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

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