The following is a second excerpt from my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. Within rural Northern Ghana, the Nankani people describe how disabled or ill children and those whose births coincide with tragic events are spirit children sent from the bush to cause misfortune and destroy the family. Upon identification, some spirit children are subject to infanticide. The following ethnographic vignette depicts Victor. His mother’s illness fueled suspicions that he was a spirit child. This case not only emphasizes how poverty and cultural models intersect to create a space of vulnerability for spirit child deaths, but it also demonstrates the role that extended family members like Mavis can play in providing stressed families extra time and an alternative.
The spirit child is associated with a range of family misfortunes; births coinciding with crop failure or the death of livestock are ominous signs. A man explained, “Mishaps in the family will be present, maybe the harvest was poor. They go to the soothsayer and find out that the child who was born two months before is the cause of all the woes in the family. He is a spirit child and will destroy the house, so they will destroy the child.”
When other misfortunes strike, particularly when a family already suspects the presence of a spirit child, the misfortune is interpreted as the child “revealing itself.” Families say that some spirit children remain hidden for years because additional signs, such as a physical abnormality or series of misfortunes, are not present. Such hidden children are the most dangerous. A man noted that the sign is not always the physical appearance of the child: “It can be handsome or beautiful. It’s about the behavior or the attitude, what it does in the family” that betrays its identity. A normal-looking child can be the cause of its mother’s illness.
When I met Victor, he was living with his maternal aunt, Mavis. Mavis was eager to talk about Victor and his circumstances. “I decided I’d better do something about Victor the evening before the concoction man was going to arrive,” she said. “His family said that he was a spirit child, but I said, ‘No, the child is not a spirit child. He is a normal child! Whatever you intend to do to him, I object. I will take him.’” Mavis was able to convince her sister’s family to permit her to take Victor and care for him on a trial basis in order to, in Mavis’ words, “determine whether he is really a spirit child or not.”
Mavis had been caring for Victor for more than a year. He was healthy, well fed, and energetic. “To me the child is normal,” Mavis remarked as we watched Victor, now around two years old, play in the courtyard, “There is no need to kill this child or claim he’s a spirit.”
Before Victor’s birth, Apengo, his mother, was living in the southern city of Kumasi with her husband. They thought it would be best for her to give birth at home, so Apengo returned. The suspicions around Victor arose soon after he was born. Apengo was unable to walk after giving birth and, for a period, was unable to sit up unaided or hold Victor and care for him. Family members took Apengo to the hospital and visited healers. Meanwhile, community members began speculating that Victor was responsible.
“There are people like that,” Apengo remarked when I spoke with her later, people “that stand around and say he is a spirit child.” Even a traditional healer proposed that Victor was likely a spirit and was attempting to kill her. “At the time I was helpless,” Apengo said. “I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. I was in so much pain. If they had given the concoction to my son, I wouldn’t have known how to stop them. I only realized what was happening after I recovered.”
Apengo’s father, Asugya, said they tried everything possible to help Apengo, but her condition did not change. Because of her immobility, she frequently developed sores, many of which became badly infected, adding to suspicions. Asugya was hesitant to attribute her condition to spiritual causes. He described the sores as likely the result of “abject poverty.”
Asugya noted that it was primarily her husband’s family alleging that Victor was a spirit child. “We went around [talked about it] but couldn’t solve it,” he said. The in-laws involved Asugya in the decision-making process as a matter of respect and because Apengo and Victor resided at his house. But since Victor was a member of his father’s house, Asugya would have little say if the family was committed to giving Victor the concoction.
The in-laws continued to claim that Victor was a spirit child and that trips to a diviner had confirmed their suspicions. However, Asugya did not agree. They even took Asugya to a sorcerer, who gave him treated water to rub into his body and bathe in so he could see Victor’s spiritual status with his own eyes. He remarked, “I didn’t see any change.”
Seven months after Victor’s birth Apengo still could not walk and required assistance for most daily activities. Apengo’s in-laws decided to give Victor a concoction and instructed her family to send Victor to their house the following day. Mavis stepped in. “The tradition is that they have to follow the necessary steps to establish the truth about whether or not the child is a spirit child,” she said. “Normally, they administer the concoction. If it is a spirit child it will certainly die. If it is not a spirit child, it will continue to live.” Mavis, however, did not want to risk testing Victor with a concoction. “Whatever the situation may be, they should not jump to conclusions and have it end badly,” she said. “That would not be good at all. I intervened by telling them that this is what I heard [about the child and the concoction], but I have a different view. Just give me a chance and let me take the child away and try to establish the facts about the allegation.”
Apengo’s condition has improved somewhat. She sits unaided and can walk very short distances while leaning on a walking stick. Her husband still lives and works in Kumasi, and she remains at her father’s house. Since Mavis lives only a short walk away, she sees Victor frequently. “I am full of joy when I see him,” she remarked. Victor will likely continue to live with Mavis.
“People no longer think that he is a spirit child,” Mavis said. “As of now, his mother is still suffering. She might not recover to do anything, but looking at this child, he has a future.”