Bewitching tale casts light on Kinshasa's street children

Kinshasa is the second-biggest French-speaking city in the world. One might expect it would follow in the footsteps of Paris, a fabulous book city and probably the best place to find books from and on Africa. Kinshasa bakers, after all, manage to produce baguettes and croissants that are every bit as mouth-watering as those found in the far north.
And the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not short of excellent writers.

But good bookshops are as rare as hen’s teeth.

The one biggish bookshop in Kin­shasa, a city with probably more than twice as many people as Johan­nesburg, was the Catholic Librairie Saint-Paul. Although it had a lot of books, there was an overriding theme that crowded out diversity – religious and school text books took up most of the space.

In 2002, I attended the inaugural, and what also turned out to be the final, meeting of the Kinshasa Writers’ Group. Good intentions were no match for the obligations of day jobs in a country that was still very much at war.

The founder of the group was Mike Ormsby, a trainer of radio journalists who crossed the various frontlines in the DRC with the intention of helping journalists improve their skills in a climate that placed serious strains on professionalism. That said, I promptly forgot about him.

Fast forward to 2014. An email arrives from Ormsby, the first I have ever received from him. It turns out he had written a book about the DRC, and he wanted me to read it and write a review for the Amazon Books website. I didn’t want to. Three reasons came to mind straight away.

The book was an e-book. (A paperback version is now available.) I had my doubts about any book written by somebody who worked for a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) and had spent a bit of time in an African country and then wrote a novel about the place. I had too many other books to read.

I didn’t even know how to download an e-book so I let the offer sit in my inbox for a few weeks.

Oddly enough, my wife was in the DRC when I decided to take a tentative look at Child Witch Kinshasa. Once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Child witches, or les enfants sorciers, as they are known, number in the thousands. They are outcasts, street kids, fending for themselves, usually because they have been kicked out of their families after a dodgy pastor has performed an even dodgier exorcism to reverse a string of bad luck in a particularly unlucky household.

It’s not possible to walk down a street in Kinshasa, or almost any other Congolese city, without encountering dozens of homeless children. Although not all of them are on the streets as the result of the witch accusation, many are. It’s a subject few want to talk about, and that’s what Ormsby’s book is about.

In Child Witch Kinshasa, Frank is the English trainer sent by an American NGO to teach radio journalists in the DRC. It doesn’t take him long to stumble across an exorcism. He decides to incorporate discussion on child witches into his training sessions. That’s where the trouble starts, and it comes from familiar sources – politicians, the religious community and his employer.

The Washington-based NGO doesn’t want to rock the boat – any conflict with local authorities could translate into nonrenewal of lucrative state-department-funded contracts. The pastors fear exposure of their unconventional methods and it’s convenient for politicians when the electorate blames its misfortune on Satan rather than government indifference.

Ormsby is a keen observer – Child Witch Kinshasa is fiction, but barely. I was with the United Nations peacekeeping mission when he briefly appeared in my field of vision. At the time, I was unaware of the magnifying glass he was holding up to UN functionaries. His observations are not always flattering.

The foreign development set certainly features in this book, but it doesn’t dominate. This is a book about the Congolese seen through the eyes of a young boy. If you liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, then Child Witch Kinshasa is for you.

There’s a sequel, Child Witch London. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on its way to my post box. I want to know what happens next.

Child Witch Kinshasa is available on the Amazon website. Child Witch London is available from South African booksellers.

David L Smith lived in Kinshasa and, as part of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he established Radio Okapi, which has become the DRC’s de-facto public broadcaster

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