Cerebral Palsy is a medical condition that occurs in approximately 2-2.5 of 1000 live births globally. According to a Paediatric cerebral palsy report in Africa , the condition is a neurological disorder caused by a non-progressive brain injury or malformation that occurs while the child’s brain is under development.
But in the south-eastern Nigeria state of Anambra, babies suffering from the condition are widely considered an outcome of money rituals “done to the kids by parents or relatives to get wealth”. As a result, these children are given zero medical care in some cases, and in other instances sent to spiritual homes for prayers.
The people of Anambra State are business savvy and the State is home to some of Nigeria’s wealthiest men, dead and alive according to a recent piece by Forbes Magazine. It is also home to the Onitsha market, the biggest outdoor market in all of West Africa.
The myth suggests that the ailment is associated with families’ eagerness 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 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”. Mr Okeke Obinna, a medical practitioner based in Awka, the Anambra state capital opines. “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”.
Cerebral Palsy is caused by brain injury or abnormal development of the brain, that occurs while a child’s brain is still developing — before birth, during birth, or immediately after birth according to the definition by MyChild, a US organisation providing information about 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 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 only children of the wealthy and the very rich?”
“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”. Nduka maintained. “This is not a cultural argument”.
Udoka Okechukwu, 34, from Awba Ofemili, Awka North Local government of the state is a nanny at the local private school in Awka, the state capital (School Name withheld over privacy concerns). The school is attended by most kids suffering from Cerebral Palsy. According to her, most parents actually believe the tales about kids with the disease having been 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 Nnamdi said there’s need for widespread education and information about the dangers of Cerebral Palsy that primarily affects 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 is living with cerebral palsy in Nigeria.
According to a study on Cerebral Palsy in Sagamu, Nigeria, the condition is mainly associated with perinatal events and low socio-economic status. Continuing education of health workers and traditional birth attendants debunks the suggestion that it is an ailment exclusively affected by the elites.
“I take my child to spiritual homes for prayers, believing God will heal him someday”, Amuche Obiora, a mother shares her disturbing story birthing her child with the condition.
Her son named Chinonso Means “God is nearby” in Igbo was first diagnosed of the condition she termed “abnormal” at 5 months.
He was unable to crawl, nor grow as other babies of his age, women will regularly not allow their kids around Chinonso, and at that early stage, he started facing discrimination. “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 up 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. 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. 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. She holds on to the believe 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 isn’t just in communities and towns of Anambra state, but across Nigeria. The perception is however, widely known in the South-eastern state of Anambra.
Children suffering from various forms of disabilities like down syndrome, autism, attention deficiency syndrome in most Nigerian societies also suffer the fate of cerebral palsy sufferers. The belief of being used by parents or relatives to amass wealth leaves most of the babies without care and widespread stigma in societies.