‘They Say I Ate My Father. But I Didn’t’
Naomi Ewowo had just lost her parents when her family branded her a witch. She was 5.
After her mother and father died unexpectedly less than a month apart, Naomi’s care fell to relatives who struggled to cope with the tragedy. They sought counsel from a neighborhood “prophet,” who warned that a sorcerer was hiding in their midst. Soon all eyes turned on the family’s youngest, most vulnerable member.
“They blamed me for killing my parents,” said Naomi, now 10, nervously swinging her short legs under the seat of a chair. The girl eventually was cast out by relatives and lived on the streets until she moved to a rescue center three months ago.
“They say I ate my father. But I didn’t. I’m not a witch.”
On a continent where belief in black magic and evil spirits is common, witch hunts are nothing new, usually targeting older, unmarried women. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s a new twist to this ancient inquisition. A majority of those said to be involved in witchcraft and sorcery are children, and such allegations against them are the No. 1 cause of homelessness among youths.
Of the estimated 25,000 children living on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital, more than 60% had been thrown out of their homes by relatives accusing them of witchcraft, child-welfare advocates say. The practice is so rampant that Congo’s new constitution, adopted in December, includes a provision outlawing allegations of sorcery against children.
A rise in religious fundamentalism, revival churches and self-proclaimed prophets is one cause. More than 2,000 churches in Kinshasa offer “deliverance” services to ward off evil spirits in children, the group Human Rights Watch says.
“Some prophets who run these churches have gained celebrity-like status, drawing in hundreds of worshipers in lucrative Sunday services because of their famed ‘success’ in child exorcism ceremonies,” the group said in an April report.
But chronic poverty is the real culprit, some experts say. Decades of dictatorship, instability and war have unraveled the nation’s social fabric, tearing apart traditional family and tribal support systems. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of accused children come from poor, broken homes. Most are orphans or have lost one or both parents to divorce or abandonment.
When relatives are unable or unwilling to cope with an additional mouth to feed, they may look for ways to get rid of the child, said Charlotte Wamu, a counselor at Solidarity Action for Distressed Children, which assists street children. In Africa, kicking out a family member, even a distant relative, is considered shameful, but allegations of witchcraft provide a convenient and hard-to-disprove justification.
“It’s always the stepmother who finds witchcraft in the stepchild, not in her own,” Wamu said. “The sorcerer is your dead brother’s child, never yours.”
Naomi, the only child of her father’s second marriage, said his family never accepted her or her mother.
When Naomi’s parents died in 2001, relatives took her from one prophet to another searching for a way to cast out her “evil spirits.” Sometimes the exorcism consisted of a quick prayer, other times it was more involved.
One preacher locked Naomi in a room for three days without food or water, the girl recalled. “I wanted to try to sneak some water, but I thought that would only make my problems worse,” she said.
She was probably right. Child-exorcism ceremonies can include brutal treatment, including beatings, burnings and the use of saltwater, orally and anally, to “purge” the children, the group Save the Children says.
One self-described prophet in Kinshasa, Pakoki Keni Emmanuel Suliman, began an interview with a robust prayer and ended it with a sales pitch for black-market diamonds, which he kept tucked inside his wallet.
From his Promised Temple church, which he runs from his home, Pakoki showed off one of his clients.
“Did you let the evil spirit back inside you?” the burly, bearded preacher bellowed at a quivering 9-year-old boy. “You must confess! Tell the truth! Then I will pray for you one more time.” The boy dutifully confessed that since his last exorcism he had “killed” two people. His older brother has been treated several times as well.
Pakoki said he never accepted money, though relatives were required to buy white sheets, at $18 apiece, which were waved and draped around the children during the exorcism.
“I pray and they are cured,” he said.
The forced confessions leave many children confused and guilt-ridden.
“They start to believe they’ve done something wrong or that they really are witches,” said Evariste Kalumuna, head of the rescue center that took Naomi off the streets. He said that when he disciplined the children, they sometimes threatened him with their so-called powers.
“They say: ‘Look out. I’m a witch. I’ll hurt you,’ ” Kalumuna said. “Believe me, if they really were witches, I would have been dead a long time ago.”
When asked recently, Naomi at first insisted that she didn’t believe in witchcraft. Later, she accused her paternal grandfather of sorcery, saying he visited her and her mother in their dreams.
With a low, raspy voice and intense almond-shaped eyes, Naomi is a natural storyteller, reenacting her mother’s death-bed scene as though it were the plot of one of the Nigerian soap operas she occasionally gets to watch on television. She imitated her mother’s frail voice crying out the grandfather’s name before dying.
Such dramatic tales have worsened relations with the family.
“We’re convinced she’s a witch,” said Rachel Nazombo, 25, Naomi’s eldest half-sister.
Naomi’s eight half-siblings share two cramped rooms in an eastern Kinshasa slum. Proudly displayed on the living room wall is a magazine advertisement for something the family can only dream of: a Western-style kitchen, with a stainless steel oven and wood-paneled cabinets.
The siblings say the death of their father and Naomi’s mother is proof of witchcraft. Even in a country where life expectancy has dropped to 42 years because of disease and poverty, premature death is often difficult to accept. Two deaths occurring so close together can only be caused by an evil spell, the family members say.
What is their evidence against Naomi? Local preachers and prophets confirmed their suspicions, they say. And a 3-year-old cousin once screamed Naomi’s name during a nightmare. According to the family, Naomi also confessed to witchcraft when confronted during a family meeting a year ago.
When told that Naomi denied being a witch, Nazombo shook her head.
“She’s hiding herself,” the sister said. “You don’t understand how tricky people who live in the night can be.”
After her family threw her out, Naomi survived on the streets by selling what little extra clothing she had. Later she sold charcoal and resorted to robbery before being brought to the center by an outreach worker who had found her.
Wamu, her counselor at the center, began visiting the family to discuss reunification. Relatives stiffened when they saw Naomi and Wamu approach. Some refused to even look at the girl.
On a recent evening, Wamu returned for her fifth visit, this time without Naomi.
“The family should live together,” she pleaded.
“We want to help her find a better life, but first she must cast out the bad spirits,” Naomi’s older half-brother responded. “She refuses to be helped.”
Before accepting Naomi, the family wanted several preachers to verify that she was not a witch. Wamu discouraged the idea, knowing that eventually they would find a prophet who claimed to see evil spirits. Instead she emphasized the family’s obligations to the girl.
They sat quietly for a moment. “We know it’s our responsibility,” said Flory Nazombo, 23, the eldest male in the family. “She’s our sister. We can’t abandon her.” He promised that someone in the family would visit Naomi to discuss coming home.
Wamu nodded and wrote out her telephone number for the young man. It was the opening she had been looking for.
As she left the home, Wamu was flush with hope, though fewer than half of attempted reunifications succeed.
“I think we made some real progress tonight,” she said. “It went well.”
Three weeks later, no one from Naomi’s family had visited her. The brother had not called. And Wamu was making plans for a sixth visit.