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Is this little girl a sorcerer? She’s one of thousands accused in Congo

Is this little girl a sorcerer? She's one of thousands accused in Congo 1

By Deni Béchard, Foreign Policy

KINSHASA, Congo — Inside a small concrete church, lit by a few tungsten bulbs hanging from exposed wires, hundreds of people stood packed together in stifling heat, repeating the words their pastor bellowed into a microphone.

“On va tuer les demons” — “We will kill the demons.”

It was after midnight in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the service was just getting under way. The pastor, Pierre Pinda Buana, wore a simple, blue button-down shirt. Its acrylic shimmered as he moved around the center of the room — smooth, practiced, confident. For almost an hour, Pinda led his congregation through songs and chants, the fervor in the church mounting. Then he preached about the main event they had all come to witness: exorcism.

Charles, a Congolese friend of mine, who asked that I not use his real name, translated Pinda’s words from Lingala, a local language, to French. But the cries, clapping, and ululations of the crowd often drowned out his voice.

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Pinda began describing a demon that was living in the body of a woman who stood before him, almost entirely blocked from my sight by the crowd: “It’s attacking the heart. It’s attacking the stomach. It strikes faster than an arrow.” He called out to the demon, asking why it wanted to kill the woman.

Electrical contacts crackled — I glimpsed a church assistant crouched over a fuse box in the rear doorway — and the bulb dangling above Pinda went dark. Light fell inward from the corners of the room, yellow and angular. Suddenly, the woman collapsed onto the ground and began shouting. The crowd pressed in around her as she writhed and arched her back.

“Elle dit” — Charles told me — “she is saying the spirit wanted to kill her in her sleep because she had a good future. The spirit wanted to destroy the hope in her.”

Pinda spoke in a commanding voice, and the woman replied, every word staccato, like a glottal stop. The demon was speaking through the woman, Charles said, and resisting the exorcism. Pinda repeated “deliverance” again and again, his voice echoing in the church’s speakers. The center bulb flared back on as he pointed down at the woman and cried out for the demon to leave. The people in the crowd pressed in even more tightly, lifting their arms. Each time the demon told Pinda it would not go, the pastor raised his voice and the crowd clamored, calling out to Jesus.

Suddenly, the people fell silent. The woman had closed her eyes. Those nearest to her hunched down, touching her as they prayed. In the background, a keyboardist in the church’s band played a few soothing chords on a synthesizer.

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The exorcism was surreal to an outsider standing in the clutch of believers — a startling glimpse into what, for most people in the room, was a typical church service. Yet the most striking thing about the scene was that, despite the alleged cries of a demon, the professed presence of evil, the crowd never appeared scared of the exorcism — only impassioned.

They were wary, however, of a cluster of children huddled in one corner of the room. Occasionally, a congregant would look over at these children in the shadows, most of them asleep. No one but Pinda’s assistants went near them.

Charles, a university-educated, deeply religious man in his 30s whom I had met while working on a book project and who had agreed to serve as my guide to Kinshasa’s churches, had hesitated to come that night because he knew the children would be there. They would be central to the service’s finale, he explained: Pinda would exorcise them of malevolent spirits that are particularly dangerous when they possess the young.

Before the service, as the congregation waited on the dirt road outside the church, Charles had appeared nervous, arms crossed and shoulders drawn in. At one point, a church assistant walked outside and pushed his foot into a rut between the road and a sewer’s concrete edge, prodding at what looked like a pile of rags. A child sat up; he had been sleeping next to the gutter and was covered in dirt. People in the crowd pulled back or stared, their eyes wide. The assistant nudged the boy, at most 5 or 6 years old, toward the church. He walked like any half-asleep child, slouched and staggering. He lost a disintegrating shoe and stopped to kick at it repeatedly until his foot went in. People parted to let him pass.

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Charles backed away and took my arm. Leaning close, he whispered, “C’est un enfant sorcier” — “It’s a child sorcerer.”

This mother and her children were accused of sorcery and thrown out of their home because they were said to be causing the family’s financial problems.

Over the past two years, during several visits to Kinshasa, I heard terrifying rumors — of children who strangle parents in their sleep or eat the hearts of their siblings. Of swarms of children flying through the skies at night, stealing money or deliberately causing illnesses like HIV and polio.

