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Born to Die: Witchcraft and Infanticide in Bariba Culture

Carolyn F. Sargent
Ethnology, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Jan., 1988), pp. 79-95.
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Tue Dec 4 09:50:56 2007



Carolyn F. Sargent
Southern Methodist University

Anthropological inquiry regarding witchcraft and sorcery has predominantly

emphasized the articulation between concepts of misfortune and social
structure (cf. Evans-Pritchard 1937; Turner 1957; Marwick 1965; Simmons
1971). Increasingly, evidence of rapid urbanization in the Third World has
provoked students of indigenous cosmology to address the implications of
such features of the urban environment as ethnic heterogeneity and new
social and political pressures for indigenous belief systems (Croce-Spinelli
1982; Hopkins 1980; Wyllie 1973; Mitchell 1965).
In one such study of faith healers and folk healers in Central Africa,
Jules-Rosette (1981:127) echoed Mitchell's (1965) classic study of the
"meaning in misfortune for urban Africans" and described the perpetuation in
urban environments of theories of well-being that refer to indigenous
Similarly, the influence of indigenous cosmological beliefs
evolved as a consideration during research on obstetrical care decisions among
rural and urban Bariba in People's Republic of Benin, West Africa (Sargent
1982, 1984). In this research, the significance of Bariba cosmology for
medical decisions made within the parameters of national policy constraints
emerged. This paper focuses on one set of beliefs central to obstetrical care
practice and traces the modification in these beliefs and practices occurring
in response to the growth of a multiethnic urban environment within a
Thus the data demonstrate the process of cultural
transformation enabling the persistence of indigenous medical and
cosmological beliefs in the context of multiple medical resource use.
Research among urban Bariba in Benin signals continuing concerns with
concepts of witchcraft and sorcery characteristic of rural Bariba society
(Sargent 1982; Lombard 1965). Crucial to an understanding of these concepts
concerning the causation of misfortune in society is the practice of
infanticide, associated with a belief in witch babies whose presence may be
detected at birth. Infanticide represents a response to notions of good and
evil, normality and abnormality that are intrinsic to Bariba understandings of
social order. Thus an assessment of the ideology of infanticide among rural
and urban Bariba will clarify the articulation of this practice with obstetrical
care and will indicate modifications in belief and observance resulting from
external sources such as national legislation, the policy and judiciary, as well
as public health policy. Government policy, by defining infanticide as
homicide, has intervened in the autonomy of the household and patrilineage,
thus challenging prevailing Bariba concepts of morality and cosmology.



This analysis is based on data obtained among rural Bariba in the northern
province of the Atakora in Benin during research conducted in 1976-77 and
among urban Bariba in 1982-83. The initial research involved structured
interviews with 125 women of reproductive age and both structured and
unstructured interviews with 18 local midwives regarding obstetrical care and
care of infant. Comparative data were obtained during the later research
undertaken in Parakou, the capital of the northern Borgou province, in a
study of medical decisions among urban Bariba. The urban research involved
maternity clinic observations, interviews with 250 pregnant women during
prenatal visits, with 35 women interviewed at home and followed throughout
their pregnancy, and with local healers. The Bariba, one of the major ethnic
groups of Benin, number approximately 500,000 and represent the most
numerous segment of the urban population, together with Dendi, Fon, and
Yoruba residents, and a smattering of smaller ethnic groups from both
northern and southern Benin.
Among the Bariba, witches figure prominently as causes of misfortune
believed to afflict human society, other causes including human antagonists,
ancestors and breach of taboo. Witches are believed to present themselves at
birth, at which time they may be detected via the presence of certain signs.
Because witches are believed to present themselves on earth at delivery, the
delivery setting becomes the scene for apprehensive attention to ensure that
the signs indicating the possible presence of a witch baby are not overlooked.
These signs are indicative of unusual features of either the infant or the birth
process and include:
1) breech birth;
2) birth occurring at eight months;
3) babies who slide on their stomachs at birth;
4) babies born with teeth; and
5) babies whose teeth appear first in the upper gums.
Babies displaying these signs either at birth or during teething were
customarily killed or abandoned. In this regard, Baldus (1974) presents data
on practices current among rural Bariba during the colonial period and into
the 1960s. He (Baldus 1974:361) reports that the Bariba
had a belief that children whose first teeth appeared in the upper jaw would bring disaster, illness
and death t o the family in which they were born ...This belief can be found in other areas of West
Africa, for example among the Yoruba ...Precautions in the form of a purification ritual are still
taken today in such cases, and sometimes the teeth will be extracted. It seems, however, that
nowhere else was the belief taken as serious as among the Bariba, and nowhere else did it lead to the
same elaborate protective measures ...The child itself was killed. This could be done in two ways. In
larger settlements, the gossiko, whose ofice was hereditary, took over the child and killed and
buried it ...Where a gossiko was not available, the child was set out in a designated area close to a
settlement and was left to die of exposure or lack of nourishment.



