An Introduction to Spirit Children: The Case of N’ma

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana.

Outside his office one morning Joe was urgently awaiting my arrival. With a notebook and mobile phone in hand, he quickly jumped into my truck and directed me to pick up Ayisoba, a concoction man with whom I had been closely working. Earlier that morning, Ayisoba informed Joe, a local Nankani NGO worker, that a family with a spirit child wanted him to “test” the child. On our way to the family’s house, Ayisoba explained that she was a very powerful spirit child. Two concoction men had previously tried but failed to kill her.

On arriving at the family’s home, we exchanged greetings with the eight or so men and women present and positioned our benches in the shade. Ayisoba explained to the family that he had brought us along because I was interested in learning more about spirit children and because the NGO I was observing might have other choices for N’ma, the suspected spirit child. N’ma, meaning “my mother,” is a generic name given to newborn girls before a more permanent name is determined, usually before the child’s first birthday. Although N’ma hardly appeared to have reached her first birthday, she was actually close to three years old. She looked fragile and malnourished; indeed, at age two, the last time she was weighed, she was, according to her medical card, 7.4 kilograms (16 pounds).

The World Health Organization’s fiftieth percentile weight-for-age guidelines for a two-year-old girl are 11.5 kilograms (25 pounds). N’ma was below the first percentile. She could not stand, crawl, or talk and had experienced several episodes of malaria in addition to the primary cause of her current state, a serious case of meningitis contracted when she was six months old. When I asked about the meningitis, N’ma’s mother, Atipoka, described how within an hour after coming down with a fever, N’ma went into convulsions and even stopped breathing for a short time. The family took her to the clinic, where she was treated and survived. However, since that illness she had stopped developing. Family members described her as being far behind other children her age. “This is her age mate,” they said, dragging a much larger and unwilling child over next to her. “Look at how big he is and all the things that he can do. Why is this one not like that?”

N’ma was similar to the other spirit children I encountered. Many suffered from a severe illness or congenital disability. When I asked people what a spirit child was, the common response was “a child that does not possess the right qualities of a normal human being.” In addition to recognizing physical differences, families scrutinize a child’s behavior and are wary of delays or early onset in the normal developmental patterns for such events as talking or walking. Most of the families with spirit children were poor, relied primarily on subsistence agriculture, and had limited access to health services. Childhood abnormality alone, however, is rarely enough to confirm a spirit child case. Other circumstances and misfortunes associated with the child, such as illness or death, contagious epidemics, crop failure, drought and abnormal climatic events, death of livestock, or a period of conflict or bad luck in the family, must be present to generate suspicion that a child is the source of these problems.

I asked Atinga, the family head, how he had discovered N’ma was a spirit child. He replied that two years ago, when her sickness began, he and N’ma’s father went to consult the diviner numerous times and discovered that the child was trying to find a way to kill everyone in the family. At that point, he said, “We knew she was a spirit child.”

The diviner facilitates communication with the ancestors, who are consulted on important issues related to the family, including determining illness causation. All families will go to the diviner when verifying their suspicions concerning a child.

In this case, a concern arose that N’ma was planning to kill family members. This issue took on importance as those of us present discussed the situation openly in front of her. Atinga feared that since N’ma knew what he was trying to do, she would kill him first. “We are fighting,” he said. “The child has to go away.”

The discourse and limited amount of literature on the spirit child describes decisions progressing quickly from detection to death. However, my evidence indicates that there is commonly a period of help-seeking activity before a concoction man is summoned. In the case of N’ma, family members described how they had taken her to a hospital and clinic several times over the past two years with little success. Even an herbalist they consulted concluded that she could not be helped. The family was running out of choices. “It has been making me suffer a lot,” Atipoka said, “always being indoors and having to watch her. She just sits on the ground and cries all the time. That tells me she is not a normal human being.”

Joe cut in with a joking and teasing tone of voice, possibly trying to break the tension. “Does the crying prevent you from sleeping with your husband?” he asked. Atipoka looked down. Ayisoba noted, in a more serious tone, that perhaps N’ma just wanted a younger brother, which is why she stopped breast-feeding.