These children, people said, are sorcerers. They are possessed by dark powers that cause them to commit nefarious, even murderous deeds. To prevent child sorcerers from mischief or worse, people told me, their families should reject them and society should shun them. Or they should be taken to church — 80 percent of Congolese are Christian — where a pastor can perform exorcisms in the name of God. Congo’s wildly popular églises de réveil (“revival churches”) — an umbrella term for sects rooted in a mix of Pentecostal, charismatic, and prophetic beliefs, as well as local superstitions about dark magic — are more than willing to oblige.

Indeed, the hysteria over child sorcery has spurred a frightening witch hunt, with devastating results. According to UNICEF in 2013, Congolese children accused of sorcery “number in the thousands.” People experiencing hardship (a sudden illness, the loss of a job, the death of a relative) often search for a child to blame and find one in their own families. Some of these children are killed, but far more are abandoned, left to join Kinshasa’s tens of thousands of street children. Or they are dragged to churches, where they may well find further misery. According to Human Rights Watch, alleged child sorcerers taken to churches may be denied food and water, whipped until they confess, or sexually abused. “[M]ore than 2,000 churches practice deliverance in Kinshasa alone,” the organization has reported. Similarly, in a 2013 report about Congo, the U.S. State Department described “exorcisms of children accused of witchcraft involving isolation, beating and whipping, starvation, and forced ingestion of purgatives.”

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This is not an isolated phenomenon. Although the situation is difficult to quantify precisely, UNICEF has found that accusations of witchcraft against children are on the rise across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the problem is so pervasive in Congo — in Kinshasa and elsewhere — that the country passed a law in 2009 banning allegations against children. To date, it appears to have had little effect.

Many writers and anthropologists, such as Mike Davis in his book “Planet of Slums,” have explained what’s happening in Congo as a product of poverty: Families unable to feed or otherwise support their children accuse them of sorcery to get them off their hands. Some Congolese activists describe the problem in similar terms. “I think it’s a trick so they [families] can get rid of them,” said Marie Marguerite Djokaba, of the Network of Educators for Street Children and Youth (REEJER), in an interview. “The child sorcerer problem is related to the economic situation. It’s an excuse to kick children out.”

But this explanation of poverty and convenience feels incomplete; it doesn’t account for how utter societal breakdown in Congo — a country with a life expectancy of about 50 years and a GDP per capita of around $300 — intertwines with religion. Revival churches, their leaders, and the extreme beliefs they promote offer a way for people to cope with a place like Kinshasa. Coined Kin la Belle (“Kin the Beautiful”) during the colonial era, the Congolese capital — with its sprawling slums, its widespread sickness, its refugees of the country’s wars, and its scarce opportunity — now sports the nickname Kin la Poubelle (“The Trash Can”).

The Kinois, as the city’s residents are known, seem to be searching for some semblance of power over their lives: a way to understand it, control it, eliminate the terrible from it. Tragically, religious faith that promises protection from evil — and that locates the source of that evil in beings as vulnerable and ever-present as children — has become an answer.

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The history of religion in Congo is one of worldviews colliding and then merging. A belief in spirits and magic long held a place in the traditions of the Bantu, the people who began spreading out from what is now southwestern Nigeria into central Africa thousands of years ago. After the Portuguese introduced Catholicism to coastal Congo at the end of the 15th century, traditional beliefs coexisted with Christianity. Many Congolese attended church while still seeking out witch doctors for guidance and healing. This transformation occurred alongside a series of massive social and economic disruptions: the slave trade and, eventually, the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose administrators enslaved Congo’s population to harvest rubber and ivory.

Though the first Western Pentecostal evangelists visited Congo in the early 20th century, a larger wave came after the end of colonialism, preaching the promise of a more direct connection between God and believers, as well as the power of divine healing. “Pentecostals see the role of healing as good news for the poor and afflicted,” Allan Anderson, an expert on religion at the University of Birmingham, has written. The promotion of “signs and wonders,” he also notes, is what “led to the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in many parts of the world.”

Yet, like other Christian traditions in Congo, Pentecostalism’s influence was repressed during the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled from 1965 to 1997. With U.S. support during the Cold War, Mobutu pillaged his country’s vast mineral wealth and hoarded state earnings in Swiss bank accounts, but he also eschewed Western influences on Congolese culture. He forbade the use of Christian names and emphasized traditional African beliefs. His payments to witch doctors took up 3 percent of the government’s budget (more than the entire Health Ministry). During the 1974 World Cup, he even sent a plane full of witch doctors to cast spells on his country’s opponents. (His team lost, badly.)

