Children with autism are referred to as "wizards", "bewitched" or "lost" in Congo-Brazzaville, where a school has been set up to promote their "socialization" and raise awareness of this neurodevelopmental disorder.
Located in the heart of Poto-Poto, the most cosmopolitan of Brazzaville's neighborhoods, the Case Dominique school, run by Catholic nuns, welcomes 350 autistic children and others suffering from Down's syndrome this year.
Sandals on her feet, T-shirt on her back, loincloth tied tightly, Coco came this morning to drop off Edith, her 12-year-old daughter. Until the age of three, Edith could not express herself, and years later, she still had "a childish behavior", tells AFP her mother.
"She had difficulty learning in the regular school. I understood that there was something wrong. That's why I thought of taking her to Case Dominique," adds the 45-year-old. "Today, I see a great evolution: she can write the date for example", she is happy, saying she is "optimistic for the future".
At the Case Dominique school, classes are held between 8:00 am (7:00 am GMT) and 11:00 am (10:00 am GMT), interspersed with a recreation period. The students (girls and boys) are dressed in navy blue pants and khaki shirts, like those in normal schools.
"In my class, I teach them word articulation, reading, and vocabulary. I have children of all ages and sizes," Dudal Ndolo, a 40-year-old teacher, told AFP.
"We put them together so they can socialize, get to know each other, and become familiar. Because at home, they are rejected, rejected," he says.
In the classrooms, students sit three or four on a bench, greeting visitors in chorus.
- Changing attitudes -
When it opened in 1999, the Dominica Hut Center worked with child victims of armed conflict. Then it focused on autistic children.
Since then, this specialized school has had some successes, according to its director Dieu Merci Nakavoua. "We have an autistic child who started with all the difficulties. Today, he is in France as a painter. There are real children who emerge," he said.
If at Case Dominique, autistic children seem to flourish, they are often stigmatized in the rest of society. In Congo-Brazzaville, there are no statistics on autism, according to health experts and specialists interviewed by AFP.
In terms of prejudice, "People think that these children are witches, that they are bewitched by this or that person, that they are under the influence of an evil spirit that leads them to do this or that," said Sister Ida Pélagie Louvouandou, the school's coordinator.
"Today, unfortunately, there are many couples who separate because of the autism of a child," she laments.
To fight against these prejudices, Case Dominique has launched an awareness campaign.
"For the past two years, we have been going from time to time in the streets with our leaflets, to meet people to talk to them and explain to them that autism is a natural phenomenon that exists and that we must welcome it with a lot of respect," says Sister Louvouandou.
However, she recognizes that the change of mentalities is slow in Congolese society where the situation "has not evolved much". "Many autistic children are still refused on public transport buses," she says as an example.