Rural informants in 1976 indicated that the most dangerous signs

suggesting a witch child were considered to be breech birth and first teeth
appearing in the upper gums. These children were allegedly killed or given
away to the neighboring pastoral Fulbe, to be kept as slaves. Similarly,
Baldus (1974) has described the process occurring in the pre-colonial period
by which the Fulbe, who did not share the beliefs of the Bariba, periodically
acquired abandoned children in the forest and kept them. Eventually, the
Bariba began to directly hand over children to the Fulbe, where they formed
a slave category known as the machube (Baldus 1974:362). Since the 1972
socialist revolution in Benin, which highlighted the emancipation of slaves,
government policy has emphasized that it is illegal to give children to the
Fulbe or for Fulbe to keep slaves. However, informants indicate that the
practice continues, and on several occasions individuals known to be machube
were identified in regional markets.
Although infanticide may be a normative practice, it is nonetheless
accomplished in secret and, given the fear of government sanctions,
individuals are reluctant to discuss cases of infanticide in detail. During
research in 1976-77 in the rural region of Kouande, five cases of infanticide
came to my attention. Some detail is available on these cases, two of which
occurred in the village of Pehunko (population 2,000), one in the village of
Doh (population 800), and two in the district seat of Kouande (population
4,000). Of these four cases, one was reported by a Bariba Catholic priest
who stated that he rescued an infant during a visit to his extended family;
the father intended to expose the child because he feared witchcraft, give:
the indicator of bony gums. The priest took the child to live at the mission.
In a second case, I visited a pregnant woman who agreed to participate in my
research project. On my second visit, I observed that she was no longer
pregnant. I congratulated her and asked to see the baby and she merely
walked away. Her sister-in-law informed me that she had delivered a baby
at eight months and because her husband knew this, the baby had not been
fed, but left to die.
The third case concerned a child who was born with six fingers and whose
father killed it, although an elderly midwife later remarked that the parents
did not know the signs of witchcraft--six fingers indicates future prosperity,
not danger. The fourth case involved a toddler found in a severely emaciated
state by French nuns. Upon questioning, the family said that the child's
teeth had come in first in the upper gums and the child. was now killing its
mother, who had a chronic respiratory disease (thought by the nursing nuns
to be tuberculosis). The mother was withholding food from the child and the
nuns brought her to live at the mission. In the final case, a midwife reported
that the most complicated delivery she had attended had been the previous
year, when the baby's presenting part was the buttocks. This sight was so
alarming that she wanted to flee, but the mother begged her to stay. Finally
the baby was delivered but later the gossiko killed it. In addition to these
instances, Protestant evangelical missionaries at three missions in the Atakora
and Borgou provinces reported that periodically during their sojourn in rural



communities they had encountered mothers who asked them to raise witch
children to prevent their deaths. Missionary accounts also report cases of
infanticide in rural areas during the colonial period. The most common
methods of dealing with witch babies, according to male and female
informants, are killing the child by exposing it to the elements, withholding
food, or discarding the child in a Fulbe camp.
In addition to these explicit modes of disposing of the child, more subtle
and difficult to document responses to an unwanted child may occur. In this
regard, the term infanticide is used by Scrimshaw (1984) to include
"...behavior ranging from deliberate to unconscious which is likely to lead to
the death of a dependent, young member of the species" (Scrimshaw 1984:
442). She (Scrimshaw 1984:442) adds that "in some societies, deliberate
killing, placing the child in a dangerous situation and abandonment are
culturally sanctioned under specific circumstances." That which is defined as
infanticide may vary according to cultural conceptions regarding the actual
beginning of life. The point at which the child receives a name may indicate
induction into society and formal recognition of existence. In Bariba society,
a newborn is immediately named according to rank order (e.g., first son,
second daughter) and may be given a Muslim name at Baptism eight days
after birth. Formal Bariba naming for the aristocracy occurs at age four or
five. Infants are said to be similar to animals, warm and playful but without
reason. They become human by age two--when a child is "too big" to nurse
and is therefore weaned. In some instances, children are not named until
several years of age; there seem to be progressive phases of recognition of the
child as a permanent member of society, key among which is the appearance
of teeth. Both mothers and fathers state that they await the appearance of
teeth anxiously to determine the future of the child and, in fact, to identify
the child's essence--human or witch substance.
Following Scrimshaw (1984), one sees that a dangerous and unwanted child
may be disposed of variably, depending on the circumstances surrounding the
birth. For example, when a mother died in labor in the village of Pehunko
and the fetus was extracted, it was found to be alive, to have all its teeth and
to be smiling. This obviously dangerous child was beaten immediately to
death by an elder. Another option, harder to identify, is to neglect the child
in such a fashion as to render death likely. In one case in the village of
Pehunko, a mother died of a postpartum hemorrhage. The infant lived and
gossip focused on whether the child was a witch who killed its mother. Some
said the baby was not a witch because the mother had lived for several hours
after the delivery. Co-wives of the dead woman bottle-fed the baby halfheartedly for a few days, following which the child was taken to the mother's
relatives, where he died a few months later. The cause of death was
undetermined--the child was merely said to be frail. To the observer, the
case seems to present an instance of "unconscious behavior1' leading to infant
death; however, such motivation is difficult to identify with certainty and
bottle-feeding, with uncertain stockage of supplies such as infant formula
and contaminated water, is a risky enterprise in this rural community.




