BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC — Eleven-year-old Gracia sits in a chair that is two sizes too big for her, dangling her skinny legs and speaking with poise and wisdom about a life that has not been easy.
She was born poor; her parents died when she was very young. After that, people who knew her say she began to act erratically. She had strange dreams.
Gracia says the uncle she lived with accused her of being a witch.
“When I was with my family,” she says, “they beat me and accused me of sorcery because I would go out at night. That's why they brought me here.”
Gracia now lives at a center for vulnerable children outside of Bangui. She says she is treated like the others there. And unless she talks about it, there is no way to know her background, except maybe from the two small scars over her left eye - cuts from a razor blade that was used in a exorcism ritual.
Gracia says she does not believe in witchcraft. But Michel Gbegbe, president of the organization running the center, says he does.
“We have received children who did not know they were witches,” he says. “But then they start to realize it as they develop their sorcery and then they understand it.”
Gbegbe says Christian values are at the center of everything he does here. He says children accused of witchcraft are “healed” through prayer and counseling.
Exorcism and the Church
Although the concept of witchcraft has a history in some African cultures, here in the Central African Republic and in other countries, belief in witchcraft has increased along with the number of Christian revivalist churches.
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has documented many examples of pastors spraying children with gasoline, administering poison to children and beating them in elaborate exorcism rituals. There have also been cases of children being left for days or even weeks inside of churches with little or no food.
Of course there is money to be made off of these rituals and both Christian and so-called “traditional healers” charge a relative fortune for their services.
Fosca Guilidori, the Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF in the Central African Republic, says families here sometimes turn to witchcraft as a way to explain the changes taking place in a society that is rapidly becoming more urban.
“I think in a way it's a reaction to the modernity,” she says, “to the fact that people are even more poor than before, and it is a way that society is dealing with the modernity and globalization.”
A Way Out
Guilidori says children often are cast out of their homes, and can run into trouble with the law like other street children who often turn to prostitution or stealing to survive.
She says reintegration into the community is key for helping children who are accused of witchcraft, starting with finding host families to adopt them.
“Of course, it takes a long period,” she says ,”but it seems like the community is starting to understand the child is with his foster family and nothing has happened to them, so maybe he [or she] is not a witch.”
The number of children labeled witches is hard to determine. Guilidori says they know only of those who end up in the juvenile justice system.
This was the case for a 15-year-old boy at a center for homeless children in Bangui said his uncle beat him with a piece of wood and broke his arm after accusing him of being a witch. It was only after the police intervened that he was able to get help.
Despite it all, he says he still believes in sorcery but does not believe that he himself is a witch.
Of those children who have had encounters with the law this year in the Central African Republic, only about five percent have been accused of having ties to witchcraft.
Experts say that in a developing country that lacks basic services and education and has a history of conflict, too many children, witches or not, remain vulnerable.