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CHILD WITCHES AND RITUAL INFANTICIDE IN BENIN: When the birth of a child is deemed unfavorable

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It’s a quiet afternoon in mid -Jul y when we descend on Bori : a small village 600 kilometers from the capital Cotonou , lost at the bottom of the plains that form the N’dali township community of North -East Benin .It is here , they say, that the practice of child killing still exists .

A traditional belief that they were €˜bewitched’ has, over the years, resulted in thousands of killings of newborns, here and in the other areas belonging to the Baatonu. It is less now, it seems: modernity has begun to touch even these distant communities. But it probably still happens, and attempts by Western development workers €“working under the banner of UNICEF and several NGO’s- to stop the practice are still met with resistance by some traditional leaders with a scoffing: €˜you just come here to steal our secrets’. What these secrets are, and why they need defending from €˜whites’, is what we have come here to find out. €œRitual infanticide generally means killing a newborn. It happens in different ways. The child is condemned by its community because it would have been born under conditions that are unfavourable to the peace, happiness, prosperity or the wellbeing of its family, its community or its environment€, explains Father Bio Sanou, director of the NGO L’Espoir Lutte contre l’Infanticide (ELIB), meaning €˜Hope (and) Struggle against Infanticide’. Bio Sanou has spent the last 15 years of his life battling against the phenomenon, which, he says, still takes place in the entire Baatonu region: in the areas called Borgou, Alibori, and Atacora in Benin, and also in the Northwestern parts of neighbouring Nigeria. Ritual infanticide is as old as the Baatonu themselves. €˜The practice was born here- they never copied the tradition from anyone, even if the killing of infants has also been a part of other cultures in history,€ says Bori elder Baki, Bissimou, the only one in this village who has agreed to talk to us about the practice. The way Bissimou has experienced and understood it, it has nothing to do with religious beliefs or the need to appease a god, such as in the case of the Aztec human sacrifices or similar practices in ancient African kingdoms. €œIt is all about warding off threats to the society, which are represented by the birth of a witch child.€ But which children are €˜witch children’ and exactly why are they seen as threats by the Baatonu society? To report on this, we had to go to the village and try to talk about the practice, which wasn’t easy. €˜They can easily poison you if they think you have come to change their ways’, we were warned.

The eight categories of €˜Bii yon’bo’
According to expertise from UNICEF and ELIB, there are eight categories of babies who are seen as €˜bad luck’ to the community. The most severe category consists of the physically handicapped: this group of €˜child witches’ includes children born with extra fingers, toes or limbs, and also Siamese twins. A group seen as not really evil, but simply as €˜bad luck’ children, are children born prematurely -before the eighth month-, who are smaller and weaker than full-term babies, and babies whose mother has died in childbirth.
The origins of the belief that handicapped and weak children, or infants without primary caregivers, are €˜bewitched’ can’t be fully ascertained: to the Baatonu, this is simply what they believe. But it is clear that historically, in this area without health or social infrastructure, there has never been a way of catering for children with special needs. €œIf the mother of a baby dies during the birth, we say this is a €˜bad luck child’, explains traditional healer Makom, an impressive elder in his sixties with greying sideburns. €œWe then have to leave the child behind on the old site, next to the grave of its mother, and move on to a new site for our village.€ This ceremony and subsequent move to another place by the whole village is almost always noticed by a neighbouring settlement. €œUsually a family from that neighbouring community, -generally cattle breeders, called Peulh-, then comes and takes the child. It becomes their property€, says Makom.