A consideration of the function of infanticide in Bariba society suggests
that this practice serves as a response to cultural concepts concerning atypical
and aberrant events. Significantly, the indicators of a witch birth comprise
those cases considered in cosmopolitan obstetrics to be statistically less likely
to occur. Thus a midwifery text predicts only 3 - 4 per cent of births will
be breech presentations and less than 10 per cent of deliveries are likely to
terminate in a presentation where the baby might slide on its stomach when
the mother delivers in a kneeling position (Myles 1975:311; 327). Similarly, a
small percentage of children have natal teeth (.3) and approximately .1 per
cent of children demonstrate initial maxillary tooth eruption. Interestingly,
natal teeth are associated with syndromes producing congenital abnormalities
that may include such featyres as cleft lip, cleft palate, congenital heart
malformation, and dwarfism (Bodenhoff and Gorlin 1963:109 1). Although
informants did not describe these concomitants of natal teeth, the
identification of children with teeth at birth as witches may be enhanced by
the association of this feature with other deformities and anomalies. Although
one may expect some modifications in these statistics for developing countries
(for example breeches increase with parity thus high-parity Bariba women
may experience a greater likelihood of breech birth), the occurrences
signifying a witch birth are still unusual events. Thus Bariba demonstrate
biomedically accurate perceptions of fetal presentation and delivery outcome;
where the delivery deviates from the expected or the child displays unusual
features, witchcraft is suspected.
Parents interviewed regarding their views on witch births indicate a
pervasive concern with this phenomenon. When mothers were asked whether
they would grieve for a witch baby given away or killed, they responded that
a mother should not grieve because her husband and his patrilineage had been
endangered by the threat of illness or death. Several women suggested that
mothers seek to retain decision-making responsibility concerning the status of
a child. In this regard, the delivery setting is significant. Bariba idealize the
solitary delivery, where the mother delivers alone and calls for assistance in
cutting the cord. I have argued elsewhere (Sargent 1982) that this solitary
delivery provides flexibility for the mother in determining the fate of the
child. In the event of a witch birth, women indicate that the infant may be
dealt with in several ways: if the mother has delivered alone, without calling
for assistance prior to the delivery of the placenta, she retains the flexibility
to signal to the family and others awaiting the delivery the arrival of a "good"
baby or a dangerous one.
Women claim that a mother might attempt to disguise the signs of a witch
and to keep the secret in her heart forever, therefore risking that her child
will grow up to harm its patrilineal kin. On the other hand, if she
experiences a problematic delivery, she would probably call for the assistance
of a midwife who would then share with her the responsibility of defining
the event and deciding whether to inform others of the suspicious signs.
Because there is some ambiguity in the signs of witch children, parents retain
flexibility in deciding whether to label a child a witch or not. For example,
some premature births are said to be witch children, while others are not.



