By JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE
It is 98 years ago that Mary Slessor, the Scottish missionary to Nigeria, died. She was reputed to have led crusades that stopped some societies from killing twin babies at birth. Such births were taboo and not tolerated.
While her history remains alive, as her remains were interred in Nigeria, it seems some communities in Nigeria, even today, are out to rubbish and undo what Slessor did.
It might shock you to hear that there is still a community that still sees twins or multiple birth as abomination. But it is more confounding to find that the communities are in the nation’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT). How awful that even within the world’s newest city, with all the trappings of modernity, the preponderance of religions and inclinations that abhor killing of human beings, twin kids are still sacrificed to the gods of tradition that don’t want them alive like the biblical story of the notions that passed their babies through the fire of Molech.
Imagine yourself visiting a community called Basa Komo in the FCT and all of a sudden, you come face-to-face with a crowd. You move closer and are confronted with a helpless infant, struggling to set himself loose from the grip of community leaders, who want to bury him alive.
This scenario is not from a Nollywood film or a best selling novel. It happens today in a community in the nation’s FCT. In Bassa Komo, it is abomination to be born a twin, or a mother dies within three months of a baby’s birth, or a child grows upper teeth first or is born with defect. These are all faults of the baby or babies involved.
All these, to the people of the community, are signs that such babies were fabricated in the factory of the devil and are themselves evil. Such offences by the evil baby or babies are punishable by burial alive.
Such bizarre drama was witnessed by a couple, Olusola Stevens and his wife. Stevens is the North Central Director of the Christian Missionary Foundation (CMF). He has been in missionary work for 22 years. In all his years as a missionary, nothing prepared him and his wife, Chinwe, for the trauma of hearing or witnessing the practice of killing infants or burying some alive with their dead mothers even in the domain of the FCT.
Mary Slessor’s resurrection
Today, their happiness is that some of the rescued children have been reunited with their families, even though they are still living with the Stevens.
Stevens recalled to Abuja Metro the challenges of taking care of the rescued children but remains happy that: “God has never failed. Though there could be delays but He will surely come through and this we can testify to in our case.”
The Christian Missionary Foundation (CMF) is a non-denominational body with task of evangelising the interior and remote societies. That is the gospel that touches human lives.
“We just don’t preach the gospel. In some of the places we have been to, we have established schools, especially in the North East. We also have medical outreach centres. Basically, we don’t stay in city; we go to the interior to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people.”
The CMF was launched in Ibadan in1982 by the late Bishop Benson Idahosa.
At the FCT
He said the group came into the FCT in the late 80s, reaching out to the Bassa Komo, the Gbagyi Yama and the Ganagana. “We went into the rural parts of Abuja, preaching, planting churches, organising literacy classes for the local people, who could not read or write,” he narrated.
They discovered some strange practices among the Bassa Komo (Gbajingala clan) that endanger the lives of children and asked God for an opportunity to save some of the children from the clutches of death.
“If you are not very observant, you will not know this practice is going on and it took us some time to actually confirm. Some of the enlightened indigenes of the area deny the practice, maybe out of shame, but it is still happening till date,” Stevens confirmed.
They are considered as strange spirits and not fit to live among men. When they are delivered, they will be poisoned (the child dies gradually) or is strangulated after being forcefully taken from the mother by masquerades that women are not allowed to see. Once they are killed, an altar will be raised on the walls of their huts to worship their spirits and make sacrifices to ward them off from returning. They believe the dead children are spirits that want to come back but they are not welcome.
Mum’s death after birth
Another outrageous practice is the killing of babies whose mothers die after their birth. If a woman delivers and dies during childbirth, the child will be tied to the body of the dead mother and buried alive with her. If the nursing mother should die of any cause without weaning the baby, the baby will be accused of having strange powers that killed the mother, the penalty for this is also death. In some villages, the children may be abandoned on the grave of the dead mother while some are left unattended to in the village, leading to starvation and eventual death.
Wrong teeth child
A child that grows upper teeth first is also bound to die. The couple discovered that babies that grow the upper teeth first are also killed because they are bad omen. This is neatly done, an outsider may never know when and how unless you understand their language and pay close attention to young babies in the area.
According to Stevens, the practice is not common among the Abuja indigenes alone, “We also learnt from some other agencies that we work closely with that twins are not allowed to live in Uturu, Abia State.”
“There is also sacrificing of young children to the fertility god during planting season to have bountiful harvest that is common amongst the Bassa. They don’t physically slaughter the baby but once they pick a baby, a child that is healthy now will mysteriously die. You will hear the child cry and complain of a minor ailment and the next minute, he or she is dead. We have two children in this category, they were brought to us by their mothers so as to save them from being sacrificed by their fathers,” the rescuer couple hinted.
