March, 2016: OGBANJE (The Bad-Spirit Child)
Of all the things that happen to humans, none seem more mysterious to uneducated people than birth and death. Where does a baby come from? Seemingly from out of nowhere a fetus germinates in a woman and grows to be born as a fully developed human being. Similarly, at the other end of life a person sickens and dies or comes to an accidental end. One moment his life force is present, the next moment it is gone forever; where did it go? Birth brings mostly undiluted joy while death brings unmitigated sorrow.
When people die in infancy, the rather quick succession of birth and death intensifies the wonder about coming into life and departing from life; and when any family suffers repeated cycles of such comings and goings it is easy for the bereaved family, especially if they are ignorant, to assume there are mischievous supernatural forces at work. Down the eons of human history, nearly all societies have had cultures that were heavily influenced by religious beliefs; that is, by the supposed existence of a spirit world which influences the things that happen in this physical world of ours, especially at the gateways of birth and death.
In Africa before the advent of Western medicine, infant mortality was high because there were many causes for short life expectancy, most of them nutritional and environmental, others genetic. While parents could attempt to improve nutrition and the environment, there was nothing they could do about factors about which they knew absolutely nothing, such as genetics. One genetic defect now known to be endemic among blacks everywhere is sickle-cell anemia, an endemic and hereditary blood disorder which occurs in children of African/black origin in West Africa or in diaspora.
Its presentations include debilitating and often lethal afflictions, and a life of chronic-acute pains and crises. In the olden days it was nearly always a death sentence for a child born with the condition. Therefore, it was probably one major player in the syndrome called Ogbanjé by Igbos (and Abiku by Yorubas). Abiku or Ogbanje was a rationalization by terrified, ignorant people. In either culture it was a subject of mystic horror and hush-hush speculation about the wicked spirits of children who die before the age of puberty, sometimes to be reborn to the same parents in quick succession—only to die again.
Because it is hereditary (based on the gene combination of the father and the mother), sickle-cell anemia tends to recur between the same couple. If both parents are passive carriers of the sickle-cell trait then there are finite probabilities of each child they bear being (1) a sufferer of the disease, (2) a passive carrier, or (3) altogether free of the disease. It is this tendency to recur in each pregnancy between the two parents that induced the whispered syndrome of horror over ogbanje. It was said by Igbos of old that an ogbanje spirit became incarnated in a child with the malicious intent to torment the parents, coming and going in a succession aimed to cause recurrent grief.
Because pre-pubescent children are not thought to possess the wile to commit sins and crimes, a pesky child that irritated an adult might be accused of ogbanje—in jest or in earnest. It was as much as to say that the child was possessed by a troublesome spirit. But being called names was the least of the troubles that an unusual, sickly, or rambunctious child faced in the days of my childhood. All parents were in dread of ogbanje and sought, through the ministrations of native “doctors,” to find out whether their child was an ogbanje and, if so, perform rituals to break the ogbanje’s cycle of birth and death. Knowledge about the state and causes of human health and afflictions was pathetic and so it was deemed safer for a couple to assume that their new child was indeed ogbanje and go ahead with the cycle-breaking ritual for every child they bore.
It was believed that each ogbanje had its tiny icon or fetish object which the spirit buried, at the time of its conception, in some part of its body or at some subterranean spot near the home of the couple to whom it was being born. So the first line of attack was to examine the body of a child and extract its fetish. Unlike circumcision (ime nka) which was performed on a child within days of birth, ogbanje
exorcism was performed when the child was old enough to participate in the ceremony. That delay had a second motive. The longer a baby survives into childhood the more it bonds with the family into which it was born; hence the more strongly it has resisted the dark forces that relentlessly try to draw it back to the spirit world. In other words, the older a child becomes, the higher the chances of success in the ritual to break its link with sinister, other-worldly influences.
It was a simple ritual. While everybody watched the proceedings, the clever doctor would create a commotion to draw attention away as he/she made a quick little incision on the child’s skin and at the same time released a pebble or so into a waiting cup; the clatter of that pebble announced that the fetish had been drawn out. Mine was extracted from under the corner of my left eye. I never saw what fetish the doctor drew from my eye, but since I stopped giving my Mama trouble after that, I assume that he actually excised my ogbanje. (The down side is that my left eye turned out to be the most trouble-prone organ of my entire body, beset with lifelong myopia and astigmatism, and now a bad case of retinopathy; but that’s a small price to pay for my chance to live to adulthood!☺)
The ritual over, the parents heaved a huge sigh of relief, paid the doctor, and hugged their child. That beloved child was now theirs to cherish for a long time. Everybody rejoiced and a feast was given. The poor child got a meaty bit of the celebratory chicken this time. (Ordinarily, we children got the feet or head of the chicken to eat —while adults ate the real meat, the juicy thigh and breast and gizzard being reserved for adult males only!)
Some cases were tougher: The fetish was not inside the child; it was hidden elsewhere. The poor child was pestered to reveal where it had hidden its fetish before it was born. Some children rose to the spirit of the game and led the crowd of adults on a weird hunt around the house, under this tree and that brush, out to the brook, back into the house and out again, in seeming confusion until it pointed at a spot under a tree. But the result was the same. The doctors always found the fetish, dug it out, and dropped it noisily into a cup when nobody was watching closely.
It might all sound bizarre, but the native doctors realized that the essence of the “cure” was to give the parents psychological relief from their gnawing fear of ogbanje. Wikipedia says there are about one billion blacks in the world, out of whom only about a third of a million are born with the sickle-cell trait in recent years. That means an incidence rate of only 0.03 percent. So the chance of a black child having the ogbanje affliction is really 1 in 3,000. Though the consequences are deadly enough to scare the bejezus out of parents, the odds of incidence are really so low that any kind of abracadabra might work to allay a parent’s concern, hence the psychological (placebo) effect of the ogbanje rites.
This article inspired my short story, “Abiku” (in a manuscript CAMPUS TALES that is out for publication) and a novella, SWIMMING THE STYX: AMERICAN ABIKU (also out for publication).