One informant stated that no one can be certain that a woman is delivering in
the eighth month, thus she may attempt to ignore this feature of the birth
unless the infant is particularly small in size. Similarly, the most frequent
type of witch birth--the baby who slides on its stomach at delivery--is one
whose signs are easiest to disguise by altering the position of the child prior
to calling for assistance.
It is clear that in the rural environment, the mother is a primary decisionmaker in determining the fate of her child. First, she may choose whether to
disclose significant information regarding the characteristics of the child to
other family members. If she is assisted at delivery, she may consult with
her attendant who may share in the decision concerning the definition of the
situation. A decision that the child is a potential witch usually involves the
household head and infanticide is most often performed by a ritual specialist.
A distinction is evident, then, between the decision-maker and the
perpetrator of the deed (see Dickemann 1984:434 on this subject).
Dickemann (1984:434) suggests that "... a female may be constrained to act in
a way that comprises her own reproductive success in the interests of mate
and kin ..." This seems to be the case where Bariba women give birth to
children who are believed to harm their patrilineal kin yet the mother must
detect the signs of witchcraft, thus participating in the destruction of her
child. Contrastingly, it is not inconceivable that a woman would herself kill
an unwanted child during a solitary delivery, although no actual cases of this
form of infanticide were identified.
The reproductive history of the mother is also likely to influence her
response to potential signs of witchcraft. Thus one informant told me she
was afraid because it was only the eighth month, but she delivered a healthy
infant in an uncomplicated delivery. This woman had experienced twelve
previous pregnancies and had no living children; she did not discuss the
possibility of witchcraft with her midwife or husband following the delivery
and the child remained healthy several years later. In this case, the desire for
a living child in the context of a problematic reproductive history influenced
the mother's decision to ignore the ambiguous status of the child. Similarly,
one village elder explained the very existence of witches who continue to
cause misfortune by saying that "some slip through the screen." Women
discussing hypothetical situations involving the threat of witch babies agreed
that a woman who had no son and gave birth to one would disguise any signs
of a mystically dangerous birth, but they could not conceive of a situation
where a woman would choose to kill a child because she had too many
children or because of an overly short birth interval. The preferred mode of
coping with a shamefully early pregnancy indicating the resumption of sexual
relations prior to weaning would be to seek an abortion, rather than to
publicly display the pregnancy.
Men, in discussing these issues, expressed particular concern with babies
whose first teeth appear in the upper gum and with breech birth. They saw
as their responsibility the disposal of the child, whether by infanticide or
offering to the Fulbe, and argued that women, given their emotional natures,
could not be expected to rationally decide the fate of the child. Because
spiritual strength is considered necessary for the task of dealing with a witch
baby, male specialists are available for this task. In addition to the gossiko, or



burial official mentioned by Baldus (1974), an option for the disposal of

witch babies was to deliver them to specific villages located through the
Borgou province, such as the village of Bori which specialized in the
detection and management of witches.
It is said that the elders of Bori maintain a special room used in the
detection of witch babies. The Land Chief of Parakou, himself responsible
for the ritual well-being of the Bariba of the town, described the methods
used by the Chief of Bori to examine a potential witch. First, the child is
brought to Bori by its parents. At night, the child is placed in a room
protected by certain ritual objects--amulets and powerful substances that
cover the walls and ceiling. The baby is left alone at night while the elders
wait outside the door. If the child sleeps peacefully, it is clear that
witchcraft is involved, for what normal child would sleep in such an
environment? In this event, the elders hold the option of either killing the
child or keeping the child as a household slave. If the child cries fretfully
throughout the night, the parents are assured that they are not harboring a
witch in the household and can return home with the baby in confidence.
Among rural Bariba the possibility of witch births necessitating infanticide
or abandoning of the child is a central concern of anthropological research in
the 1950s (Lombard 1965) and in later research on the pastoral Fulbe and
their slaves (Baldus 1974). The small sample of cases on which data could be
obtained and reported here are consistent with ethnographic reports by other
anthropologists and those offered by missionaries in the region.
In comparing rural and urban perspectives on infanticide, an assessment of
delivery assistance indicates significant modifications in delivery practices
and in the management of witch births, but perpetuation of concerns
regarding dangerous children.
Rural Bariba women, in discussing obstetrical care alternatives, express
preferences for home deliveries for reasons of convenience, modesty, and
discrepancies in their explanatory models and those of the government nursemidwives in the district maternity clinic. Several women articulated the
concern that nurse-midwives who were not Bariba would ignore the signs of
a witch birth or, contrastingly, that they would recognize the signs of a witch
baby and disclose the evidence to nonfamily members. Moreover, clinic
personnel might interfere with the family's flexibility in deciding the fate of
the child. The Bariba midwife is expected to be competent to confront
mystical power at delivery, while government personnel are not known to
possess this attribute. Such factors render rural Bariba hesitant to deliver in
government clinics.
Research among urban Bariba investigated maternity clinic patronage among
this population. Given that a conservative estimate suggests more than 40 per
cent of urban births occur at the hospital, the perpetuation of beliefs in witch
babies and the implications of hospital delivery for the practice of infanticide
and social discarding of children require consideration. The increasing rate of
hospital delivery is in part a product of Ministry of Health policy over a
fifteen-year period that strongly advocated hospital delivery, while



