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A Cruel Tradition In Congo: When Kids Die, Witch-Hunts Target Parents

A child waiting to be examined at a hospital near Bandundu
A child waiting to be examined at a hospital near Bandundu
Désiré Tankuy

DISASI As the little coffin leaves the hospital morgue in this western Congolese town, there is total silence.

Yves Ibama was 14 years old when he was taken from his parents suddenly, after a short illness. On Buzala Avenue, in the densely populated town of Disasi where the wake is being held, everyone is uncharacteristically serene. Usually, young hoodlums heckle the adults and accuse them of being sorcerers who “eat the body of the deceased.”

A few meters away, some of Yves’ former schoolmates, dressed in their blue and white uniforms, are keeping watch. Around their heads, they are all wearing a white ribbon that reads “Adieu Yves.” They sing funeral songs around the coffin.

Suddenly, a group of older youths appears. They point to Yves’ parents and shout: “They are the ones who ate their child, we must punish them.”

It is a tradition here in the western Congolese province of Bandundu. When children die, their friends retaliate by attacking their parents. They beat up the parents, wreck and burn their houses, or the house of an uncle who is suspected of having eaten the dead child.

Last year, two houses were burned down in Camp Onatra, a Bandundu neighborhood. Two years earlier, several fathers were killed and dozens of houses burnt to the ground. These last months, however, some children have started rebelling against the violence, taking action to protect the families of their dead friends.

Protecting the families

“Nothing bad is going to happen this time,” say Yves’ friends, determined to protect the parents of their deceased comrade. “No one can fight death; it is everyone’s destiny. Please respect the dead,” they say.

Their courageous spokesperson, 14-year-old Tansele Manda, reminds the hoodlums that they are here to mourn the death of their friend and share the family’s grief, and that no trouble will be tolerated. His words managed to dissuade the youths, who leave one after the other. The parents and those who were worried about being attacked and pelted with stones are relieved.

The province’s officials have started cracking down on these young delinquents. Esperant Sanduku, Mayor of Disasi, says there is a new decree that bans these kinds of indecent demonstrations. “The troublemakers will be heavily sanctioned, and the prison gates are wide open to welcome the offenders,” he says.

Yayo-Yayo, 27, has just served six months in Bandundu’s central prison. Since being freed, he has turned his life around, and has a hard time accepting that youths could be so cruel during a funeral. “They shouldn’t be breaking the law. I assure you it’s not fun to go to prison,” he says.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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