UIGE, Angola — Helena Kufumana makes a pathetic witch.
Far from exuding wickedness, the 13-year-old schoolgirl is nervous and shy. Her “101 Dalmatians” cartoon T-shirt is grubby and doesn’t fit. She swings her bare feet beneath her chair in the hyper way that all kids do. And she cries a lot. Especially about the torture.
Last month Helena was accused by her parents of sickening two of her nieces with evil spells. In retaliation, the bewildered girl says, one of her small hands was burned on a red-hot stove. Her meager possessions, including her clothes, were torched. She was choked. And finally, to destroy her reputation in the community, she was beaten in front of a large crowd. Her mother and elder sisters administered these punishments.
“They tell me that if I try to come home they will kill me,” sobbed Helena her tears spattering the floor of the church shelter where she has run for safety. “They say I’m cursed.”
Many children seem to be cursed these days in the impoverished hinterlands of Angola–accused of witchcraft by their families, then systematically abused, abandoned and even killed for imagined acts of witchcraft.
The scale and viciousness of the attacks on so-called criancas feiticeiras, or child witches, confounds even hardened human-rights workers in the war-haunted country, and some said the abuse is one of the most disturbing outbreaks of domestic violence seen in Africa in recent years.
In Uige, a sleepy hill town near the Congo border, children’s advocates said that a teenager accused of sorcery was set ablaze by a mob that included his own relatives. Another boy was buried alive, beneath the corpse of a man he allegedly hexed, rights workers said. The luckier children are merely banished from their homes. They roam the streets like pariah dogs, surviving hand-to-mouth off food scraps from the markets.
“Many of the thousands of street children across Angola are probably victims of this trend,” said Matondo Alexandre, a child-protection expert with the United Nations Children’s Fund in Angola.
“This is something new to us,” Alexandre added. “In African culture it is usually the older people who are accused of practicing witchcraft. Now we’re even seeing cases popping up involving babies.”
Why Angolans are turning with such horrific ferocity against their young, especially at this relatively benign point in their wounded history, is a question few experts can answer with certainty.
Possible causes of abuse
Some blamed the recent proliferation of fire-and-brimstone evangelical churches in Angola, whose apocalyptic vision of the universe–and profit from exorcisms–meshes nicely with an epidemic of witchcraft.
Others cited the spread of particularly noxious beliefs in magic from neighboring Congo, where the phenomenon of child sorcerers also is taking root in an atmosphere of economic and political lawlessness.
But most experts agreed that the true answers lie buried in the social wreckage of Angola’s immensely degrading civil war, a 27-year fratricide that ended barely two years ago and has left Angola with a staggering case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Witchcraft fears have broken out in many societies during times of distress,” said Francisco de Mata Mourisca, the Roman Catholic bishop of Uige, whose sprawling hilltop compound has lately become a magnet for shy, hungry and sometimes battered children who come seeking refuge from witch hunts.
“But you have to ask yourself, why our children?” de Mata Mourisca said. “The answer in Angola is simple. Because war has brutalized our families in the same way it destroyed our homes and streets.”
That certainly rings true in Uige, an old coffee-growing town set amid the hauntingly beautiful green hills of the Angolan plateau, where a spike in fatal child-abuse cases is alarming social workers.
According to rights advocates in town, children as young as 5 have been hanged, stoned to death, raped, burned and drowned in rivers after being accused of sorcery.
The common themes in all their stories–besides heartbreak–are parental bonds that have snapped under the strain of rebel assaults, government counterattacks, mindless violence, disease, mass starvation, scattered families, abandoned marriages and the press-ganging of children into various armed factions.
Blighted hope is a new factor: Two years after the homicidal rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was gunned down by government troops, thus ending one of the world’s longest civil wars, life for most Angolan families still hasn’t improved. Almost half the nation’s children are malnourished.
“Nobody can care for all these scattered children anymore,” wheezed Carolina Jorge, a 45-year-old grandmother who by Western standards looked a wizened 85. “They just get spoiled by witchcraft.”
Jorge’s grandchildren, Jose, 10, and Carolina, 7, apparently fall into that hapless category.
The two siblings moved in with their grandmother recently after their parents died of undetermined illnesses–possibly AIDS. As usual, the children were blamed for bewitching their own father and mother. Last month police found the whimpering brother and sister trussed up, beaten and imprisoned in an animal pen behind Jorge’s bleak mud hut.
Accused abuser jailed
In a rare government reaction to such abuse, the woman was thrown in jail for five days.
“Those children weren’t normal,” Jorge said, unrepentant. “They had a suitcase that made a singing noise. And the boy messed his bed every night. He was possessed.”
The traumatized boy, girl and their offending suitcase were shipped to an orphanage in the distant capital of Luanda.
The final ingredients in Angola’s sad and baffling epidemic of child persecution are the men who profit from it, men like Papa Matumona.
Sporting immaculate white pants and a colorful shirt stenciled repeatedly with the face of Marilyn Monroe, the most powerful kimbandero, or faith healer, in Uige runs an evangelical treatment center for child witches. Others call it a torture chamber.
“He forces them to jump and dance for hours during the hottest part of the day” in order to cleanse them of magical powers, said Leopoldina Neto, a UNICEF child-protection officer in town. “He beats them. He puts chili powder in their eyes and drips boiling palm oil in their ears.”
Matumona, 51, denied this.
‘I cure with love’
“I cure with love,” he said, clutching a Bible at his Provincial Center for Traditional Psychiatry, located in a war-ruined former pastry factory.
Matumona said his services were free but later admitted that he put his stream of young patients to work in his vegetable gardens to pay off their treatment fees–a commercialization of suffering that makes witchcraft one of the few profitable ventures in postwar Angola aside from oil.
Other kimbanderos demand a goat or an aluminum pot from parents in order to identify which son or daughter is a witch. Thus the supply-demand circle is completed.
UN aid workers are hoping to break this cycle of exploitation by launching parent education campaigns. It will be an uphill battle.
An internationally funded study of the problem has been shelved. Its chief Angolan researcher, like most of the local police responsible for protecting children’s rights, actually concluded that sorcery was real.
The only voices raised in defense of child witches, then, are often their own.
“It’s all lies,” said Sebastiao Nzuzi, 12, a smiling, bald little boy who had been stoned in his village for being a wizard. “I don’t need to be cured. I’m as normal as anybody.”
Sebastiao had soaked up some self-esteem lessons at the local Catholic orphanage. Twenty child witches were staying there in a clean, sturdy little house under some eucalyptus trees.
It was good that the house was sturdy. Because the next afternoon people from the surrounding slums gathered to stone the building. The boys, they shouted, were flying over their shacks at night, trying to bewitch their children. Sebastiao, like the other accursed, huddled inside.