The 2013 Academy Awards marked a milestone for 16-year-old actress Rachel Mwanza, a teenager pulled from the streets of the Congo to star in what would become the Oscar-nominated foreign film, War Witch. After living most of her life homeless in Kinshasa, Mwanza arrived to Hollywood’s grandest red carpet, dressed in a floor-length gown and posing for pictures, and proved to the world that life never loses potential.
She also got to meet Harry Potter.
“They told us to arrive early, so we arrived really early,” Mwanza tells theGrio through a French translator. “Actually, we were the first on the red carpet. So, it was so long. We took our time…We took pictures of every combination of people imaginable in front of the statues.”
It was actor Daniel Radcliffe, nevertheless, star of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series, whom Mwanza was most excited to see. Just a few days prior, she had received a visa to travel to the event from the Congo, and though her film lost the honor to the French drama Amour, the true reward was the day itself.
“We were the real groupies,” she adds.
In War Witch, Mwanza plays the role of Komona, a 12-year-old kidnapped by rebels, and forced to become a soldier in their scheme of murder, revenge and tyranny against the government. Komona finds consolation in ghost-like apparitions, and through a relationship she develops with a fellow boy soldier. The film aims to expose the truth about civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and Burma, and is based on true stories from war children and former child soldiers.
For the first-time actress, it hits much closer to reality than fiction.
“Child soldiering is very common,” she explains. “It’s been unfortunately part of the Congolese life for the past many years, especially since decolonization. It’s very horrific. It’s gotten so mad in the East Congo that sometimes there will be rebels that come in a house where there’s a husband and wife and child, and they will force the son to sleep with the mother, or the father to sleep with the daughter to kind of annihilate any sense of family unit. Or rebels rape everybody in the house.”
Though Mwanza has never faced such treachery, her own story carries similar weight. She was abandoned by her parents as a child, lived briefly with her grandmother, and spent several years on the streets of her city and in shelters. She says the hardest times were during monsoon season when it was difficult to find cover, and knee-deep levels of water overcame her body. Other days, it was simply evading the fire of humanity.
“Before I was in the center, I would sleep wherever I could find, like in abandoned houses,” she recalls. “This one time, I slept in a car. There are a lot of issues with children and sorcery; sometimes kids get blamed for having evil powers. So this guy, the owner of the car, came up to me and said, ‘Go, but if I find you sleeping in my car again, I’m going to kill you.’ I didn’t know where to sleep so I went back the next day and they found me. He had a stick so they beat me up. They threw me on the floor and really, really hit me.”
Mwanza was living in the streets at the time filmmaker Kim Nguyen held an open casting call for War Witch. He was specifically looking for street youth to play characters in the film, as he felt they would add greater authenticity to the story.
“We already had a hunch that children in the streets would be really powerful because of their fearlessness,” he comments. “Ex-child soldiers were not the right idea [however] because some of them were so broken…But kids in the street, it becomes very cathartic because what they’re living and what they’re projecting is very different.