The So-Called Child Witch:

The Creation of a Local Human Rights Story in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Angela Nicoara, filmmaker, Internews-Rwanda

Angela Nicoara, a journalist and filmmaker with Internews, talks about the phenomenon of young children being forced into painful and sometimes fatal "exorcisms" after being accused of witchcraft and blamed for family misfortune in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

My name is Angela Nicoara, and I am a journalist. I just started as a student two weeks ago in the Master's Program in Coexistence and Conflict here at Brandeis. But before that, for three years, I worked in Africa, first in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then in Rwanda. Today I'm going to show you two films that I made in Kinshasa in 2002. They are about what they call les enfants sorciers, or "child witches."

The way I got to do this story was by going there as a freelance journalist. My husband was teaching journalists, also, in Congo. As soon as you arrive in Kinshasa, you see how many children are in the streets, all over the place. Most of them were kicked into the streets by their parents, who accuse them of witchcraft. The reason this is happening is because families there are so poor and so large. And, because of the war, many of the families were brought together. So you will have several stepmothers or stepfathers, and it seems that what happens often is that, when something unfortunate happens to someone in the family, the one who has less power to defend himself gets accused of it. So, you will get several children accused of witchcraft.

The ones who actually make it to the street are the lucky ones. What I found out after a few months in Kinshasa is that witchcraft has a lot to do with violence. I have read several articles, even recently, in the Economist, and I have seen BBC reports that mention witchcraft; none of them mention the violence.

They say there are 20,000 street children in Kinshasa. They don't know how many of them were accused of witchcraft. I can't tell you how many. Again, the violence is not out in the open. Often I would ask people, "How do you take the devil out of a child?" and they say, "We'll pray for them." What happens, though, is that if the devil doesn't come out of the soul after a prayer, they resort to more violent procedures. I often heard of children having their fingernails pulled out or having been burned. I have talked to families who kept their children without food or water for a week. And then they beat them, and they died.

On every corner of the street there is another church. It has a different name, started by people who had a vision overnight. It's to do with money – people are unemployed, churches do attract people; therefore, you know, if you are lucky and have this kind of vision, you can start your own church. In order to make more money, you do several exorcism sessions.

When I talk to people face-to-face, they tell me things. When I bring the camera, things change. Like a certain priest, Father Frank; initially, I asked him how he would get the devil out of a child. He said he cuts the belly button. I said, "Do you mean, like, with scissors?" And he said, "Yes." I said, "I would like you to tell me that on camera." The next day, when I brought the camera, he refused to say that. He said he actually does it with oil. "It's just a cross. It's a symbolic thing."

I am going to show two films today, each dealing with the phenomenon of child witches in the DRC but using very different approaches. The first film I'm going to show you is a short documentary aimed at the Congolese media professionals. Often in Kinshasa, you would see on television all sorts of roundtables where people tell their audience how to spot the child witch, or you would see lots of exorcisms. What you don't see is how the children actually feel about it. This film was funded by USAID and it was shown at a journalists' seminar. Many Congolese journalists asked me where this was happening. I said, "It's happening here in Kinshasa." They were shocked. I tried to explain to them that there is another way, a more balanced way, to show this phenomenon of witchcraft in Kinshasa. The idea was for journalists to see a different point of view on the child witch phenomenon so they could do their own reporting in a different way.

During the making of the documentary, I met a group of Congolese musicians. They were all ex-street children, and some of them had been accused of witchcraft. They sang this really beautiful song, which was about how hard it is to be a child witch out on the streets. I wanted, initially, to have them in my documentary. But then I thought, "The Congolese love music," and this was a beautiful song. I said, "Why don't we make this into a music video clip, and show it on Congolese television?" Because, apart from the religious programs on TV, you see these Congolese music groups. Great music. But there are very few video clips. So I thought I could use this format to tell them a story. This is the second film you will see about child witches.

I must say that this was probably one of the hardest jobs that I've ever done. It took two weeks to do this video, and it was hard work. The child in the film, he is an actor. And he was great. The musicians were great, but sometimes unreliable. But every time I see this video – it's probably the hundredth time – it just always... I don't know... gives me goose bumps. The reason you see the logo for Internews at the end of the film is because they have used this film in their media seminar in Kinshasa.