“The first child we rescued is a girl, Aisha. That was in 1997. She has gone to school, otherwise you would have met with her. Her father was about sacrificing her to the god of fertility like he allegedly did the previous ones but his wife was concerned that for how long would she continue to lose her children to the god of fertility. So, she confided in one of the villagers. All these I am telling you happened in less than 10km from here in a village called Kayi. So, she was advised to go to ‘aunty’ (my wife) to pray to her Jesus. Those that directed her had realised that when she is given to Jesus, she will be spared as her husband will not be able to use her for any sacrifice. My wife, the ‘aunty’, was my fiancée then. She was a pioneer missionary in that village. So, the baby was brought to my wife and asked to pray to prevent her husband from killing her. She promised to bring the baby back to Jesus once she grows a little. So, after we got married, the woman returned and said the baby was still alive and her husband had not done her any harm. She came back to give the baby to Jesus, as promised. She has been with us and now in JSS2.”
If a woman delivers triplets or quadruplets, they will be thrown into the Gurara River or strangled and later buried in the bush.
The couple said they learnt that Gbagyi Yama also practise killing of twins but “we are yet to rescue any child. We were to rescue a set of twins two years ago but they did not allow us. They were taken to the ancestral home and usually the babies will not return if taken there.”
The villages in these practices today are up to 40. Some of them are in Gwagwalada Area Council, more of them in Abaji, some in Kwali and part of Kuje.
“Since I live among them, we have missionaries, working in those villages. There are even natives, who are no longer comfortable with the practice after hearing the word of God and they run to tell non-native missionaries once they are about to kill twins or any other child. We tell them if you don’t want these ‘evil’ children, give them to us; we want them.”
“My wife, from Anambra State, was single and knew about the practice, even though the natives will deny it, particularly those who are embarrassed that such things still happen in their community. They never knew what to do or how to assist in saving these vulnerable babies.
“In January 2003, my dog delivered five puppies. After few days after, someone in the neighbourhood poisoned the dog. I could not watch the puppies die; so, I went to the market, bought feeding bottle and baby milk to start feeding the puppies. After nursing them for about two months; they died one after the other. It was a real sad experience.
One fateful day in April of the same year, one of the missionaries, working with me in the interior, came with two and half-month old-baby girl. He told me the baby was rescued from death by a Muslim cleric, who contacted him to take the baby. The cleric, who lived in Beri Beri village had passed by a house where a nursing mother died and they wanted to bury the child alongside her.
After discussing with the missionary and my wife, we decided to keep the baby for a day. When the baby was rescued, she was already traumatised from crying and rough handling. Usually, before they bury the baby they will do some incantations, put something on the baby, chanting ‘you evil child, we reject you, you must not come here again’. Our intention was to actually send the baby to the welfare department after getting her treated but the Lord rebuked me for my insensitivity, asking that if I could take care of the puppies, why not a baby? After sharing my thought with my wife, we made up our mind to keep the baby. That girl is now in primary school at Christ Academy, Gwagwalada, doing very well.”
A Home for the ‘evil’ kids
To really settle down and handle the rescue assignment, the couple had to set up a home, the Divine Heritage Home as an offshoot of the missionary work in the interiors.
Two weeks after the first rescue, a baby boy was rescued from death. He too is in school now. They call him Wonder Boy. From that time, they mandated the missionaries to do more to save as many children as possible from the strange practices.
“We have rescued about 33 such kids spread across several villages. There are also 13 less privileged children that were picked from the rural areas. All the children are in school. The youngest we have now is a set of twins about four months old, Rachael and Rebecca.”
At the time they started rescuing the children, one of them had asked the villagers if after some four years and the child turns healthy, they would have such back. They bluntly refused, saying the evil spirit would still be in their bodies.
The terrain through which they pass to the rescue these children is terrible, particularly during the rainy season. The road is usually muddy, that they find it almost impossible to go with motorbikes and sometimes have to walk long distances to get to the kids.
There are days they don’t get back home in Gwagwalada until 2am. “That is how we started raising those children. Since God asked us to raise them we don’t give them out for adoption. God told us expressly to nurse them that He would take them back to their communities so as to stop this practice. How He will do that, we do not know.”
And to the glory of God, we didn’t give them out for adoption even after suggestions to do so. We know their family houses, we know each of the compound where we got the children from,” Stevens said with satisfaction.
“We make sure we collect data of their families, including their grandparents and relations. We usually tell them that these children are yours but we want to show you that there is nothing wrong about them. Rejecting them is just a cultural thing, a taboo.
“The practice of killing or rejecting a child that grew upper teeth first was there in the past in Yoruba land where I come from. They didn’t believe such child was normal but today, it is no longer there. In Calabar, it was also the issue but long dropped.
So, it is their culture here but we are working to convince them to drop it because these children are precious. Some of the kids were rescued at tender ages, a day old, two weeks old, a month old, etc.”
Poisoning the kids
Initially, they didn’t know the twin kids are sometimes poisoned before disposing of them. So, the first baby they rescued was involved in that and they later lost her. She was named Olufunmilayo. “When we rescued her, her twin sister had died of the poison but we had thought it was because she was premature. It was a missionary with the Redeemed Christian Church that saw them, trying to kill this baby that rescued her.”
After taking Olufunmilayo to the hospital and running tests, she still was not improving and she was on admission for about four days, and later died.
