Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, And Infanticide In Northern Ghana

Author: Aaron R. Denham
Publisher: Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. 240p.
Reviewer: Chima Agazue

In this 217-page book, Aaron R. Denham presents a very fascinating account of the “spirit child” phenomenon among the Nankani ethnic communities in northern Ghana. This account is based on ethnographic fieldwork he conducted in the Upper East Region of Ghana between 2006 and 2007, and also part of 2008 and 2010. Denham describes this part of Ghana as “extremely rural, remote, and isolated from the rest of the country” (p.28). His ethnography included interviews and observations of individuals and groups in the Nankani communities where he attempted to understand the spirit child phenomenon. He explored the historical, social, biological, psychological, economic and political contexts within which the spirit child practices are situated. He focused on families with spirit children, diviners, concoction men, biomedical health professionals, NGO workers, community leaders and other representatives. There were some elements of what might be termed a longitudinal case study in this research, as Denham followed up with some of the families with spirit children for up to five years.

The idea of the spirit child, according to Denham, “is intermeshed within the Nankani material, relational, and discursive worlds” (p.26). A spirit child “is not a human possessed by a spirit,” but rather is “a simulacrum of a human, a spirit that only appears to be a human” (p.92). The spirit children are referred to as “snakes because many cannot walk; are perceived as elusive, cunning, and deceptive; and are as deadly as snakes” (p.70). They are then feared as spirits who took a human form, with the intention of causing misfortune and destroying the family.

The spirit children are associated with numerous misfortunes in the family, and their births can be linked to the death of livestock or to crop failure, domestic violence and the failure of parents to thrive. They may “break the family apart by instigating conflict and disagreements or … confusion in the house” (p.115). Any of these issues in a family may be seen as a sign that the spirit child is “revealing itself” (p.90).

Denham details several ways of detecting a spirit child, such as consulting a dongodaana (concoction men), diviner, soothsayer, use of a dongo and observing the child’s behaviours and/or physical features. Dongo is a cow horn spiritually designed to detect a spirit in a child, and to send it back to the bush. Among these detection methods, both dongo and dongodaana are particularly seen as “essential to saving, protecting, or working for the good of humanity” (p.123).

In terms of behaviour and physical appearance, Denham found that “deformed or ailing infants, those whose births were concurrent with tragic events, or children displaying unusual abilities” (p.4) can be feared as spirits, including those who “suddenly develop teeth, pubic hair, or other secondary sexual characteristics” (p.69), including beards. Children who appear extremely malnourished or with a so-called “skeletal body” (p.36), hydrocephalus, strabismus, facial hair or a missing limb may also become suspects. Disabilities and chronic illness in infants, the display of “antisocial acts” and “incomprehensible deviant behavior” (p.73) may also be conceptualised as such. Another important sign is the refusal to eat, suggesting that the child visits the bush at night from where it feeds itself. Producing adult-like faeces whilst consuming only breastmilk may also raise suspicion that the infant sneaks (spiritually) into the food store to eat solid food. A child who suddenly wandered away from the family (known as atule) may be suspected. Additionally, having a difficult pregnancy, or death following childbirth or shortly after that, may also be conceptualised as a sign that the child is a spirit.

However, the “presence of abnormalities or misfortune alone is insufficient to confirm the existence of a spirit child” (p.104) and “no one form of evidence unequivocally proves the presence of a spirit” (p.106). 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” (p.16) are usually taken into account. The mother’s postpartum condition may also be considered, such as feeling very weak or restless during this period, including having complications. The father’s condition too, may raise suspicion. It is a common belief that the child is responsible for these problems.

Some children with some or even all the named illnesses may not be suspected initially, but may be suspected after treatment failed in the long-term. Likewise, not all disabled children are suspected, after all, both disabled children and adults can be found in the Nankani communities who are well accepted. A dongo may be used to establish the child’s status. The family may consult a soothsayer to confirm whether a child is a spirit or not after observing some of the named signs. However, some families do not automatically accept the confirmation from a soothsayer, diviner or dongodaana as evidence that the child is a spirit. Some families are very critical of the supposed authenticity of certain concoction men, soothsayers and diviners and this has meant that the natives are fond of visiting “separate diviners simultaneously to ensure that they get an accurate result” (p.109).