After Congo, I went to Rwanda and I worked for two-and-a-half years there as a Country Director for this project, which made films on post-genocide justice. Internews is an international media NGO, and it's based in Arcata, California. It has funding mainly from USAID. But, for example, our project in Rwanda was funded for a year-and-a-half by the Netherlands Embassy in Kigali. It teaches journalists, mainly, but it also helps produce radio and video programs, especially in countries like Rwanda where, for the moment, you only have one TV station, government-owned. You had, until very recently, one radio station. So all the media there is very much controlled. We came in and we did this independent production, and fortunately we were allowed to show it all over the country – in schools, in villages and, very importantly, in prisons.

As a result of that Congolese music video, Search for Common Ground started a whole media campaign on the issue of child witches. It was actually Search for Common Ground who helped me get money for the video clip project. They started a whole campaign, and they created yet another film in which they interviewed lots of Congolese VIPs and respected politicians who talked about the child witch phenomenon, saying how wrong it is. After this, the Congolese government created a commission that started dealing with these problems. Also, Search for Common Ground did a series of musical contests – again, to try to attract musicians to write songs to deal with this. The people who won had their CDs produced and distributed. They had a theater play, and they had a radio soap program.

So, it created a lot of discussion on this topic. Hopefully, some people got the message and have moved from this traditional African belief in witchcraft to another way of thinking. Once I went to a shack where an exorcism was going on, I was taken there by some people from Save the Children who were teachers. And I came out of the shack and I said, "This is just unbelievable." And they said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "How can someone believe that seven of his children are witches?" And he said, "When you live long enough in our country, you'd understand. Of course there are witches." It was hard for me to believe that these beliefs still exist, but they do. But I only lived in Africa for a few years, so I don't feel like I know a lot about it.


Questions, Comments and Responses

Rosalind Shaw,associate professor of anthropology, Tufts University: I noticed that the children in your film, it was not a reality for them that they were witches. They were denying being witches.

Nicoara: Yes.

Shaw: In Filip de Boeck's book (Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City), though, there seem to be a lot of children accused of witchcraft who have, in fact, internalized a view of themselves as witches and who make some extremely graphic confessions. And it seems to me that that is also part of what we need to look at, about how the children themselves absorb this and internalize this.

Nicoara: You're right. Children would say, "Yes, I flew last night. And yes, I was at this party. And yes, I ate these cakes." But most of the time, it seemed to me that it had to do with attracting attention. And very often it's the adults that tell them these stories, and then the children just, you know, fantasize based on them. To accuse somebody of being a witch just because he dreams that he eats, and most probably he eats very little, I think it's very wrong. I haven't read that book, so I don't know exactly what they say to prove the children are witches. I mean, often in Kinshasa I was told, "Yes, he is a witch because he ate my grandmother's soul." To explain that, they say, "Oh, this person had a dream where somebody gave him some food. He took it and ate it. That food actually was my grandmother's soul. So, he is guilty for my grandmother's death."

Female Participant #1: It seems to me that one of the implications of telling this particular human rights story is that it plugs into an old discourse about Africa that conflates all of Africa into one big mass as "superstitious," and that maybe contributes to the sense that Africa isn't worthy of coverage, which was what Corinne was talking about in her presentation. Or that these things just happen in Africa because it's Africa. It's clearly urgent to tell this story for the obvious reasons of the harm being done; at the same time, disseminating this story, it seems to me, plugs into a lot of negative stereotypical discourse about Africa. So, I just wonder how that's negotiated in the telling.

Mark Auslander,assistant professor of anthropology, Brandeis University: Since I've admonished everyone to please say their names, I am Mark Auslander in the Anthropology department. Angela, you have shown us two very powerful films. And you spoke, at some point, of the "traditional" African belief in witchcraft as being dangerous. And yet, in so many ways, what we're seeing evidenced in Kinshasa, as a number of ethnographers have suggested, is very novel. It has something to do, with the particular configurations of evangelical Protestantism – or, certain strains in evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism in particular – and radical economic transformations. So, if anything, the extraordinary film that you've produced, working with the musicians, it seems to me it actually harkens back in very interesting ways to much older classical African social mechanisms and performance mechanisms for the social reintegration of those who were accused of mystical malfeasance.

