GOMA - In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mothers of disabled children, rather than being given the help they need, are typically blamed for the disability -- and often literally chased out of their homes.
Lingering local superstitions say that a mother is somehow responsible for her child's health problems -- and the consequences can be cruel. "They accuse me of being a witch and say it is my fault that my baby has a crippled leg," says Dany, a young mother, with tears in her eyes.
Françoise Walimwengu, 30, has been rejected by her family and forced to live alone with her disabled child. She had to leave behind her three other, healthy children, whom her husband wanted to keep.
"None of my ancestors were disabled. So why did my wife give birth to a child with a paralyzed arm and leg?" a man asks, after requesting anonymity. He explains that he made his wife and child leave his house, telling her, "I'm giving you this gift of love. That child belongs to you. No one will ever ask you for it. But you can forget that we are married."
Maggy, another woman, gave birth to a mentally handicapped child. Forced out of her home, she left her child at the doorstep of her ex-husband's sister's house. "Her husband had already abandoned her, and afterwards she abandoned the child. We became his parents," says Lydie Nechi Mungongo, who takes care of David, now six years old.
Such unhappy stories are legion -- and now a new organization is working to help these mothers and children escape from their social and economic isolation. "These mothers are alone and often illiterate. They make their living from menial jobs that bring in very little income," explains Étienne Paluku, president of the Association of Parents of Children With Brain Damage (APEC), which helps the most vulnerable women, especially with medical care.
Dr. Henry Tchongo Kataliko has treated many of these families. "It is regrettable to note that, almost always, and without any medical examination, the mother is blamed for her child's handicap."
One burden too many
Children born with a disability are above all a burden for families, because of all the money and time needed to care for them. "My child is eight years old, but does not study because nobody can take him to school. He needs help to eat, wash and go to the toilet," says Françoise Walimwengu.
"For the past five years I have not done anything. All I do is take care of my older brother's child, whose parents abandoned him," confirms Lydia, David's adoptive mother. Basic care is free for parents who are members of the association, says Dr. Henry Tchongo, a specialist in rehabilitation and physical therapy at the Center for the Disabled, who is in charge of their care.
APEC allows these parents’ voices to be heard. "For example, we had a demonstration in May, on the International Day of the African Child, to proclaim that handicapped children and their mothers have the same right to protection as everyone else," declares Clarice, a mother and influential member of APEC. She, too, was rejected by her family and her husband after giving birth to a disabled child.
APEC also supports women who want to go take their husbands to court for forcing them out of their homes. "Thanks to us, Jacqueline Kavira, a mother, won her lawsuit against her ex-husband," an APEC member recounts, proudly. The Goma justice of the peace required the family to give her back all her rights. However, the only payment ordered was for damages, and to date she has received nothing.
"Our goal is to eliminate discrimination and marginalization. We are often victims," summarizes Françoise Walimwengu.
"My father divorced my mother because I was born handicapped," says Béatrice, age 20. She learned to read and write through APEC, which helps some children who have no support at all to learn these skills. Béatrice believes that the best way to fight discrimination is for the courts to punish the guilty severely.
Unfortunately, Françoise adds, "my child's father did indeed promise in front of the judge that he would pay for all the child's needs, but he never kept his promise." To complicate the situation, "the government does not have any funds set aside for people with disabilities," says an official at the provincial division for social affairs. Yet these situations are not rare. In the past three years, APEC has registered more than 500 parents of handicapped children. Parents especially regret that Handicap International, for its part, is concerned only with handicaps caused by war.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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