Rituals may differ from village to village, but the orphaned, cleansed and subsequently enslaved €˜bad luck’ child will almost always continue to suffer from some form of social exclusion all its life.
The extreme measure of infanticide is almost always directed at the most severely handicapped category. These infants, either Siamese twins or babies with too many limbs or organs, will immediately after the birth be taken away from the mother, who will be restrained by female elders in case she would decide to resist. An instant €˜family court’ consisting of male elders related to the newborn will then usually decide to kill it. The killing, called €˜reparation’, is done by specially appointed €˜medicine henchmen’ in one of the following ways:

€¢ suffocation, in a closed pot filled up with rags;
€¢ poisoning: the so-called traditional €˜henchmen’give the infant a strong poison to drink, after which it dies within minutes;
€¢ beating: the infant’s head is smashed against a tree outside the village.
After the murder, the infant’s body is either buried or dried, after which some organs are used by the medicine henchmen for the potions they concoct. This process unfolds so speedily that the child is often dead before even the family’s neighbors have come to hear about the birth.
If sickness doesn’t show at birth but at a later stage of the child’s development, the child can then still be accused of being €˜bii yon bo’. As in the case of the current chief of Makantoko village in Djougou: €œI was a weak child. I couldn’t walk, and I never went to the loo to defecate. My parents believed I was a Bii yon’Bo. They took me to Lokpa village to be killed when I was seven years old€, recounts the chief. He fortunately survived this fate, thanks to an €˜oracle’, €“ a traditional healer who receives messages from the ancestors. €œThe oracle predicted that I was to become somebody important. After that my parents brought me back, took care of me and I was cured. Today, I am the boss of this village and I cure all kinds of illnesses.€

Other €˜suspicious’ children, often in the category of prematurely borns, or those born with teeth, are put to a grueling test when they are recovered by Peulh people to see if they can survive on their own. €˜They take the child and put it on a mat in the open air, in the middle of the field where the cattle graze. It will pass the night under the stars like that, without any care,€ relates the caregiver of a €˜child witch’ refugee camp in Sekegourou, where NGO’s such as ELIB and Unicef take infants they have saved from abandonment or death. €œIn the morning, the cattle herder will touch all the animals to cleanse them of the spirit of the strange child that has slept amongst them. After that, they take the child to live under a roof somewhere, alone, where they give it only cattle feed and cows milk until it has grown to between 7 and 9 years of age.€ After that, if still alive, the child €“ if it’s a boy €“ will be more and more integrated into the group of cattle herders, and as soon as he reaches puberty, he will become a member of the group. Only when he reaches adulthood can he go back to the community he originally came from. He is then however not recognized as true Baatonu child: he will not know from which family he came and his origins have to be hidden from him. He will always be called by the special name €˜Gando’, meaning €˜after cleansing, it is soft’, and be treated as little more than a slave. Gando’s work as housekeepers for royals, assistants of traditional €˜henchmen’, or are tasked with any other jobs that are dirty or dangerous.

Surviving abandoned girls, when adopted by a Peulh family, will likely stay with them as caregivers and end up marrying a Peulh man. Girls can however marry €˜upwards’ if the opportunity arises: when a Baatonu man falls in love with a Gando girl he can marry her. It’s only the reverse that is not allowed. €œYou can’t give your daughter in marriage to a Gando. A Gando boy can only marry a Gando girl€’ explains Mrs Soussouni, housewife in Bori, proudly. For her, the traditional rules are as alive as they were a hundred years ago. Why the rules say that Gando girls are more acceptable marriage partners than Gando boys, Mrs Soussouni doesn’t know: she is merely aware that a €˜decent family’ will accept a Gando girl as a daughter in law, but not a male Gando as a son in law. She never asks why. The rules are just the rules.
The rules also say that some children who are different, but not really disabled, have to be
 throughly checked before they can enter the community. For instance, it is a serious problem
if a child starts teething in its eight month; if toothing commences in the upper instead of  the lower jaw; if it is born in the breech position, or if a female infant is born with a vaginal discharge.
Due to ignorance of the causes and different degrees of severity of different birth defects or anomalies, €˜bewitchment’ is suspected in all cases where the infant is different. In these cases, a traditional healer is to be consulted and the child is to be removed from its family whilst doing this. According to an elder from Guirinou village, €˜the child will be kept away from the family until the healer has pronounced himself on the case. He can say whether the child is a dangerous Bii yon bo or not. If it is, it will have to be exorcised.’ Exorcism of this type of €˜witch’ in this community is generally done by a group of traditional healers called the Bararou; who will perform rituals and give the infant €˜medicinal potions’ until they are satisfied that the evil spirits are gone. The Bararou can then choose, either to keep this child as a slave or let it go back to his village, where it will be accepted as if carrying a clean certificate of €˜good luck’.

