Nine-month-old David drops to his knees, crawls toward a bottle of milk on the counter and begins to whimper. A young lady picks him up and rests him on her hips.
“David,” she says. “Are you a hungry boy?” David coos and grins. “What about Davida? Is she hungry?”
Davida is sleeping on one of the dozens of cots that line the yellow walls in the nursery.
David and his twin sister, Davida, have been branded evil by his community, the Kaida village on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, Abuja. There, people of the Bassa Komo ethnic group kill babies that are perceived to be evil. Twins are believed to have bad spirits that will bring misfortune upon their communities.
The killing of such “evil” babies takes many forms, including being suffocated, crushed, poisoned with a deadly mixture of plants and herbs, or left to die.
Christian missionary Steven Olusola Ajayi opened the Vine Heritage Home in 2004, a shelter for so-called “evil” children.
“If they are not here, I don’t think any of them would be alive,” Ajayi said.
For more than 20 years, Ajayi has been working with 40-plus communities with traditions of ritual infanticide in the Abuja area.
Among those labeled evil and killed are twins, triplets and other multiple-birth babies; albinos; babies born with cleft palate; children with enlarged heads; babies whose upper teeth appear before the lower teeth; and babies whose mother died during or shortly after childbirth.
“They believe that leaving a child who lost his mother, that he is going to spread his evil that he used to kill the mother among the villagers, so they don’t want them to live,” Ajayi said.
Of the 119 children at the rescue center, three-week-old Dominion is the youngest. Dominion’s father brought the baby there after the mother died following childbirth.
These days, some communities are willing to give away “evil children,” rather than kill them. Ajayi says this is a sign of progress. “They don’t kill them, but they don’t want them,” he said.
It’s also a sign his 20-year grass-roots effort is having an effect.
In Kaida, Aisha Ayuba is pregnant with her seventh child. A few months ago, she delivered twins, but decided to have them taken to the rescue center.
“I advised my husband that we take them there,” she said. “Twins don’t survive here.” But when asked why, she shrugged and looked away.
Alkali Magaji, a white-haired elder, is the spiritual leader of Kaida.
“Our people believe that these children come from the evil one and no one wants it. We have a god we call Otauchi and we offer the children to that god. We suspect those children to be witches or wizards. That’s why we eliminate them,” Magaji said.
Ayuba’s mother-in-law gave birth to two sets of twins decades ago. The babies were killed, and afterward the family erected an altar. The family believes the spirits of the twin babies live in the altar, and twice a year the family offers sacrifices of chickens and goats to the spirits, believing this will prevent them from coming back to haunt the community.
In Photos: Shelter Saves ‘Evil’ Babies
The government began investigating infanticide in 2013, and kicked off a campaign to eradicate the practice. The investigation team recommended strategies for an anti-infanticide campaign, including building primary health care centers and primary schools.
Dr. Matthew Ashikeni, executive secretary of the FCT Primary Health Care Board, was part of the investigation panel.
“There was need for enlightenment, education, so the communities would know … medical science has a capacity to correct most, if not all, such defects. Billboards were erected in strategic places in those area councils, informing them that that practice was the stone-age practice and should not be done now where we have opportunity and exposure to science, education,” Ashikeni said.
Dozens of babies were killed each year. While it is difficult to ascertain the rate of infanticide, officials say it is declining.
Breaking the cycle
In Kutara village, more than seven pairs of twins are living within the community. Ajayi said it’s one of the first villages to end baby killings. The local chief, Bataure Dangana, tells VOA he is happy seeing twins living among them.
But in other communities, the practice has gone further underground, committed in deep secrecy. Samuel Tanko, a missionary working in Kaida, said a set of twins born there earlier this year has “disappeared,” according to the local residents.
Tanko says the practice is so deeply interwoven into the local spiritual beliefs that it will be difficult to completely eradicate it.
At the rescue center, the children go on with each day, not knowing if they will see their parents again or visit their native communities, but they are alive.