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Londres was like any other 12-year-old black child in London — the city that gave him his nickname. He lived in Tottenham with his mother, a single parent. He was passionate about football and especially Manchester United’s charismatic winger Cristiano Ronaldo. One of his most prized possessions was his red Man U shirt.
He was cheeky and streetwise and had an irrepressible sense of humour. He got into trouble and messed up at school a bit. He could sometimes be a trial to his mother.
He was also a witch. At least that was what his mother decided early last year. So she told Londres that she was taking him on a special holiday. He thought that he was going to the Swiss Alps — he had never seen real fairyland snow. But the flight did not go to Switzerland. Instead it ended at Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his mother’s family still lived.
Frightened and confused, Londres was taken straight from the airport to a church centre in the poverty-stricken suburbs of that chaotic city to await exorcism.
I first heard about him last April. I lecture in African and African-derived religions at King’s College London, and I often work with the police on cases involving ritual crime. I was cultural adviser to the Metropolitan police in the case of Adam, the headless and limbless child who was found floating in the Thames in 2001.
I was also an expert witness in the trial of Sita Kisanga and her accomplices who had tortured an eight-year-old girl from east London known as Child B. She, too, “had” witchcraft — kindoki in Lingala, the Congolese language.
Kisanga, the child’s aunt, believed the girl needed to have the kindoki driven out of her by beatings, threats and systematic abuse in the name of Christianity. Chilli peppers were rubbed in her eyes. She was cut, starved, tied up in a sack and threatened with drowning. Kisanga went to jail for 10 years and her co-accused for shorter sentences.
Kisanga agreed to let me interview her in prison and insisted that it was her north London church — Combat Spirituel — that had “diagnosed” kindoki in Child B, and that in “torturing” the girl, as the judge described it, she was only carrying out God’s will and that of the church.
Pastor Raph of Combat Spirituel vehemently denies this and says that neither aunt nor child had any real connection with his church.
A relative of Londres had seen me on television commenting on the Child B case. Over coffee in a north London cafe he told me about his fears for the boy.
I knew about the dark side of some Christian revivalist churches and the exorcisms carried out on west and central African children in London either by the churches or on their say-so. I had heard rumours that British children were being taken to Africa, particularly to Kinshasa, for exorcism, and I knew of at least one case where the child was snatched off a London street and taken unwillingly.
I knew better than most what exorcism Kinshasa-style could mean. In 2004 I had been approached by lawyers acting for a child in the care of a London council’s social services department. It was anxious not to offend anyone’s religious or cultural sensitivities. Would it be appropriate, its staff asked, for this child to be sent to Kinshasa to be exorcised and delivered of kindoki?
I travelled to Kinshasa and reported back on what happened in these “deliverance” ceremonies. I saw children starved for days — the churches call it fasting — intimidated, shaken and shouted at by pastors. I heard rumours of much, much worse — of children from Europe ending up on the streets and others beaten to death. Back in England I did not have much trouble advising the council that it would not be in the child’s interests to be sent back to this situation, no matter what the sensitivities involved.
When I heard about Londres, I decided to try to find him. I speak fluent Lingala, and I had lived in the Congo for six years in the 1990s and researched there a lot since. So in October of last year, with a film crew and the support of the BBC, I boarded a flight for Kinshasa.
I first contacted Remy Mafu, a highly respected child welfare officer who runs a centre for street kids in Kinshasa. That’s an impossible and heartbreaking mission. There are estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000 homeless children on the streets of that lawless city, stealing, begging, selling anything they can find, including themselves. The true number is incalculable but this estimate is certainly conservative.
Many are Aids orphans. Others are the children of Congo’s desperate civil war, which has killed 4m people since the late 1990s. But a shockingly high proportion of these children, Mafu told me, are on the streets because of the mushrooming influence of the new revivalist churches.
Still more children are not on the streets but are held virtual prisoner in church compounds, apparently awaiting exorcism. Congo’s social affairs minister, Bernard Ndjunga, has estimated these might number as many as 50,000 too.
“If the churches say the kids have kindoki they become outcasts from their families,” Mafu told me. “And the churches say it because it increases their own power over the people. They can also make a lot of money out of it.” The children are released to their parents only after payment of what may be substantial dues.
Mafu estimated that there are hundreds of such churches around Kinshasa. Many of them have sprung up in the past three or four years. Some of the churches and the pastors who run them have become very rich indeed.
Among the biggest and most influential of these revivalist churches, with about 50,000 adherents in Kinshasa alone, is Combat Spirituel, which Child B and her family had attended in London. It did not take me long to discover that Londres’s mother had also attended Combat Spirituel in London, and it was to the church centre in Kinshasa that the boy had been taken as soon as his plane touched down.