A report composed by UNICEF jointly with the Beninese government, in 2001, points to the identification, by the Baatonu, of all kinds of€˜deviance’, €“ from real handicaps to teeth anomalies€“, with the threat of disease and disability. €œAll deviance from the norm is seen as pathological, and threatens the order of the society. To return to this order, something has to be €˜repaired’. The infanticide thus becomes the reparation,€ the report says. Besides €˜solving’ the problem posed by weak and handicapped children, the Baatonu, in fighting all €˜deviance’, also appear to be fighting off any other possible changes to their extremely patriarchal and conservative society, in which a new generation may never overtake or upset the elders, or disturb €˜the way things are’. €œThis conservative social pride holds a firm grip on local behavioural and traditional practices,€ explains socio-anthropologist Moussa Tamou Yatou, adding that, traditionally, the spiritual healers and claivoyants are seen as physical representatives of god. They guide and lead the entire community, including even the chiefs and kings. They €˜explain’ all things that the community doesn’t quite understand, and take all the decisions regarding what to do when confronted with any such phenomena, or indeed any difficult situation. The only €˜science’ that counts therefore, is traditional science and the €˜scientists’ have a strong interest in keeping it that way. They live after all off the goods paid to them by the community, and it is therefore not  that surprising that they feel threatened when confronted with €˜strangers and whites’ who want to steal €˜the secrets’.

According to Moussa Yatou, the fact that the Baatonu societ ies haven’t been touched by modernit y yet, has become a cycle: the more they lag €˜behind’, the more they €“ or the powerful el ite within the societ y €“ feels threatened, the more they resist modernity and modern science.
Modern science could of course help explain a great number of phenomena now considered €˜signs of bewitchment’, including the reason why there seem to be quite a few handicapped children born in the Baatonu regions. The Baatonu, guided by conservatism and ethnic pride, promote intermarriage between relatives. The resulting small gene pool is the likely cause of the high number of children with birth defects born here.

The Regional Centre for Agriculture in the area estimates in its 2005€“2006 report that, in the two northern Beninese communities of Bembereke and Sinende, the number of Gando’s €“€˜saved’ witch children €“ amounts to as much as 30 percent of the community. This could mean that the number of severely handicapped infants killed whilst this Gando generation grew up could be even greater. Several converted traditionalhealers presently living in N’dali have told NGO’s
that, usually, more handicapped infants are killed than €˜cleansed’ and kept alive as Gando’s.
Modernity could expose the Baatonu to the lessons of modern genetic science, specifically the need for a larger gene pool. Exposure to pre-pregnancy screening and other health care facilities could also engender debate with and within this community about risks of birth defects, and other facilities provided by modern healthcare in the case of a severely disabled foetus.
But, though there is now a village hospital in Bori, so far, modernity has not tempted the Baatonu. Most roads in Benin pass them by.

Newspapers don’t reach here, and, as we have experienced, developmental workers who want to change their ways are not trusted. €œWe will not see change here,€ argues an elder in Sinendé
township. €œChild witches will not be kept alive, whatever outsiders may say. Doing so would release the evil spirits, who nourish such a child, against us.€
Exhortations to stop the practice, and appeals to a new thing called €˜childrens’ rights’, are increasingly broadcast on the radio’s that the communities do possess and listen to. News reports on judicial steps taken against those found guilty of infanticide may help to serve as a deterrent.
But maybe the most effective educator so far is Father Bio Sanou, of the above mentioned Espoir Lutte contre l’Infanticide. Bio Sanou visits the Baatonu looking for children and newborns
who might be at risk of being killed or turned into Gando’s. If he can, he adopts them and takes
them to the safe village of Sekegourou, where Unicef-aided programmes help to look after them.
Sometimes, he manages to take a child as far as to school in town, or even to university. €œI then return to the village he or she came from and I present him or her to them, saying: see this doctor or lawyer? And you wanted to kill this child,€ he says.

By Gerard Guédègbé


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