The newly published book, Searching for Hell, follows teams of filmmakers around the globe as they produce segments for the documentary of the same name. For the film segment set in the Congo, director, James Kenney, places us in the first-person POV of a child accused of being a witch. The boy becomes our guide as he searches for his mother in the vast pockets of tribal neighborhoods of Kinshasa, known to its inhabitants as Can City, because most of the structures are a precarious combination of cinder blocks and corrugated tin roofs.
Kinshasa is a mass of people estimated at nearly ten million. No one knows its exact population, because the poverty is rampant, and the government is insufficient for the care of its citizens. The majority of the city is divided into nests of alliances – invisible to strangers – who just see a sprawl of chaos mostly without running water or electricity. Tenuous wires snarl through alleys and across rooftops, attempting to tap into any grid. The din bustle of people is constant.
And yet James writes that he felt safe there:
I had read that it was moderately dangerous in Kinshasa, but after spending a few days there, I was surprised by the dichotomy of seeing relatively few police and yet general order among the people. I witnessed no crime. I asked my guide how this was, and he explained, in his broken Belgian-English, that people mostly stay in line because the consequences of not doing so are severe. Before 1960, under colonial Belgian rule, one could have a hand, or even a foot, cut off by machete for each infraction—such as not meeting your quota or causing unrest. Baskets of hands displayed the power of the King, and in Belgium you can still buy little chocolates in the shape of hands. The mostly docile culture is also a continuation—city-mind-thought—of the strong-arm dictator, Mobutu. He introduced the doctrine of Article 15, “debroulle voi”: suggesting to his people that they just get by, fend for themselves, hustle, finagle; however you need to, just don’t do anything too violent or serious and definitely nothing against the government. Under Mobutu, you could be sent to prison without trial and tortured for years, and then you might be mysteriously released and appointed to the government, where you would surely be an obedient minister. The memory of these rules survives into modern Kinshasa. I have certainly felt less safe in cities in the United States.
Christianity has a hold on the city and yet it is mixed with older superstitions. Conflicts can be resolved through demonization. Accusation can lead to exile.
– James Kenney
Christianity has a hold on the city and yet it is mixed with older superstitions. Conflicts can be resolved through demonization. Accusation can lead to exile. For his feature documentary, Housewife in the Heart of Darkness, James interviewed a nine-year-old girl who had been raped by the brother of her grandfather. Her mother had been sent to the store. The girl didn’t tell her family, but did share her experience with a young friend, who’s parents approached the family. A hospital exam confirmed the girl’s story, but the rapist denied the charge, and because he had more standing within the family, he was chosen over the girl. The family rationalized that only a child possessed by a demon, practicing witchcraft, could accuse an elder of such a horrific act. She was cast out onto the street and excommunicated from her family.
An independent group of women, acting as an official non-profit, took the young girl in. The foster-mother explained that a child could be thrown onto the street as a witch for less, such as if the mother remarries and the new husband doesn’t want to care for another man’s child. They expel the demon.
In the Congo segment of the Searching for Hell film, the boy witch searches the city for his mother, falling in with the bad habits of a pack of boys – following the leads of hearsay. One rumor says that his mother went upriver, so he boards a boat and is given a large tube of model airplane glue for his trip in the hold. He’s indentured to the east of the country, where children mine precious metals that extend the performance of Western mobile devices.
Children mine precious metals that extend the performance of Western mobile devices
In Kinshasa, we have again lost track of the raped girl, because her foster-mother died of an unexpected illness. A passage from the book illustrates the challenge of hope: “Right outside the gates of the hospital is a street of burial wreaths, synthetic colorful flower arrangements, some big enough for the winners circle of a horse race. These vendors were hedging their bets against cures.”
For more information regarding the Searching for Hell project, go to: searchingforhell.com.
Photography by James Kenney from the series, Kinshasa.