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from issue no. 05 - 2003

Reportage from Kinshasa

We who aren’t Harry Potter

In Kinshasa up to the ‘eighties there was never any talk of children driven from their families because they were thought to be witchdoctors. But with the arrival of the religious sects and the exodus caused by the war the phenomenon has become widespread. So much so as to have created an army of thousands of street kids who have to fight for survival every day

by Danilo De Marco

On these pages, shots of the street kids in the Matete district of Kinshasa, where hundreds of Christian religious sects proliferate that in their exploitation of people’s desperation have created the phenomenon of the ndoki, the child-witchdoctors

On these pages, shots of the street kids in the Matete district of Kinshasa, where hundreds of Christian religious sects proliferate that in their exploitation of people’s desperation have created the phenomenon of the ndoki, the child-witchdoctors

Arriving in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the thirty or so kilometers that separate the airport from Boulevard Trente de Juin, the only central artery of the city, one is forced to make a dive into the cité, the immense and uncomfortable poor megalopolis, a writhing anthill of almost six million inhabitants. The situation is so poverty-stricken and the government so corrupt that even the beggar who occupies the hole in the street, every day the same hole, to pick up a few coins from the motorists, regularly has to give a cut to the police. Street life in Kinshasa is hard. Despite that, it’s estimated that more than forty thousand street kids are living wild, without knowing what they’re going to eat that day, where they’ll sleep, how they’ll get through the uncertain and dangerous night. A “street army” that is no part of the cultural history of the Congo, formerly Zaire, and that initially came into being during the ‘eighties and ‘nineties when the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko began to break up after thirty years. It is a social situation deriving in particular from the loss of the values traditional to the African village of the extended family, worsened by an increasingly catastrophic economic situation, by the war still raging in the north-east, despite the fact that on 17 December the warring factions signed a peace agreement in Pretoria.

In the Indala language ndoki means witchdoctor. The sickness of a relative, the loss of a job, a failed harvest, are generally attributed to a witchdoctor’s spell. Death, worse if that of a young person – the Africans don’t understand the death of young people – demands explanation. The cause is thus always given to the evil-eye, to the result of witchcraft. Even a bad dream rouses suspicion. When people are trapped in the worst unchanging poverty, when a family with dozens of offspring can no longer feed itself, it becomes possible to accuse even one’s own son of being a ndoki, a possessed witchdoctor. Thus many youngsters can’t bear to live in mere surviving. In these conditions, the street becomes the place of freedom, the situation and chief agent of socialization, replacing the family both as form of belonging and as social protection.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Africa, but there was never any talk of child witchdoctors in Kinshasa. It’s only since the ‘eighties, with the arrival of the religious sects and the forced exodus from the countryside due to economic emargination and the war, that the phenomenon has grown acute. The sects have cleverly understood the psychology of the Africans who believe in the word and not in facts. An easy, hyped-up religion that one can buy for a dollar, accompanied by miracles worked before your eyes and mass chanting. The pastors of these sects, which have become a multitude, have thus begun to promise miraculous solutions and salvation. If they don’t happen it’s an easy trick to accuse one of the numerous children, possibly picking on the weakest, of being responsible, of practising the art of witchcraft.
Every family misfortune, someone’s death, the loss of a job, a failed harvest, has to be blamed on someone. Last year several hundred children were driven out of their homes in Mbuji-Mayi, a mining city, accused of having done the devil’s work and thus bringing down the price of diamonds. The children are accused of having done every kind of thing, even of eating their victims after killing them. The majority of street kids today come out of these family experiences. But the situation has degenerated to the point where it is not rare that cases of the kind occur even in well-off families.
For the boys and girls street life is freedom after the traumatic experience of their own family. The open space of the street and the possibility of doing what they want becomes in time irreplaceable to them. It is only by following them in their frenetic moving around that one can come anywhere near an understanding of their state of freedom: despite everything. One becomes a street kid even as young as four. But the life is harsh and what looms over all of them is: insecurity, homosexuality, exploitation, prostitution, drug abuse, mistreatment and insult. The majority of the youngsters on the streets of Matete, one of the most densely populated districts of Kinshasa, a tangle of garbage where more than 200,000 people live, sleep at night under the market stalls, in the public parks, some go to Matete’s crumbling railway station that still has a tin roof. For all of them, however, the night means anguish and uncertainty. While they sleep ill-meaning passers-by kick them, throw stones at them, even stub out cigarettes on their flesh. Even the police use violence towards these little thieves. The ill-treatment, the bullying the boys and girls on the street experience and have to undergo derives precisely from a way of life that is centered on violence. The big ones often steal money from the weaker ones and also inflict homosexual relations on them and punish them for their misdoings or to get revenge. These acts are often committed under the influence of drugs: marijuana, alcohol, solvents, heavy drugs (heroin), valium, that they can easily find for sale at very low prices. Besides the problem of the street kids there is that of the child-soldiers. A phenomenon that developed particularly in the north-east of the Congo where the war has devastated the land, massacred animals (more than nine thousand gorillas have been killed and there is a danger of extinction) and terrorized the population. The majority of the child-soldiers can’t read. Dragged violently from school benches at the age of seven or eight, armed with automatic rifles sometimes bigger than themselves, as children they have gone through everything: women, drugs, alcohol. To be a soldier in the Congo, even at eight years old, means being in charge, means having every kind of right over civilians, the right even to kill. In 1997, when Kabila overthrew Mobutu, after more than two thousand kilometres on foot, an army of child-soldiers entered Kinshasa in Indian file, one behind the other like ants. Now there is a plan to disband these children – by now almost eighteen year-olds - and reintegrate them into society, but the great problem remains of what to do with them, given the social and economic situation in the Congo. Furthermore these youths don’t want to be disbanded, and still hold on to two identities, one marked by the name they had as soldiers, and another under their civilian name. In short, they still feel themselves to be soldiers, strong, powerful, and superior to their street contemporaries, whom they despise.
Poor legs for poor soccer game

Poor legs for poor soccer game

Street kids and child-soldiers. There is still a relation between these youngsters and society: organized gangs have still not formed but already the first children of the street kids are beginning to grow. A bomb waiting to explode in the near future. What can we expect from young people ill-treated by society, outlawed, savaged, forced when very young to kill, mostly for no reason except the one unknown to them, that of maintaining the privileges of the warlords?
The “first African world war” is still being fought over the mineral wealth of the Congo: gold, diamonds, tungsten, but especially coltan, the refining of which provides tantalium, an indispensable element in the manufacture of the condensers to be found in every computer, in every hand-held gadget, in every mobile phone, in every play-station. Without coltan the technological world would come to a sudden halt.
As the New York Time Magazine wrote, «the history of coltan seems clear: globalization was bringing about the ruin of a desperate country. Because of our appetites, because of our electronic gadgets, guerrillas became rich, gorillas were massacred, and the natives were paid starvation wages to devastate the local ecosystem».
The young people of the Congo are desperate, but still listening, though there’s very little time left.

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