I had a very interesting childhood filled with lots of interesting experiences. When I was a kid my mum worried a lot about my ‘strange behavior’. I was unfriendly, hardly smiled, my hands were always folded in a fist, I had nightmares for three years, I didn’t drink milk or eat fish and I had mood swings where I would be extremely chatty sometimes and at other times extremely quiet. My mum was worried and she spoke to some of her friends about me, they advised her that there might be a stubborn evil spirit inside of me that manifested itself in my behaviors, so one day, my mum came to me and said “Chima dress up, we are going to the church to see the priest”. I was madly excited, finally I would get the chance to be inside father’s house; I was about 6 years old at the time.
I got dressed, held on to my mother’s hand as we walked to the church. My mum was pensive and in deep thought the entire walk to the church; she seemed worried. We got to the church and at the father’s office, the lady at the reception asked us to wait for a few minutes to see the priest. When it was our turn, we went in, I looked round, memorizing the design of the Rev. Father’s home, because I knew it would be a while before I got the opportunity to be inside a priests’ home again (I adored Rev. Fathers). We sat down, the priest exchanged pleasantries with my mum and proceeded to ask her what issues she wanted to see him for. My mum told the priest that she had a strong suspicion that there were evil spirits inside of me; she patiently explained to the priest all of the symptoms I had been exuding that brought her to the conclusion.
I sat there quietly watching the priest listening to my mum with a confused expression on his face, he kept shifting his eyes between my mum and me, trying to find a correlation between the story she was telling him and me right there sitting in front of him. When she was done he asked her to excuse us, so he could have a private conversation with me. My mum stood up with an expression on her face like the priest had just said the magic words that were going to remove the spirits from me. The priest faced me, gazed at me for awhile like he didn’t know how to proceed in a situation like this, he started asking me some questions, some of which I cannot remember. He asked for my name and I told him Chima, he asked how old I was and I told him 6, he asked me if I was an Ogbanje and I told him No; the other questions he asked are a bit blurred from my memory, he called my mother in and prayed for me.
I look back on that experience and I laugh. Here was a Ghanaian priest being asked by a Nigerian mother to cast the evil spirit from her child. Father Agyeman (or something like that) was quiet, easy going, and I have never heard him shout. My mum was dissatisfied when he did not use loud words to cast out the evil spirits, or declare prayer and fasting neither did she understand the need for the interview when I told her that was all he did when we were alone. If there was an evil spirit in me, how did Father think I was going to tell him that! My mum did not understand the psychology of why I wasn’t behaving like other children so she turned to the only thing she understood; tradition and the church.
Nigeria is a deeply traditional country, we believe that anything that we cannot understand has its solution in the supernatural and must be attacked from all corners with fasting, prayers and the services of a strong man of God. I was having nightmares because my parents argued too much and it was affecting me, my hands were always in a fist because it was borne out of habit, I had one friend because I didn’t see the need for many when Christiana was all the companion I needed, I didn’t talk much because there was no need to, listening was way much fun and I was a chatter box only when the topic was football, Michael Jackson, Superman, Spiderman, power rangers and Johnny Bravo. My mum did not understand all these, because she didn’t know how, she found it hard to communicate with me because I was closed off and I didn’t know how to socially articulate my needs. It had absolutely nothing to do with fictitious evil spirits residing in me at the time.
People in my country believe that for an evil spirit to possess a person he must either have been forsaken by God, have an unlucky chi, done something bad in a previous lifetime or was suffering the consequences of the sins of his father. I believe it is all crap. I believe in spirits, I believe that evil spirits walk among us, but I do not believe that they possess us out of the ordinary or that the characters we exhibit as children are rooted in the spirits that possess us. My mum was so scared of evil spirits we had a lot of rules at home and at school we had to follow; some of which include;
• Do not talk to strangers
• Do not say the word “die” for fear of an angel of death passing by
• Do not insult your brother or sister with the word ‘bastard’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’
• Do not pick rubber band or money from the floor for fear of it being put there by ritual-killers
• Wear the rosary at all times
• Shout ‘Blood of Jesus’ if given food in midnight dreams
• Never let anyone touch my head for fear of them bewitching me
Of course I didn’t tell my mum how many times I drank malt, ate fried rice and chicken in my dreams. She didn’t know I shamelessly picked money from the floor or that I frequently insulted my siblings with the word ‘die’, ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’ when she was not there, I didn’t tell her how many times I used my kid guile to get favors by beguiling strangers. My mum did not stop there, two years later, she took I and my siblings out to see a pastor who lived nearby, I for one thought this pastor was a hungry man looking for how to prey on miracle seekers for money; my mum asked him to pray for us. The next thing I know this young man is putting his hands on each us taking turns to bind and cast out non-existent evil spirits from our bodies.
I stared at him, angry at first and I stubbornly vowed not to fall on the floor no matter what he did (falling on the floor when a pastor prays for a person signifies that the prayer had been effective and the evil spirit has left the body of its host thus leaving the individual too weak do anything but fall). My siblings just wanted his hands off their heads so they went to the ground almost as soon as he touched them. Not me. He kept turning and shoving me around with my head, whispering words like “all you forces of darkness… out of this body now!!! All you evil powers…out of this body now…I command you…leave in Jesus name” when he saw I wasn’t going to fall, he gripped my head so forcefully I thought he wanted to sink his finger nails into my skull, but I didn’t fall, he finally gave up after sweating, praying, binding, casting without avail. My face morphed into a smirk after everything was done, and he gave me a scary look like if he thought the evil spirit in me was going to do something really bad to him. Spirits do not possess the forsaken; no man created by God is forsaken. It is unbecoming to read in the dailies stories of female children who have been cast out by their families for carrying evil spirits in them and bring bad luck to their families.
