By Daniel Flynn KINSHASA
(Reuters) – John Bofata was nine years old when his mother died and his uncles accused him of witchcraft. His father had abandoned him, leaving the Congolese boy to be raised by his grandmother. But Bofata’s uncles blamed the child for casting a spell on his parents and they started to beat him.
Now a cheerful 13-year-old, his face still darkens as he recalls the years he spent on Kinshasa’s vicious streets after he ran away. "It was hard on the streets. To eat, we would help women carry their bags for a little money," said Bofata, who now lives in a centre for abandoned children. "At night, we slept on sand or on the pavement in front of shops."
Aid organisations estimate that the number of abandoned children in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital has roughly doubled over the last 10 years to around 40,000 — victims of warfare and economic decline in the central African country. Up to 70 percent of them have been accused of sorcery, according to Human Rights Watch, often when the death or separation of their parents made it tough for their families to care for them. Rape of both boys and girls is commonplace.
Accusations of sorcery are not new in African society: often they were made against the vulnerable in villages, such as old people who no longer had any children to support them. The problem has become so acute that the former Belgian colony’s constitution, approved last year as part of a democratic transition after the 1998-2003 war, included a clause forbidding charges of witchcraft against children.
Bofata found a place at the Liboso Muana centre in Kinshasa’s squalid Masina slum, which provides food, shelter and education for 35 children and tries to reunite them with their families. "The situation is catastrophic. We have to turn children away because we do not have space. It just keeps getting worse," said the centre’s head Yves Kuyayila, who complains that funding is scarce and workers often have to dip into their own pockets.
MODERNITY FRAYS TIES
African society has traditionally prided itself on close-knit families, allowing children to be raised by relatives if their parents die or suffer misfortune. But a combination of economic hardship and migration to overcrowded cities has frayed such ties. In Masina, the muddy streets between corrugated iron-roofed shacks are packed with women hawking vegetables from woven baskets, rusting vehicles belching black smoke and shoeless waifs in dirty rags scurrying around in groups. After three decades of kleptocracy under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, many Congolese hoped the first free elections in more than 40 years in July would usher in peace and prosperity. But with bitter rivals President Joseph Kabila and his Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba competing in a presidential run-off this month, Kuyayila fears little will change for street kids. "There is nothing in the candidates’ programmes to tackle this … They have not made the vulnerable their priority. It is a serious disappointment," he said.
Rights groups have warned that some political parties may be recruiting street children to create chaos. Hundreds of youths clashed with police in Kinshasa in September after a mysterious fire gutted Bemba’s TV stations — provoking a roundup a few days later of hundreds of street children. They warn that police often physically abuse street children and periodically imprison them under colonial rules banning begging. "Congolese authorities should be assisting street children not throwing them in jail," Human Rights Watch’s Tony Tate said in a report, calling for an end to colonial-era laws.
A boom in religious sects has made matters worse. Hundreds of self-proclaimed prophets have sprung up in Kinshasa, many now offering deliverance ceremonies for children believed to be possessed by evil spirits, where young children are whipped or burned to coerce confessions. "Now when people lose their jobs, they join a prayer group and the pastor comes to them and says ‘I had a vision: the child is responsible’," said Jean Valea of Save The Children.
OFTEN CANNOT READJUST
At a church-run centre in the chaotic Kasavubu neighbourhood, Jean-Baptiste Njiaba has spent more than 20 years working with street children. "These kids can be very violent," he said, as boys wrestled in the concrete playground during a basketball game. "We try to reunite them with their families but often they cannot readapt. The longer they spend on the street the harder it is." Of 70 children reconciled with their families last year, 20 returned to the streets despite months of counselling. Often it is hardest with girls, who make up around a third of cases. "Of the girls on the street, all of them have suffered sexual abuse — either before they left home or by adults on the street or by other street children," said Charles Bivula, head of Save The Children’s protection project in Kinshasa. At the Liboso centre, teachers provide counselling as well as an education to the children, to help them recover from the ordeal and reintegrate themselves into a family. "We teach them to see the positive in what they learned on the street: they become responsible for themselves and they can be very creative," said Fabrice Kazadi, who runs the project.
John Bofata hopes one day his father will return for him but in the meantime he is studying hard. "I am going to be a big businessman. I am going to create businesses of the kind we have never had in Congo," he said. "I’m going to be a millionaire."