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Spirit Children
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world's most vulnerable young children.”
——Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies

In parts of West Africa, some babies and toddlers are considered spirit children—nonhumans sent from the forest to cause misfortune and destroy the family. These are usually deformed or ailing infants, the very young whose births coincide with tragic events, or children who display unusual abilities. In some of these cases, families seek a solution in infanticide. Many others do not.

Refusing to generalize or oversimplify, Aaron R. Denham offers an ethnographic study of the spirit child phenomenon in Northern Ghana that considers medical, economic, religious, and political realities. He examines both the motivations of the families and the structural factors that lead to infanticide, framing these within the context of global public health. At the same time, he turns the lens on Western societies and the misunderstandings that prevail in discourse about this controversial practice. Engaging the complexity of the context, local meanings, and moral worlds of those confronting a spirit child, Denham offers visceral accounts of families' life and death decisions.


Author. Photo credit, NameAaron R. Denham is a senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He formerly was a mental health provider for children and families, a fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders.





“Adds valuable texture to a practice, which had, until now, received little detailed analysis. It is testament to the skill and sensitivity of the author.”
African Studies Quarterly

“The work that Denham has carried out and disseminates in this finely written and sensitive book is absolutely ground-breaking.”

“Beautifully written ethnography....Although his book is based on a small community, the nuance with which Denham treats ‘infanticide’ contributes broadly to medical anthropology, childhood studies, and religious studies.”

“Presents, in great detail, several cases illustrating the almost mandatory eugenics that occurs in an impoverished third-world community.”
Psychology Today

“Full of insights into the superstitious and cultural interpretations of childhood deformity or disability, antisocial behaviours, giftedness and misfortunes. . . . Denham’s narratives on the human-spirit interactions in Nankani are fascinating.”
Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be 'sent back.' This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”
—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire


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Spirit Children

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New in Paperback!
July 2019
LC: 2016041575 DT
240 pp.   6 x 9
14 b/w photos  

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Paper $19.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-31124-7
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Casebound $64.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-31120-9
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