Multiple consultations can equally be done to ensure that the answer provided by one man is not distorted by a spirit child who is desperate to remain undetected. Deciding whether a child is a spirit or not, and the fate of the child, is not something done by one person, but the entire family, including extended family members. However, family members may disagree on whether a child is a spirt or not, irrespective of the amount of evidence suggesting so. In the case of inconclusive evidence or a lack of it, the family “might wait and see whether the child will eventually return to the bush on its own” (p.119). Sometimes families who had previously suspected a child of being a spirit and wanted to kill the child might later change their mind if the child’s conditions improve (in the case of a sick/disabled child) and/or when any suspected misfortunes in the family stop. This is common when a mother or a family member flees with the suspected child and returns after tension has dissipated.

Based on his interviews, Denham concludes that taking the child away from the family is not seen as a solution because “it could still fly to the house at night and attack the family” (p.114). This justifies infanticide, because this would end the child’s powers once the dongodaana performs the correct rituals following its death. Denham also found, however, that twenty to thirty years preceding his research, abandonment was commonplace and that such children were “left near paths, in the forest, or by rock outcroppings” (p.181). Cases equally abound in this book regarding mothers who abandoned their children due to their fear of being killed. In the case of one such child, named N’ma, her biological mother abandoned her and fled to Kumasi because she was apparently “afraid that N’ma was trying to kill her” (p.20). Similarly, in another case of a child named Azuma, the mother lived in constant fear of being killed by Azuma, urging family members to “better take a second look at the situation or else the child could kill me” (p.81). These cases of abandonment contradict the claim that infanticide is the only option to enable the family to escape the spiritual powers of the child.

It seems that infanticide solves other problems the author discusses, such as freeing mothers from the physical suffering and economic burdens of caring for a very sick or disabled child, that is, a spirit child. This also ends any social stigma associated with having such a child. Denham shows that most often, women are suspected of attracting these mischievous spirits. A spirit child is believed to have sneaked into a domestic space (a woman’s womb) from the wild, after the woman had committed a taboo, such as engaging in illicit sexual activity. Another taboo applies to a woman eating “while walking through the bush or along paths and roads” (p.93). A woman is expected to sit down while eating, thus, eating while walking is a taboo. Spirits inhabit bushes and crave human foods. Remnant foods along the bush paths attract spirits, and once they eat the food, they will follow the woman and look for an opportunity to have sexual intercourse with her, and eventually enter her womb. A woman who fails to “urinate properly by squatting, not standing” (p.96), may attract spirits. Denham attributes the above cultural practices to patriarchy, which attempts to regulate women’s behaviour. In other words, if women could avoid the aforementioned behaviours which are deemed immoral and socially unacceptable in Nankani communities, then attracting spirits would be very unlikely.

Although Denham links patriarchy to these ideas, he also acknowledges that men also attract the spirits, although only occasionally. This may happen when men fail to “take precautions when engaging in extramarital liaisons” (p.101), such as rushing home immediately after the affair, failing to bathe before entering his room after the affair and not waiting for ancestors to remove the spirits attracted through the affair before having sex with his wife. A man can also attract the spirit unknowingly by gathering foods from bushes where spirit children live. The fact that a man attracts these same mischievous spirits challenges Denham’s claim regarding patriarchy. If both men and women can attract spirits by engaging in immoral or careless behaviours, then one may argue that the Nankani culture seeks to use the fear of attracting spirits to regulate the behaviours of both men and women alike.

Denham found that spirit children are very rarely killed through physical violence or strangulation, rather killing is mostly done by administering a concoction or subjecting the child to dongo. Occasionally, a decision to administer a concoction might become very urgent (takes hours or days) after a family has reached a crisis point. These concoctions contain poisonous herbs which are strong enough to kill. However, their potency is dependent on a number of factors, such as the child’s overall health, the amount of dosage administered and the type of concoction itself. Some children die even before a concoction is administered, such as after becoming “satiated, wanted to return to the other spirits, were given correct sacrifices, and were banished by the ancestors” (p.128). Family members often attribute the latter type of death to the spiritual efficacy of dongo (if it was used) in sending a spirit child back to the bush. Denham, however, disagrees with such superstitious belief and attributes the death to the devastating effects of social exclusion or poor attention/care, especially when the child is already very sick or malnourished.

Families do not always succeed in detecting and killing a spirit child; some reach adulthood after hiding their identities. As evil adult spirits, they “cause significant worry and are particularly destructive” and cause “anxieties around the disruption of family leadership, order, and succession” (p.72).

