BY MARIA RIDING
About 20 years ago, Jean Bosco Tshiswaka heard of a new, disturbing reason why children were living on the streets in DR Congo.
Families who were dealing with tragedies and misfortunes were disowning their children, accusing them of being witches.
Since then this phenomenon has increased significantly. Today Jean Bosco champions children dealing with such accusations.
He oversees a day centre and four homes for street connected children in DR Congo and works hard to change cultural perceptions of them.
Reuniting children and families
In 2009 Jean Bosco helped then CMS mission partner Ian Harvey set up a children’s charity. They called it Kimbilio, which in Swahili means “a refuge” or “a place to run to”. Based in Lubumbashi, DR Congo’s second largest city, its core mission is to reunite street connected children with their families.
When working with them, some of the children might trust Jean Bosco and his staff enough to tell them about how they ended up on the streets. Jean Bosco will then start an investigation to trace their families.
If they are able to find them, they will try to reunite the children with their families. Considering the country’s regular internal conflicts, political instability and poor infrastructure, they are very successful: last year, Jean Bosco and staff reunited 47 children and a baby with their families.
This February, six-year-old Anita had been with Kimbilio for almost six months when the team managed to track down her family. Living in a village 45km away from Lubumbashi, her relatives were ecstatic at having her back.
Anita’s mother told the Kimbilio staff, “We looked for her everywhere. A woman probably took her. We didn’t know whether we’d find her dead or alive. It’s a miracle.”
But not all families respond with joy upon hearing that their child is alive. This is mostly the case when a child has been accused of witchcraft. Some parents respond with anger and threats of killing their child – others with fear.
It might be hard to understand why parents could have turned on their children like this in the first place. But many families have had to deal with great hardship.
Some have moved from rural villages to urban settings to find work in the mines; unable to find work, they struggled to feed their children. Others have experienced a death in the family – often due to HIV and malaria – loss of a job or an accident. Demon possession is also part of the indigenous spiritual belief system in DR Congo.
Moreover, since the downfall of the dictator President Mobutu in the late 90s, Nollywood films became more widely available and are now part of the cultural landscape. These films are the equivalent of Bollywood but from Nigeria and often feature harrowing stories of demon possession.
Often children who are different in some way through disability, bedwetting or challenging behaviour can become the scapegoat for the family’s misfortune.
Antoine and his sister Cecile* ended up on the streets after their stepmother accused them of sorcery four years ago. Kimbilio took them into their transit houses a year later. Upon investigation their mother was found living on a road 100km away. She was making ends meet through a charcoal business.
Mother and children were reunited and Kimbilio paid for the children’s school fees. Sadly, their mother died two years later and the family reignited their accusations of witchcraft.
The children ended up on the streets again, after which Kimbilio placed them in their two permanent homes, one for girls and the other for boys. Antoine and Cecile are now attending school and doing well.
Changing cultural perceptions
Even in the case of witchcraft accusations, Jean Bosco and his team sometimes manage, through sensitivity and great care, to make it possible for some children to return home.
It takes multiple visits involving the wider community to rebuild the relationship between the family and child. The Kimbilio team highlight all the positives they have seen in the child. Sometimes over time they are able to overcome the family’s fears and address and alter beliefs and ideas.
Jean Bosco is also committed to raising awareness of this issue. Last year, he and Bridget Lane from the UK trained his staff, colleagues and partners on how better to support children accused of witchcraft. During the course, participants explored scenarios such as a child having a nightmare and trying to find out why this happened. They also shared biblical insights into the issue. Jean Bosco and his team also held talks at local churches to challenge harmful practices relating to children accused of witchcraft.
With such deep-rooted beliefs, it will take a long time to change perceptions. But Jean Bosco remains steadfast. “In all we try our best to serve wherever we can and we thank God for helping us in his mission,” said Jean Bosco.
“Really, I experience that God is good all the time. Our plan is to continue to improve lives of children in our centres, and to give them hope for their lives through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Before becoming director of Kimbilio, Jean Bosco obtained a certificate in youth ministry at Carlile College in Nairobi with the help of a scholarship from Church Mission Society. He is now one Church Mission Society’s 60+ local partners.
*Names changed to protect privacy