Consider the story of a young girl Ify (real name with-held) who had been thrown out by her parents, her father claimed that since she was born things had been going downhill for his family. His business had crashed, he had been involved in an accident that destroyed his car, his life seemed to be in pieces, and the reason for all of his misfortune can be traced to Ify who had only brought him bad luck since her birth. He took her cloths and threw her out on the streets to fend for herself. How a 12 year old girl is supposed to do that confuses me. He never thought that there could have been other reasons why things were not going so well for him. Ify was picked up by a charity organization who heard about her situation and she has been taken over by the NGO. But what happens to numerous girl children who have no such luck; raped on the streets, left to fend for themselves, barely understanding the stigma that have been placed on them.
The government needs to stop seeing this situation as something of a huge domestic joke and take actions first to secure the safety of these cast away children, sensitize people on the dangers of their actions and put in place legal punishment for defaulters. No one deserves to have that type of stigma put on them for whatsoever reason; We cannot keep turning a blind eye when this social injustice is being carried out on human beings who have as much right to life and association like us. Someone has to defend them, someone has to speak up for them, and someone will open the eyes of conservative traditional people for them to see that not every problem that we cannot understand stems from the supernatural.
Let’s think about this without sentiments; who labels the evil spirits in a person, what traits does a person show to allude to these suspicions and what does a person do that brings these supposed spirits into certain people and not others. There are no answers for all these questions. A pastor could be preaching and praying in the church and all of a sudden he ‘sees’ a prophesy that there is a person with an evil spirit in the church premises, if he points to anyone at all, that person becomes the culprit, never mind that this pastor probably has never met this person from anywhere prior to that day.
A good example is in another experience I had a couple of years back. My mum is a deeply religious woman, always searching for spiritual certainty, healing, miracles and peace. She moves from church to church on weekdays looking for that spirituality that seems to elude her and goes to Catholic Church on Sunday, after one particularly bad experience in a new generation Pentecostal Church she decided that the answer she was looking for had to be found within the catholic Church or one of its bodies, she searched for a long time till she found a praying ministry organized by one of the ladies in the church. The location of the praying centre is in a place we call desert because you have to walk really far out of civilization into a cluster of bushes with sands to find this place. It is like a Mecca of prayer grounds, there are about 20 different prayers groups there every Sunday. She had finally found what she was looking for, so to share the good news with those she loved she invited my aunties, family friends, relations, neighbors, everyone who would listen to come to these monthly prayer sessions.
It was at these prayer sessions that my younger sister told me that the prayer co-coordinator said two of my cousins had evil spirits in them. I was honestly shocked, one was four years old at the time and was an adorable angel, and I wondered where the spirit had come from. The second one was the case I will never believe till date. She was told to kneel down with her legs straight on the floor, not crossed (because crossed legs is how evil spirit make sure the prayer doesn’t affect them), they said some prayers on her for a month to remove the spirit, and after a while the prayer co-coordinator deemed her healed. Just like that, open and close!!! My family did not question, they only followed. One day my cousin was an innocent girl, the next day, she was an evil child and the day after she was clean again.
My family friend, an aunt, has been trying to have children for more than fifteen years. The first child she had about 13 years ago died not long after child birth, I didn’t even get to see him, or to hold him before he passed, the second child was alive for up to three months. I remember touching him, his hair so black, and his eyes droopy because all he wanted to do was to sleep. His skin so fair and soft to touch, he was breathtakingly beautiful. My aunty put a gash on the side of his head to mark him, just in case he was an ogbanje. After his death, my family was convinced that this child was an evil child, specifically a malevolent ogbanje who kept coming back to cause us all heart ache.
She was pregnant again not long after and she claimed this child had the same gash on the side of his head that the previous child who died also had. She hasn’t been able to conceive till date. There are claims from certain factions that Igbos believe that everyone is an Ogbanje (re-incarnation of someone who has lived before) but some few ones are malevolent ogbanje; that is those who live for a little while, usually not past puberty and come back a few years later to torment the families of those they enter. These malevolent Ogbanjes can be traced back in history when children were abandoned in bushes to die because they believed that there was an evil spirit that possessed them that did not allow them to live for long. This theory was made popular in Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall apart. In present times, a recent study carried out on a 100 children in the south-east part of Nigeria has shown that sickle-cell anemia is the main cause of death in infant mortality cases. I do not think that my aunt and uncle checked their blood group or genotype when they wanted to get married. The children who died probably were because of sickle cell anemia, but they never thought of that as the problem or seeking medical help for the solution. I am writing about this, so that people see just how important it is to carry out all the necessary medical exams before marriage, seek better counseling when they have problem with their children that they do not understand instead of labeling them with supernatural stigmas that haunt them for life.
We must evolve. That is the way of life, it is the only way that we can stop looking for problems where they do not exist and start looking for real solutions to health problems, these children who we let die could have had a great life filled with superb achievements instead of dying out of the ignorance of their parents and society. There is so much that must be done to change the traditions of the past into modern practices for the present and future of our young ones. I no longer have extreme mood swings, or daily nightmares, I have lots of great friends, I am a constant chatter box; I like to think I have outgrown all of the traits my mum saw in me as a kid that made her think I was ‘strange’. Some problems it seems even themselves out with time.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.