In southeastern Congo, where a malaria outbreak is killing young children, some believe the disease has mystical origins and turn to higher powers rather than doctors.
KONGOLO — The prayer and liberation ceremony in this southeastern Congolese city has been abruptly interrupted. The parents of a 4-year-old boy named Joyce, suffering from malaria, had brought him to the church earlier on this Monday morning, hoping it would heal him. But he died before the rite ended.
When the mother saw that her boy was dead, she threw herself to the floor, as her tears and those of her relatives instantly replaced the prayers and the songs. The priest's calls for calm had no effect on Joyce's family members, desperate and angry for not succeeding in saving the small boy.
"He only had fever for two days at home," cries Joyce's father.
Since September, panic has taken over the whole Kongolo area. Malaria has killed many — mostly young children aged under five. Emmanuel Mpungu, a local activist, claims that more than 20 children under the age of five are dying every day in the area. "The civil society has already warned the political and administrative authorities and the sanitary services," Mpungu explains.
There are some discrepancies about the death toll. John Bahati, the top local medical official, says that his structure reported 20 malaria-related deaths in September. But, he adds, "the numbers of the civil society aren't necessarily wrong. The deaths can be registered in different organizations, public or private."
Desperate, some parents turn to the church, hoping to find an improbable recovery for their children. "Never before have we seen such an epidemic in our territory, with so many deaths. Malaria, anemia, respiratory infections: All these diseases have exhausted and weakened our children," says Louise Kabwit. This 40-year-old mother believes, like many others, that the evil hitting their land is mystical. "Only God can save us," she says, resigned.
Heat and bugs
Some churches — especially those belonging to the "renewal movement" — take advantage of such groundless superstitions and ordain days, sometimes weeks, of prayers and fast. They claim to be doing this to liberate the territory from "the spirit of malaria."
But there are much more rational explanation for the resurgence of malaria at this time of year, i.e. rising autumn temperatures, after a comparitively cool July and August. This sudden change in temperatures creates extra risks for children and elderly people, while mosquitoes multiply in the heat and can cause the malaria virus to spread. "So you see, there's nothing mysterious about it," Bahati comments.
Families are warned to be wary of any first sign of fever among their children or old people and take them to appropriate medical structures. But there's only one reference hospital in the whole territory and patients there complain of the lack of aid and poor hygiene conditions.
"It's because the healthcare is of such poor quality that the sick choose instead to go and see traditional practitioners or priests," reckons Luc Mumba, another leading activist of Kongolo. But when it comes to malaria, it is only in the hospital where anyone stands a chance of being cured.