When Mobutu finally lifted restrictions on the activities of churches in 1990, Pentecostalism began expanding as Congo’s social fabric was torn apart. Economic despair and political unrest already reigned by the time Mobutu fell from power, and the country soon descended into a war involving seven neighboring states, among them Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola. Funded by the global demand for Congolese resources, such as gold, diamonds, and coltan — a mineral required for hand-held electronics — the war killed more than 5 million people, the majority through disease and starvation.

Since then, conflict and poverty have continued to wrack Congo. Today in Kinshasa, a megaslum of between 8 million and 10 million (estimates vary and censuses are outdated), people are subject to all manner of predation. Soldiers and police routinely demand bribes from the poor, who can barely afford to eat; dilapidated taxi-vans dubbed les esprits des morts (“the spirits of the dead”) veer wildly through traffic, indifferent to pedestrians; and organized gangs of young men called kulunas, after the Portuguese word for an army column, raid poor neighborhoods at night. Diseases like HIV/AIDS, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and dysentery are rampant.

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According to José Mvuezolo Bazonzi, a political scientist at the University of Kinshasa, the brutality of life in Congo has created the ideal conditions for revival churches to flourish, from a limited presence in the early 1990s to a thriving, inescapable one today. (An evening drive through Kinshasa reveals many half-built églises de réveil, the congregations often visible where the walls are unfinished. Eight of the 13 faith-based radio stations in the capital belong to revival churches, as do nine of the 11 Christian TV stations.) Rejecting forms of authority that seem only to be failing, and offering both solidarity and agency through faith, the églises de réveil owe their popularity, Bazonzi writes, to the Congolese people’s “search for identity, to the survival of thousands of despairing souls before adversity and precarious socioeconomic and political circumstances.”

The churches’ popularity also owes to the hybrid faith that they preach. Revival pastors have grabbed at threads of belief that aren’t consistent, but nevertheless appeal to believers seeking both change and tradition in their lives.

Churches have blended the Bantu conviction that spirits can directly influence earthly affairs with the Pentecostal doctrine of spiritual warfare: The devil tries to destroy souls, and Christians must battle the devil with faith. Critically, what has been lost from Bantu tradition is the idea, described by British anthropologist Victor Turner, that sufferers can reconcile their problems with the spirits afflicting them. Instead, because spirits are to blame for suffering, according to contemporary beliefs, the faithful must hunt down their human intermediaries and drive the evil out.

So people shop for preachers who reportedly have l’onction (“unction”), the transformative power of God to overcome any ill or problem. When word gets out that a preacher has cured blindness, made a cripple walk, or helped someone find a job — l’onction operates in the economic sphere too — people flock to his church. “The good news in Africa, Pentecostal preachers declare, is that God meets all the needs of people, including their spiritual salvation, physical healing, and other material necessities,” Anderson has written.

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Pinda, called le prophète by his flock, is known to have great healing powers. When I visited, a flier on his church’s exterior wall promised a 14-day marathon of “Prophecy and Deliverance” and showed pictures of Pinda curing people of ailments. Many in the crowd at his midnight service were gaunt or sickly; some leaned on crutches, and one woman’s face was covered in a rash. Pinda promised them all liberation from sickness and pain, if only they believed strongly enough in God.

“You must make war in your life,” he shouted. “God does not put his trust in doctors. He doesn’t trust doctors because they have their limits. Have faith in the eternal. Doctors can’t heal you. Only the eternal can.”

Yet his alleged ability to heal is not what has earned Pinda his greatest veneration.

“The pastors with the most onction,” Charles explained to me, “are the ones who can cast the demons out of child sorcerers.”

Child sorcerers have become a national fixation in large part because revival churches condemn them as the most virulent of all evils. While theories about sorcery abound in Kinshasa, many churches see children as the perfect vectors for bad spirits to wreak havoc on the world. They cannot be avoided because there are so many of them all around. And when spirits invade children, rather than only causing bodily or other pain, they turn their vessels into sorcerers, hiding behind the innocent look of youth and inflicting harm on others. “Child sorcerers scare people more because we don’t know when they might act or what weapons they might use. Everyone, everyone is afraid of them,” Charles said.