I had been given an address for one of Londres’s uncles. It was in one of the most deprived and dangerous areas of Kinshasa, a place of open sewers and wrecked cars. On my first attempt to go there, people at the house drew down a veil of silence. They had never heard of any such boy. There were no children living there. We were wasting our time.
I went from church centre to church centre, seeing evidence of exorcisms. I saw children cut with razors, stamped on, beaten, shouted at and forced to drink pigeons’ blood. Chillingly, I was often given open and unfettered access to these scenes by pastors and practitioners who plainly believed that what they were doing was in the name of God and thus could do no harm to the children.
Driving around the backstreets of Kinshasa is risky at any time and doubly so with a camera. At the funeral of a street kid, the crowd turned on me and my companions. We barely escaped with our lives.
A tip-off led me back to the uncle’s house. I sent in a Congolese helper to ask discreet questions first. Yes, he reported back, Londres had been there but nobody knew where he was now.
When I went to ask for myself, I suddenly heard a child speaking behind me. I turned round and there Londres was, as astounded and relieved as I was to hear an English voice.
He was nervous and kept glancing around as people shambled home from whatever mean work they could find, kicking up the dust as they came past.
He said that his mother had brought him to Kinshasa against his will. He confirmed, too, that he had been taken to a Combat Spirituel centre in Kinshasa, where he had been held for a month, and that his mother had attended Combat Spirituel in London with him.
I got permission from his minders to take him the following day to a club, where he had a huge meal and ate ice-cream by the bucketful.
“I want to go home. I miss London so much,” he told me. “To get rid of my kindoki they starved me, a week on and a week off, for a month. I was frightened. They wanted me to confess I had it, but I didn’t even know what kindoki was. How could I confess?”
Before leaving the Congo I saw the minister for children’s affairs, a striking woman called Solange Ghonda who has been appointed directly by President Joseph Kabila. She knew about the situation in some of the revivalist churches in Kinshasa and was outraged by it.
“Can you imagine beating up a child in a church and everyone thinking that’s normal?” she cried. “I respect people’s beliefs but I will not let people abuse kids in the name of God.”
It is hard to know quite what she can do about it on the larger scale. But as far as Londres is concerned, at least, she has been able to act.
I now speak to him on the telephone regularly, via Mafu’s office in Kinshasa. He says he is desperately lonely. Just before Christmas he asked me if I would buy him a Christmas present: the first time he had ever asked me for anything. But how do you buy a present 10 days before Christmas for a child who is living in Kinshasa? I felt awful. He remains in a strange and dangerous city, separated from his friends and all that has become familiar to him.
His mother has returned to the Congo and believes that she needs to put him through another exorcism, according to Mafu, although when I spoke to her before she left, she denied that Londres had ever been accused of having kindoki.
“These people in Kinshasa,” she said, “they’re not very bright. They say the first thing that pops into their heads.”
She has been staying at Combat Spirituel in Kinshasa. Back in England I asked Pastor Raph about the matter. He denied that the church had any involvement with the Londres case.
When I confronted him with my knowledge of the life of the church and its belief in exorcism and what this entailed, he immediately stopped the interview.
Mr Molobo, president of Combat Spirituel in Kinshasa, believes that witchcraft is clearly attested in the Bible, but he insists that it is completely against the doctrine of the church to harm children in any way or to force them to undergo deliverance ceremonies.
That view was repeated to me by one official after another of Combat Spirtuel, including its founders and global leaders, Mama and Papa Olangi, with whom I gained an exclusive interview.
Child exorcism in the name of Jesus has as little to do with mainstream Christianity as suicide bombers have with mainstream Islam. Nor has it anything to do with traditional African beliefs. Out in the villages of the Congo I found headmen and traditional healers horrified at what was happening in the name of the revivalist churches in Kinshasa. Traditional Congolese society rejects these exorcism practices.
“We believe in kindoki,” one told me, “but it’s something that merely troubles a person from time to time and hardly ever affects children. It can be treated with potions made from plants and herbs. It’s not a question of beatings and deliverance. We think the churches put about this kindoki idea because it increases their influence. The whole thing is a racket.”
The phenomenon appears to spring from a new Frankenstein religion, an unholy marriage of perverted Christianity and an ingrained African belief in the spirit world, fuelled by the grinding poverty and desperate need of the people of west and central African cities.
The family is the glue that holds African society together. If that bond weakens and breaks, chaos takes over. Whatever the reasons for it, the fact that children are suffering in the name of Christianity — not only beyond the horizon, but even in our own back yard — is undeniable and absolutely unacceptable.
(Posted on February 6, 2006)