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« on: February 12, 2006, 09:08:17 PM »

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,1707898,00.html

Kinshasa sects make fortunes from exorcisms

Richard Dowden in Kinshasa
Sunday February 12, 2006
Observer

Naomi is 15 but looks 10. A horrible burn scar shrivels the skin across her chest and shoulder. She had a broken leg, now reset. But her face is calm; she speaks clearly. The physical scars are nothing compared with the trauma she has been through. She is one of the so-called child witches of Kinshasa, rejected by her family and community at six years old and left to survive on the streets.
Once she had four siblings and lived with her parents across the river in Brazzaville. Her father died and then her mother. She had to live with her grandfather and aunt, who did not want her. 'Grandfather become sick and my aunt accused me of being a witch. She said, "Why is everyone around sick? They are suffering because of you." Grandfather gave me special water to drink, but it made no difference.

'My aunt said I must leave. The neighbours beat me and burnt me. They said either you must admit to being a witch or we will kill you. There is no place for you here. I went to the church, but they gave me water to drink that made me sick. I said to neighbours, let me sleep somewhere, even in your toilet, but they refused. I was caught by some soldiers and they said, you are a witch - we saw you flying with birds. They said they were going to kill me, but I escaped.'

Naomi gives a smile as she recounts how she found another church which took her in and sent her to Kinshasa. She has ended up in a hostel run by War Child. She is lucky. Tens of thousands of children live in the cemeteries, markets and streets of Kinshasa feeding on rubbish, begging and stealing. Most are there because of witchcraft accusations - mostly from their own families. The phenomenon is spreading, with recent cases of child abuse motivated by the belief that the child is possessed by evil spirits, showing up in London, Paris and Amsterdam.

I found Nelphy Lelu, a lanky 14-year-old, in another Kinshasa hostel. He has British citizenship and until recently he went to New Rush Hall School in Hainault, north-east London, and speaks with a soft London accent. He dreamt a man in black was trying to kill him and told his mother, who took him to a church in Tottenham, where the pastor declared him to be a witch. His mother beat him and he was taken into care before his mother brought him to Kinshasa. There he was sent to his grandmother, where the beatings continued.

As Congolese society has disintegrated, undermined by the country's rulers and ravaged by Aids and poverty, the family has collapsed. Children have been the main victims, often accused of witchcraft when families suffer misfortunes.

'Thirty years ago this did not exist,' says Remy Mafu, the director of the Rejeer project for street children. 'Now it's a huge problem and difficult to know how to deal with it.'

He estimates there are between 25,000 and 50,000 children on the streets of Kinshasa, a city of seven million. Many - if not most - have been accused of witchcraft and rejected by their families. The roots lie in a distorted development of African culture. Witchcraft does not mean in Africa what it means in Europe. Traditionally in Congo, every community had mediums who communicated with spirits in the other world. These were usually older people, revered and respected. The spirits they communed with or were possessed by were usually neither good nor bad, simply powerful.

'In African culture, when something goes wrong, we ask the spirits to find the human cause,' Mafu explains. 'These days children are accused. They can be persuaded to accept it's their fault. They tell themselves "it is me, I am evil".'

Then there are the new fundamentalist Christian sects, of which there are thousands in Kinshasa. They make money out of identifying 'witches' and increasingly parents bring troublesome children to the pastors. 'It's a business,' says Mafu. 'For a fee of $5 or $10 they investigate the children and confirm they are possessed. For a further fee they take the child and exorcise them, often keeping them without food for days, beating and torturing them to chase out the devil.'

Children who do well in school can also be accused of witchcraft. The common charge is they have been seen flying or eating human flesh. Their confessions of killing and eating relatives are broadcast live on TV channels owned by evangelical churches. What once seemed aberrations from extremist sects now seem to be becoming commonplace.
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« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2006, 09:26:20 PM »

http://www.citypaper.com/special/story.asp?id=9911

Back From Baraka
A Kenyan School For At-Risk Baltimore Boys Holds Promise For Some, A Mere Respite From the Streets For Others


On a recent Sunday, Devon holds court on his front stoop half a block down from his church, East Baltimore’s Zion Baptist, after services let out. A grandmotherly woman says to him, “I’m hearing good things about you, Devon,” a sentiment echoed by several other passersby. Half an hour before, Pastor Marshall F. Prentice had been preaching a sermon titled “Another Opportunity at Life,” based on Acts 9, wherein Peter raises Tabitha from the dead. Devon sat at attention to the side of the stage, punctuating key moments with appropriate organ riffs, a new role for him at services, in addition to playing the drums.

Devon’s life now provides a stark contrast to his life in 2002, when he was just one among West Baltimore’s numberless population of “at risk” youth. But that was before he and 19 other boys from Baltimore journeyed to the Baraka School, the Kenya boarding school that has spawned much media attention (in City Paper and elsewhere), and much debate over the radical way it helps the city school system’s African-American boys (whose dropout rates reach as high as 70 percent): transplanting them to Africa for two years. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent the past three years following The Boys of Baraka’s four main subjects: Devon, Montrey, and brothers Richard and Romesh. Over the course of more than 40 visits to Baltimore and three trips to Kenya, the two women captured a surprisingly intimate portrait of the Baraka process and local families under fire.