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It is true that children are everywhere, requiring care from families, the state, and churches that cannot always be provided. Congo has a very high fertility rate — six children per woman — and the country’s median age was just 17 in 2010, according to U.N. statistics. And in Kinshasa specifically, there is a booming population of homeless children. Djokaba of REEJER said a 2010 survey suggested some 20,000 children were living on Kinshasa’s streets — up from 13,000 in 2007. In 2011, UNICEF estimated the numbers at 30,000. These children are called shegue, an abbreviation of “Che Guevara,” because of the toughness they require to survive.

Their ubiquity and susceptibility, however, also make children easy scapegoats. As in the religiously fueled witch hunts of Europe and America centuries ago, which pursued widows or solitary women, perhaps children in Congo are accused of sorcery because they are society’s most vulnerable members. Perhaps some are accused, too, because — in suffering or even in fending for themselves — they are symbols of the disintegration of family and communal bonds brought on by Congo’s decades of struggle. Belgian anthropologist Filip De Boeck has described Kinshasa’s children as “the human intersections where the ruptures and fault lines of an African world in transition are manifested.”

According to UNICEF, anthropologists, and international and local NGOs, almost anything can trigger an accusation of sorcery: not only sickness, death, or other loss within the family, but also a child’s own hunger or illness — even precociousness or adolescent anger. Save the Children has reported that signs include “dirtiness, red lips or eyes, deafness, ugliness, young body but old face, epilepsy”; being “untidy, disobedient, sad, mentally retarded, impolite, full of hatred, mysterious, disrespectful, quick-tempered, unruly”; and behaviors like “do not sleep at night or sleep badly, eat a lot … wet the bed, defecate in their clothes, talk to themselves, sleepwalk, collect rubbish, wander, don’t study, go out even when they are ill.”

Children are generally powerless to protest the accusations and have few places from which to seek help. The government is more often an enemy than a friend. In 2013, it launched an operation called Likofi (“Punch” in Lingala) to round up delinquents living on the streets; reportedly, at least 20 people, 12 of them children, were killed. UNICEF, which has said that 70 percent of street children receiving assistance from its programs have been accused of sorcery, provides aid to local shelters, orphanages, vocational training programs, and centers that reintegrate children into their families. But there are more needy children than resources available to help them.

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Many children accused of sorcery find refuge in churches because they have no other option or because they believe what is said about them and want help — ironically searching for it in the very institutions complicit in their misery. I spoke to dozens of children in Kinshasa accused of sorcery, and most appeared confused when asked whether they believed they were possessed. Some simply said no, but others said they must be since a pastor had told them so. Most looked to the nearest adult for guidance on how to answer.

In seeking help from churches, children are taking their chances. Revival churches are not only complicit in ratcheting up fears of child sorcery, but they also profit from them — when parents pay to have their child exorcised and when parishioners come to see the show. And the churches perpetrate abuse that only boosts their popularity. Congolese told me of pastors rooting out spirits by spitting into children’s mouths or pouring the wax of church candles on their bodies until they confessed. One pastor reportedly forced a child to stand in a dark room for days, never letting him sit, and then made him drink olive oil until he vomited. The pastor inspected the vomit to see whether it contained human flesh or money — both alleged signs of sorcery.

Other pastors, however, offer shelter in addition to superstition. At the church and orphanage Coeur et Mains du Christ (“Heart and Hands of Christ”), I met with pastors Jerôme Anto Kashala and Shium Bukassa Shidisha. They told me about the children they protect, including one boy whose parents blamed him for an illness that killed his brother and accused him of eating the brother’s heart. The parents beat him, tied him up, and cut his skin repeatedly with a knife, trying to make him confess. Eventually, they took a discarded tire from trash in the street, put it over him, and set it on fire. He was seriously burned by the time he was able to flee. Today, he is working toward a mechanic’s certificate.

Yet the pastors’ willingness to care for children accused of sorcery, it seemed, was complicated by their religious convictions. When I asked Kashala and Shidisha whether they had ever encountered any real child sorcerers, they glanced nervously at each other. “Well, there was one,” Kashala said. “She posed very difficult problems for us, to the point that she killed another child. She started giving rotten food to the others until finally one died.”

Charles was with me, and he nodded gravely, agreeing.

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Ultimately, the pastors determined that the girl could not be saved, and they had no choice but to send her away from the orphanage, back to the family that had chased her away in the first place.