condemning home delivery as unhygienic and unsafe. Pressure on urban

residents to deliver at the Parakou hospital was intensified by fines and
public humiliation for those women (and their husbands) who were reported
to the authorities for delivering at home. In addition to those sanctions
increasingly associated with home delivery, urban residents claim that
obtaining a birth certificate is greatly facilitated if the child is born at the
hospital. Birth certificates are necessary for any child wishing to attend
school and for civil servants who wish to receive social security benefits for
their dependents.
Although birth certificates can be obtained without
hospital certification, the opinion that such certification is obligatory is so
widespread that women who deliver at home occasionally bring the infant to
the hospital immediately following delivery to receive documentation of the
Additional factors influencing choice of delivery setting include
aspirations to upward mobility and concerns for health of mother and child.
The significance of the sanctions imposed on those selecting home delivery
should not be underestimated; actual instances of sanctioning are rare, but the
fear of public criticism and humiliation lingers among urban Bariba.
Regarding the extent to which Bariba in Parakou maintain a belief in
witchcraft and in the powers of witch children, a survey of 36 pregnant
Bariba women interviewed in the six heavily Bariba neighborhoods of
Parakou indicates that all those interviewed believed that diseases and other
misfortunes may be caused by mystical agents such as witches and over 90
per cent believes that witch babies may be born in town. Additional
interviewing among 50 women of reproductive age employed in a cashew
factory plant and 123 pregnant women interviewed in the government
prenatal clinic suggests that theories of well-being that refer to indigenous
cosmology (cf. Jules-Rosette 1981:127) remain widespread. The management
of witch births, however, is undergoing modification.
One feature of childbirth in town is the shift in responsibility for decisionmaking from the mother (and other women) to the (male) head of the
household and other significant elders. In the event of a witch birth in
Parakou, for example, the possible repercussions from public authorities, such
as the army and police, for infanticide render the decision concerning the
fate of the child one necessitating the participation of the head of the
household. If the mother has delivered at the hospital, the problematic
dimensions of the situation are accentuated. Hospital delivery, by definition,
has transformed birth from a domestic to a public concern and
correspondingly, the involvement of the national sector in the arena of child
welfare alters the self-contained role of the mother as decision-maker and
arguments the authority of the head of the household. Detection and
management of witch births, then, is in the process of redefinition from a
primary domestic issue, with implications for the patrilineage, to an issue of
public policy.
Although reliable evidence for rural infanticide has been reported, no such
ethnographic data are available for urban Bariba. This research attempted to



obtain information on this subject by means of participant observation and an

analysis of child mortality data.
It is almost unnecessary to remark that infanticide is a difficult subject to
research. Bugos and McCarthy (1984519) apparently succeeded in eliciting
information on infanticide in Ayoreo society not from the mother herself but
from others in the community. Among Bariba, it is considered extremely
inappropriate to offer information concerning others in this fashion. Even
efforts to persuade women to disclose the names of their midwives or her
other clients usually failed; informants preferred that the researcher observe
events or receive information from the source directly rather than risk
retribution for spreading private matters ("the secrets of the house") at large.
It seemed, then, that an indirect approach to eliciting information on
infanticide was most likely to be profitable. Anecdotal information regarding
witch children is readily obtainable and much suggestive data were acquired
through conversations with key informants on this subject. Given Bariba
reluctance to discuss any death, and the special hesitance to discuss maternal
mortality and other deaths believed to be unnatural, an indirect approach to
investigation of the practice of infanticide appeared necessary.
Subsequently, I conducted a survey of child deaths occurring in twelve
Bariba neighborhoods during a one-year period (1982-83). The purpose of
this survey was to obtain data facilitating an assessment of the prevailing
causes of infant and child mortality and clues concerning preferential
treatment of boys and girls that might influence mortality and morbidity.
Questions dealt with the age and sex of the deceased child, perceived cause
of death, symptoms of the sickness leading to death, and whether sorcery or
witchcraft was implicated in the death. This survey did not elicit any
evident instances of infanticide. These findings, together with supplemental
information on state legal and health policy, suggest a significant decline in
the occurrence of infanticide in the urban setting. The survey did, however,
provide data on parental explanations for infant and child deaths confirming
the persistence of mystical concepts of misfortune among urban Bariba.
Although the primary intent of this portion of the research was to obtain
data that might indirectly suggest infanticide, the survey sought information
concerning deaths of children under age 14 (an arbitrary cut-off age based on
estimates of Bariba regarding approaching adulthood). The reason for
including a broader range of ages was to enable a consideration of
differential female neglect leading to a disproportionately higher rate of
mortality for female children.
As Johansson (1984:463) has stated,
"Technically ...infanticide refers only to the deliberate elimination of human
infants under one year of age ... [but] the specific forces that lead adults to
devalue newborns are diverse and do not necessarily cease to operate once the
first year of life has passed." I hoped, then, to obtain data that might
contribute to the understanding of preferential female infanticide which,
given the available evidence, seems to be the more common phenomenon.
The survey of households in twelve neighborhoods elicited 109 infant and
child deaths that occurred in the twelve months prior to the investigation. Of