“Yes,” Joe said. “That means her husband will have to have intercourse with her!” Everyone laughed.

Ayisoba shook his head. “Yes, but how can you have something like this and go in and have sex with a woman?”

Issues concerning sexuality and reproduction surfaced frequently. Families also articulate these concerns through taboos that surround women’s behavior and in myths about spirits. This discourse reciprocally shapes and reinforces interpretations of a suspicious child’s body and behavior. Explanations of how a spirit child enters a woman’s womb highlight these themes as well. Fundamentally, the goal of the spirit is to pass from the wild and undomesticated bush into a domestic space by any means possible. The easiest way for a spirit to accomplish this is to enter a woman through a taboo violation such as illicit sexual activity, take human form, and be born into a family.

Earlier that morning, elder family members had accused Atipoka of secretly continuing to breast-feed to prevent pregnancy, a claim she denied. Nankani families traditionally expect women to have another child soon after the previous child is weaned. The child, Atipoka said, refused to eat properly altogether. Refusing to eat—a “failure to thrive,” as biomedical health care workers might describe it—is another defining characteristic of a spirit child. Families note that such children obtain their food from the bush during clandestine visits at night. Families also describe suspected spirit children with voracious appetites who would suckle their mothers dry, consume adult foods, and drink milk from lactating cattle.

As we continued to chat with the family, Ayisoba made repeated attempts to engage N’ma. She refused to look at him, although she did look at and turn toward everyone else. We all watched closely and suspiciously noted this inconsistency. Ayisoba took his goatskin medicine bag and repeatedly held it near N’ma; each time she would recoil and look away with a pained expression on her face. Everyone was intrigued and a bit unsettled.

N’ma was purposefully handed to Ayisoba. He gently held her and talked to her in a soft voice, but N’ma remained motionless, her eyes closed. “Pretending to sleep,” someone said, although she had been wide awake just moments before. Ayisoba raised his voice but was unable to rouse her. Her motionless body was quite rigid. She looked uncomfortable; in fact, she looked dead. Sensing our apprehension, Joe took N’ma from Ayisoba’s arms. N’ma quickly opened her eyes, looked intently at Joe, and defecated on him.

“Look at what Ayisoba made her do,” someone remarked as others laughed nervously. “This is a very powerful child.”

This sparked a flurry of discussion that reinforced everyone’s suspicions.

“Their spirits [those of the N’ma and Ayisoba] are battling,” another man exclaimed.

Conc4 - CopyEven Joe, who aids families with ill or disabled children, suspected that N’ma was really a spirit child. “She wants to return to the bush,” he said. “That’s why she’s behaving that way.” Another person remarked that she was doing these things to demonstrate her power. Ayisoba agreed, saying, “I normally have to treat children like this. The child has shown you it is a spirit child for sure and now wants to prove it. Look. I haven’t given the child anything and she’s behaving like that. Why?”

Joe handed N’ma to her mother and cleaned himself. Family members continued to make jokes and laugh nervously. From the family’s perspective, N’ma was exercising an unusual and uncanny level of agency. While families do not usually diaper infants and these sorts of accidents are common, it was the context and the timing in which it occurred that increased the family’s suspicions and put them on edge.

My own perspective shifted. The previous months of listening to families recount myths and experiences of spirit children began to take on a new significance. I began to see the family’s interpretive process, particularly how the social and cultural context and discourse dialectically influenced interpretations of her embodied status and behavior. While I was able to see how N’ma’s existence threatened reproductive continuity and resources, what was more pressing was how her family interpreted and condensed the meanings of her body and existence into danger.

After everyone calmed down, Ayisoba asked for some water, indicating that he wanted to “test” N’ma to see what would happen.

I spoke up. “You’re not going to give her the concoction, are you?”

“No,” Ayisoba replied, “just some groundnuts from my bag.”

“Specially treated groundnuts,” Joe clarified. “I don’t know if he should do it.”