After several hours of the frenzied late-night service, when Pinda finally called up five children who had been quietly sitting in the corner, the room hushed. The congregants didn’t press close as they had during the earlier exorcisms, instead stepping back. I was apprehensive, thinking of the stories of cruel exorcisms.

But the prophet was gentle, encouraging the children to speak. Their eyes were cautious, avoiding the crowd. One by one, they spoke softly, their voices barely audible in Pinda’s microphone; he filled in where their words trailed off. A 10-year-old girl explained that, after her mother’s death, her father had blamed her.

A boy in a Curious George shirt murmured that his parents had died and others in his family had accused him of eating their hearts. A thin 12-year-old boy in a white-striped shirt with his arms crossed, hands under his armpits, said his parents had told him he was a sorcerer and left him alone in Kinshasa; he now made a living selling plastic bags of drinking water in the street.

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The drummer in the church band gently tapped a cymbal to punctuate the children’s testimonies.

Pinda talked about the failures of parents: “If your child is a sorcerer, you cannot throw him out.” He also spoke of children overcoming the demons within them and becoming great men. The audience remained hushed and pensive, Pinda seeming to berate them for their fear of child sorcerers while simultaneously acknowledging that the fear was very real.

Everyone prayed quietly to deliver the children. As the service drew to a close, well after 3 a.m., Pinda’s assistants sold small bottles of olive oil around the room and people brought them up for the pastor to bless. They rubbed the oil on their faces, on their arms and chests, in their hair, as protection from evil spirits. Pinda then asked for money to support the continued building of the church.

This wasn’t the dramatic scene I had feared I would witness. Was Pinda acting so kindly toward the children because an outsider was there? (He had invited me to his service.) Was he deftly avoiding breaking the law against accusing children of sorcery? Or was something else going on?

I asked Charles. He said sometimes exorcisms of child sorcerers take place in private because they are difficult. Maybe these children had already been saved.

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A few days after the service, seeking to understand his strange relationship with the children, I met the prophet in his office — a small room containing three dilapidated office chairs, a desk, and an electric bass guitar leaning in the corner. Outside, dozens of people waited for private meetings with Pinda. All such meetings, one of his congregants told me, required a payment, however small.

Pinda explained that more than 60 children accused of sorcery lived in his church — children like the boy who had been sleeping next to the gutter before the night service I attended. They had come to him on their own or had been brought by their parents because of his reputation for casting out spirits. He introduced me to some of them, between the ages of 4 and 12. They had been accused of costing their parents jobs or killing relatives. Some had been told their diseases, like crippling polio, were signs of possession by spirits and had been kicked out of their homes.

As the children left, Pinda picked up the electric bass. He sat back in his chair, plucking the thick strings. In a gravelly voice, he told me it was tiring to have so many children around and that he kept encouraging people not to leave them. He’d even gone to social services for help, only to be turned away.

But did he believe the children were sorcerers? He replied that, for most children, “it’s just accusations.” Prayer, he explained, generally shows him they aren’t possessed. Sometimes, though, parents’ testimonies tell him otherwise. So long as parents report that a family member is ill, for instance, a bad spirit must remain in a child, requiring his attention. Some parents bring children back multiple times, until they are able to report to Pinda that “there is peace — they sleep calmly and there is no more sickness in the family.”

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Complicating his explanation was the fact that Pinda makes money off these visits and that dealing with children accused of sorcery has enhanced his stature. Perhaps Pinda doesn’t want to condemn these children as other pastors do, or perhaps his belief in sorcery isn’t as strong or as sure as in others. Yet driving spirits out of children has earned him the title of prophet — has convinced his congregation that the power of God flows through him and can save them from all the suffering, all the pain and hardship, in their lives. It brings hundreds to his church late at night, to stand for hours in the heat, connected to one another and, they feel, to a power beyond their reach.

I asked him whether he thought he had improved the lives of the accused child sorcerers for whom he prayed. For some he said yes — one boy, for instance, had been saved and returned to his parents. Then he described a 13-year-old girl whose parents accused her of killing two people. She still lived in the church.

Pinda hesitated.

“She isn’t doing well at all. Because this is church,” he said. “After prayer, the people leave. Even I go home.”

Béchard, a freelance writer, is the author of “Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral.” Follow him on Twitter at @denibechard and on Instagram @denibechard.

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