Friday, December 01, 2006

Superstition and homeless children in the Congo

Scott Baldauf:

Three months ago, Kisungu Gloire considered himself fortunate. A 13-year-old refugee, he had a house to sleep in, food to eat, and a stepmother who took care of him as one of her own.

Then one day, Kisungu's fragile world fell apart.

His stepmother delivered a baby that was stillborn. She blamed Kisungu, calling him a witch. She had a dream that Kisungu was trying to kill her, and then tried to burn him with a flaming plastic bag. She took him to a priest to perform an exorcism, but when that appeared to have failed, she finally stopped feeding him and told him to get out.

"When I would ask for food, she refused," he says. "Another time I asked for food, she took a kitchen knife and cut me in the eye. When I talked with my brother, he said, 'Just drop it.' So then I moved out onto the streets."

Stories like Kisungu's are by no means rare, and are one of the most difficult challenges faced by aid workers and the new Congolese government as they collectively begin the process of reconstructing a nation destroyed by 30 years of dictatorship and a decade of civil war. Peace has brought its own challenges, as refugee families flow into the capital, Kinshasa, and find they cannot feed themselves. Out of survival, many are using witchcraft as an excuse to expel their most vulnerable members: children.

"Witchcraft has been there for a while, but it was never used against children in the past. Families that have old people used to accuse that old person of being a witch, when they were no longer productive," says Javier Aguilar, a child protection officer for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Kinshasa. He says that 70 percent of the 20,000 street children in Kinshasa have been accused of being witches.

"But the perception of children started to change very quickly in the 1990s, when you had child soldiers starting to appear with weapons," says Mr. Aguilar. "So the general perception was that children were a threat. Congolese society is using children as a scapegoat."

Only desperation could force families to cast children into the streets, and, as a nation, Congo is one of the most desperate places in the world. With 80 percent of the population earning less than $1 a day, Congo has one of the poorest populations on the continent. It also has one of the youngest. The average life expectancy is 41. Even though 1 out of 5 children dies before reaching the age of five, nearly half of Congo's population is under the age of 14.

In every marketplace, children are busy, sweeping up stalls, carrying water and soda for sale, shining shoes. They are also prime recruits for gangs engaged in theft, and during the recent election campaign that ended Oct. 29, street gangs were used by political parties to cause civil unrest, pelting cars with stones and burning tires.

The government responded to the violence by rounding up street children in the hundreds. The move provoked an outcry from child advocacy groups - among those arrested were 87 young women with babies of their own - but the government appears ready to go ahead with its plans to round up street kids and send them to government farms, in blue prison overalls, hundreds of miles away.

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