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from issue no. 05 - 2003

A home for the victims of superstition

The Guanellians in Kinshasa have set up hospitality centers to take in and try to resettle the tens of thousands of child-witchdoctors back in their original family units

by Paolo Mattei

Kinshas's kids

Kinshas's kids

The Guanellians have been in Kinshasa since 1966, the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, but potentially very rich in terms of mineral resources. In Kinshasa there is a large concentration of sheguè, “vagabonds” in the local language, also called enfants sorciers, “child-witchdoctors”, kids between four and sixteen abandoned on the streets of the city. According to one’s source, their number varies from10,000 to 40,000. In order to bring them together and try settle them back in their original family units, the Fathers of the Congregation of the Servants of Charity, founded by Blessed Don Luigi Guanella in 1908, have set up various hospitality and rescue centers. Father Santiago Maria Anton, with whom we spoke to find out more, co-ordinates the work of these structures, collaborating with various government and non-government institutions, such as the local Ministry of Social Affairs and the “Medicus mundi” and Unicef organizations.

Father Santiago, with how many children are you working at present?
SANTIAGO: With about 250 gathered in four institutes, located in the Matete neighborhood. Three of these structures are permanent reception centers, where the children are offered lodging, food, clothing, schooling, health care… everything, in short, that concerns their primary needs. But they’re also given personal re-education towards settling them in the family. The fourth center is called “The water point”: it opens at morning and closes at night and the children who don’t want to stay to sleep can get help there, but also learn a trade.
The fundamental aim is to resettle them in the family from which they come?
SANTIAGO: Yes. More or less half of those we meet, we manage to return home after a while. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t a definitive return for all of them, not a few “fall back” onto the street. It’s also often difficult to identify the families they come from. But with tenacious investigation, we almost always manage to find them.
Why do they get abandoned according to you?
SANTIAGO: It’s a new social phenomenon. The reasons are various: macro-economic underdevelopment, the institutional weakness of the public administration and of the instruments for the protection of children, the economy of a war that has lasted for more than five years and has brought about the emargination of the poorest social classes with the consequent break-up of the family… But the exodus from the countryside to the city has been devastating.
How so?
SANTIAGO: The collision of rural emigrants with the big city – a mix of Europeanising ways of behaving, Americanising inclinations and native custom – has broken down the legacy of traditions and culture which underpinned family life in the village. In the country village norms and hierarchies exist, shared and respected by all, which uphold social co-existence. With the move to the city, this system suddenly fractures, the mix of people of diverse origin and culture makes everything less clear. And more than anything everybody is struggling to get through the day with its thousands of difficulties. The traditions undoubtedly continue to exist, but they’re no longer contained and systematized as in the context of the village. Local conceptions of life go crazy and so when some misfortune happens to a family, for example the sudden death of a youngster, something inexplicable and unbearable to Africans, a child is picked out as scapegoat, accused of witchcraft and driven from home. But in the Congolese rural tradition the child is respected, and in normal conditions would never be abandoned to itself. In reality it’s a way of getting rid of a mouth to feed. But, I repeat, the phenomenon is the outcome of a dynamic of radical denaturing caused by the impact with the urban situation and by extreme poverty.
The city doesn’t offer many possibilities for surviving…
SANTIAGO: Well, the comparison with other situations in Africa won’t stand up, because here people manage to eat something more or less once a day. But poverty isn’t defined only on the basis of what you put in your stomach. It’s poverty when children are expelled from school because fees haven’t been paid, when one can’t be operated or ask for medical treatment because there’s no money, when ten people live in thirty square meters, when most young people are unemployed. Then many turn to the religious sects. These are sects, mainly Christian, that are multiplying while you watch.
And what do the sects offer?
SANTIAGO: A painkiller. In exchange for money and power, of course. The sects are sprouting up like mushrooms, inventing them has become a trade for those with a bit of imagination and shrewdness. Those who join do so to get rid of the tension built up by economic and social problems. With practices of communal prayer, taking the form of rhythmic clapping and the howling of chants, the adept gives vent to his anger and remains tranquil for some days, as if under the influence of a drug. It’s obviously a mode of prayer cut off from reality, indeed that has the aim of getting one to forget reality. And it also has these consequences: if a problem crops up, it’s not dealt with but wiped from view by any means whatever, by inventing a negative origin – the “child-witchdoctor” – and seeking to get rid of him. Those who operate the system get money and especially power through it, for example by the practice of exorcism.
Meaning what?
SANTIAGO: Meaning that the founders and those in charge of the sects, who are well acquainted with African psychology, proclaim themselves exorcists and “release” the child-witchdoctor from the “evil spirit”. Or appoint themselves to identifying the presence of evil forces in the house. In short they exploit these weaknesses, they exploit the tragedy of these children using the same tricks as play-actors.
Are sects imported from the West?
SANTIAGO: The source isn’t clear. Most of them are founded and run by people from here. But it’s probable that behind them stronger forces are at work, interested in manipulating people for their own purposes.

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