In the understanding of Lugbara people, children can become witches if they are initiated by adults. The same could be true in other cultures because in the cosmopolitan town of Bunia (Eastern DRC), many children have been accused of witchcraft in recent years. Those ones I want to talk about in these following lines live in Aru (my home village).
Out of the Mouth of Babes
A very young boy named Kalala (not his real name) was suffering of a disease not properly identified by physicians. There was nothing found in terms of bacterial infections. They then thought it could be a viral disease. But there was no conclusion. So, the physicians simply were trying their best to maintain the child alive. To the members of the family surrounding the boy in his hospital bed, it seemed obvious that he was going to die.
Around that time, other people in the hospital noticed a group of other very young boys, aged between 8 and 14 years, who were visibly troubled and started to quarrel almost silently by pointing figures at each other murmuring, “You are the one who did it!” The other would reply, “You are the one who asked us to do it!” The adults who had noticed this approached the boys. First, the children kept quiet. Then, the adults suspected something strange, and with some pressure put on the children, they forced them to speak. The boys confessed that they were the ones who had removed the heart of the sick Kalala. They added that they had hidden it somewhere. Again, they were forced to say where that place was. “Near a primary school not far from the hospital,” they said. But, they added, they could return it. I was not told whether the boys were escorted by adults or not. They went and found the “heart” where it was hidden and did “their thing” (witchcraft or magic?) to return Kalala’s heart. As they were doing that, in the hospital around the same time Kalala felt well, meaning the sickness disappeared.
I asked whether the heart was covered with blood and how it looked. I added a second question: “Was it looking like the red muscle of the goats we slaughter?” I was told since the removal was not physical, the removed heart was “not like the real physical heart.” The boys confessed that they were the ones who had removed the heart of the sick Kalala. They added that they had hidden it somewhere.Just like when “witches” say they ate someone, it is not the physical flesh/meat that they ate. Or when they drink someone’s blood, it is not the real liquid blood that they drink. Who will tell us what it really is?
Those who told me the story were my adult relatives, born-again Christians. Unfortunately, they did not have other details—the description of the heart and how the heart was returned. They could not even say what happened to these children. Surely, they were not beaten or killed. I was told it was a real story that happened here in Aru some weeks before I came. One of the relatives who reported to me the story is a primary school teacher. She said in the primary school where she teaches some pupils, as young as those in the second year (in DRC that would be between 7–8 years), were involved in some magical practices for gaining money. This is where the border between “witchcraft” and “magic” get blurred in our people’s vocabulary. I saw a confusion or uneasiness in her attitude, as she reported how she stands daily in front of 300 children, aligned according to their class in a parade for singing the national anthem, wondering how many of these children, looking innocent like angels, may be “witches” or “magicians.” I laughed in my heart as I saw in my mind that strong lady looking a bit confused at little skinny boys and girls, imagining how powerful and harmful they may be. Size does not matter, the power is elsewhere.
These children, I was told, are usually initiated by fellow children or by adults. This type of “witchcraft” is apparently passed through food. A hungry child would be given any type of food. He would not know that that food is a piece of human flesh. In the night, the one who gave the food will come to call them in order to go to do their bidding. The initiation could be as simple as that. This explains the speed taken by this phenomenon to spread. Two people I talked to “affirmed that there are more witches in Aru than before the witch hunt of June 2001” (which has now become a reference point in Aru).
A final comment that I keep hearing from people is that “if one is a true Christian, witches will not harm him.” They will see the blood of Christ. Of course, not the real historical blood of Christ, but what do they see? Who will tell?
At the end of the conversation, I conclude that we use words without being conscious that most of the statements we make when talking about witchcraft are metaphorical: “drinking blood,” “eating human flesh,” “removing heart,” “suffocating someone in his sleep,” etc. Unfortunately, we are not able to explain these metaphors. Can these children help us to explain them? What words or images would they use to help us understand, if ever they attempted to explain?