The category of witchcraft is a very tricky one. In a sense, a vast panoply of different sorts of powers, negative and positive, in many African cosmological systems, have been lumped together recently under this category of "witchcraft." We need to tease them apart in some ways. One of the classic ways of reintegrating somebody who was imagined to be the classic image of the witch – which is literally the person who eats alone in so many African contexts – was, in fact, through song and dance. Whether or not you were conscious of this when you were filming and editing, that comes out – obviously in the post-production, but also among the performers themselves. So, there is a double-narrative line that you have going on: on the one hand, the song is taking us through the expulsion, and yet we see the redemption and the reintegration of the child happening much earlier than it happens in the lyrics.

And so, suddenly, you have a whole group eventually singing this song of being abandoned, and yet through their bodies, through performance, through music, which is bringing in all sorts of other powers and rechanneling them, there is the possibility of reintegration. This speaks, of course, to the great challenge that was raised by one of the questioners: "Isn't there something pernicious, isn't there something dangerous about putting forward this vision of Africa?" And I think you're working through that problem. And it seems to me that this video clip, perhaps, is in some sense a little more successful than the first film the documentary, precisely because I think you're tapping into certain kinds of African solutions to contemporary African problems, which are produced through globalization and so forth.

It's a very interesting challenge, it seems to me, that you're grappling with. But I have a feeling that through your camera, and so forth, the performers themselves may be kind of working out some of these new strategies for imagining a community. I mean, these are issues that Rosalind Shaw has also been working on extensively, and I'd be interested in her thoughts. But I just wanted to throw that out as a possibility.

Sanji Monageng, commissioner, African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights: Thank you so much for this insight. I'm Sanji Monageng, a commissioner with African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. As an African, like I indicated earlier, sorcery and witchcraft are some of the very odd habits, if you like, that we have. Like the female genital mutilation that we witnessed in the film yesterday [Ousmane Sembene's "Moolaadé," about female genital mutilation]. But what is particularly paining me with this experience in the DRC is that it's now about children, helpless people. You go beyond sorcery and inflict so much harm on them. And one wonders whether the government is aware of this, what the government of the DRC is doing about it.

I'm particularly disheartened because there are a lot of NGOs in the DRC that have worked with the African Commission, and we have never heard of this. Even as we do our promotion missions – I was in the DRC, I think, last year in February. Nobody ever mentioned sorcery and children, which is really painful and very surprising. And I just wanted to say to you, the African Commission accepts reports of human rights abuses from anybody, from any source. If you find it within yourselves, yourself and your organization, please let the African Commission know, formally. Maybe there's something that we can do about it.

Thank you very much.

Nicoara: As regarding what the Congolese government is doing, everybody knows about it, but nobody considers it a problem. It's like, "It's there. It's our tradition." But as I said, after this film, the huge Search for Common Ground campaign convinced the government that they needed to have a commission on children's rights, and they did. But I am surprised it didn't come to you. This campaign happened all year in 2003, in Congo.

Shaw: First of all, I'd like to congratulate you on your films, especially the second one. They are wonderful. But what I have to say here concerns your verbal presentation. We all want to be effective in our critiques, and I think that your film is an extremely effective critique. I think that the music is an effective critique. But the ways in which you are framing the child witchcraft accusation, in terms of irrationality, in terms of superstition, in terms of, you know, the odd, the strange, the traditional – and then attacking it as such… There's a long history of completely unsuccessful attempts by outsiders, from 18th-century missionaries onwards, to transform African ideas and practices by describing them as superstitious, irrational, wrong, barbarous. That just gives rise to a counter-reaction – you know, "Thank you very much, but go away." It's much more effective to try to understand what's going on – which doesn't mean to condone it, but to try to use the discourse itself against it.

One way of doing that, I think very effectively, has been through music, which you've already done. But another way would be through the churches themselves, which you are so contemptuous of. The distinction between what is a real church and not a real church is really not one that can be sustained. I mean, churches in many places are corrupt, especially in a place where people are economically desperate, like DRC. And what these churches are doing is, in fact, exorcising the children. If the churches are providing a way for witchcraft to be removed from the children – I've heard, incidentally, that the parents still won't accept the children back even if they've been exorcised, so there's more going on that just witchcraft, here. Wouldn't the churches be something to work with?

Nicoara: Yes, you're right. That's exactly what Search for Common Ground did. They brought together people from churches – priests – with politicians, with children, and they talked about this. Now, I don't know if they changed anybody's mind, but at least... I'm not trying to change Africa's tradition with this film.

Shaw: This really isn't traditional. This is about modernity, rather than tradition.

Nicoara: I mean, tradition in terms of witchcraft, believing in witchcraft.

