Cast-out children pay price of Zaire's ills

Economic crises are destroying traditional family structures, writes Mi chaela Wrong in Kinshasa
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Asked why he was thrown out of his home and left to eke out a living on the streets of Kinshasa's streets, 16-year-old Ndongala Makiesa looks at the ground and mutters about accidentally spilling a pot of boiling water over another child.

"I know this boy well," says a support centre's instructor. "Do you want me to get him to tell you what really happened?" It turns out Ndongala was accused of witchcraft. Blamed for the death of his grandmother, who succumbed to diabetes, he was thrown out of the family compound at the insistence of his great aunts.

"The great aunts were hoping to claim the family plot for themselves," says the instructor. "His mother loves him, she tried to defend him, but in the end it was a choice between him moving out and the whole family leaving."

The Pekabo centre, one of three charitable institutions in the capital offering some support to Kinshasa's burgeoning population of street children, has many such cases. Staff at the drop-in centre, which offers the children a chance to rest, wash cloth e s and get basic medical care, but does not stretch to meals or beds, estimate that more than half of the 850 children who have registered since January have been rejected byfamilies because of "sorcery".

"If someone in the family dies or falls sick or there is bad luck in a business affair, the parents will look for a scapegoat," says Dieudonne Muwalawala, head of the centre. "Many of the children will have been persuaded to confess to belonging to an occult circle and having agreed to sacrifice a member of their family. We get children here who tell us in detail how they cast spells."

Belief in witchcraft runs deep in Zairean society and the practice of looking for someone to blame for what, to Western eyes, appears an eminently innocent death is nothing new. In Africa no death, not even the quiet passing-away of a white-haired matri a rch with diabetes, is regarded as natural and it is customary to seek out culprits, supposedly motivated by jealousy or hatred, among the dead person's nearest and dearest.

Urbanisation and the values of modern life were pushing such beliefs into abeyance. But as Zaire's economic and political crisis deepens, traditional cults, healing methods and practices are making a comeback as a despairing population seeks solace in past certainties.

For the street children there is usually a sound economic or personal motive at the root of their rejection. A witchcraft accusation will often be made when a woman has remarried and the new husband is having problems with his stepchild. Or distant relatives given a child to care for will find the additional burden unacceptable. "Some of the children are denounced by their own parents but most will be accused of being sorcerers when they are living with uncles or aunts or stepfathers, not the direct family," says Charles Bivula, an instructor.

In the past, a quick exorcism, driving out the malevolent spirit, would have been deemed an adequate remedy. Now the tendency is to throw the child on to the street. "We have come to understand that these witchcraft accusations are simply prompted by a lack of love," says Mr Bivula. "They have become an excuse for rejection, one way of getting rid of a person who is a burden."

Mr Bivula has noticed that the boys at Pekabo who manage to make a success of their lives, learning a trade and becoming self-sufficient, will often be taken back by the family, which suddenly puts the witchcraft issue aside. Those seen to fail are rarely if ever allowed to rejoin.

Loitering at traffic lights, competing with cripples, albinos and blind men for handouts from passing cars, the street children are the most distressing visible symptom of Zaire's social and moral disintegration. The African tradition of the supportive extended family is cracking at the seams under the strain of unemployment and 8,500 per cent annual inflation in a country where the average yearly income is $117 (£75).

The most recent study, in 1990 when the failing economy had yet to enter its current nosedive, found Kinshasa had 8,000 street children. Pekabo says the problem is now more widespread. But since the government stopped paying contributions to the centre, forcing it to rely on aid organisations such as Oxfam, there is no money for a much-needed census.

But staff can see: once found only at a couple of city locations, street children are now on virtually every street. They survive by sifting the fetid rubbish that lines the dusty streets, picking pockets, selling cigarettes and offering shoe-shines.

"Zairean families are no longer being given the means to behave as responsible families. The longer the economic crisis goes on, the more families are going to be unable to support children and the more will be thrown out of their homes," says Mr Muwalawala. He deplores that in Zaire, where a woman's standing was measured by the number of children she had borne, couples are only slowly surrendering aspirations to the 10- or 12-child family.

"Very few people have realised that in the current crisis you should have one or no children. Everyone still wants the traditional African family, they don't make the link between that and poverty."