I asked Ayisoba what he put on the groundnuts and he said nothing, but Joe pointed out that the nuts came from inside his goatskin bag. I frequently joked with Ayisoba that we should trade bags sometime, my messenger bag, with its various ethnographic tools, for his, which contained substances of power, items for medicinal protection, and mobile representations or proxies for sorcery and ancestral shrines. I was only able to explore it years later. The bag never left his side, and he frequently clutched it across his belly when approaching an unfamiliar situation or feeling uncomfortable. He adamantly refused my halfhearted offers of a temporary exchange, saying that if his bag left his side he would be attacked and surely die.

Ayisoba, with his bag resting across his lap, shrugged his shoulders and assured us that the nuts were not poisonous, but everyone recognized that they were spiritually enhanced. He told the family that they could bring their own nuts so he could give them to the child. Convinced, they allowed Ayisoba to break his nuts into pieces and give them to her with water. N’ma refused to eat them, spitting the nuts and the water out. Ayisoba tried again, but still she refused, her mouth and eyes tightly clenched as she turned her head to the side, desperately avoiding Ayisoba’s hands and gaze. The meaning of her refusal was obvious to every family member present, and if they needed additional confirmation, it came when N’ma urinated on Atipoka after spitting out the final pieces of groundnut. From the local perspective, N’ma was doing everything in her power to show that she was a spirit child.

Joe turned to me. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons why the child is this way. But they have to do away with it because of the tradition.”

As we were saying our good-byes and arranging to visit again later in the day, the family head aggressively confronted me. “It is a snake!” he exclaimed. “Tell me, would you go to sleep at night knowing there was a poisonous snake in your house?”

Hesitating, I replied, “Only a fool would.”

Joe and I slowly walked away from N’ma’s home in the stifling midday heat. Back at his office, we discussed that fact that the family was committed to killing the child, as evidenced by the two concoction men that had visited the family before Ayisoba and by the scene we had just witnessed. Joe believed that the only thing we could do was step away and recommend that the family wait to let the child die naturally.

We discussed the issues involved in imposing outside moral frameworks on what the family should do while being unable to also provide an adequate solution. Despite my recognition of our different notions of what constitutes a human being, it remained difficult for me not to see the decision to step away as a death sentence for N’ma. From the family’s perspective, however, she wasn’t a child; she was a spirit. The moral dilemma was not in the act of killing the child but in determining what had caused her to enter the family in the first place.

Later that afternoon, Joe and I returned to the house. Joe explained to the family that he could not do anything to help and that further trips to the hospital would change nothing. The family head agreed and remarked that he had suspected this to be the case. Joe encouraged the family to wait even a week to see what might happen. The family agreed to wait a week but no longer, since this was a serious case. Ayisoba also agreed not to do anything right away, although he added that sometimes these things are real and must be taken care of before they become a larger problem. A few days later I learned that N’ma’s mother had fled to the urban center of Kumasi 600 kilometers away. Apparently, she was afraid that N’ma was trying to kill her.

In N’ma’s case, we can move easily from the family’s descriptions regarding parental burdens and reproductive imperatives to applying sociobiologically oriented interpretations, which are almost obvious and go without saying. If a child cannot go off with the other children soon after she is weaned so the mother can work and have another child, problems arise. While considering these interpretations, I prefer to focus on offering additional layers of analysis throughout this book. For example, from another perspective, I recognize, quoting Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg, that “the birth of anomalous children is an occasion for meaning-making” (2001, 536). Thus, I ask what a suspected spirit child means to a community and families. What concerns does it foreground? Examining the wider meanings of normality and abnormality are central to this work, as the human body is not only a profoundly historical site but a moral site as well; with certain forms of illness and disability, particular bodily states can problematize or threaten the balance of social and domestic relations (Livingston 2005, 2–9; Rapp and Ginsburg 2001).

Four days after our visit, Ayisoba came to Sirigu to let us know that the family had been pressuring him to come and “finish the child.” He told us that even if an NGO could help N’ma, the family was now refusing to give her up. The family feared that N’ma was spiritually powerful enough to continue to disturb them and cause misfortunes as long as she was living, no matter where she might be. When Ayisoba left soon after, we both understood what he was going to do.

Want more? Buy “Spirit Children” here and read my other essays here


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