Shaw: Witchcraft is thoroughly modern. That's a longer conversation.

Leigh Swigart, associate director, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University: Hi, I'm Leigh Swigart from the Ethics Center. One of the things I think is really interesting about these two films – and I've seen them a couple times now – is, this morning we briefly talked about kind of the language of human rights reporting, and how there tends to be a certain legalistic kind of representation, or re-presentation of human rights violations. And in fact, there's a larger international human rights community that is already on the same page, and they're all willing to be critical of certain kinds of practices. What I like about what Angela has done is that this is a human rights story for a very, very local audience. It's not for an international audience. Even the phenomenon it's talking about is something that Westerners have a pretty high level of discomfort with.

What I feel is happening here a little bit is that she's being critical, her language is critical. Some people are coming back and being relativistic about it – trying to promote a certain understanding of it – but I don't think that what she has done is essentializing, at all, a certain kind of experience in the DRC. Because it's for the DRC, and they already know it's going on, and they already understand this. It's a human rights story that, once taken out of its local context, has a problem "passing." That's my take on it. I think it's really interesting that you have a documentary, which is a really Western format, and then you go beyond that and do a music video. I think everybody probably recognizes the music video is very effective, especially if you know that music and you know how people respond to that kind of music. I think that we can juxtapose this film production with some of the other kinds of documents people have been talking about, which really are for a much broader audience.

Angela Nicoara: Thank you very much for your help. Yes, I didn't mention that. The song is in Lingala, and it was initially subtitled in French and Swahili. I did it in English especially for this event. So, I didn't really try to change anybody's mind in terms of witchcraft, I just tried to show them that the ones on the streets – these kids, you know – have a very rough life. Because many people, they see them but they just don't acknowledge them. They pass them every day, and they just become part of the surroundings.

Female Participant #2: This film – which is, I assume, on local news, or on the local television channel or channels, so everyone sees it – is this intending to reach an audience that does not believe in sorcery, and so, when they see these children who have been cast off by their families who do believe in sorcery, they will take them in and treat them differently? Or were you more intending to speak to people who do believe in sorcery and that is a part of their life?

Nicoara: It's both. It's mainly for the latter. As I said, people kick children out in the streets. And then it's out of their hands; they don't care about what's happening to them, and they don't know what's happening to them. This shows what is happening to them. If they are lucky, they end up in a children's home. Most of them just sit on the street with nothing to eat. They sell drugs, they get sick, they get bullied, they get abused, and you never see that anywhere. Those shots that I took during the night, you never see them on television. You know, these children, some of them are small and innocent, but there are now gangs, and there are older children who take a lot of drugs. It's a dangerous environment, and not many people get to know about it. The NGOs, I don't know how much they can do and how much time they have to spend gathering them off the streets during the night or caring about them.

It's for both audiences: people who believe in witchcraft to see how the kids end up, and people who don't believe in witchcraft to try and convince the others that it's the wrong thing to do – that it's wrong to abuse kids.

Female Participant #2: I can imagine the people who really believe in witchcraft, and that's such a part of their existence, that they're not going to see little children. They're going to see little devils in these positions out on the street, and that it's just one of the many guises of devils.

Nicoara: Did you see any devils?

Female Participant #2: No, but witchcraft is not a part of my belief, and it's not the way in which I was raised. I actually spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in a village that also was very superstitious, and they were constantly telling me about witches and people who were witches. They would tell me there's a certain wood that I should not go in because of witches, and after two years I didn't want to go in those woods because I thought there were witches there. It was just such a part of their life, such a fear from the very beginning. Even in two years, for me, they had a very powerful effect on me.

Nicoara: OK, but you never went back into the woods to take the witch out of it and burn it. I mean, that was the problem for me. OK, there are witches, but don't go and kill them, you know?

S.A. Bachman: I'm S.A. Bachman. I just wanted to say that I think it was really important, in terms of this discussion, that the first woman who spoke made a really critical distinction between the visual language that was being spoken and the language that was being spoken in this room. I think that's important. I'm here with a group of students who are documentary filmmakers and photographers, and one of the things that we all have to do is look at that discrepancy between how information is presented verbally versus visually. I felt that that comment is really important in terms of where the films begin to deconstruct things in an effective way. The language that is being spoken is, in my mind, reinforcing a certain sense of how Africa's been constructed.

