KINSHASA, Congo — Naomi Ewowo had just lost her parents when her family branded her a witch. She was 5.
After her mother and father died unexpectedly less than a month apart, Naomi's care fell to relatives who struggled to cope with the tragedy. They sought counsel from a neighborhood "prophet," who warned that a sorcerer was hiding in their midst. Soon all eyes turned on the family's youngest, most vulnerable member.
"They blamed me for killing my parents," said Naomi, now 10, nervously swinging her short legs under the seat of a chair. The girl eventually was cast out by relatives and lived on the streets until she moved to a rescue center three months ago.
"They say I ate my father. But I didn't. I'm not a witch."
On a continent where belief in black magic and evil spirits is common, witch hunts are nothing new, usually targeting older, unmarried women. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there's a new twist to this ancient inquisition. A majority of those said to be involved in witchcraft and sorcery are children, and such allegations against them are the No. 1 cause of homelessness among youths.
Of the estimated 25,000 children living on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital, more than 60% had been thrown out of their homes by relatives accusing them of witchcraft, child-welfare advocates say. The practice is so rampant that Congo's new constitution, adopted in December, includes a provision outlawing allegations of sorcery against children.
A rise in religious fundamentalism, revival churches and self-proclaimed prophets is one cause. More than 2,000 churches in Kinshasa offer "deliverance" services to ward off evil spirits in children, the group Human Rights Watch says.
"Some prophets who run these churches have gained celebrity-like status, drawing in hundreds of worshipers in lucrative Sunday services because of their famed 'success' in child exorcism ceremonies," the group said in an April report.
But chronic poverty is the real culprit, some experts say. Decades of dictatorship, instability and war have unraveled the nation's social fabric, tearing apart traditional family and tribal support systems. It's no coincidence that the vast majority of accused children come from poor, broken homes. Most are orphans or have lost one or both parents to divorce or abandonment.
When relatives are unable or unwilling to cope with an additional mouth to feed, they may look for ways to get rid of the child, said Charlotte Wamu, a counselor at Solidarity Action for Distressed Children, which assists street children. In Africa, kicking out a family member, even a distant relative, is considered shameful, but allegations of witchcraft provide a convenient and hard-to-disprove justification.
"It's always the stepmother who finds witchcraft in the stepchild, not in her own," Wamu said. "The sorcerer is your dead brother's child, never yours."
Naomi, the only child of her father's second marriage, said his family never accepted her or her mother.
When Naomi's parents died in 2001, relatives took her from one prophet to another searching for a way to cast out her "evil spirits." Sometimes the exorcism consisted of a quick prayer, other times it was more involved.
One preacher locked Naomi in a room for three days without food or water, the girl recalled. "I wanted to try to sneak some water, but I thought that would only make my problems worse," she said.
She was probably right. Child-exorcism ceremonies can include brutal treatment, including beatings, burnings and the use of saltwater, orally and anally, to "purge" the children, the group Save the Children says.
One self-described prophet in Kinshasa, Pakoki Keni Emmanuel Suliman, began an interview with a robust prayer and ended it with a sales pitch for black-market diamonds, which he kept tucked inside his wallet.
From his Promised Temple church, which he runs from his home, Pakoki showed off one of his clients.
"Did you let the evil spirit back inside you?" the burly, bearded preacher bellowed at a quivering 9-year-old boy. "You must confess! Tell the truth! Then I will pray for you one more time." The boy dutifully confessed that since his last exorcism he had "killed" two people. His older brother has been treated several times as well.
Pakoki said he never accepted money, though relatives were required to buy white sheets, at $18 apiece, which were waved and draped around the children during the exorcism.
"I pray and they are cured," he said.
The forced confessions leave many children confused and guilt-ridden.
"They start to believe they've done something wrong or that they really are witches," said Evariste Kalumuna, head of the rescue center that took Naomi off the streets. He said that when he disciplined the children, they sometimes threatened him with their so-called powers.
"They say: 'Look out. I'm a witch. I'll hurt you,' " Kalumuna said. "Believe me, if they really were witches, I would have been dead a long time ago."