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Ghanaian ‘Superhero’ Awarded for Work to End ‘Spirit Child’ Killings

"The local belief is that if you survive, it's proof you are not a spirit, but if you die, it's confirmation that you are a spirit,"

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When Angela was born without lower legs, her father believed she was an evil spirit and should be taken to a “concoction man” — a traditional herbalist who would kill the baby and bury her.

But Angela survived after a midwife put her mother in touch with charity worker Joseph Asakibeem, who has devoted his life to saving Ghana’s “spirit children.”

Spirit Child
Angela, who was born in northern Ghana without lower legs, is pictured here as a baby with her mother and grandfather in northern Ghana, Oct. 2011. VOA

In parts of northern Ghana, babies born with disabilities are traditionally seen as bringers of bad luck, said Asakibeem, who on Monday won the Bond Humanitarian Award that recognizes hidden “superheroes” for his work with the charity AfriKids. Until recently, many spirit children were taken to a concoction man who would lock them in a room after administering a poisonous potion.

“The local belief is that if you survive, it’s proof you are not a spirit, but if you die, it’s confirmation that you are a spirit,” said Asakibeem, a project manager at AfriKids.

“Unfortunately, most times the child dies. They then bury the child in an isolated place away from the village.”

Babies whose mothers die in childbirth, or who are born after something bad has happened to the family, also risk being labeled spirit children.

Smart girl

Angela, now a bright seven-year-old, is one of 110 children rescued by Asakibeem and his team at AfriKids.

She has learned to walk with prosthetic limbs, helps her mother with chores, and is thriving at school. Angela’s parents separated after her birth but her father has begged for a reconciliation after seeing her progress, AfriKids said.

spirit child
Angela, 5, who was born in northern Ghana without lower legs, is seen with prosthetic limbs at the AfriKids Child Rights Center, Sirigu, northern Ghana, Jan. 2015. VOA

“She’s a very strong girl, she’s smart and a fast learner,” Asakibeem told Reuters by Skype. “My hope is one day she will become a nurse or teacher and serve as a role model to the community.”

Asakibeem, 41, grew up in the Kassena Nankana region in northern Ghana, where the belief in kinkirigo, or spirit children, was deeply embedded.

In 2005, up to 15 percent of babies who died were thought to have been killed as spirit children, according to AfriKids.

Asakibeem began talking to parents, village elders and concoction men to change mindsets and dispel superstitions by informing them about the medical reasons for disabilities and promoting health care.

Asakibeem said many disabilities in the region were linked to poor nutrition and health care during pregnancy and a lack of access to medical help during labor complications.

spirit child
Joseph Asakibeem, project manager with charity AfriKids, Oct. 2012. VOA

AfriKids has set up a center in Asakibeem’s home village, Sirigu, and another in nearby Bongo district, providing help for disabled children, a support group for their mothers and antenatal care for pregnant women.

It gives small loans for businesses like basketry, pottery and poultry farming to help mothers support their families.

Reaching concoction men

One challenge was persuading the concoction men to stop.

AfriKids provided livestock and loans to kickstart businesses.

It also takes them to areas where children with disabilities flourish and some of those who once made a living from killing children have become advocates to protect them, Asakibeem said.

No child killings have been reported in Kassena Nankana for 10 years, but Asakibeem said they continue elsewhere.

“We’re now expanding our work to the whole of northern Ghana. My dream is that in 15 years I can stop this practice.” (VOA)

Next Story

Innovation and Startup Culture Thriving in Ghana

Ghana is seeing a spurt in Innovation & Technology

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A worker using his innovation inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory
Inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, a worker creates bricks from recycled plastic and sand. VOA

ACCRA – Ghana is regarded as a West African hub of invention, with growing numbers of young people looking at local solutions to local problems.  In December, Ghana is hosting two conferences on innovation and technology.

Alhassan Baba Muniru, co-founder of the Recycle Up company, wants to clean up the natural environment in Ghana.

But he also wants to educate, empower and support young people to pursue conservation – and to make money while doing it.

At the December Innovation Africa summit in Accra, he plans to advocate for more support for young inventors, especially those looking to do green business.

“Even while we are in school we are already entrepreneurial so, for me, I can be able to do a formal job but the freedom of being able to bring my own ideas into action and really take charge of doing something practical and something which also makes society better – it’s much more fulfilling,” said Muniru.

Alhassan Baba Muniro talking about Innovation
Alhassan Baba Muniro wants to clean up and create jobs for young people. VOA

Part of Recycle Up’s work includes collecting plastic from schools to sell to people like Nelson Boateng, whose company mixes it with sand to create bricks.

Muniru and Boateng walk through the factory in the outskirts of Accra, where plastic from across the city is shredded, melted, mixed and then molded into bricks to be used for roads, pavements and buildings.

Boateng, who also manufactures plastic bags, said the bricks are his way of helping to clean up the environment and to provide jobs.

But while Ghana is seeing a spurt in innovation, he said the country needs a lot more infrastructure to support environmentally-friendly business.

“For innovations in Ghana, it’s very, very difficult if you don’t really have the heart.  You will lose hope because honestly speaking when I was doing my polybag that is polluting the environment, I was having a lot of money.  I have money, there wasn’t any problem. When I started this, when you go to the bank they don’t know this, they want something that the money will be flowing, not something you people don’t know –  and not something you say you are trying to save the environment, nobody will mind you on that,” he said.

Supporting local technology startups is expected to be discussed at another December conference in Accra – the second annual Ghana Tech Summit.

ALSO READ: India: Innovation Holds the Key to Job Crisis.

Ghanaian inventor Andrew Quao is working to ease the burden on hospitals with technology that allows pharmacies to diagnosis and monitor chronic and tropical diseases.

Andrew Quao, Co-founder of 'Red Birds' helps in innovation and startup.
Andrew Quao, Co-founder of healthcare tech startup ‘Red Birds’ works with pharmacies across Ghana. VOA

He said African healthcare sectors like Ghana’s are ripe for innovative solutions.

“I think it is growing in the right direction, I think the climate is good, you have got a good mix of local talent and experience and expats coming in and seeing Ghana as a good point to start, so that also works.  We have the ‘brain gain.’ The diasporans – people like myself who schooled in the U.S. – coming back and trying to bring innovations in country,” said Quao.

While both public and private sectors are backing innovation, entrepreneurs hope to see a swell of support from the Innovation Africa and Ghana Tech summits. (VOA)