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August 7, 2012
African Voice
A Six-Year-Old Terror
by Imo Eshiet

As a child my heart was full of foolishness, and I indulged it to the dismay and confusion of my parents. I climbed, fell from tall trees, and fractured my bones in good measure. I fooled with rivers and came within a hair’s breadth of drowning. My rascality shot my mother’s blood pressure high enough to cause a cardiac arrest. She often told me I would send her to an early grave.

There was no diagnosis for my hyperactivity because health care was either nonexistent or so outdated that it did not help much. With the departure of the British authorities, the negligible social, health and political infrastructure we inherited quickly degenerated. The only way the sick and the dying could get any medical attention in the rundown hospitals was if they or their loved ones paid bribes. Either due to poverty or due to an unwillingness to encourage such corruption, my parents kept me away from doctors and hoped I would outgrow the “madness.”

It did not help that I had an uncle who encouraged practical jokes. An alcoholic, he was much disliked by my mother for his rowdiness. She was particularly upset any time she saw me running errands for him because she feared he would influence my behavior. She did everything to break his hold on me, but unfortunately I liked the uncle for the fish, peanuts and cookies he often bought for me.

When he made me a catapult, I turned it into a weapon of mass mischief and precipitated crises with it. I took aim at goats, domestic fowls — anything that caught my fancy. Eventually I used that catapult to cause a great calamity in our family.

My aunt was a potter who used clay to make earthen pots for sale. Making pottery was an arduous task that involved digging the clay and carting the heavy stuff from the treacherous mine home on her head over long distances.

After pounding the raw clay in a big, wooden mortar to make it malleable, she would sit for hours molding and remolding it until she got the desired shape. She would then leave the pots in the sun to bake before stacking firewood around them in the form of a pyramid. At dawn she set fire to this and the pots were ready for the market.

One morning as she went to the river to bathe before going to the market, I took aim at and demolished all the pots. Shock and grief at the economic loss descended on my homestead, and everyone was now convinced I was ajen essien emana. (These were children who were believed to have reincarnated in quick succession with the objective of visiting havoc and sorrow on each family they were born into. It was believed that they would keep up the cycle until the jinx was broken.)

Such children were said to be precocious. The fact that I could read, write and memorize extended passages (especially the Psalms) in English and Efik at my age did nothing to mitigate my relatives’ conviction that I was ajen essien emana. Even those who asked Mother to console herself with the idea that because of my mental abilities I might eventually make something out of myself in future, also sympathized with her for the very reason that it might not be long before I took my endowments with me to the grave if I didn’t drag her along with me.

Converts to a branch of Christianity that lacked appropriate priesthood authorization, my parents were of two minds about the accusations that I was a demon child. Even though their religion didn’t allow for these folk beliefs, they could not completely distance themselves from the hold of indigenous traditions and culture. They would not approve of my uncles’ mumbo jumbo, but fasted until they developed ulcers!

Without the support of my parents, my yet unconverted uncles and aunts secretly consulted seers and diviners and offered animal and food sacrifices, all in a bid to rid me of the influence of the evil spirit child they were so sure had possessed me. They would lure me to eat sacrificial food and meat, they would fumigate the air around me, and they gave me herbal lustrations when my parents went to farm or work. After all their work, I of course broke more glasses, plates and furniture, showing them to their consternation that their efforts had been in vain.

That was not all. I refused to wear my shirts and pants in the blistering African weather. When mosquitoes feasted on me and I came down with malaria, I rejected the bitter quinine or nauseating herbal concoctions my parents or aunts offered me. It would take brute force to force the medication down my throat and once let alone, I would immediately throw up the awful medicine.

I preferred covering up with blankets and sweating out the chills and fever to taking medicine to kill the parasites in my blood. In a land where the pesky insects kill about a million people annually, my stubbornness certainly taxed the patience of my parents. However, since it took quite some days for me to recover by sweating the fever out of me, Mother usually let me alone to stay in bed so she could get a reprieve from my mischief.

It would take fifty years for me to know what havoc superstition played on my people. The problem was not me, but the systemic failure in my country. My mother never learned that in her lifetime. All she knew was that she had a son who was a sore trial to her patience.

If the state were to deliver services to its citizens rather than turn their lives into a tale of victimhood, my challenges (if I indeed had any in the first place) would probably have been detected by social and health services at school and medically taken care of. Such intervention would have spared my folks unnecessary paranoia. It would have stopped my mother from having to resort to the whip to exorcize my “evil spirit” before I sent her to an “early grave” (as she used to say every time my hyperactivity terrorized the wits out of her).

The denial of basic amenities and services to children highlights the degradations in my society. In the grim squalor of my world, issues that would have been addressed elsewhere by doctors were instead either neglected and left to fester or turned over to the hands of witch doctors. It is inconceivable that a country with vast resources accruing from tremendous oil reserves cannot wipe away vector diseases that kill mindboggling numbers of its citizens every year.

In a state where leaders gaudily decorate themselves and spend money like drunken sailors rather than invest in human development, where a pregnant woman dies every thirty minutes, and where many children die before reaching the age of five, I can appreciate why my community was seized by many irrational beliefs. But the real terror is that millions of children out there still live as I did. Many die from avoidable causes, and many more are tragically abused and abandoned over curable behavioral disorders. Some of these are labeled witches and lynched.

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