these deaths, 51.4 per cent occurred among male children and 48.6 per cent
among female children. These data, then, present no evidence either for
preferential female infanticide or neglect particularly directed towards girls
and manifested in child mortality. It is, of course, possible that deaths of
girls are under-reported. It seems more likely that the answer lies in the
perceived value of women in Bariba culture. Johansson (1984:464) has noted
that where girls are active and important in agriculture, there seems to be no
systematic female mortality.
Correspondingly, Bariba women contribute
significantly to agricultural operations (Sargent 1982:46-47), playing a role in
cultivation and harvesting of cereal and root crops as well as tending their
own gardens. In addition, women currently contribute to household economy
through commercial enterprises that particularly benefit children whose
education and health care may well be financed by these means. Although
the position of women is certainly disparaged relative to that of men, the
decision-making domains of women are primarily restricted to child rearing
and food-processing and the participation of women in the public domain has
until recently been limited, the contributions of women to the household
economy are recognized as necessary and valued as such.
The demographic data on Bariba in Parakou available for analysis is
inadequate to provide definitive conclusions regarding the rates or causes of
infant and child mortality. Data on numbers of births occurring in the
Bariba population, to give one example, are currently nonexistent, although
increasingly, families do register births.
The data presented here are
therefore intended to provide direction in interpreting Bariba responses--both
ideological and behavioral--to urban institutions and the urban setting.
Questioning proceeded to determine approximate age at death and the cause
of death as perceived by the informant. Of the 109 deaths investigated, the
age distribution was as follows:
Table 1
Age a t Death of 109 Children

1 - 28 days

1 mo.-I y r .




1 - 5 yrs.

6-14 yrs.


Not surprisingly, among those infants who died, the majority died in the first
Table 2
Neonatal Deaths









Information elicited concerning these children offers additional insights into

parental perceptions of cause of death. In most cases, parents interviewed
regarding the fatal illness of their child described the sickness in Bariba
terms, rather than in the French terms that would be used by hospital
personnel in treating the child.
The sickness labels represent emic
perceptions of the cause of death in each case. Where no specific cause of
death had been determined, the informant usually described the set of
symptoms that characterized the affliction. Among the major causes of death
were measles (busuka), a well-known epidemic disease in the region for
which ritual treatment for the community may be performed by the Land
Chief (in addition to herbal remedies ingested by the individual); "hot body"
(wesisum), considered to be an affliction in itself, as well as a condition
found in conjunction with other disorders; and diarrhea (kesukumo), the
plague of small children. Other less frequently cited causes of death include
thinness, gbigbiku (convulsions), swollen legs and sores, moaning and pain,
burns, trembling and jaundice. The causes of death described by respondents
are presented in Table 3.
Table 3
Causes of Child M o r t a l i t y


Hot Body
D i f f i c u l t y Breathing
Abrupt Death
T i gpi rou
Gbigbi ku
Swollen Legs & Sores
Yellow Fever
Not clear

Looking particularly at those deaths that occurred during the first week, the
primary causes of death attributed by parents are as follows:
1) at the moment of his baptism, the baby moaned and died;
2) he just died the first day after birth, at the hospital;



3) she died on the seventh day, having problems with her chest in
particular and with her body in general;
4) he died on the second day after crying all the time and never sleeping;
5) she died immediately after birth, at home;
6) her body became limp on the fifth day, she was tired and couldn't
breathe (a maternity birth);
7) on the third day, he became hot in his body and died suddenly;
8) she was born prematurely at home and died immediately;
9) twins, died the day of their birth, at home;
10) he was born prematurely and died soon after birth, at home;
11) she died in the hospital the day of her birth but no one knows why;
12) she died the day she was born, at home;
13) his body, even his eyes became completely yellow and he died, at home,
on the fifth day; and
14) because of difficulties encountered during delivery, the baby had no
strength after birth and died on the first day.
In cases six and seven, the parents commented on the possibility that the
death resulted from sorcery; breathing difficulties and abrupt deaths are both
interpreted as signs of sorcery. Breathing problems, for example, may
indicate that a sorcerer has clutched the chest of the victim. Of the total
distribution of causes of death, 16.4 per cent include suspicious symptoms
attributable to harm by a human antagonist, and 31 per cent of respondents
mentioned sorcery as possibly implicated in the cause of death. These results
correspond to previous findings that urban Bariba persist in attributing
sickness and death to mystical causes.
The threat of witches continues to be perceived as potent by urban Bariba,
although infanticide as a response to this threat is said to be increasingly rare.
Ethnographic evidence from observation and key informants suggests that
witches remain a danger to be reckoned with and accordingly alternative
means of countering the potential power of witchcraft are emerging.
One solution, mentioned above, is to give the unwanted child to a mission
to be raised. The evangelical missions in the Bariba region have received
abandoned witch babies for many years. One missionary who has spent 30
years in northern Benin, estimated that significantly fewer cases of witch
babies came to her attention during ten years in Parakou than during her
previous residence in a rural community where diagnoses of witch babies
happened often. In the past year she had received three witch babies
abandoned by their families, of which one was from Parakou, one from a
smaller town, and one from a village.
Elderly village Bariba suggest that in towns like Parakou, where people no
longer remember to destroy witches, witch children run rampant, threatening
their kin on every occasion where they are thwarted or feel envy. The Land
Chief, highest ranking ritual official in Parakou, and his elders, however,
said that those children believed to be witches are now neutralized, rather
than killed or abandoned. This neutralization process involves medicating the



