Saving Witches in Kolwezi
Ignace Maloba, a Wesleyan pastor in rural Congo, has had an unexpected new ministry as of late: hunting child witches. Four years ago, local informants led him to the dusty back streets of Kolwezi, a copper-mining town 160 miles from Lubumbashi, a major city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire).
After traversing the area several times, Maloba finally found the "witches"—two girls and four boys incarcerated in a forlorn church compound. "I was extremely surprised," the pastor told Christianity Today.
At the request of local church leaders, CT visited this area of Congo to report on how churches are handling—and mishandling—abandoned children who face accusations of sorcery and witchcraft due to parental neglect, birth defects, and disability. Tragically, some pastors attempt exorcisms in which they place children's hands in near-boiling water to purge "spirits," resulting in severe burns.
One couple, Astrid Kayanga and her pastor-husband, Ngube Ngube, told CT about making routine pastoral visits one Sunday afternoon in Kasulu, a bustling community near Lubumbashi. They visited one home several times, each time hearing a child weeping in the backyard. Finally, Pastor Ngube asked to see the child. His request quickly turned into a rescue mission for 4-year-old Deborah, a suspected "sorcerer."
Coordinated Church Response
As pastors and ministry leaders in Kasulu compared notes, they came to realize the size of the problem: Parents were abandoning thousands of children, leaving them to survive on the streets of the DRC's major cities.
The problem can grow much worse. With 66.5 million people, the DRC has one of the world's fastest growing populations. About 47 percent is at or below age 15. A 2005 Save the Children report estimated that 2,000 children in the urban area of Kinshasa were accused of sorcery, and that at least another 10,000 children nationwide may have also been victims. HIV/AIDS puts many children at risk for abandonment. The country has 300,000 orphans whose parents have died of AIDS, and 50,000 children are HIV-positive. About 75 percent of children accused of sorcery or witchcraft are male, according to the International Catholic Child Bureau. The cycle of abandonment and accusation occurs in many central African countries.
An evening walk around Lubumbashi can be frightening not only because of the high rate of violent crime committed by adults, but also because of the gangs of starving children known to attack people to steal cash, clothes, and other personal possessions. An estimated 50 percent of Lubumbashi's street children have been accused of being under the influence of evil powers. Occult practices are still common in many rural African areas.
About three years ago, Christian leaders began pooling resources to educate pastors, parents, and community leaders on the best strategies for response. They drew on local leadership as well as the national and global resources of World Vision.
One Sunday afternoon during CT's visit, Frieda Mwebe decided to skip evening worship at her Lubumbashi Methodist church. Instead, the World Vision staff member jam-packed her Land Cruiser full of training materials for church leaders on how to respond differently when children in their communities are labeled witches. Mwebe slowed down her packing to welcome pastor Aaron Ilunga and Christian broadcaster Jean-Paul Kabange. The men volunteered to join her for a weeklong training workshop for 35 church leaders in Likasi, a ravaged but densely inhabited town 75 miles from Lubumbashi.