An investigation into the ritual killing of disabled Ghanaian children deemed to be possessed by evil spirits. Every year an unknown number of children – most of them disabled in some way – are murdered in northern Ghana because of the belief that they are in some way possessed by evil spirits set on bringing ill fortune to those around them. [Image caption: The two accused persons with the prosthetic baby and a police officer]
Award-winning Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas is determined to do something to stop this senseless slaughter. In this shocking and remarkable film for People & Power he sets out to track down and identify some of those responsible and to bring them to justice.
The practice is the consequence of ancient traditions and customs and is shaped by poverty and ignorance in remote and often marginalised communities. But it is still infanticide and no less horrifying than the killing of children anywhere. For years NGOs and the Ghanaian authorities have tried advocacy and education in an attempt to eradicate the practice but with only marginal success. Well into the 21st century, Ghana’s so-called spirit children are still being killed because they carry the blame for the misfortunes of everyday life.
Watch the video on Al Jazeera
Read the web-based story text below:
Spirit Children: The Story Of Concoction Men, Poisonous Mixtures, Evil Forest And The Barbaric Killing Of Innocent Children. Our Man Goes Undercover As Seidu Bongo, a Troubled Galamsey Operator.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas reports from Sirigu, Bikum and southern Burkina Faso – Published On 14 January 2013, MyJoyOnline (Ghana)
In much of Africa, childbirth is a momentous occasion of ever memorable mirth; a boundless blessing, a measureless mercy, the crowning moment of matrimony, an occasion to make merry that is marked by many with a magnanimous ceremony without thought about the financial cost.
Yet, for some children born with some deformity in some communities up-country, their unhappy destiny is often deemed an ignominy by their family who act bloody, amidst acts of infanticide, cruelty and inhumanity – a travesty of the homily that says that constancy, even in adversity, is the mark of true love, mercy and loyalty:
Love is no love which alters…….
O no! it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken. (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116)
Thus, the contrasting incidents of joyful reception of infants into the world and their subsequent mournful rejection, as this story relates, is a sad commentary on the attitude of some of our people.
The stillness and silence of the night is usually seen as the ideal time for sleep and reflection……and also for evil. For it is at night that men are able to freely carry out whatever evil ploys they have intended without too much ‘interference’ from well meaning persons. In some parts of Northern Ghana, an age-old tradition, sometimes performed at night, other times in the early morning, stands stiffly in the way of a key Constitutional and internationally recognized human right: the right to life.
The right to life as enshrined in the 1992 Constitution and in the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights has been refused to thousands of infants even before any talent or potential in them could become evident and their bodies abused even in death as a final reminder to them of how cruel this world is. This may sound incredible in today’s civilized world. Yet the number of infant murder hunters and their accomplices in the gruesome killing of innocent children keeps growing by the day.
The New Crusading GUIDE’s ace investigative reporter, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, disguised as Seidu Bongo, steps into familiar territory to arrest evil, expose wrong and lead the charge to effect much needed change on a critical but seldom broached topic of infanticide.
This is an undercover expedition to Northern Ghana, specifically the Upper East region’s Kassena Nankana East and West districts, Bongo district, Bolgatanga Municipal Areas and Nankana speaking areas in southern Burkina Faso; where kids believed to be jinxed and consequently tagged ‘spirit children’ are murdered with impunity.
Spirit Children: A Concept as Old as Society
Dr. Philip Baba Adongo of the School of Public Health at the University of Ghana, corroborates our finding that the concept of spirit children is still very rampant and different families interpret and react to it their own ways.
He continued that, even though most people could not tell when the phenomenon started, anthropological documentation points to one British researcher by name Sir Edwaard Evans-Pritchard – renowned for his work in African customs and beliefs – who states that long before the 1930s, the phenomenon was there with the people. “It’s a phenomenon that has been going on, as old as the society. It started when people started coming together to form communities and this has been going on till date.”
He further puts it’s prevalence down to the need by the peculiar society for a mechanism to get rid of children who will be tied to the misfortune of family, simply: “children who fail to thrive so that society can move on”.
Usually, reasons such as death of the mother at birth, death of either or both parents immediately after a child is born, loss of parents’ economic livelihood, or persistent crop failure breed and feed the suspicion that a particular child is a spirit child.
Even exceptionally brilliant children easily get tagged. “Exceptionally brilliant children are sometimes considered to be spirit children, children who do and say things above their age, a child who thinks very deep and says things considered to be above their age are considered as such.” But in all cases, a soothsayer has to officially declare a child as such.
