Wednesday, 25 January 2012

#17 Witch babies

FACT OF THE DAY: The Bariba culture believes that witch babies can be detected by certain signs at birth. This has a huge impact on the mother’s experience of childbirth

The Bariba are one of the non-Western cultures I mentioned where the cultural ideal is for women to give birth alone; post #16

The Bariba number about half a million straddling the borders of Benin, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, and are nominally Muslim. However, like many cultures they have not abandoned their traditional ‘pagan’ religion, and daily life is influenced by both religions.

Their traditional religion gives the Bariba a strong belief in witches and sorcery (this is the part of the world where voodoo originated).
The first time I read this I couldn’t believe that the descriptions were current, that people living there today actually believe in witches.

I think my surprise comes from that fact that in British culture witches are mythical figures from the ‘olden days’, and are now just a source of annual amusement at Hallowe’en.  However, as I’ve read more about cultures across Africa it is clear that many actually do believe in witches.

Just look at this Gallup poll done in 2010 in 18 Sub-Saharan African countries (face-to-face interviews with 18,000 adults);

Sometimes these beliefs are innocent enough, but you don’t have to dig deep to find sinister reports of witch hunts, of children’s body parts being used for rituals, or of children suspected of being witches going through terrifying exorcism rituals.

During my research into pregnancy and childbirth around the world I've found that witchcraft is a common theme. For example many cultures across the continents believe that infertility is witchcraft, and/or have long lists of precautions that pregnant women must take to avoid witches casting spells on their unborn babies.

Protecting a newborn baby from covetous witches is also a concern. For example the Fulani in West Africa roll their newborn baby in dung to make it so unattractive that no witch would want to come near it. The flip-side of this Fulani belief is that anyone coming to visit must be careful not to admire the newborn or they will be suspected of being a witch themselves and wanting to get their hands on the baby. Visitors will commonly be heard saying ‘Have you ever seen such an ugly baby?’ As the researcher says;

“Parents would be upset and even scared at a remark we would call complementary, for they would assume the person intended to harm the child. Children are so highly valued, as we have already seen, that when a child dies people’s first interpretation often is that someone or something wanted it badly enough to ‘take’ it."

I think these beliefs in witches relate to the frequency of death during pregnancy, childbirth and in newborns in these cultures. In the absence of any alternative, witches wanting to take newborn babies is a way of explaining why these tragedies happen.

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Bariba women dressed up for a festival

So back Bariba childbirth. How does their belief in witch babies affect a woman’s experience?

On top of the usual apprehensions about pain and uncertainty at childbirth, every Bariba woman approaches childbirth knowing that she might give birth to a witch baby. I would imagine this must have a huge psychological effect on expectant mothers.

The signs that she has given birth to a witch baby are (figures in brackets show how common these events are in UK obstetrics);

  • a breech birth (3-4%)
  • if the baby slides onto it’s stomach when its born – for delivery the mother kneels sitting on her heels, and the baby is not ‘caught’, rather it is allowed to slide along the floor  (10%)
  • a baby born with teeth (0.3%)
  • a baby born with extreme birth defects (1%)
  • a baby born at 8 months (5%)
  • when the mother herself dies in childbirth it is believed that she was delivering a witchbaby which caused her death.

Traditionally if any of these things happened then it was confirmed by the household head (suspected babies had to spend a night in a spooky room and if they slept peacefully rather than being scared the elders believed their suspicions were confirmed), and the witch baby would be killed by a ritual specialist or given away to a neighbouring tribes as a slaves. Nowadays witch babies may be ‘neutralised’ ceremonially – although a residual suspicion about them remains and these children will be treated differently and stigmatised for life.

This is where the cultural ideal of birthing alone comes to be a factor, if the woman has given birth alone then only she knows the circumstances of her child’s birth. Her options are either to tell everyone what has happened and face the consequences, or cover it up and have a child in the family who she believes could cause terrible damage.

Bariba women interviewed said they wouldn’t lie about the signs because they wouldn’t want to have want a witch living among them, but conceded that some women might do so depending on their circumstances, for example if the baby was her first son she might try to disguise the witch baby signs. 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 family had been endangered by the threat of illness or death in the form of this witch baby. 

This research was done in the 1990s and these beliefs among the Bariba are still strong, particularly in rural areas where 90% of women still believe in witch babies. During her research period, Sargeant heard of at least 5 witch babies being born although they were taken in by missionaries and were not harmed.

I find it impossible to put myself in the shoes of these women whose belief and fear of witch babies is so strong that it overrides their protective mothering instinct.

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If you would like to read more yourself, take a look at;

Riesman, P (1992) First find your child a good mother : The construction of self in two African communities USA : Rutgers University Press

Margarita Artschwager Kay (1982) Anthropology of Human Birth F.A. Davis Company : USA 

Sargent, CF (1988) Born to die: Witchcraft and infanticide in Bariba culture International Journal of Cultural and Social anthropology 27(1):79-95


  1. I'm always so pleased when I get the "new post" notification for your blog. It's informative and very thought-provoking, and I love reading it.

    Thank you for another fascinating glimpse into birth in other cultures.

    1. Thanks very much - that's so nice to hear!

      I do find the subject endlessly fascinating (especially thinking how different my experiences of birth could have been if I had been born into a different culture).

      I see that you are a blogger too, so I'll come over and check out your blog.

      Janet x