By Crispin Kyala
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo – After Ornella lost several family members within three years, relatives and neighbours in her east Congo village of Kabare began suspecting the 14-year-old girl of witchcraft.
The hushed rumours and purifying rituals that ensued prompted one of Ornella’s brothers to take her to the police, concerned about the consequences that the allegations could have on his sibling.
It is not uncommon in some African countries for frail children like Ornella, who suffers from a genetic form of anaemia, to be considered a bad omen and blamed for the mishaps that befall isolated and impoverished communities.
Hundreds of thousands of children across the continent are accused of witchcraft each year, according to a 2022 report by the African Child Policy Forum, an independent research group.
They almost always end up being shunned and forced out of their homes, are physically assaulted and sometimes killed, the report found.
Ornella, who did not wish to give her full name, was taken to a centre in the nearby city of Bukavu named “Eka Bana” that shelters around 60 children in the same situation.
“Here are at Eka Bana … they show me that every child has rights,” she told Reuters.
“At home I was told that my illness was a pretext to better practice witchcraft. They did not take me to get medical treatment,” she recalled.
Children who end up in Eka Bana are usually first taken in by the police, who either find them on the street or receive them from family members.
Their case is assessed in a juvenile court that then hands them over to the centre, which opened in January 2022 through funding from Caritas, a Catholic Church relief organization.
Congo has set up several juvenile courts and police services since a child protection law was implemented in 2009.
Eka Bana Director Natalia Isella said it was often Evangelical pastors who convinced followers that a “witch” in the family was causing their problems.
Evangelical pastor Bonane Lwesso said this was mainly observed among self-proclaimed, “improvised” pastors.
Desperate parents are told that “the cause of your joblessness is your daughter”, he explained.
At the centre, 15-year-old Francine remembered the shock of relatives suddenly accusing her of killing an aunt and grand-mother with witchcraft. Neighbourhood patrollers advised her to stay away for a while.
“If I go there now they will burn me alive”, said Francine, who only gave her first name for fear of being found.