31 October 2013

Morbid and creepifying

Not so very long ago, some of my team members shared, in a hushed Skype conversation, the conviction that they once heard a demonic voice emanating from the country director’s room in the middle of the night. While a number of questions popped into my mind in response, chief among them just what they were doing listening at her door at 2am, my response was one of muffled skepticism. As the confession continued to unfold, utterly without any prompting on my part, it gave the impression of being reluctantly typed. My housemates seem to fear that even a digital acknowledgement of the occurrence would invite the thing back, but equally honour-bound to alert me to the terror under our roof.

What amazed me is that, a few days after the incident, they apparently confronted our CD about it! What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall when that conversation went down. “Hey, Boss, when you have a minute, can we talk about the finances for the ECHO project, and oh, yeah, I DENOUNCE YOU AS HAVING CONSORTED WITH THE UNCLEAN ONE LAST NIGHT.” To their somewhat dubious credit, the pair actually thought that she was on the receiving end of a curse, not that she was signing her name in the Black Man’s book. At the time she offered the seemingly rational explanation that she had fallen asleep listening to a sermon (a sermon! It’s too perfect. You didn’t mistake 30 Rock or Bones or NCIS for a minion of perdition, some episodes of which might have been understandable. You mistook a sermon. Perhaps it was delivered by Zuul?). The sermon was in Dutch, and so that’s probably why it sounded a bit off to them.

The supernatural sleuths didn’t buy this. The voice they heard, you see, was moving around the room and so could not have been a lackluster Nordic preacher. Ergo, it must have been Old Scratch. Ever since, our house gives them an uncomfortableness. Any bump in the night – which I generally ascribe to the numerous critters that live on or in the roof – has left them quaking under their sheet and clutching the nearest Bible and furiously texting one another to the extent their trembling fingers are able to navigate the keys of our throwback phones (I tease, but the first time I read a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot, as it happened, I was so scared that I had to wear my rosary to bed. Granted, I was 14 at the time, but I wore that sucker to sleep for months afterward). I briefly entertained the notion of suggesting we undertake the Ugandan method for driving out Night Dancers and invite the thing back, if only so we might call upon God to banish it to its face. Everyone knows that only way to bedevil the devil is in the light! I also felt the urge recognize that it was probably the fault of the yoga classes, but managed to hold my tongue on both counts.

Demons are actually a fairly regular topic of conversation for my team, even out of the Halloween season (possibly especially out of the Halloween season. This weekend, we’re hosting a murder mystery party for the team, partly as a fun bonding exercise, but mostly to preempt an actual Halloween party. The Powers that Be are fine with miming a murder, but didn’t think people dressing up as witches would be appropriate at a Christian NGO. The mind, it boggles). Indeed, it was some months ago that an incredibly interesting dinner discussion of psycho-social programming (it turns out that people in chronic conflict environments are actually inured from some of the most injurious effects of PTSD precisely because the violence is so endemic that it becomes their norm. When you delve into all of the horror they have been/are facing, it can actually create more of problem. Instead, you have to just, in effect, do mental triage. Also, humanitarians are horrible with polite dinner conversation) somehow meandered into the topic of assumed demon possession and how it’s often a smokescreen for abuse of the mentally ill (more on this later). It was really fascinating, if depressing, stuff. And, I thought, rather made the ghost mongers feel a bit silly. At first, anyway.

Our CD, a trained psychologist, who just moments before had been having a completely coherent discussion of methodology and treatment, suddenly postulated that, yes, she does think that some instances of psychosis are in fact mis-diagnosed possession. Here’s the kicker – EVERY ONE ELSE AT THE TABLE AGREED WITH HER. Have you all completely lost your minds? Perhaps it is my mind that is pretty nearly gone. Either that or my faith is super weak. That’s what this must be, yes? From there, we went on to discuss voodoo in Congo. I think, technically, it’s witchcraft here., voodoo being a regional phenomenon. At this point, though, I wasn’t going to argue.

Seriously, though, witchcraft and sorcery are a problem in the Congo. The fear of them and its consequences, that is. I fail to believe that this particular complex crisis is being maintained by the world’s most adept coven or that spurned employees are cursing the expats with malaria, though were that the case…holy cats, my job would become so much more interesting. I would become Grant Writer and Witchfinder Captain. We could use our vaccination campaigns to wage a vicious mystic COIN campaign, build bridges imbued with witch bottles and coloured stones and old shoes, distribute helpful leaflets on witch identification along with our safe delivery kits for new mothers. “They shall speak truths and whisper secrets and you shall know them by their crafts…Also, have a new mosquito net!”

Congo has a strong tradition of witchcraft in its folklore and indigenous religions. But this was a more morally neutral sort of witchcraft that not only followed but defined social mores. If a given witch (generally respected elderly people, often though not always women) wanted to curse someone from another tribe, for example, s/he was expected to first seek permission from that tribe’s witch. It was all a startlingly civilized way of settling debts, really, albeit with a healthy serving of victim-blaming. Unfortunately, the place of witchcraft in society has evolved into something much darker and more twisted. It is increasingly perceived as something malevolent and almost classically vampiric. In the modern practice, when an adult witch determines to curse someone for some perceived wrong or to augment their own power (witches apparently gain strength and longevity by feeding off the life force and successes of others), he or she exercises their craft through a child close to the victim. While the main (adult) target of the curse might lose his/her job or get in a car accident or contract HIV, the child is accepted as having served as a mechanism for the curse. These children are essentially decreed accessories to the crime, orphans by their own hands, witches in their own right, and consequently expelled from the family.