“I narrated our observations to the national coordinator of the mission, a medical doctor, who left his practice to work in the mission. We asked him to help us find out what could be responsible. So, he brought a team of medical doctors from Ibadan. In the course of their work, they discovered while engaging the local women when their husbands were not around that it was the men who belonged to the cult in their communities that usually poisoned the kids with a particular root. They soak the root in water for some days and then feed the babies with the potion and they will start drying up. That is what happened to Olufunmilayo; she was eating normally and taking her medications but she kept drying up until she died. Till date, we are still trying to find out what root they use.”
Village head’s kids
After five years of work in the area, the couple had two children in their care from the Tumbudu axis, who are grandchildren of the village head. They would have been killed when their mother died but for the intervention of a missionary whose name is Grace. At the time she rescued the children, she was single. So, when she was getting married, some of the villagers, who were happy their pastor was wedding, attended in Gwagwalada. When they visited us, she pointed out one of them and said, ‘that is your village head’s grandson that you called evil child and wanted to kill.’
When they got back and informed the man that his grandson was alive and doing very well, he was shocked and came visiting. He said: “I was informed he is still very much alive”. He was convinced then that the boy was not an evil child, only that he inherited a culture that sees such children as taboo. He was really happy to see his grandson.
“He brought us guinea corn, roasted fish and promised that he would ensure no other such child is killed in his village. He assured us of his assistance to rescue them and also to influence other village heads in the area to join the crusade.
“So, after that visit, it was like a floodgate was opened. We started getting rescued babies from even areas we had no missionaries and from villages I never heard of before, such as Dagiri. It was the collaboration that started working.”
They don’t call the place the rescued kids are kept an orphanage but a home because they take them as their own children. “The children all call me daddy and my wife, they call mummy. We eat together, play together and we even watched the final match between Nigeria and Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations together. There are days we go out to eateries together. There is one of them that was born on May 27. When we visit such places on celebration days, people ask if we have a school and when I say they are all my children, they usually express surprise. There was one lady, who saw us the first time we went to Mr. Biggs to eat and she was curious and after hearing our story, she has been coming with her friends, bringing things to us. Some of them come here to celebrate their birthday. Churches have been coming here also to be of help to us. In fact, the bus we use was donated by a lady that works with the NNPC. She had come visiting and saw my old BMW with which I took the children to school. So, she decided to support us with a coaster bus. At a time, the place we were wasn’t enough to accommodate us, a former Redeemed Christian Church provincial pastor offered to build a mini-dormitory for us.”
After the rescue of the last set of twins, their father, a Muslim, came from Bassa, four days before Abuja Metro visit. He expressed shock at what the couple and their mission do for their people free. Today, he has relocated to the place the missionary rescued his children to also assist and he has given his life to Jesus Christ. “Our intervention has helped them to come to the knowledge of our saviour. When they visit, I ask them to pick their children and take photos,” Stevens assured
The home has even returned three children to their relatives, who have been established as strong Christians and are willing to take them. They still monitor their progress there. “We heard one of them later died but it was through natural causes. We pray together and share the Bible every morning. To the glory of God, I don’t deny them anything. My wife and I have only one child of our own but you will not tell the difference. I am a domestic man so, there is no stress, taking care of them. Right now, my wife is on her PhD programme and I am right here taking care of them with the help of the nannies. They are doing very well in school and very intelligent kids.”
The school they attend with the kind support of the owner does not charge them fees. They just pay the other smaller charges involved. In fact, he will be the first to ask if they have another child that is ready for school. The oldest is Aisha, who is 16. Some of their parents are now working as local pastors and as the children grow they intend to hand them over to them.
“Our organisation operates by faith. We rely on donations and we do some agricultural activities, raise chicken for sale and I sell Christian books, tapes, videos. These help us financially as well, especially in cases of emergency. During holidays, some of the children, living with us because their parents are unable to send them to school, go back to their parents to assist in farm work.”
The accommodation the mission plans to move into was built at a cost of N17.5 million. The fund came from the same woman that donated the bus, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), individuals and some other organisations.
The former speaker of Kwali Area Council once visited them. He has a nephew, Bengy, that is also with the home. He (the speaker) was privileged to be taken away from the village by a Hausa trader to Minna as a young boy where he schooled and even did his university education. The sister died after giving birth to Bengy. The Home calls Bengy the PRO because of his seamless interaction with people. “He would have been the first to welcome Abuja Metro and start a conversation, as if you have known for years,” Stevens explained.
Needs health facility
When the former speaker visited while still in office, he was very impressed with what the mission had done and they had requested for a health centre, which they said would reduce the child and maternal death rate. Majority of the rescued children come from dead nursing mothers. “So, if we had good health facility it would be reduced but sadly, he did not return to the area council. So, we are still in need of that.”
“I requested recently from my headquarters for a medical doctor and a nurse because we want to start a health facility so we can reach out to other villages. We are going to have an outreach soon and our first training will be for traditional birth attendants (TBAs) We want to teach them signs they can quickly notice on a mother or child to notify us on time so we can assist to save the lives of these mothers.
“At times, we are asked why government has not intervened but I don’t have an answer to that. Some government officials have been here. All I can tell you is that a greater government sent me on this assignment and I cannot afford to fail.”