspecies, The Western Black Rhinoceros had already been declared extinct by the IUCN back in 2011. The White Rhino is doing somewhat better with a total wild population of about 14.500 but that number is quickly shrinking as poachers kill off these mammals lured by the tremendous amount of money that can be made from the sale of rhino horns especially in Vietnam and China.

The powder created from one adult rhino horn could make the seller an extremely wealthy man in the Asian Black market as it currently sells for $1, 400 US an ounce right up there with the price of gold. The street value of three large adult horns could be upwards of one million dollars to the seller. These exorbitant profits have created an international league of poachers who use advanced technology and bribe the rangers and local villages for information about the location of the rhinos and the presence of conservancy officials. It is hard to blame desperate people who have nothing for turning on the rhinos in order to earn enough money to survive.

So it comes as no surprise that just last week, May 23, 2013 poachers shot to death seven rhinos in four different conservancy areas around Kenya: the first was killed in Lake Nakuru, Central Kenya; three days later the second and third were killed in Solio Ranch, Central Kenya and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, Southern Kenya. The next day one more rhino was killed at Meru National Park in Northern Kenya, and two days after that three more rhinos were killed at Oserian Wildlife sanctuary, a private ranch in Naivasha, Central Kenya. And what makes these strikes most chilling is that wild life officials have reason to believe this was a coordinated effort among one specific group of international poachers.

All this in a county where poachers are given a mere slap on the wrist and many buy their way out of jail before being handed over to wild life authorities. These seven killings put the death of the rhino at about 24 as of June 2013 and the country had already lost 30 in 2012. According to Kenya Wildlife Service officials there are only 1,000 wild rhinos living in Kenya as of June 2013 and at this rate of loss the entire population will become extinct by 2018.

Although on May 20, 2013 the Kenyan MP’s voted to raise penalties for poaching and trafficking of wildlife products this all come a little too late. Based on all that I’ve read and been told – the international poachers have already won this war and the African rhino will go the way of the Asian rhino unless something drastic is done immediately. These new penalties of fifteen years in jail and millions of Kenyan shillings in fines will not stop these international poachers if the profit margin continues to be so lucrative and the risks manageable.

So I am supporting The Rhino Rescue Project and believe that unless we take the enormous profit out of selling rhino horns on the Asian market little else will deter the horrifying slaughter of the African Rhino. By placing poison in the rhino’s horns that does not hurt the animal but turns the horn into its own poisoned mace we may just be saving these creatures’ lives and deterring potential buyers. It would not take long for word to circulate around Hong Kong and other Asian cities that rhino horn powder just might kill you. No huge profits means -no incentive for poachers to seek these animals out.  Each horn would be thoroughly marked poisonous on the outside and the poisoned powder made from these horns would also be identifiable. I am sure that after the first few deaths word would circulate fast among the nouveau –riche that Rhino powder is no longer a “safe” sale. It has already been proven that Rhino powder serves no real medicinal purpose anyways and is considered a status purchase in the Asian markets at best. I am in full agreement to “let the buyer beware” on this one.

So please visit The Rhino Rescue Project, read what they and the other links have to say, and then make up your own mind. And if you have the time send me your comments letting me know what you think as well. The murder of White and Black rhinos all over Africa must stop now!. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the White rhino I met that day. Is he still alive grazing away on that Kenyan savannah or did he end up something like this?

Kat Nickerson   Kingston, RI   USA.




Photo: Phil Mattews, May 2013

Photo: Phil Mattews, May 2013