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D R Congo: Review of 'Children, the Occult and the Street in Kinshasa'

This is a coverage of a lecture given by researcher Filip DeBoeck from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Addresses the issue of street kids and witchcraft as a social problem in the Congo's capital, Kinshasa.
Diane Chesla

On Friday, January 10th, the Anthropology department at the University of Toronto hosted Filip De Boeck from the University of Leuven in Belgium. De Boeck's talk was entitled 'Children, the Occult and the Street in Kinshasa.'

Congo's capital, Kinshasa, has experienced a rise in the number of witchcraft accusations among 3-18 year olds over the past ten years. In a city of six million, an estimated 25,000 children live in the streets as a result of this phenomenon. Once accused of witchery, the child is either subjected to family violence or thrown out of his/her home to fend for him/herself in the streets of the city. It may be a run of bad luck, a neighbour's death or an unexplained illness (AIDS, cancer) that leads to the accusation against the child.

Once in the street, De Boeck explains, 'witch' children organize themselves into a hierarchical system travelling in non-permanent groups. Their activities are nocturnal. For survival, girls as young as five or seven are often prostituted out by older members of the group.

It is during the evenings that the ritual of 'eating' body parts of victims is played out. In a twist in the comprehension of modernity, children imagine the functionality of almost every human body part. Hair, for example, can be used to make a mattress. The human head serves as a cooking pot and eyes serve as mirrors.

The term 'eating' is not to be interpreted in its literal sense (contrary to the inquiries of an American news service reporter, as De Boeck informs us). Children are not partaking in cannibalistic rituals; yet, they take responsibility for a human death convincing themselves that it was in nocturnal flight that they engaged in the 'eating' of 'their' victim.

With the onset of new religious movements in the DRC, churches and their preachers are playing a significant role in the child witchcraft dilemma. For beleaguered families they offer diagnostic services. And for children living in the streets as witches, the church offers a 'Therapeutic Narrative Process' whereby the child is first secluded before experiencing purification (often via laxatives), interrogation, exorcism and ultimately a reintegration into his/her family. De Boeck raises the point that, unfortunately, this last step rarely transpires; and the child most often ends up back in the street.

Several non-governmental organizations are working on this social problem in Kinshasa. However, their approach to the preachers is one of confrontation with which De Boeck disagrees.

Following in the footsteps of several other researchers studying the occult in Sub-Saharan Africa (Comaroff and Comaroff, Ciekawy, Devisch, Bond), De Boeck looks at the transformations in Congolese society to understand this recent social problem.

Changes in two very old systems are at the root of the problem: kinship relations and the gift exchange/reciprocity structure.

Kinship Relations The role of the child and his/her power structure have been changing within the family system in Kinshasa. With access to artisanal diamond mining in neighbouring Angola, teens have been able acquire significant wealth, often greater sums than that of either parent. This has given the child the power to defy the parents; and, in fact, a type of role reversal occurs.

The role of child as soldier (notably evident with Laurent Kabila's march into Kinshasa surrounded by underage armed soldiers) presented the idea of guns as power to impressionable Congolese youth. Again, the child learns he can be liberated from the constraints of family life by turning to the streets, witchcraft and life as a soldier.

Changing maternal roles are also evident in Kinshasa. Women, for example, may engage in activities generated by diamond mining in Angola and are absent from the family. In some cases, the fathers are absent as well, as they take up arms in the ongoing conflict. These examples show how kin relations in the capital are changing and affecting the role and power structure of the Congolese child. The child's response is to liberate him/herself by turning to the street and the occult. Similarly, witchcraft is a solution to rid the family of a child thought responsible for inexplicable hardships.

Gift Exchange/Reciprocity De Boeck provides insight into the breach of the gift exchange process unfolding in Kinshasa in the context of a younger demographic society and a changing kin system. Societal changes fail to maintain the gift exchange structure; and, as a result, younger generations are left feeling vulnerable in the process. Imagine two young boys playing at one of their homes when the friend asks for a glass of water from the father, explains De Boeck. The next day, the young friend reports the incident to his church. The example demonstrates the vulnerable feelings experienced amongst young Congolese in the absence of a structure guaranteeing a safe and legitimized exchange process. Coincidentally, a parallel decrease occurs in social relationships.

DeBoeck notes that Congolese are even opting out of marriage in the city with men unable to afford the necessary bride price. Arrangements in lieu of traditional marriages have thus become the norm contributing to the break down of the gift exchange structure in Kinshasa.

Conclusion As a Westerner living far removed from the daily realities of life in the DRC, it is easy to miss a powerful yet somber story like that of witchcraft and street kids in Kinshasa. The problems of diamonds, gold, cobalt, timber and other 'exploited' resources are becoming well known but scarcely does one know or hear of the long-term impact of the poverty and disruption on Congolese society. As De Boeck says regarding Kinshasa, "it's depressing."

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