Corinne Dufka,photojournalist/reporter, Human Rights Watch: I'm Corinne Dufka from Human Rights Watch. I've lived in Africa for my 12th to 13th year, now, in Kenya, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. And the issues of mysticism – witches is one way of talking, but it's of mysticism, of that "underneath" of things, the other life – are so terribly important. It's such an inherent and an important part of African life. But I almost feel like, to a certain extent, within the academic community there is a bit of a taboo to talk about harmful traditional practices. But frankly, from our point of view – you know, from a human rights point of view – a murder is a murder, even though we're not talking about large numbers of people. In Liberia, we have this phenomenon called the "sassy wood phenomenon," of people drinking the sap of a tree which is quite poisonous. If they drink it and die, it means they were guilty; if they don't die, for some reason, then it means they were innocent. We're not talking about large numbers of people, but we're talking about killings and murders and torture. I think that it still deserves to be denounced, to contextualize it within the societal and the cultural and the ethnic and tribal perspectives. But I also think that we shouldn't avoid talking about it for fear of saying that we're going to be somehow reinforcing all of these traditional views about Africa. I mean, we have to be very careful about language. We can't use the phrase "the bush" in human rights. It always gets edited out. But it's a language that's very common, that Africans use themselves. It doesn't necessarily have that kind of pejorative sense about it. Anyway, I guess the point is that a murder's a murder, torture is torture, and we shouldn't, I think, feel afraid of identifying and calling those things as they are, and then looking at them.

Female Participant #2: It's not that anyone's denying that a murder is a murder, but it's not always effective to put that onto this sort of continuum of evil and alienate people because of things that they believe in. They have to work with the belief systems and the very powerful superstitions to allow people to change themselves. It's just as much of an imposition for us to create a way that everyone has to fit into making the right choice for them and change... I don't know, I just don't think it's as black-and-white as that. You have to look from an internal lens as well if you want to create change.

Shaw: I'm a little uncomfortable with the way in which my point about pragmatism has been reshaped as a statement about relativism. I'd like to put it in the way that my friend Rogaia Abusharaf puts it. She's a feminist anthropologist from Sudan who's been working on issues of female genital ritual surgery in Sudan for a long time. When she's asked about it, she says that as a feminist, of course she wants to eradicate it; as an anthropologist, she's interested in the right way to do it. And going head on and using the kind of language that we've been hearing here, in terms of superstition and irrationality, is going to produce the equivalent of women marching for FGM rights – which, in fact, happened on the streets of Freetown in response to discourses about female genital mutilation here.

These understandings and practices of witchcraft are not traditional, they are new. Children have not been accused before, just as female genital ritual surgery, itself, often falls away through the choice of women themselves, when women are given alternatives, when women are empowered, when women have other economic opportunities. It looks here as if what should be fought are the economic circumstances that the discourse of witchcraft is taking hold of, and which is giving fire to this discourse of witchcraft. And if you do something about the root cause of these child witchcraft accusations, then my guess is that they will fall away.

Female Participant #3: How new is it? Both of those things.

Auslander: I could speak to that. We teach entire courses on this, so I'm trying to summarize, but these forms of witchcraft, much of this begins to congeal in the sort of early- and mid-colonial period. But the specific notion of sort of mass violence is an even more recent phenomenon. And the accusation of children, really, just the last few years, on a mass scale, to my knowledge. It's an extraordinary thing that you've been able to document, and very horrific, and it speaks so much to what's going on in many African urban contexts, though most dramatically in Kinshasa, in terms of the breaking down of larger systems of reciprocity and kinship and so forth. It really does have everything to do, as the lyrics themselves say, with this moment of extraordinary economic crisis – which all of us, in various ways, in a wealthy, Western, northern context, are implicated in. And our response… Films and art are important, but working for global economic justice is just as incumbent on us, as Rosalind has suggested. But we are seeing a remarkably new, innovative phenomenon.

Female Participant #3: In FGM as well?

Auslander: Oh, no. We're speaking of this category of witchcraft and accusation of children. With FGM... Again, we're lumping together a lot of different practices, but some of them are of great time-depth and antiquity. One small part of the inter-penetration of the visible and the invisible worlds is what has come to be called "witchcraft." And to appreciate African life-worlds, yes, we need to talk about these very horrific conditions, such as are being documented. But not at the expense of recognizing that the larger understanding of theories of ontologies, of ways of being in the world that recognize human interdependence in a mystical vein, which have much of value to teach all of us.