In Ivory Coast haven, ‘cursed children’ find a blessing
Gerard, a bright-eyed eight-year-old with closely-cropped hair, tucks into his meal, showing no signs of thinking about how very close to death he once came.
The jovial little lad is one of Ivory Coast’s “cursed” children. Custom dictated that he should not live.
Gerard’s mother died while she was giving birth — and the tradition of the Tagbana ethnic group was that her baby, deemed the work of an evil spirit, should be drowned.
The child’s big break came through a tiny charity — a home called the Saint Genevieve Welcome and Transit Centre, located in the northern town of Katiola, the only one of its kind in the country.
With meagre funds, it works to save “cursed” children from their doom.
Set up by a Catholic priest, Germain Coulibaly Kalari, 54, the home today shelters 17 children aged between three and 14, two of whom are infected with HIV.
“If a child’s mother dies while giving birth, or a child is born with a handicap, the child is got rid of,” Kalari said bluntly.
They are considered to carry a “curse” for the entire community, he explained.
Such practices are also prevalent in other African countries. In Madagascar for example, twins were killed or abandoned at birth because they were viewed as a bad omen.
“The child is shunned because he is blamed for misfortune, and so is physically eliminated,” Kalari said, sitting on the terrace which also doubles as the home’s schoolroom and dining room.
“I have seen many cases of this kind… Each time I think about it, it sends a shiver down my spine,” he said. “It drove me to do something to save these children from death.”
– Drowning and poison –
“Cursed” children are typically drowned in bathwater — but sometimes poisons are used in the case of “snake children,” the term for babies whose handicap will prevent them from walking or talking.
The word “kill” is never used.
The favourite formulation is that the child is “being escorted back to its real parents, the spirits, meaning supernatural beings,” said Celine, a local woman in her forties who sells food at the market.
Those who are tasked with carrying out the act first speak to the parents, explaining that a malevolent spirit intervened when their child was conceived.
As a result, the infant is not human and must be “escorted back,” she said.
“You will not see any handicapped person in our region,” said Kalari, who began his child-saving mission eight years ago. He regularly issues demands from his pulpit for the lethal practice to end.
Such practices are legally banned but are often clandestinely carried out with the complicity of the parents and consequently there are no legal proceedings.
Vincent Morife, a sociologist, said ending the life of a “cursed” child was defended on the grounds of stigma: the infant would have only the bleakest future in a society where superstition and ignorance of handicap is so deeply entrenched.
“It is going to be hard, very hard, for parents around here to give up the practice,” said Abiba Kone, who has been managing the centre since it was set up five years ago, casting a protective eye over “her children.”
“If you have a handicapped child, you have to look after it when you are supposed to be working in the fields,” she adds. “(…) Parents feel it’s a waste of time, and that’s why they prefer to get rid of the child.”
– Shelter… for now –
Kone’s “staff” comprises a cook, a cleaner and a child minder. The centre scrapes by thanks to gifts from “kind people, NGOs and local people,” she said.
The home includes a bedroom for the girls and another for the boys, each with three triple bunk beds, and cribs for the babies.
The walls of the living room are lined with donated books, and there is a small television for the children.
The children’s day begins with prayers, followed by breakfast and schooling, or for the very young, play time.
The centre is a haven. But only for a while.
“We are unable to keep children beyond the age of 15,” said Kalari, heaving a sigh of regret. “Those who go back to their families are rejected or left to starve.”