Cerebral Palsy, a medical condition that occurs in approximately 2-2.5 out of 1000 live births globally, is caused by a non-progressive brain injury or malformation that occurs while a child’s brain is under development.
But in the southeastern Nigeria state of Anambra, many believe that babies suffering from the condition are victims of rituals done in exchange for money. As a result, many of these infants receive no medical care and in other cases are sent to spiritual homes for prayers.
The myth suggests that the ailment is associated with families eager for wealth and it occurs when a member of such a family performs a religious act on the orders of a spiritualist to ward off spiritual attacks or be “blessed” with blood money.
The people of Anambra State are business savvy and the state harbors some of Nigeria’s wealthiest men, dead and alive, according to a recent piece published in Forbes Magazine, as well as the Onitsha market, the biggest outdoor market in all of West Africa.
“The purveyors of the analogy are not so far from the truth, because if you find out the meaning of Cerebral Palsy, you’d see that it is actually caused by brain damage,” according to Dr. Okeke Obinna, a medical practitioner based in Awka, the Anambra State capital. “So when the people are informed that family members use the brain of children for wealth, it becomes believable, even when it is actually false.”
Indeed, Cerebral Palsy is caused by brain injury during infancy or abnormal development before birth, during birth, or immediately after birth, according to MyChild, a U.S. organization that provides information on the ailment.
The primary effect of Cerebral Palsy is impairment of muscle tone, gross and fine motor functions, balance, control, coordination, reflexes, and posture. Oral motor dysfunction, such as swallowing and feeding difficulties, speech impairment, and poor facial muscle tone can also indicate Cerebral Palsy.
Associative conditions, such as sensory impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities that are not a result of the same brain injury, occur frequently in persons with Cerebral Palsy. When present, these associative conditions may contribute to a clinical diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy.
Many signs and symptoms are not readily visible at birth, except in some severe cases, and may appear within the first three to five years of life as the brain and child develop.
Denis Nduka, from Ekwulobia, Aguata, a Local Government Area in Anambra State, counters that medical argument. He argues that there’s hardly a child from a poor home in Anambra State that suffers from either Cerebral Palsy or any attention deficiency syndrome.
“Why is it that only children of the wealthy and the very rich suffer from this ailment?” he asked.
“If you’ve ever seen a child suffering from or has the traits of these kids we talk about, and that child’s parents are poor, go and find out. There’s a very wealthy uncle somewhere who has sacrificed the baby's brain for wealth. This is not a cultural argument,” Mr. Nduka maintained.
Udoka Okechukwu, 34, from Awba Ofemili, Awka North LGA of the state, is a nanny at the local private school in Awka. The school, the name of which is being withheld over privacy concerns, is attended by several students suffering from Cerebral Palsy.
According to Ms. Okechukwu, most parents of students with the condition actually believe the myth that the babies were used for ritual purposes.
“Some care for their babies with such a mindset that the babies actually did pay the price for the wealth of the family,” she insisted.
Ms. Okechukwu said there is a need for widespread education and information about the dangers of Cerebral Palsy, especially the effects it has on body movement and muscle coordination.
According to Professor Afolabi Lesi, Dean of Clinical Sciences at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), no fewer than 700,000 children in Nigeria are living with Cerebral Palsy.
A study conducted on the condition in Sagamu, Nigeria found that Cerebral Palsy is mainly associated with perinatal events and low socioeconomic status, which contradicts the myth that the ailment is exclusively suffered by the elites.
But despite Nigerian medical practitioners’ efforts to educate the public on the true causes and effects of Cerebral Palsy, many still believe that it is caused solely by rituals, causing discrimination against those with the condition.
“I take my child to spiritual homes for prayers, believing God will heal him someday,” Amuche Obiora says of her son who was born with Cerebral Palsy.
Her son Chinonso, which means “God is nearby” in Igbo, was first diagnosed with the condition she termed “abnormal” at 5 months of age.
According to Ms. Obiora, Chinonso was unable to crawl or grow like other babies of his age. Women often prohibit their children from going near Chinonso.
“Some said he is a child from the gods and should not be allowed around other kids – people come around to tell me to dump him in the evil forests,” Ms. Obiora explains.
Like the meaning of his name, “God is nearby,” the mum hoped she would wake to a miracle until she was kicked out of her home and her husband was no longer comfortable dealing with the humiliation of being called the father of Chinonso.
Ms. Obiora, a middle-aged teacher in Achalla, Awka, was almost forced to abandon her child, but she knew the child had no hand in what he suffered, so she decided to leave her home, friends and family members discriminating against her baby to cater for him.
“I locked my baby and left him indoors all week, months, years; it was frustrating exposing him to people who only reminded me that he had no place in society because of his condition,” she said.
She believes only God can heal her child, as the ailment, according to her, seems to have defied medical experts. She was also told that her ex-husband must have sacrificed her son’s brain for the wealth and riches he currently enjoys. Ms. Obiora holds on to the belief that one day God will heal her now 7-year-old Chinonso.
The widespread notion about children with Cerebral Palsy being used for “money rituals” by parents is not only present in communities and towns of Anambra State, but across Nigeria.
Children suffering from various forms of disabilities like Down syndrome, autism, and attention deficiency syndrome in most Nigerian societies also suffer the fate of those with Cerebral Palsy – the myth that they were used by parents or relatives to amass wealth leaves most of the babies without care and widespread stigma.
Mercy Abang, a freelance journalist focused on development, is the 2017 United Nations Journalism Fellow and 2017 BudgIT Media Fellow. This article was written as part of the 2017 BudgIT Media Fellowship. BudgIT had no editorial influence or control over the story.