Holding onto age old cultural beliefs
When the sun goes down, the sheer serenity of the communities even without electricity makes it the envy of modern urban centers that are polluted by noise deep into the evening.
But in this silence and serenity lay several dangers that threaten the lives of innocent children. To put it straight, there is a systematic and deeply rooted cultural belief in parts of Northern Ghana which completely places the very survival of newly born children into the capricious hands of tradition and blind custom- this in defiance of the enlightenment of modern science.
Arrest of Concoction Men
First, we interacted with them to, amongst other things; establish that indeed people in parts of today’s modern and democratic Ghana were ready to take the lives of innocent toddlers, children and sometime teenagers. Then we consulted a group of men to help us eliminate a “problem child”. Finally, the Police burst in to arrest the concoction men who had agreed to kill a 3 year -old child, after “diagnosing” it as a spirit child.
Right in the middle of our compound house made of mud with a mix of thatch and aluminum roof, the two men: Abagyna and Akubire, had lit a fire and had begun to boil some leaves that they had brought with them. They appeared very happy and relaxed about what they were doing.
Occasionally one would go to check how the boiling of the concoction was going. The other sat by giving assurances to the father of the supposed spirit child that ‘everything was going to be okay.’
The next stage was to prepare a place for the child to be laid and fed the concoction. As per their specifications, it should be a room which was dirty and unkempt, the reason being that, if the ‘spirit child’ was humiliated in death, it would not bother to return to life.
Just when Abagyna and Akubire entered the room to pick up the child who had been laid there awaiting it’s death, the police team monitoring events from one of the rooms in the house via close circuit TV and hidden cameras, leapt into action and arrested them.
Abagyna and Akubire were handcuffed by plain-clothed officers of the Regional Police. The former clutched onto a prosthetic baby which had been sneaked in to replace the real baby for whom the two men had prepared a death bed in another room in the compound.
The two men in their late seventies were on the verge of doing what they confessed they had been doing for decades: ending the life of an innocent child.
They had informed us from the beginning that for them to be able to murder this child, a revered soothsayer had to declare the child as a spirit child. Needless to add then that at the time they were preparing the concoction and readying themselves to kill the three year old, a soothsayer had already been consulted who had duly declared the child as a spirit child. For his efforts and as part of the rituals he had to perform, the soothsayer demanded a live fowl.
Although the arrest of the men was successful, the team decided to pick up another concoction man, Asuugyna, who was billed to have also come in to try killing our child. For his role in the attempted murder of the child, the soothsayer was also arrested.
Finding the Concoction Men
The first step to ascertaining the lethal custom of killing spirit children believed to be the source of a family’s misfortune was to get into contact with the men who were engaged in the act of killing children.
As proof of how pervasive the practice is, a cross section of people we contacted (both young and old) could either point to someone who knew a concoction man or direct us to one such person.
At a point during our investigation, we encountered concoction men who told us different stories relative to their exploits in the business of killing infants, toddlers and sometimes teenagers.
A reformed medicine man, Asayaba Adonga confesses having killed a lot of kids in his former trade. In his own words: “Yes it’s true. There were forty kids I gave it [the concoction] to … one survived.”
Another concoction man we met in Paga, a border town with neighbouring Burkina Faso in the Upper East region told us about how he had learnt the trade of killing spirit children.
According to him, they [concoction men] were playing a very critical role in making the society a better place. He asserted that but for their work and relentless fight against spirit children, the Northern part of the country ‘would not be where it is today.’
But his declarations were a tip of the iceberg; in Bosrasin, the team met one of the concoction men who spoke highly about his experience when it came to killing. With glee and a sense of pride, he boasted being a renowned ‘killer’ with several years of experience under his belt.
He claimed that his spiritual powers to exorcize or kill evil children was a legacy handed down to him by his ancestors. He revealed that he started practicing as far back as 1979.
Below are excerpts of an interaction we had with one such concoction man:
Concoction Man: Welcome to my humble abode.
Translator: He’s the father of the spirit child? (referring to Tiger)
Concoction man: Doesn’t look like it!
Translator: This man wants to know whether or not you have consulted a soothsayer?
Concoction man: It’s too late to find a soothsayer! No need … I can go and get the necessary roots to make the concoction.
Once we’ve gotten rid of the spirit, the father must come back and come with me to get other roots.
He [Tiger] and his wife will then boil and drink these to avoid having more evil children.
I’ve treated three kids from around here. One was a twelve-year-old girl with small breasts from that house there.
We prepared the concoction and gave it to her. We told her it was medicine for malaria. She drank it … and the concoction did its work!
