CRF Blog

We Will Kill the Demons

by Bill Hayes

In We Will Kill the Demons for Foreign Policy magazine, Deni Béchard reports Congo’s disturbing hunt for child sorcerers.

Over the past two years, during several visits to Kinshasa, I heard terrifying rumors — of children who strangle parents in their sleep or eat the hearts of their siblings. Of swarms of children flying through the skies at night, stealing money or deliberately causing illnesses like HIV and polio.

These children, people said, are sorcerers. They are possessed by dark powers that cause them to commit nefarious, even murderous deeds. To prevent child sorcerers from mischief or worse, people told me, their families should reject them and society should shun them. Or they should be taken to church — 80 percent of Congolese are Christian — where a pastor can perform exorcisms in the name of God. Congo’s wildly popular églises de réveil (“revival churches”) — an umbrella term for sects rooted in a mix of Pentecostal, charismatic, and prophetic beliefs, as well as local superstitions about dark magic — are more than willing to oblige.

Indeed, the hysteria over child sorcery has spurred a frightening witch hunt, with devastating results. According to UNICEF in 2013, Congolese children accused of sorcery “number in the thousands.”1 People experiencing hardship (a sudden illness, the loss of a job, the death of a relative) often search for a child to blame and find one in their own families. Some of these children are killed, but far more are abandoned, left to join Kinshasa’s tens of thousands of street children. Or they are dragged to churches, where they may well find further misery. According to Human Rights Watch, alleged child sorcerers taken to churches may be denied food and water, whipped until they confess, or sexually abused. “[M]ore than 2,000 churches practice deliverance in Kinshasa alone,” the organization has reported. Similarly, in a 2013 report about Congo, the U.S. State Department described “exorcisms of children accused of witchcraft involving isolation, beating and whipping, starvation, and forced ingestion of purgatives.”

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Although the situation is difficult to quantify precisely, UNICEF has found that accusations of witchcraft against children are on the rise across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the problem is so pervasive in Congo — in Kinshasa and elsewhere — that the country passed a law in 2009 banning allegations against children. To date, it appears to have had little effect.

Many writers and anthropologists, such as Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums, have explained what’s happening in Congo as a product of poverty: Families unable to feed or otherwise support their children accuse them of sorcery to get them off their hands. Some Congolese activists describe the problem in similar terms. “I think it’s a trick so they [families] can get rid of them,” said Marie Marguerite Djokaba, of the Network of Educators for Street Children and Youth (REEJER), in an interview. “The child sorcerer problem is related to the economic situation. It’s an excuse to kick children out.”

But this explanation of poverty and convenience feels incomplete; it doesn’t account for how utter societal breakdown in Congo — a country with a life expectancy of about 50 years and a GDP per capita of around $300 — intertwines with religion. [more]