child with magical substances, which may be ingested, washed with, or used
in fumigation therapy.
Informants continue to insist that infanticide continues, albeit to a lesser
degree in the city. The recurrence of the topic indicates that the ideological
dimension of infanticide retains currency. Repeatedly recounted tales tell of
people who consulted an elder with the intent of destroying a witch child and
were subsequently reported to the authorities. Whether such stories are
apocryphal or factual is unclear but it is evident that Bariba in town are
sensitive to public antipathy toward infanticide. This wariness reflects the
sentiments of non-Bariba residents of Parakou in conjunction with an
awareness of Bariba of the active presence of national police and army units.
Interestingly, neutralization of witch children has always existed as an
option. An elderly Bariba midwife in Pehunko explained that the medicines
that counter the force of witchcraft in a child have been known to Bariba for
generations. Because of the lingering fear that the dormant power of
neutralized witchcraft might again be activated to harm the family, parents
rarely chose neutralization but preferred to abandon the alleged witch to its
fate at the hands of a ritual specialist, whether in the village of residence or
at a center such as Bori or Kperere. Thus, the midwife explained, an elder
might suggest to the consulting parents that the child be treated until the
parents and child could safely return home but the parents generally would
rather not take the risk.
In town, Bariba increasingly utilize this option when confronted with the
birth of a witch child. Neutralization offers a productive alternative in an
era when slavery is illegal, when the pastoral Fulbe who once adopted the
witches as slaves are increasingly sedentary and independent of the economic
ties that bound them to Bariba society, and when national authority impinges
on the possibility of infanticide.
Several reports indicate the presence of neutralized witch children in
Parakou, as well as in other urban areas. In one instance, the neighborhood
delegate of Kpebie reported that a construction worker was seriously ill after
incurring the wrath of his son. This child, a former witch baby allowed to
live, followed his father to work and pestered him for pieces of meat as the
father ate his lunch. When the father refused, the child became furious and
the next day the father fell ill with a mysterious and vague affliction. Those
witness to the encounter between father and son attributed the illness to the
son's anger, although theoretically his power to harm others had been
In another case, a Bariba physician was called to treat a sick niece, aged
twelve, in a neighboring town. He determined that she needed medication
but when he attempted to administer the injection she cried and struggled
until he began to slap her. At this point, the girl's mother pleaded with him
not to hit her because when she was neutralized as an infant, the medicine
carried the prohibition that she never be hit. If this injunction was ignored,
her power to harm others might be awakened or she herself might die. In
yet another case, a small child had recently been taken from Parakou to
Kperere for his fate to be determined but no one had learned the results of
the consultation with the elders.