The girl’s father (was always struggling with poverty). As soon as he got paid, the evil spirit would make his money disappear and he would be back to being poor the following day.
When we are sure we have fought and conquered the spirit that is when we will ask you for something in return.”
He opined further that, after a soothsayer’s verification that a child was indeed an evil child he could go ahead and kill such a child. He further claimed he could even kill the child spiritually without having to set his eyes on the child.
Another such medicine man had interesting revelations he made to us through a middle man.
Middle man translating: There are two others involved. The one who administers the concoction cannot also bury the child when he’s eventually dead. He cannot take it to the evil burial ground himself.
The medicine man will prepare the concoction for which you need to give him a fowl. He must receive the fowl before giving the concoction to the child. If the child doesn’t die, then he is not evil. If he dies then he is evil.
Tiger: Ask him, when he consulted the oracles what did they say about the child?
Middle man: That he is evil.
Tiger: How much is it going to cost?
Middle man: Let’s wrap up the business of the child. We can go together to the soothsayer. He will tell you how much you must pay.
I can’t tell you how much, if I did I would be telling lies’’.
We wrapped up and went to see the soothsayer together with the concoction man. After we informed him of our mission, the soothsayer and the concoction man began to perform some rituals whilst saying some sentences.
‘There is something that is part of the family. It’s powerful and it comes from outside, but it’s coming inside the home.
It’s doing something like this, something like this. What is it that it is doing?
It’s doing it to this man. It’s making his face red and he cries.
That outsider in the family, is it male or female? It’s male!
Is it just someone destructive in the house? Or is it an evil spirit from the bush? An evil spirit!
We should return to the home to kill the evil spirit.
“That is it! It has been confirmed through the so-called ritual that indeed the child is a spirit child and so we could go ahead and kill him.”
This is how simple it is to pronounce the death sentence on innocent young children whose lives at some point hang in the whimsical judgment of a spiritual guru whose words carry so much weight that parents and family are ready to obey them to the letter. How sad!
Who are the ‘spirit children’?
These are children known in local parlance as ‘kinkirgo’ (from newly born to teenagers) considered by family and society as being evil.
This is in connivance with soothsayers and concoction men who accuse these children of being the cause of all family calamities, be it death, poverty or diseases that afflict members of the nuclear and extended family. This is the reason for which they must be killed.
Consequently, children born when the family is in some economic crisis, or those born with some strange illnesses or body deformities are considered as evil spirits. Also, if one parent dies during a child’s conception or immediately after a child’s birth, it’s classified as one born of an evil spirit and the earlier it is killed, the better it would be for the family.
Over the time that we worked in the North to establish the preponderance of the spirit children phenomenon, we spoke to some old people who revealed to us that they came to meet the practice which they are told was handed down to their parents as well.
The very pervasive nature of the practice could also be gauged by the fact that almost every person that we contacted either in our search for a concoction man or to ask whether they knew of the practice yielded a positive response.
‘Bunbunliya’ – the poisonous root
The root used in the preparation of the concoction known as ‘bunbunliya’ was mentioned to us by Mr. Abongo. According to him: “the belief about bunbunliya is that, it is poisonous only to children who are spirit children and that if it is force-fed to a child who is not a spirit child, the child will not die.”
Consequently, the community has come to accept that the root kills only spirit children. He stressed however that: “from my own understanding, I have never seen any human drink bunbunliya concoction and lived… I think it is a toxic substance that kills these children.”
There is also a myth that surrounds the plant, which Abongo informs us is known to only medicine men. There is the need for a person to swear an oath to be introduced to it.
Introduction to the plant is usually premised on a person’s commitment to become a concoction man and mentor [usually a senior medicine man] certifying that the person can do the job.
The Evil Forest
After such kids have been fed poisonous concoction, they are left to struggle and die. Afterwards, they are given a burial by cohorts of the concoction men. The burial takes place in the evil forest that exists in almost all societies in which the practice is prevalent.
Murdered spirit children are buried in a particular community’s evil forest. Here, they dig a grave and put the child in there. Then a big stone is put on the grave supposedly to prevent the evil spirit from rising up and also to prevent carnivorous animals from accessing the remains.
There is no funeral except a ritual for parents to secure them against losing another child. The belief is that a funeral for that child might let the child return at another time.
The forest is a no-go area where indigenes fear to tread. On our visit to the place, even ripe fruits on trees in the forest were not harvested. They were not to be consumed by humans and so were left to fall off and rot.
In the second part of this story, we look at the position of religion and the law on this particular issue.