Interestingly, “good spirit children” exist: “A good spirit child can help the family prosper; it will not cause harm” (p.89). Dwarves who cause no distress or misfortune to their families are a notable example of good spirit children. Every attempt by concoction men to kill them always fail because they are good spirits. In fact, if they are ever removed from the family, that family is likely to suffer as a consequence.

Denham found that while some mothers live in extreme fear of their spirit children to the extent of abandoning them, such as N’ma’s mother and Azuma’s mother described above, some mothers are critical and defiant, such as Maria who refused to accept her family’s claim that her child, Esther who had brain damage following cerebral spinal meningitis, was a spirit, thus, she “fled with Esther to Accra” (p.160) when the family wanted to poison Esther with a concoction. Such defiance, however, is uncommon for traditional women.

At present, the existence of spirit children and the roles of dongo and dongodaana are increasingly being challenged by the educated class and younger generation who view dongodaana as “remnants of the past” and “murderers only interested in food and money” (p.123). Denham found that spirit children are gradually vanishing in northern Ghana, partly due to Christianisation, the “presence of the Ministry of Health, NGOs, researchers, religious organizations, and the police legal systems” (p.120). The availability of “basic health services may address a child’s immediate medical needs, and the threat of police intervention might deter an intentional death” (p.120). It is believed that “social and ecological changes in the region have driven the spirits away” as well as “deforestation and human encroachment in the bush, increased development, and changes associated with modernity,” including the availability of modern foods, such as “packaged spaghetti noodles” (p.182). Natives seem to understand the role of nutrition, bio-medicines and improved economic conditions and some have attributed the decline in spirit children to the above factors.

In conclusion, this book is full of insights into the superstitious and cultural interpretations of childhood deformity or disability, antisocial behaviours, giftedness and misfortunes in the Nankani communities. Denham focused a critical eye throughout his ethnography to discover all the possible sources of infanticide of children suspected of being spirits. Having extensively reviewed the academic literature on the causes of infanticide based on evolutionary perspectives, economic rationales/paradigm, parental ambivalence, sociobiological perspectives, hostility toward children, family planning strategies, rational choice, sex preferences, mental illness and structural violence, Denham concludes that the “Nankani infanticide explanations fit many of these rationales (excluding mental illness and sex preferences)” (p.25).

Denham’s narratives on the human-spirit interactions in Nankani are fascinating, revealing how the natives view spirits as both their saviours and destroyers depending on how they are encountered and/or the circumstances surrounding such encounters. Denham not only explored the Nankani religion, customs, traditions and culture, but also those of Africa as a whole, due to the interconnectedness. Anyone who did not realise that Denham was born and raised outside of Africa might think that the book was written by a native African who was born and nurtured in this particular culture.

Denham is very fair in his representations of the Nankani culture, customs, traditions and religion. There is nothing to suggest vilification, mockery, misrepresentation or exaggeration in the book. He is full of sympathy for the families with spirit children, acknowledging that they did not choose to kill their own child — rather they are victims of longstanding religious and cultural beliefs and their associated practices. He suggests that such families have inadequate knowledge regarding childhood deformity and disability. He concludes that in almost all the cases, reaching a decision that “a child is a spirit is often a last resort, a diagnosis born more of fear than of choice” (p.184). However, he also acknowledges that some might be motivated by saving the child from the pains and/or the family from the economic burdens associated with taking care of a disabled or sick child.

Denham not only was very compassionate, but often seemed too desperate to save the life of a suspected child from infanticide, but was powerless in most cases because he would not interfere with the family’s decisions. However, he may have succeeded in saving some future spirit children, as he was able to convince Ayisoba (a popular concoction man whom he followed-up closely) that what they regard as “spirit” was partly the consequences of malnourishment and developmental delays in children. This was after Azuma (a suspected spirit child who narrowly escaped infanticide) later made a rapid transformation after AfriKids took care of her for three months. Ayisoba was astonished by this progress and immediately changed his views, exclaiming to Denham that “wonderful things can happen”.

Author Biography

Chima Agazue is an associate lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University, UK. He earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in psychology and criminology and MSc by Research in psychology from the University of Huddersfield. He is a British-Nigerian citizen with research interests in sub-Saharan Africa. He focuses on religiously motivated deviance, sexual exploitation, fraud, violence and homicide. He is particularly interested in violence and homicide motivated by the belief in witchcraft, human sacrifice and evil spirit possession. He in the final year of his PhD in forensic and criminal psychology at the University of Huddersfield.

Start typing and press Enter to search