Functionally, of course, this is a child protection issue. Any aberrant or challenging behavior that unnerves or threatens adults (this could take a range of forms from the more predictable - bedwetting, developmental disabilities, mental illness, emotional instability, ugliness, general bad behavior or disobedience – to the head-scratchingly astounding – children who are deemed too nice, too wise, too clever, too imaginative. One of the most common indicators of a child witch is eating too much and not growing strong. How else to explain where all that food is going except to feed burgeoning supernatural powers?), especially if coupled with some crisis in the family or broader community (natural disaster or epidemic, for example), can result in an accusation of witchcraft. This is why it is so often orphans that are targeted by the extended relatives who take them in after the death of a parent. These new families lack the resources to care for an extra child and are mourning for lost family. Blaming the child for the death kills two birds with one stone, serving as an outlet for their grief and eradicating a financial drain. A similar story plays out with step-parents, who might be tempted to find a means of disposing of their predecessor’s offspring.

Suspected witches are often taken to an expert – usually some local pastor who will exorcise demons (usually with a dog, though sometimes a good goat will do) and cleanse witch children, for a modest fee, of course. Though the cleansings, or deliveries, are most often associated with revivalist churches, one can find disreputable men of just about any denomination (Catholic, Pentecostal, African traditional) who are willing to take money from distraught families. Save the Children as a really fantastic, if somewhat dated, report on the issue. They note that “some pastors believe that the problem of bewitchment is poverty-related: because parents do not give their children enough to eat, they wind up accepting food from any old person in the street, giving ill-intentioned people the opportunity to commit their crimes. Another explanation is that the parents are never there, out all day trying to eke out a living, so the children are left to their own devices, opening the door to bad influences. Some people believe that witchcraft is transferred to children because it cannot be transferred to adults, others that children are used by the devil to do evil, the devil’s aim being to destroy a whole generation.” I highly suggest you read the full piece, if not for the depressing information about what amounts to systemic child abuse (it creates some interesting parallels to child soldiers – how that sort of abuse allows them to be seen as dangerous, and therefore adult, and thus able to be blamed for misfortunes. One form of abuse falsely emancipates children as a whole and opens them to more abuse), then for the wacky details about traditional strains of Congolese witchcraft. The witches of yore, for example, were want to transport themselves via foufou spoon (foufou is a delicious, gelatinous substance that is made from cassava and replaces rice in many traditional dishes). In the modern age, they prefer to use planes. According to some, witches can only be caught when their plane runs out of fuel and they are stranded on their rooftops in their PJs. No word on what happens to the planes.

Now and again, the delivered children are welcomed back into their family after days and weeks and months of ‘ritual’ starvation and beatings in what is at best a dubiously happy ending (talk about born again). More often, they are simply cast out to live on the street (assuming village in question is even willing to suffer a witch to live and does not prefer to burn them alive or stone them to death instead). Many make their home in the marché, where they survive on handouts and pilfered scraps. Bunia has its own tribe of marché children who are even dirtier and more malnourished than the standard barefoot urchins one encounters. Most of them are fairly normal, if quite timid, though there are a few who quite clearly suffer from some developmental disabilities. These tend to follow us muzungus around, trying to touch our hair.

As is true the world over, Congo’s orphan witches are vulnerable to drugs, gangs, insurgencies, and other predators. There is an orphanage not so far from our compound, and our guards shoo the more persistent beggars away from our gate. I’m fairly confident, however, that they also share their lunches with these children that they sometimes find leaning against the gate, stoned out of their minds from drinking petrol. Such acts of pity are sometimes the only thing keeping the street children alive, given the near complete absence of social services provided by the state on every front. Even the bulk of humanitarian actors are focused on other, sexier topics like IDPs and child soldiers and mass rape. We’re all too busy playing the role of big damn heroes to be distracted by a few thousand abused and forgotten witch children.

Unfortunately, the child witch phenomenon is not an issue of lunacy or ignorance (though there is plenty of that). The belief in a powerful, unseen world is deeply held here, and it scares people. Even at our local, terrifically Western hospital, nearly everything is first identified as a curse (well, malaria, and then a curse). A firm and pervasive conviction in the reality of the supernatural likely contributes to the unwillingness of many to help these children. After all, what if they are, in fact, witches?

Such wholly fallacious conclusions, of course, appall my colleagues, as well they should. Unfortunately, it’s a bit difficult for me to reconcile how someone can denounce a people for blaming a death from HIV on witchcraft and then turn right around and in the same conversation warn me that fraud in our staff is the work of the Enemy. I have mental whiplash – who knew (Western) Christians were such a superstitious lot? My atheist friends would probably suggest that the very nature of being people of faith makes us superstitious, and I suppose I see that. Likewise, I imagine that my colleagues would chide me that one cannot have God without the Devil. I would be more will to make an argument against that, but that this point, I’m just beginning to accept that I might well be She of Little Faith.