KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Standing at the counter of a betting shop in his neighborhood, Christian Lisungi watches a football match on a TV screen while he awaits his turn to play. He is 15.
Before DRC’s schools closed in December because of the coronavirus pandemic, he had never bet on football, a pastime known in local slang as pari-foot.
“I have nothing to do at home,” the tall, lean teenager said when students were still out of school. During that time, he spent entire days playing pari-foot. His father, Rodolphe Lisungi, worried “because he gets so carried away by betting that he even forgets to eat sometimes.”
Pari-foot – the name of a gambling outfit that has morphed into a generic term for football betting – is illegal for minors, but that has not stopped thousands of children from doing it. Nor has it compelled those who manage the playrooms to enforce the law. Now that classes have resumed, parents and educators worry that the lure of pari-foot is keeping scores of children out of school.
“We are noticing the absence of some children in schools since the reopening of schools” in February, says Grégoire Kandolo, inspector of school education in the province of Tshopo, where Kisangani is located. “They are leaning on the counters at the pari-foot game rooms.”
Pari-foot has exploded in popularity in DRC in recent years. Football (known as soccer in the United States) is the country’s most popular sport, and bettors make wagers on both national and international matches. Some neighborhoods in Kisangani have attracted as many as 10 betting shops.
Televisions line the walls of pari-foot game rooms. Players shout as they watch games live and wager on the matches in these colorful, crowded betting shops. It’s not unusual for bettors, most of them young adult men, to pour into the shops as soon as they open and stay throughout the day.
But these days much younger players are joining them.
A 2011 law in Kisangani — about 2,324 kilometers (1,444 miles) northeast of Kinshasa, DRC’s capital — prohibits minors from gambling. If a child is caught betting, police issue an arrest warrant for his parents, who face a fine of 100,000 Congolese francs (about $50).
“This measure is not easy to implement, but we are trying very hard,” Jean-Louis Alaso, mayor of Kisangani, said while schools were still closed. “Betting has had too much of an impact as children have fallen prey to the game.”
He says the city doesn’t have the finances to enforce the law.
But Matthieu Kanga, a civil society activist in Tshopo province, accuses authorities of not taking the law seriously. “If there really were strict measures to respect the law that prohibits all minors to play games that are not adapted to their age,” he says, “we would not be seeing the success of all these pari-foot counters.”
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Pari-foot shop managers risk six months in prison and a $500 fine for letting children bet on football. Some managers run their shops in secret, while others openly ignore the law.
Before the pandemic, Trésor Lombo, manager of a pari-foot shop, probably saw five children a day. Since the pandemic, DRC officials have twice closed schools for months at a time. And when schools close, Lombo says, his shop draws about 20 children daily.
“The children come to play on their own,” Lombo says. “We’re here to make money from our business.”
Christian says the manager of the betting shop he frequents sees him every day but never asks him to leave. As long as he has money, Christian says, the manager lets him play.
During the school closures, Kandolo, the education inspector in Tshopo province, said educators’ hands were tied. “We can’t do anything [because] we are also staying at home like the students,” Kandolo said at the time.
Joel Kindala, 16, started playing pari-foot two years ago. He had to drop out of school because his parents couldn’t pay the fees. He has never returned.
Kindala says he has nothing to do at home. Even when he doesn’t have money, he spends his days at the betting shop.
“My school is now the pari-foot game room,” he says.
Before the coronavirus lockdown late last year, Christian enjoyed school. He was in his first year of secondary school, and he never missed class. Math was his favorite subject.
After schools shut down, he was walking through his neighborhood one day when a new betting shop caught his eye. He went in.
When Lisungi, a divorced civil servant, learned that Christian spent his days at the betting shop, he punished his son. But that did no good.
Each day before he left for work during the school closures, Lisungi gave Christian 800 francs (40 cents) for food. And each day the teenager spent it at the betting shop.
Christian told his father that when schools reopened, he would quit pari-foot. His dad wasn’t so sure.
Now that classes have resumed, Christian does go to school. But each day, after classes end and he gets a little rest, the teenager makes his way to the betting shop. There he spends the rest of the afternoon.