On a sunny April afternoon, Ewing and Grady scope out the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center, where their film will be playing as part of the Maryland Film Festival. The sleek new Brown Center is a jarring contrast to the Baltimore depicted in The Boys of Baraka, grimmer and more unremitting at times than even HBO’s The Wire. Many of the film’s 11- to 13-year-old subjects are first seen shooting each other with imaginary pistols, a chilling scene for anyone familiar with the demographics of Baltimore’s high murder rate. The Boys of Baraka sketches a city of circumscribed lives, in which abutting neighborhoods operate in different worlds, and in which hope is met with a caution born of too frequent disappointment.

“We tried to capture the reality of the kids,” Ewing says. “The MICA campus isn’t their reality—none of them will have ever have seen this, heard of it, or visited it.”

As the film progresses, it’s easy to see how all four boys fall into the at-risk category that the Baraka School targets. Devon’s mom is hopeful that her own drug abuse will serve as a warning to her son, before she succumbs to another round of addiction. We follow Richard on a visit to his father in jail where the latter’s promise—“It ain’t gonna keep us from being together; we just got a wall in between us right now.”—echoes bittersweetly.

All four kids are out of control, unable to manage their emotions, lashing out verbally, physically, or both, and racking up suspensions from school. Yet they are also ambitious risk-takers, Grady says. Not every 12-year-old, she points out, is willing to give up TV, GameBoys, freedom, and their favorite foods to travel 10,000 miles away from family and everything familiar. “Those were kids that had looked deep within and had decided I’m going to give it all up for this chance,” she says.

As the film’s well-shot digital-video footage unspools, the boys are flown to the very different reality that is Kenya, a place of excitement and experimentation, where homesick city boys awaken to the joys of playing with hedgehogs and climbing mountains. Strict policies, small classes, 24-hour adult supervision, and acres of bush in which to take meditative walks seem to help kick-start their transformation.

All four boys take on a new demeanor. Their expressions seem more open and curious; they sit up straighter. Devon, during a moment in the time-out room, contemplates the opposing desires he faces as the cause of his outbursts. Found to be reading at a second-grade level, Richard receives additional support and reads one of his poems, “I Will Survive,” in front of his schoolmates. His brother Romesh makes the honor roll. Montrey goes from truculent and mouthy to mature and thoughtful.

Yet the experience is plainly a struggle. In one pivotal scene, two fighting boys contemplate the tent they must set up together in the fading evening light. Time and the Kenyan bush are on the side of the two boys’ counselors, who have determined that a lesson will be learned before they all hike back to school. After night has fallen, Montrey, who has been in three fights in the past two weeks, becomes philosophical, telling his schoolmate: “I know people at home want you to do good in school. My mother told me ‘Just try and find a better way.’ ’Cause she said she’d never want me to be like my father.”

It’s a moment that reveals the boys’ potential for transformation as well as the deeper problems that threaten to capsize their fragile successes. Lives are at stake here, and the question of whether a school can save them remains tantalizingly unanswered. The film’s narrative punch lands after the kids go home for the summer and then find out that the school is being shut down because of security threats and they won’t be returning to Kenya. The parents receive the news that their sons will be returning to their old city schools as apocalyptic. “They’re more likely to get killed here in Baltimore, on the corner, than they would over there,” one man insists. “You’re sending them to jail,” a mom argues.

Ewing says the scene reveals “how desperate the situation is for these parents. Back to the [city] school—it wasn’t acceptable as a solution.” In one haunting scene, Romesh and his brother are hanging out on a merry-go-round, the only structure left in the middle of a burnt-out playground. Romesh muses, “I think all our lives are gonna be bad now,” a statement that, on some other playground, would sound only like teenage melodrama.

Although many of the boys actually ended up in eighth grade at ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, a “new school” housed at Northwest Baltimore’s Lemmel Middle School, Devon describes the experience as “terrible. There was kids fighting, teachers wasn’t coming.”

Despite brief success as an extra on The Wire, Richard has since dropped out of school along with his brother. Neither was available for comment for this article. “They really internalize stuff,” Grady says of some of the boys’ inability to hold on to the gains of their Baraka School year. “It’s almost impossible to extract those defeated feelings.”

On the other hand, Montrey achieved the top score statewide on the Maryland School Assessment test in math during his eighth-grade year, and is entering ninth grade at Baltimore City College this fall. And Devon is the president of his class this year at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a new public high school in Northeast Baltimore. Using a camera given him by Ewing and Grady, he’s making his own documentary on Pastor Prentice—he takes advantage of a reporter’s visit to discuss interview techniques. This summer, he hopes to do a six-week program at Frostburg State University’s Regional Math/Science Center in Western Maryland. Ewing says with a touch of pride in her voice, “I think Devon will be the mayor of Baltimore one of these days.”
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