When Angela was born without lower legs, her father believed she was an evil spirit and should be taken to a “concoction man” — a traditional herbalist who would kill the baby and bury her.
But Angela survived after a midwife put her mother in touch with charity worker Joseph Asakibeem, who has devoted his life to saving Ghana’s “spirit children.”
In parts of northern Ghana, babies born with disabilities are traditionally seen as bringers of bad luck, said Asakibeem, who on Monday won the Bond Humanitarian Award that recognizes hidden “superheroes” for his work with the charity AfriKids. Until recently, many spirit children were taken to a concoction man who would lock them in a room after administering a poisonous potion.
“The local belief is that if you survive, it’s proof you are not a spirit, but if you die, it’s confirmation that you are a spirit,” said Asakibeem, a project manager at AfriKids.
“Unfortunately, most times the child dies. They then bury the child in an isolated place away from the village.”
Babies whose mothers die in childbirth, or who are born after something bad has happened to the family, also risk being labelled spirit children.
Angela, now a bright seven-year-old, is one of 110 children rescued by Asakibeem and his team at AfriKids.
She has learned to walk with prosthetic limbs, helps her mother with chores, and is thriving at school. Angela’s parents separated after her birth but her father has begged for a reconciliation after seeing her progress, AfriKids said.
“She’s a very strong girl, she’s smart and a fast learner,” Asakibeem told Reuters by Skype. “My hope is one day she will become a nurse or teacher and serve as a role model to the community.”
Asakibeem, 41, grew up in the Kassena Nankana region in northern Ghana, where the belief in kinkirigo, or spirit children, was deeply embedded.
In 2005, up to 15 percent of babies who died were thought to have been killed as spirit children, according to AfriKids.
Asakibeem began talking to parents, village elders and concoction men to change mindsets and dispel superstitions by informing them about the medical reasons for disabilities and promoting health care.
Asakibeem said many disabilities in the region were linked to poor nutrition and health care during pregnancy, and a lack of access to medical help during labor complications.
AfriKids has set up a center in Asakibeem’s home village, Sirigu, and another in nearby Bongo district, providing help for disabled children, a support group for their mothers and antenatal care for pregnant women.
It gives small loans for businesses like basketry, pottery and poultry farming to help mothers support their families.
Reaching concoction men
One challenge was persuading the concoction men to stop.
AfriKids provided livestock and loans to kickstart businesses.
It also takes them to areas where children with disabilities flourish and some of those who once made a living from killing children have become advocates to protect them, Asakibeem said.
No child killings have been reported in Kassena Nankana for 10 years, but Asakibeem said they continue elsewhere.
“We’re now expanding our work to the whole of northern Ghana. My dream is that in 15 years I can stop this practice.”