Of House or Bush: The Cultural Psychodynamics of Infanticide in Northern Ghana

My latest article was accepted for publication in Current Anthropology. It has been a long ten years in the making. Infanticide, Oedipus, projection, family conflict, scapegoats, and narcissistic injury–all the makings of a good drama. I’ll be posting a link to it after some final edits. For now, the abstract (summing up the 12,000 word behemoth) and part of the introduction:

 

Abstract

Within 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. People often describe spirit children as wanting to kill the same sex parent to take over the house. Based on discourse alone, one might explain the spirit child in terms of a presumed underlying oedipal dynamic, but such an analysis is partial. When we interpret the spirit child from the bifocal vision of cultural psychodynamics, which links cultural phenomenology and psychodynamic paradigms, we gain a complex understanding of the interactions between Nankani cultural models, moral imaginations, family relations, and parental ambivalence. I interpret families’ perceptions of danger and their feelings of fear and hostility toward children referring to infant alterity, narcissistic injury, scapegoating, and projective processes that link individual sentiments and decision-making with their cultural and material contexts. Cultural psychodynamics illuminates Nankani conceptions of child development, morality, and parental psychologies, and offers insights into how and why some parents kill their children.

 


I was sitting with Atanga outside of his compound in Northern Ghana, shaded by a shelter constructed from old sun-bleached logs and piles of tightly bundled millet stalks left over from the harvest. Midway through our conversation, I asked the Nankani elder to tell me what he knew about spirit children.

At first, he described both the mythical spirits and those appearing in human form. Infants born with teeth, facial hair, deformities, and illness, or those born into families experiencing disorder or misfortune are spirit children. Such children are sometimes given a concoction to send them back to the bush (cause their death). He recounted a case where a two-month-old infant suspected of being a spirit performed physically impossible feats, such as walking and eating adult foods. To the amusement of the men sitting nearby, he recounted a story of a spirit having sex with a woman without her knowledge. All were themes I had heard from others. But what followed was unexpected: “You see,” Atanga explained, “if it’s a girl and the family sees sickness in the mother, or if the mother dies, it’s believed that such a child is a spirit child. That child, it will kill the mother so it can be with the father. Or, if it’s a male child, it will kill the father so it can sleep with the mother and take control of the house.”

One cannot deny the strong resemblance between classical oedipal dynamics and Nankani spirit child beliefs, or simply see them as an artifact of a Western psychoanalytic gaze. Whatever we call them, they are fundamental to the Nankani understandings of certain kinds of children. Yet what value might these oedipal motifs hold for understanding spirit child phenomena? And more broadly, how might they help to illuminate Nankani conceptions of child development, morality, and parental psychologies? It has been decades since the debates about the universality of the Oedipus complex. What can thinking with oedipal motifs reveal or index when situated within recent developments in psychoanalytic anthropology, particularly when understood in the light of cultural psychodynamics (see Groark 2017)?

Cultural psychodynamics spans a long-held conceptual gap in anthropology existing between sociocultural and psychological explanations; a disjuncture that Fortes described as how “manifest custom” [culture] corresponds to or is a product of the “mental mechanisms” postulated by psychoanalytic theory. In methodological terms, Fortes questioned how we might bridge the “gap between the level of observation open to the ethnographer and the level of observation and theory at which psychoanalysis operates” (1987:182-183). A broad solution entails attuning ourselves to the dialogic interplay and tension between individual subjectivity and social forms to capture the complexity of culturally-inflected experience, and, ideally, present a non-reductive, holistic reimagining of what it means to be human (Ingham 1996:ix).

[…]

Using the oedipal motifs as a starting point, I analyze the social role of spirit children among the Nankani, focusing on the ambivalent and hostile sentiments expressed toward them by parents and other family members. Why do these children elicit so much distaste and aggression? Based on discourse alone, one might explain the spirit child in terms of a presumed underlying oedipal dynamic, but such an analysis is partial. When the spirit child is interpreted from a cultural psychodynamic perspective, we gain a closer understanding of the roles of the moral imagination and projection, and we can better understand families’ sentiments and decision-making processes when confronted with misfortune or child abnormality.

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