KAIDA VILLAGE (Nigeria), March 28 — When Aisha Ayuba gave birth to twin girls eight years ago, she decided to give them away rather than allow them to be murdered.
In her village of Kaida, which lies about 50km southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, babies from multiple births are considered evil.
“If I kept the children, someone would kill them,” the 29-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her home as she breastfed the youngest of her five other children.
Other babies considered evil by the Basso Komo ethnic group in Nigeria include those with physical or mental disabilities, those whose mothers die during childbirth, babies whose upper teeth come through before lower teeth, and albino babies.
“People fear that if they don’t kill them, they will kill their mother or father,” said Musa Lakai, village head of Kaida.
“Like every group, we have our own cultures and beliefs.”
Infanticide was once common in parts of Nigeria, but work by missionaries in the late 19th century meant it became less so although it continues, done in secret in a list of communities.
Campaigners and the government are trying to tackle the superstitions behind these killings and also address the denials and secrecy that surrounds them to protect vulnerable children.
Unable to keep her girls, Ayuba handed them over to a missionary couple who founded the Vine Heritage Home Foundation in nearby Abuja in 2004 for babies at risk of being killed.
Olusola Stevens Ajayi and his wife Chinwe learned infanticide was still practised in 1996 when they were called upon by a woman to rescue her baby due to be killed as a sacrifice to a local deity to ensure a good harvest.
The couple wrongly assumed this was an isolated case but by 2005 they were caring for 20 children. Now 112 live with them, aged between one-week-old and 14 years.
Poisoned, starved, abandoned
No one knows the true scale of infanticide in Nigeria.
Babies are typically killed with poisonous plants, although those whose mothers die in childbirth can be strapped to her body and buried, or abandoned in a room until they starve to death, the couple said.
In most cases, the mothers of the babies at Vine Heritage died in childbirth, Ajayi said, with a lack of healthcare facilities and medical staff in villages largely to blame.
Nigeria has one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, with 814 deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2015.
Ajayi said the couple did not put the children up for adoption but looked after them until it is safe to “return them to their families”.
Chinwe pointed out two children, aged 14 and three, who had been strapped to their mothers’ corpses, and another, three, who was starved for six days as his family waited for him to die.
“Before, we used to go to the villages to beg for the babies. Now they bring them to us,” she said, crediting a programme launched five years ago by the National Orientation Agency (NOA), a government body that communicates policy.
NOA director Garba Abari said the campaign — called ‘Eliminating Negative Cultural Practices’ — was launched after the government found out about the couple’s work but it operates only in Abuja although children are killed elsewhere in Nigeria.
Abari said the authorities had failed to find civil society groups to work with them to combat infanticide as there was a lot of denial in communities and suspicion of outsiders.
To that end the NOA employed local people to work on the issue and Abari said this seems to be working with the government receiving no reports of infanticide in Abuja in more than a year.
“You just don’t go to confront them to say that you are coming to talk to them to stop it... The best thing is to use the traditional leaders and heads of communities,” he said.
But challenges remain, he said.
“First is denial by the community that such a practice exists. But to date (we know) it exists,” he said.
Chinwe said some months no babies are brought to the centre but in others seven come, with the couple relying on donations to support the children, some of whom sleep six to a bed.
But, she said, they never turn away children. They did that once in 2005 when the facility was too full to take in newborn twins. Two weeks later, she learned the babies had been killed.
“From that time, we decided that we would never turn back any babies,” she said.
The centre is also home to 19 teenagers who come from some of the villages from which babies were rescued, Ajayi said, so they can see how the children are raised.
During school holidays, the teenagers go home and tell the villagers what they have seen, Ajayi said, which he hopes will help the villagers understand that their beliefs are unfounded.
Back in Kaida, Ayuba described her joy at seeing her twins, Mabel and Bethel, when she can afford to go to Vine Heritage.
But, she said, if she had another set of twins she would not keep them — although she would not let them be killed either.
“Even if I wanted to keep them, people in the community would not like that,” she said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation