Since the end of the 1990s, a growing number of Congolese impoverished families are abandoning their children by accusing them of witchcraft, a faith that is profoundly rooted in the Congolese culture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This phenomenon is recently growing in notorious scale, in part, due to the combination of the economic collapse with the proliferation of religious sects known as the "awakening churches" or evangelical churches. In the past ten years years, the GDP has decreased by more than 43%, while the population has increased by more than 38% in Congo. Nowadays, more than 2/3 of the 20,000 to 50,0000 population of children living in the streets in the capital of Kinshasa are children who have been chased away from their home in the pretext that they were child-witches and responsible of all the troubles of the family, including deaths, unemployment, starvation and disease. Organized in gangs, they get by, sometimes thanks to theft or prostitution. The immense majority of the people living in Kinshasa are persuaded by the truthfulness of this curse and, as a result, more than one hundred new "child-witches" are so discovered every month and thrown out in the streets. This project "Child-witches of Kinshasa" documents the lives of these stigmatized "child-witches". My hope is to bring awareness to the international public about what is happening to these children in Congo.
Difficult to discern the sleepy bodies confusedly laid down on the concrete. It is another night without electricity in the shelter for street children of Matongue, a district of Kinshasa. Dripping from the bath he takes here every evening, Patrick, alias "Michigan", the nickname he chose in the street, takes me to his congeners still awake. Under a covered courtyard used as a classroom during the day, about fifteen street boys, "schegués" or "phaseurs" as one calls them in the Democratic Republic of Congo, joke with their educators of the “Foyer Père Franck”, who will watch over their sleep tonight.
Among them, the joung Sankas, 13, living in the street since the age of 8:
"My mom chased me away because I ate too much. I was complaining. They insulted me and hit me with a stick so that I say that I was a witch. Mom brought me to the church of Bima (an evangelic Church in the municipality of Bumbu). There, they said that I was a child-witch. They poured oil into my eyes for my salvation. But when we came back home, mom took my clothes and told me to leave, that I was a child-witch."
Like 80 % of the 30 000 to 50 000 children who beg, work, give birth and sleep in the streets of Kinshasa, Sankas was chased away by his family after being accused of witchcraft by an independent church. More than 7000 in the Congolese capital, they play an essential role in the process that lead numerous Kinshasa’s families to abandon their children. By giving a spiritual guarantee to the worried families, these communities of diverse and combined inspirations, often stigmatized under the name of “awakening churches” (or evangelical churches), transformed, within 20 years, a limited phenomenon into an ordinary and acceptable social reality. Absence of basic services, of public assistance, even of State: families are often distraught by the numerous problems they are facing (accident, disease, death, unemployment… are often the basis of the accusations). Those churches became a local fundamental landmark. Answering a very real need for support, the pastors moreover assert supplying an effective remedy for these disoriented households.But they actually initiate and participate in an escalation of violence which drives children to the street, the rough everyday life of which, between rule of might and getting by, seems then more bearable.
Far from the Congolese traditional values that always considered the child as a wealth, these "visionaries" rely on a fallacious use of the popular belief in witchcraft and give a distinctive urban version. Of its ambivalent initial characteristic (protective and threatening at the same time), remains only the evil power, using the children, tractable souls, to carry out its work. Once declared fiends, they justifiably become dangerous burdens for their parents, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and mostly step mothers, who consider safer to get rid of them. Because once the "demonic" nature of a child declared, there is no turning back. In most of the cases, even after a "spiritual operation", so expensive and violent it can be, the child-witch remains a child-witch.
Bedwetting, agitated sleep, bloated stomach, epilepsy, slow growth, appetite, insolence, handicap… the list of symptoms and "strange behaviors" indicating that the "Evil Spirit" has entered the child’s body is long. Leaving the door of your bedroom open is also a sign, as Nana, 19, learned it: chased away from her home and hunted down with machetes because of her bad habit, she survives today as a prostitute, like all the girls questioned about their livelihoods. But these "signs" are not sufficient to establish that a child is a witch. A spiritual authority must validate the suspicions of the worried family. In certain cases, a Nganga (witch-doctor) can play this role. More often, prophets do it; thanks to the Spirit investing them, they "see" everything in the child: its soul, its nature and "even to the color of his underwear", asserts, threatening, the prophetess Maman Landu Jolie. Only the relatives too poor to pay for a "revelation" do without it and throw their child directly into the street.
Once declared witches by the "visionary", the children old enough to express themselves have to confess their demonic nature. It is a step toward salvation. The "intercessor" (a devoted member of the Church) of Maman Jolie summarizes it in a formula: "to persuade the children that they are witches is no easy task". To do it, every Church has its own method. The psychological pressure, considered as the "soft" way, is rather rare.
The treatment undergone by Exaucé, 13, during a two weeks reclusion in a church, is more common. In the “open center” (the children come here to have a bath, food and to sleep at night, of their own free will) of the Oseper in Matete, he tells:
" I was in Brazzaville with my father. When we returned to Kinshasa, my grandmother had died. We went to the church of my grandfather for the mourning. The pastor pointed at me. He said that I had eaten my grandmother. They locked me in the church, my hands and feet tied with ropes. I could not see outside. They did not feed me for three days (a common practice aiming at “starving the Evil Spirit who invested them"). Then they purged us: one liter of palm oil to be swallowed (so that the child vomits the human flesh he ingested, the mean by which the witchcraft was given to him). They poured water into my eyes, a water that made us cry (salt water mixed with herbs). I said that I was not a witch and that I understood nothing of that kind. But they wanted my salvation anyway. They poured candle wax on my feet and forehead. I ran away to find my family. They beat me so that I confess. I ran away in the street.” If, unlike Exaucé, the child eventually confess he is a witch, or if he is simply too young to run away or protest, a collective ritual confession, followed by a spectacular and lucrative deliverance is organized in the believer’s community by the "intercessors".
Numerous pastors, suspicious since the NGO Save the Children published several reports on the topic, describe these sessions as a mere unction accompanied by prayers. It is sometimes the case: the testimony of the young Sankas, for instance, confirms it. But the rituals I witnessed are more often carried out. Among them: the complete unction of the mother and her children in gasoline and salt or a purification represented by a symbolic cut of all the body with a machete. The ceremony carried out by the spiritual Community of the Blacks in Congo, of kibanguiste inspiration, is even more striking. Among the audience songs and the intercessors trance, while the temperature of the Church reaches 45°C under the ardent sheet steel, the child (approximately 7 months in that case), covered with talc, is maintained in on a mat in the sacred space, called the "spiritual surgical unit". An intercessor methodically palpates the child, strongly pressing his thumbs on his stomach, while he screams and tries to escape. The surgical-spiritual intervention is carried out with the mouth. The man applies his lips to the child stomach and apply a suction-inhalation. Three times, he spits pieces of pale pink meat in a plate, allegedly human flesh. Probably hidden in the mouth, these pieces of raw meat would have been ingested by the child in the "second world" and made him a witch. The intercessor tells me that "cockroaches, snakes, cartridges, groundnuts or chain bracelets sometimes go out of the child body". In both cases of deliverances, the children were sick: the first girl had an "abscess" on the neck, the second had often fever at night and vomited. None of them already had “eaten” someone, but they were expensive for the family and did not cure (an evidence they were bewitched, but not that the local dispensaries were helpless).
If suspicions arise mainly when someone dies, is sick or looses his job, events that generate harsh tensions in the family, the violence the relatives are capable of toward the designated child-witches indicate how strongly they believe in it. The relatives are viscerally afraid of their offspring. Certain street children educators also told me in a whisper that "if 90 % of the accusations are illegitimate, 10 % of the children have real evil powers they use at night when they are amongst themselves ". Those same educators assert "to be frightened by the strange voices they hear in the courtyard some nights”.
If chasing away the child one fears is an alternative, trying to kill him is another one, more extreme. So Elysée Ngoma, 10, of divorced parents, left to her aunt’s care after her mother died, was accused of witchcraft after the death of 3 children in her new home. At first burned by the prophet Kinda, officiating in the Church Laodicé (in the municipality of Barundu) for her salvation, Elysée was then attacked by her aunt with an iron, of which she kept unbearable marks on her breast and body. She eventually fled in the street, where she lived four months before a medical center took care of her. Except in front of her psychologist, she remains incapable of pronouncing a word. The center did not press charge against the aunt because, according to the director, the trial would be too expensive and has almost no chance to succeed.
And yet accusing someone of witchcraft is illegal. But since January 2011, thanks to the solitary and relentless work of some NGOs like Reejer (a local network of educators for children and youths living in the street), Save the Children or the Unicef, a court in charge of children rights was set up. "It reports no activity for the moment", regrets Rémy Mafu, president of Reejer. The decreasing number of street children raided by the police is already considered as a victory. "The number of family successfully reunited also progresses, but with 650 newcomers in the street every month, the total figure of abandoned children does not stop increasing", deplores M.Mafu.
Concerning the mentalities, he remains confident in the "quiet revolution” he is setting up, although his discussions with the relatives terrify him: 9 out of 10 believe their child is responsible of their difficulties. Many families maintain a strong connection with an historical church (and go to evangelical churches only for salvation rituals), "a declaration of the influential Cardinal Edouard Musangwo on the subject could be helpful ". But so far, the Cardinal did not say a word.
As for the pastors, they don’t always understand what they do: during sensitization workshops, Rémy Mafu noticed that they "had no idea what was a psychosomatic disease, and they didn’t know any mild symptoms of the infant diseases"; some are convinced to do their best for the families.
Every month, approximately 650 children are chased away in the streets of Kinshasa, 65 babies are born there, only a third of the children is in contact with an associative structure. They form a parallel, autonomous society, which survives of getting by and prostitution.
I lived in Kinshasa for almost 2 years from September 2010 to December 2011, working as a photographer for the French news agency AFP. While mainly documenting the war in the eastern part of the country, where all the attention of the media was driven, I started a personal project, illustrating different cases of children accused of witchcraft, in an attempt better understand the reason why so many children were chased away from their family in Kinshasa.
This work received international attention and was awarded by the jury’s special prize at the 8th Days Japan International Photojournalism Festival, the jury’s special mention at the Roger Pic Prize (Paris, France) and the investigation prize at the European Journalism Festival in Lille (France).
These photographs were first used to illustrate the website and brochures of ADCO (Aide aux Démunis du Congo), an association running a temporary shelter aiming at helping abandoned children accused of witchcraft, through mediation, accommodation and schooling, with the ultimate goal of reintegrating the children in their families. They also appear in the REJEER website and brochures, a network of 170 associations and NGOs working at the promotion of the children rights and the socioeconomic reintegration of children and young people of the street in Kinshasa.
However, this work is still largely unknown in Kinshasa and its impact on the communities almost nonexistent; this is why the Fotovisura grant is so important, to help complete and use this work to reach the communities affected and responsible.
With additional visibility and founding I intend to complete my photo essay and, with my partners in Kinshasa (ADCO and REJEER), I am planning set up outside giant posters exhibitions in key public places in Kinshasa, in order to attract attention of as many people as possible, and then to organize public debates where the inhabitants of the districts (by-passers and invited local community structures like districts associations and churches) and local authorities can hear and speak with child protections associations, and also children and former children accused of witchcraft. These giant posters exhibitions shall trigger the curiosity and foster public debates. People passing by the exhibitions will then talk to their families and friends. Moreover, the organized public debates where local authorities and community structures will be invited to speak publicly with children or former children accused of witchcraft and child protection organizations, will act as a powerful public tribune for social change in a country where space for free public debates.