Democratic Republic of the Congo: towards new life

On a hill in the city of Bukavu in the south of the DR Congo, a centre has been built to take in girls accused of witchcraft.

Her face is serene and smiling as she holds the hand one of the little girls she looks after at the Ek’abana house on one of the hills of Bukavu, in the Kivu region in the south of the country.

The centre has become a place of refuge for many little women who one day were called witches. Some are only five, some about twelve or older. Some have been beaten, others thrown out of their homes and others were subjected to attempted lynching. Sr. Natalina takes all of them in and listens to them.

Every day, these little girls present a problem whether great or small to which she gives a solution, especially by encouraging, urging, calming and reassuring them. She is aware that her task is to bind up their broken hearts.

Ek’abana has two meanings in the Bashi language: ‘The home of the children’ and ‘The children have a home’. Natalina Isella is a seventy-year-old Italian Sister who has spent more than forty years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sr. Natalina says: “Sorcery is a way of finding an explanation for a life of suffering. Of course, it is not the only explanation. There is also the break-up of families and the child of a previous marriage of the husband or wife is often accused; there are also the little ones born on the roads from extremely poor and girls who have been raped; ignorance, too, makes people accuse the neighbour’s girl of causing some illness or death. Most serious of all, there are small sects led by greedy pastors who mix Christianity with a lot of superstition and presumed spiritual powers. Behind these accusations of sorcery, there is almost always one of those fake saints.”

They have deep wounds, these little girls. They have been told: “it was you who killed your mother” or “it was you who made your playmates sick”. They are treated like the condemned and thrown out onto the street.

What takes place in the minds and hearts of little girls when they are called sorcerers? In years to come, will they ever forget such a traumatic experience? Sr. Natalina says: “These are the questions that we must ask ourselves when we are faced with these children and hear the stories they cannot tell without being overcome with emotion.”

Sr. Natalina is a member of the Women Disciples of the Crucified, a small religious Institute of the diocese of Milan founded by Barnabite Gaetano Barbieri in 1964. She first came to the Congo in 1976. First, she used to look after poor families, and then she took care of former child-soldiers, after which she worked in a literacy programme for women. 

The missionary Sister recalls: “It was 22 January 2002 when they brought me a group of nine homeless girls accused of witchcraft. What could I do? Leave them to sleep on a piece of cardboard? I took them in and began this work of mine. We had a small house and we arranged to be what we now call Ek’abana. In a matter of a few months, thirty more girls came to us: it was like an explosion”.

Today Ek’abana has about fifteen girl residents. Their number changes continually since their stay here is just the first of many stages on the long road to recovery. Each of them needs a family and each one is a particular case: some need to restore relations with their parents and siblings while others need to find grandmothers, aunts or cousins to take care of them. They need to go to school and learn a trade. In the past nineteen years, more than 450 girls have passed through Ek’abana and are now enjoying a ‘normal’ life. The house is also home to about twenty tiny unfortunate infants who were abandoned or left as orphans.

The tiny but tenacious missionary Sister has created a close-knit network of solidarity which provides the resources not only for Ek’abana but also a group of social workers who accompany the girls in their homes and collaborate with the police to sensitise the population against violence, abuses and accusations of witchcraft against minors.