A Sierra Leone child was named the “devil boy” by members of the community after he was born with Down syndrome.
Thomas was born as a triplet to his mother, Aminatta, five years ago. Sadly, his sisters passed away shortly after birth, leaving him the only surviving child. At first, no one realized he had been born with Down syndrome, but the features of the disability eventually showed themselves.
“No one realised for a while,” Aminatta told Al Jazeera. “He seemed OK at the start. He was born a triplet, and his two sisters died when they were one week old, but he was bigger and stronger than them. It was as he grew that I saw that his body was weak.”
What is Down syndrome?
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, Down syndrome occurs when an individual has an extra copy of chromosome 21, be it full or partial. Although each person with the disability is different, the typical characteristics of a child with Down Syndrome include low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm.
Down syndrome is the most common genetic condition in the United States, with one in 691 babies being born with the disability each year.
When Thomas was 6-months-old, he still could not support his head, and his tongue frequently hung from his mouth. This frightened the community, who believed children who were born with the Down syndrome were demonic. They ended up giving him the nicknames “jellyfish” and “devil boy.”
“When I wanted to go to the market, I would ask a neighbour to watch Thomas, but everyone would refuse – they were all afraid of him,” Aminatta said. “It was very difficult. My husband died when I was pregnant, and I had nobody to help me with the child. Even my mother and sisters were telling me that Thomas was a devil. They used to try and beat the evil spirits out of him.”
Returning her son to the devil
Aminatta tried to ignore the opinions of her neighbors, but eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and agreed to perform a ceremony to send Thomas back to the devil.
“People were telling me every day that he was possessed and they said that it was because of him my other two daughters had died,” she said. “Even my mother wanted me to do the ceremony. I was so tired, and they had provoked me so much that when he was a year and two months old, I finally agreed to do the magic which would return him to the devil.”
Aminatta and Thomas left their village and traveled four hours away to the countryside in the northern district of Kambia, where Aminatta’s mother and sister lived.
“I spoke to the sorcerer in the village, and he told me that he could do the ritual,” she explained. “I just had to prepare a white satin gown made to fit Thomas and buy six eggs and some flour.”
According to the myths, children who were born with Down syndrome and underwent the ritual would turn into snakes and slither away back to the devil.
“We put Thomas on the floor, dressed in the gown, and with a circle of eggs and flour around him,” she said. “The man made some chants that I couldn’t understand, and we watched Thomas, waiting for him to turn into a snake and eat the food we’d offered him. After two hours, nothing had happened, and the sorcerer said that it was because we hadn’t done the ritual correctly. We weren’t supposed to do it in a house; we should have taken him out to the bush and left him there. So we agreed to do it again, this time in the proper way.”
A few days later, the sorcerer performed the ritual once again, but this time, they placed Thomas in a hole under a cotton tree. Following the ceremony, Thomas was left alone to turn into a snake. Two hours passed before Aminatta heard her sister shriek outside. She ran from the house and saw her son crawling and laughing towards his mother.
“I ran to pick him up and wiped my tears on my sleeve. I started laughing, too. I hugged him, and we laughed together,” she recalled.
Aminatta and Thomas returned to their home where they joined a program called Enable the Children, which is run by the charity World Hope and helps parents learn how to nurture children with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
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