*Based on the story of Sarah (last name withheld for privacy). Other names have been changed for privacy. Information for this story was provided by Sarah and Father Alpha Mazenga, SVD, director of ORPER.
It was almost time for bed, and Sarah, 7, was relieved. Living in a three-room house with 11 people was never easy, but today had been particularly challenging. Sarah’s aunt had been shooting daggers at her all day — again. Sarah knew her aunt resented having to share her food and her roofless home on the outskirts of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Sarah’s family, but why she was singling Sarah out was a mystery. Sarah was looking forward to the escape sleep would give her from her aunt’s angry looks.
“I’m so hungry,” said Abbie, Sarah’s younger sister, as her stomach growled. Sarah and her brothers and sisters ate only once a day, sometimes not at all.
“Well, we know who’s to blame for that,” Sarah’s aunt said pointedly, glaring at Sarah.
Sarah pretended she hadn’t heard. “Come on, Gloire,” Sarah said quietly, approaching her 3-year-old cousin. “Time for bed.”
“Stay away from my daughter!” her aunt shouted. Sarah, whose arms were outstretched to her cousin, dropped them in shock. “Aunt?” The rest of the family stopped what they were doing and moved closer to see what was going on.
“Sister, what is the problem?” Sarah’s mother asked.
Sarah’s aunt pointed one long, accusing finger at Sarah. “It’s your daughter,” she said. “She is the one responsible for our misery. Look at my little girl!” She pointed to the toddler staring back at her from the dirt floor. “It’s been three years, and she still can’t walk. She doesn’t even speak! It’s as though the devil himself has tied her tongue. I tell you, your daughter is to blame!”
“I don’t understand,” said Sarah’s mother, putting an arm around Sarah and trying to calm her sister-in-law. “What are you saying?”
“I am saying,” said Sarah’s aunt, her voice shaking with anger, “that your daughter is a witch.”
Everyone gasped. Sarah’s mother’s fingers tightened, then trembled on Sarah’s shoulders.
“She must pay for what she has done,” Sarah’s aunt demanded. “She has cursed my child. She has cursed us all!”
Sarah began to cry. “I am not a witch!” Witches were horrible things. They had invisible horns and tails that church pastors could see. They made crops fail and babies die. Like most of her neighbors, Sarah believed that such evil existed. But to be accused of it was beyond belief.
Sarah realized with a sickening sensation that although her family looked stupefied and shocked, no one was speaking out in her defense. She recalled other children she knew of whose families, struck by hardship, had accused them of witchcraft. These families had abandoned their children; Sarah had never seen them again.
“Mama,” she said, her voice trembling, “tell them I am not a witch!”
Sarah’s mother’s eyes were sad. She dearly loved her daughter. But Sarah could see a shard of doubt in her mother’s eyes. It pierced Sarah like broken glass. “Mama?”
Sarah’s mother kept her arm around her. But she did not speak a word.
Show me the afflicted girl,” said the pastor. Sarah was nudged forward.
Sarah’s family had taken her to a local “spiritual awakening” church. It was her mother, oscillating between trust and doubt, who had suggested the idea. The pastor, she said, would know whether Sarah was — consciously or unconsciously — a witch.
The pastor scrutinized Sarah. “The Holy Spirit will reveal whether she has the shape of a witch.” He continued to stare. Sarah’s eyes pleaded with him. He frowned, then gestured sadly.
“There,” he said. “I can see the horns just above her hair.”
Sarah’s mother wailed with grief. Parishioners crowded around to see.
“She may not be aware of her evil deeds,” said the pastor, trying to comfort her mother. “ Not all children are. Provided you are willing to bring food for her, and make the necessary payments, we will lodge her here with the other children and submit her to the healing process — regular fasting, daily bath of water and eggs, purgation of the body with pepper and ginger, anointing of the eyes with oil, drinking of salt water, and, of course, prayer by myself and others of the parish community. In time — perhaps a few years — your daughter will be restored.”
Two years later, Sarah, now 9, awoke on the streets of Kinshasa. It was hardly sunrise, and already someone was poking her to wake up. What was going on?
Sarah opened her eyes and saw the face of an adult man leering at her. “Hello, pretty one.”
Sarah scrambled to her feet, her heart pounding with fear. “What do you want?”
The man leered again. Sarah grabbed at the plastic bags she had stuffed beneath herself as a pillow — the bags she sold on the street to make a living. She held one out to the man. “Good price,” she said. Her hand shook.
The man laughed, revealing a mouthful of dirty teeth. “No,” he said. “That’s not what I want.”
Sarah’s insides twisted. She knew what he wanted. She had been on the streets for only about a week now, but she had seen more than she ever wanted to for the rest of her life. She had run away from the church, where her family no longer visited her and the “curing” procedures were ongoing. On the city streets, where she hoped to make a better life for herself, she met many children who had been falsely accused and who treated her with compassion. But she also met many people whose actions were more devilish than anything her family had accused her of. Sarah looked around and realized there was no one to protect her. What can I do?
“How much?” the man asked, turning his head. Sarah saw one of the older street girls, a prostitute, emerging around the corner of the building Sarah had slept against.
“She’s new,” said the girl, approaching. “It’ll cost you.”
Her instincts screaming, Sarah tried to run away. The older girl grabbed her arm and dug her nails in. Sarah cried out.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the girl asked. “You’ve got to make yourself useful here like the rest of us.” She turned to the man and held out her palm. “I’ll be taking a cut.”
A few months later, Sarah walked into the ORPER center — Work for the Rehabilitation and Protection of Street Children (in French) — for the first time. So many friends had told her about this place, and Sarah wanted to find out if it was as good as she’d heard. She was greeted kindly by a Catholic priest and asked a few questions about her life. Did she have any contact with her family? No. How was she surviving? Prostitution, odds-and-ends work, selling plastic bags. Was she using any drugs? Yes. Why was she on the streets?
“My family accused me of witchcraft,” Sarah said stiffly. She waited for the averted eyes, the shake of the head, the condemnations. She instinctively smoothed down her hair. Maybe, like the pastor at the spiritual awakening church, this Catholic priest would see horns on her head. Maybe he would tell her she was an evil child who deserved everything she got.
“And do you believe you are a witch?” the priest asked.
Sarah paused. “No,” she said. “I don’t.”
“I quite agree,” said the priest. “You are a child of God. And you are very welcome here.”
What happened to Sarah?
Sarah was welcomed at ORPER, where she received housing, education, counseling, and where she stopped using drugs. She became a Catholic and received Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. Thus far, efforts to reunite Sarah with her family have been unsuccessful.
Sarah is now 16. At ORPER, she has found many new friends and is developing her singing talent. She is the star in the ORPER chorus and had the opportunity to meet her favorite Congolese singer, Ferre-Gola. Hope, writes ORPER’s director, Father Alpha Mazenga, SVD, has returned to her life.
ORPER, a French acronym for the “Work for the Rehabilitation and Protection of Street Children,” is a ministry of the Divine Word Missionaries in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo. ORPER serves 3,000 street children each year by providing food, education, trade skills, health care, and housing. ORPER children run a bakery shop and a farm to help with finances, and also participate in a winter choir and sing songs that help the population understand their situation.
There are 150 children who live in the boarding houses at any given time, and about 500 are helped each day by a reception center. ORPER also tries to reunite street children with their families.
In Kinshasa, which has a population of 7 million and an unemployment rate of 80 percent, more than 90 percent of the city’s 25,000 street children come from broken families, and 70 percent were displaced from their homes after being accused of witchcraft.
To help, visit svdmissions.org or call 800-275-0626.