LUBUMBASHI, CONGO: Since Aisha Pemba Rodriquez converted to Islam, she refuses to allow her foster parents even to utter the word “church.” She was accused of child sorcery on her eighth birthday before a church congregation in Kinshasa.
“She was torn from her sisters who were crying and pulling on her hand and begging her parents. Aisha was shocked. She was silent and the congregation used this as ‘evidence’ that she was accepting her status as a witch,” said her foster mother Maria Jose Rodriguez. “I was in that congregation and I left the church afterward and looked for Aisha to adopt her as quickly as possible. Her mother blamed her for a miscarriage she had,” Maria said.
Aisha was starved and humiliated during her exorcism. She was told to confess while she was beaten on her knuckles and the soles of her feet.
The problem stretches from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa. Evolved as a tribal tradition, it is now replaced by religion in the cities, according to Pastor Djicain Monzambe, national coordinator of PCPDE Congo.
As the conflict in Congo becomes the primary focus of the international community, humanitarian aid organizations struggle to contain this hidden phenomenon that is spreading exponentially in the country.
“Fifty percent of Congo’s children begging on the streets have been abandoned and tortured as child sorcerers. The snowballing of the issue is frightening. Before it was the ‘wise men’ of the village, and now it is the church that is misusing its authority. Whenever someone comes with a problem the pastor cannot solve, the solution is to blame a child and purge the family of the problem.”
According to the Special Rapporteur on the DRC’s human rights, Julia Motoc, some 25,000 to 50,000 child refugees, war orphans and “child sorcerers” are roaming the streets of the Congo’s cities. “The child sorcerers are accused of having mystical powers and are abandoned by their families, sometimes because of financial difficulties. The revivalist churches have been maintaining this belief, which is harmful to children.”
Aisha’s foster mother says, “Aisha thinks that is what the church does, accuses innocent children of sorcery and so she wanted to change her faith, because she believes in God. She is a very intelligent and devout girl. She was in search of faith and she started researching Islam last year and now she talks to us about converting to the peaceful religion of Islam. I think what she likes is that Islam means peace, and she needed peace.”
Almost a year passed by before Maria managed to locate Aisha who was living with an elderly relative who grudgingly gave her two meals a day and a bedroll in the kitchen.
“I was determined to adopt her. I am ashamed I didn't speak up in front of the (church) congregation. Then when I tried to take her with me, they told me the exorcism was going on, and she was offered back to her mother after the exorcism, and then I tried to visit her at her home and I found out her mother had sent her to a relative. The relative was happy to get rid of her.”
Pastor Monzambe cares for abandoned street children, feeding and clothing them, caring for them till they forget the horrors of being branded child sorcerers.
When UNICEF's child protection officers first told him about Andre Mounga, he knew he would have to work extra hard to undo the damage that had been done to the seventeen-year-old. “His father went to the church pastor to ask why he was having financial problems and the pastor decided the cause was Andre (who was fifteen at the time)," said Monzambe.
Sitting under the shade of a tree in an alleyway of the slums of Bongonga, deep in the heart of Lubumbashi, Andre explained in hushed tones through a translator the traumatic events he had suffered. His father beat him mercilessly at home, making him repeat that he had caused the misfortune of the family, making him admit to sorcery before handing him over for a four-day exorcism.
Andre was taken to the mountains, starved and humiliated every day until he admitted to everything he was accused of.
“Who wouldn't confess?” says Monzambe. “That kind of abuse, the beatings...sometimes these children are burned repeatedly and told by the pastors that it is the fire of God and they must bear it because they will be able to go back to the family once the devil is driven out.”
Andre’s family wants nothing to do with him now. Monzambe has spoken to the pastor who accused Andre. That pastor has offered to reintegrate the youth into his family but now there is no way to dispel the suspicion that hangs over him.
“The pastor does not want to take back his words; he is only willing to say the exorcism has been successful, but the father has remarried and the new wife does not want a full-grown boy to add to a family with eleven children.”
Andre's French was so perfectly punctuated that our translator who works for the Georges Malaika foundation asked Andre if he were in school.
For a moment Andre’s mind raced back to the private school where he dreamed of becoming an engineer. He explained that there was no one to pay his school fees and then fell silent for the remainder of the meeting. He is one of 20,000 Congolese children who have been robbed of the opportunity to pursue an education by families frightened by pastors eager to maintain their power in the service of inflated egos.
Party Against Poverty Mumbai has since restored that opportunity to Andre by becoming responsible for his education. They are working with the Georges Malaika foundation to provide Andre with school fees, books, uniform and a stipend for food and transportation. In January 2009, Andre Munga will re-start school and hit his math text books hard in the hope of deserving his scholarship and taking his first step toward the engineering career he thought he would have to bury beneath the debris of his broken dreams.