According to a United Nations report issued this year, a growing number of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being accused of witchcraft and subjected to violent exorcisms by religious leaders, in which they are often beaten, burned, starved and even murdered. The relatively new phenomenon has become one of the main causes in Central Africa for humanitarian groups, which are organizing programs to protect children’s rights and educate pastors on the dangers of accusing children.
Ties to poverty
Liana Bianchi, the administrative director for the humanitarian group Africare, says the trend is partly the result of decades of war and economic decline in the Congo. The non-profit group Save the Children estimates that 70% of the roughly 15,000 street children in Kinshasa, the capital, were kicked out of their homes after being accused of witchcraft.
“In my opinion,” Bianchi said, “poverty is really at the root of child abandonment. Accusations of witchcraft have become socially acceptable reasons for why a family turns a child out on the street.”
The practice, which has also been reported in Nigeria and Angola, can be lucrative for the priests who perform them.
Pastor Tshombe charged Julie Moseka $50 to exorcise her emaciated daughter, Noella, 8. The average annual salary in Congo is $100.
During the ceremony, Pastor Tshombe and three of his aides held Noella’s spindly limbs down and poured hot candle wax on her belly while she screamed and cried. Then the pastor bit down hard and pulled the skin on her stomach, pretending to pull demonic flesh out of her.
In an interview afterward, Tshombe acknowledged the ritual can be painful, but he says it’s necessary because otherwise the children would not be “cured.”
The pastors who conduct such rituals are non-denominational, and most have no theological training, says Matondo Kasese of the humanitarian group Reejer. According to Arnold Mushiete, a social worker with a small Catholic organization called Our House, Congo’s atmosphere of religious fervor, minimal education and rampant poverty makes for fertile territory for pastors who convince desperate parents that their children are the cause of their financial, medical and romantic problems.
The Congolese legislature recently passed a law that makes it illegal to accuse children of witchcraft, but many activists, including Bianchi, say the law is not enforced.
Even the head of a special government commission to protect children accused of witchcraft said he thinks it is possible for children to be “sorcerers.”