In Camp Adagbe neighborhood, several cases of witch children were

reported. One child had recently returned from the village of Kperere,
where he had been successfully treated, another was still undergoing
treatment and the third, much older, was accused of killing several relatives
in recent months. Neighbors noted that he had not been properly neutralized
when younger because of friction between his parents. The mother separated
from the father and claimed that the child was dangerous, but the father's
family accused her of fabricating a story. After a few years, when accidents
began to happen and people had "problems" (economic difficulties, repeated
illnesses), they remembered the mother's words and sent the child back to
her. Now, no one knows what to do with him. He is a feared and unwanted
These cases suggest that children labelled as witches do not conform to
expectations for appropriate behavior. In the case of the angry child, for
example, the boy's persistent efforts to obtain meat from his father is
noteworthy. Such aggressive and disrespectful behavior from a child towards
a parent is most unusual in Bariba society, where the expected behavior
between father and an older son involves distance, avoidance, and cautious
respect. This child, then, demonstrated extraordinary license in his actions
by repeatedly demanding something not usually available in quantity to
children and in spite of the father's refusal. Similarly, the girl who fought
against the injection and who was protected from punishment also
demonstrated atypical behavior. Most Bariba children observed at dispensary
consultations who balked at injections were roundly scolded and shamed until
they accepted treatment. The taboo against beating also marked the girl as an
extraordinary child. In both instances, a sense of apprehension among family
members with regard to the children is evident.
Although overt infanticide is forbidden and children believed to be witches
and neutralized are not abandoned, the socialization of these children differs
dramatically from that of children perceived to be normal. Furthermore, these
children continue to be stigmatized by their identification as potential witches
throughout childhood in spite of the protective measures taken during
infancy. Moreover, allocation of responsibility for misfortune seems readily
to fall on the children due to their suspect state. Information on two young
adults neutralized as children whose teeth appeared in the upper gum
indicates the effect of labelling on social interactions in the community. A
Bariba who attended primary school with these children reported that he and
his friends were repeatedly told by their parents not to watch the witch
children's mouths while they ate, not to share food with them, and not to sit
near them. When the children reached adulthood, the girl was beautiful but
her family could not find a man willing to marry her. Eventually, a
southerner (Fon) working in the north did marry her; local Bariba told him
the woman was a witch but he laughed, and married her anyway. The other
neutralized witch migrated to a non-Bariba region and has never returned.
Finally, a young woman passed on the road was described by a Bariba woman
who had known her in school as a witch; her parents had allowed her to live,
although her teeth had appeared in the upper gum, and when she married,
her husband died within months. The informant bought medicinal leaves on
the route to wash in, for protection against the glance of this witch. In sum,



although I was not able to determine at this time the extent to which such
negative perceptions might adversely affect the physical, social, and/or
psychological development of children, further research in this area is
certainly indicated.
The availability of neutralizing treatments for the potential witch enables
the Bariba woman to deliver in the hospital without excessive concern in
event of a witch birth. The use of this option allows for the perpetuation of
Bariba beliefs concerning the causation of misfortune while simultaneously
accommodating the new reliance on biomedical management of birth through
national health services, as recommended by government policy.
Neutralization of witches appears to be increasing as a substitute for
infanticide in response to the perceived risk of sanctions from public
authorities in urban settings.
The apparent decrease in infanticide
accompanies the transformation of birth from a domestic to a public concern
and the accompanying reduction of household autonomy.
Thus structural factors extrinsic to Bariba cosmology, such as the generation
of a legal code redefining infanticide and the impact of health policy
restricting home birth, have provoked a cultural transformation involving
modification in witchcraft management while allowing the perpetuation of
witchcraft beliefs. Bariba themselves recognize that they have selected a less
desirable option from a repertoire of culturally acceptable responses to
witchcraft, in the face of institutional change.
Such dynamics as considered in this paper are commensurate with other
observed instances of ideological response to institutional pressures.
Mitchell (1965:201-2) described for the Copperbelt region of Central Africa,
legal constraints in town may constrain customary retributive action. In the
Copperbelt, where to accuse another of witchcraft was illegal, misfortunes
were reinterpreted to attribute responsibility to ancestors, rather than to
witches, thus allowing effective responses to misfortune in the urban setting.
Such pressure need not be a matter of straightforward legal sanction but may
be a response to more general social change. Walker (1980:117) presents an
analysis of changing concepts of misfortune and modes of coping with
stresses of industrialization and urbanization in Ivory Coast. Misfortunes
once attributable to witchcraft are viewed among members of the Harrist
Church as the consequence of individuals' personal actions. However, the
belief in the existence of witches remains prevalent. In this instance, legal
constraints are not the acculturative pressure. Rather, the Harrist Church
proposes a doctrine encouraging social goals for its members; to benefit from
the new economic order by mutual support, and by helping those who cause
misfortune to reform, thus eliminating misfortune.
In the Bariba case, the interpretation of the cause of misfortune has
remained constant--witchcraft at birth remains an acceptable diagnosis, but
the management of the consequences of witchcraft has been modified to
accommodate state administrative restrictions in a multiethnic context.




1. Although missionaries of various denominations operating in northern Benin may deplore local
religious practices, there is no reason to dispute widespread missionary claims regarding babies given
to missions to raise, in the context of consistent explanations for the abandonment of these children
(see Ranger 1981).
2. In this regard, Bodenhoff and Gorlin (1963) and Massler et a1 (1950) report that since 1780,
numerous reports of natal and/or neonatal teeth have appeared in the obstetric, pediatric, and
dental literature. This phenomenon has been associated with folk concepts ranging from beliefs that
such children are favored by fate to viewing the occurrence as an ill omen. Bodenhoff and Gorlin
(1963:1987) cite a Swedish ethnographic source on Africa, where "Among numerous native African
tribes, children born with teeth are killed shortly after birth, since it is believed that natal teeth not
only foretell disaster to the child itself but to anyone with whom it comes into contact."

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