Naomi is 15 but looks 10. A horrible burn scar shrivels the skin across her chest and shoulder. She had a broken leg, now reset. But her face is calm; she speaks clearly. The physical scars are nothing compared with the trauma she has been through. She is one of the so-called child witches of Kinshasa, rejected by her family and community at six years old and left to survive on the streets.
Once she had four siblings and lived with her parents across the river in Brazzaville. Her father died and then her mother. She had to live with her grandfather and aunt, who did not want her. ‘Grandfather become sick and my aunt accused me of being a witch. She said, “Why is everyone around sick? They are suffering because of you.” Grandfather gave me special water to drink, but it made no difference.
‘My aunt said I must leave. The neighbours beat me and burnt me. They said either you must admit to being a witch or we will kill you. There is no place for you here. I went to the church, but they gave me water to drink that made me sick. I said to neighbours, let me sleep somewhere, even in your toilet, but they refused. I was caught by some soldiers and they said, you are a witch—we saw you flying with birds. They said they were going to kill me, but I escaped.’
Naomi gives a smile as she recounts how she found another church which took her in and sent her to Kinshasa. She has ended up in a hostel run by War Child. She is lucky. Tens of thousands of children live in the cemeteries, markets and streets of Kinshasa feeding on rubbish, begging and stealing. Most are there because of witchcraft accusations—mostly from their own families. The phenomenon is spreading, with recent cases of child abuse motivated by the belief that the child is possessed by evil spirits, showing up in London, Paris and Amsterdam.
I found Nelphy Lelu, a lanky 14-year-old, in another Kinshasa hostel. He has British citizenship and until recently he went to New Rush Hall School in Hainault, north-east London, and speaks with a soft London accent. He dreamt a man in black was trying to kill him and told his mother, who took him to a church in Tottenham, where the pastor declared him to be a witch. His mother beat him and he was taken into care before his mother brought him to Kinshasa. There he was sent to his grandmother, where the beatings continued.
As Congolese society has disintegrated, undermined by the country’s rulers and ravaged by Aids and poverty, the family has collapsed. Children have been the main victims, often accused of witchcraft when families suffer misfortunes.
‘Thirty years ago this did not exist,’ says Remy Mafu, the director of the Rejeer project for street children. ‘Now it’s a huge problem and difficult to know how to deal with it.’
He estimates there are between 25,000 and 50,000 children on the streets of Kinshasa, a city of seven million. Many—if not most—have been accused of witchcraft and rejected by their families. The roots lie in a distorted development of African culture. Witchcraft does not mean in Africa what it means in Europe. Traditionally in Congo, every community had mediums who communicated with spirits in the other world. These were usually older people, revered and respected. The spirits they communed with or were possessed by were usually neither good nor bad, simply powerful.
‘In African culture, when something goes wrong, we ask the spirits to find the human cause,’ Mafu explains. ‘These days children are accused. They can be persuaded to accept it’s their fault. They tell themselves “it is me, I am evil”.’
Then there are the new fundamentalist Christian sects, of which there are thousands in Kinshasa. They make money out of identifying ‘witches’ and increasingly parents bring troublesome children to the pastors. ‘It’s a business,’ says Mafu. ‘For a fee of $5 or $10 they investigate the children and confirm they are possessed. For a further fee they take the child and exorcise them, often keeping them without food for days, beating and torturing them to chase out the devil.’
Children who do well in school can also be accused of witchcraft. The common charge is they have been seen flying or eating human flesh. Their confessions of killing and eating relatives are broadcast live on TV channels owned by evangelical churches. What once seemed aberrations from extremist sects now seem to be becoming commonplace.