KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Life on the streets sounded better to 12-year-old Sarah Nzapa than life in the home she fled.
“I lived with my paternal aunt, and not a single night passed without them tying me up and brutally thrashing me just to ward off evil spirits, which they said had set up camp inside me,” Sarah says.
Sarah says she was taken to a church where people prayed for the spirits to leave her.
“To top it off, an evangelist of the church tried to extort sex from me as part of exorcism,” she recalls, her eyes brimming with tears.
Sarah was 11 years old when she fled, choosing homelessness over that sort of abuse.
But her life changed for the better when a police officer found her and took her to Maison Saint Laurent, a home for children in Kisangani, a city in northern DRC. There, she met other children who were pushed into the streets or escaped there after being accused of witchcraft.
“These children are at first banished from their biological families,” says Father Gustave Mania, who runs the center. “They think they are bearers of misfortune.”
The children are first taught that their concerns about being “bearers of misfortune” are unfounded, he says. Then, they’re given chances to play sports and learn skills. The goal is to reintegrate them into society, Mania says.
Social services are scarce in DRC and there are few resources for children whose families reject them. Maison Saint Laurent, founded in 1990 and formally known as Centre Saint Laurent, is one of just a handful of places where children can find refuge. There are now more than 100 children, including infants and teenagers, living at the home, Mania says.
Nadia Kanyere Karasisi, GPJ DRC
Many children who live at the center go on to find success.
“We’re glad that at least two children having passed through our center have pursued further education and are currently studying at the University of Kisangani,” Mania says. “Besides them, there are two others – one of whom works at MONUSCO, and the other who works abroad.”
MONUSCO is the United Nations’ stabilization mission in DRC, which has experienced persistent violence since civil war broke out in 1996.
No one knows exactly how many children live on the streets in Kisangani, or how many of those were pushed out of their homes because they were thought to be engaging in witchcraft. But local officials say the problem is getting worse. A 2009 law notes that anyone who accuses a child of sorcery could face up to three years in prison as well as a fine, but that law hasn’t stopped the trend.
“The living conditions of separated children are causing increasing concern,” says Koko Misingi, a lawyer at the Kisangani Bar Association and coordinator of CAREO, a local nongovernmental organization that cares for children.
The situation is also a safety concern for local people. The children are increasingly engaging in petty theft and other minor crimes, Misingi says.
The children say they have no option but to make a life for themselves any way they can.
Arsene Motuta, 14, says his father divorced his mother and married a woman who abused him and his sister.
“Our stepmom even dared to go so far as to tell our father that her church’s pastor had told her that I was a witch and that my being a witch attracted the economic misfortunes that were befalling my family,” Arsene says.
Arsene says he could no longer bear that burden, so he decided to leave home. He wanted to find inner peace and quiet his mind, he says.
It wasn’t long before he found Maison Saint Laurent, where he says he’s found the peace he was looking for.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.