Skip to main content

Could disability awareness end supernatural myth-making in Africa?

Many people in rural African communities still believe that disability is caused by supernatural forces, curses and as ‘punishment’ for wrongdoings – according to University of East Anglia research (UEA, UK). 



The resultant stigma leaves disabled people vulnerable to neglect and abuse - with sexual abuse reported by 90 per cent of people with learning difficulties.

Many disabled children are kept ‘locked up’ at home – often for their own safety. But the more that communities come into contact with disability, the more awareness and understanding grows.

Meanwhile medical explanations for disability are beginning to emerge, with increasing numbers of families seeking medical advice for children with disabilities rather than consulting a witchdoctor.

The ‘Preparation of Communities: Using personal narratives to affect attitudes to disability in Kilifi, Kenya (Pre-Call)’ project was set up to promote disability awareness in small communities in a rural part of Kenya, by encouraging a process of reflection and education.

The research team at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) led focus groups to find out how cultural beliefs and knowledge shape people’s understanding of disability.

The discussions involved 21 community groups located across the five constituencies of Kilifi County, bordered one side by the Indian Ocean coast and stretching into the rural interior. A total of 263 participants were involved who observed Christianity (70 per cent), traditional religious practices (20 per cent) and Islam (10 per cent).

Lead researcher Dr Karen Bunning, from UEA’s School of Health Sciences, said: “Information on the medical causes of childhood disability are not widely available across communities in low-income countries and understanding is generally poor.

“In Namibia for example albinism is explained by the mother having sex with a white man or a ghost. And in Guinea-Bissau, epilepsy is widely thought of as being caused by evil spirits, or sometimes as a punishment for wrongdoing.

“We found that disability is often explained by things like extra marital affairs invoking a curse, witchcraft, supernatural forces such as demons or ghosts affecting the child, and the will of God.

“Curvature of the spine or limbs represented the effects of a curse, saliva production was linked to demons and ill-gotten financial gain.

“The different explanations represent a real mixture of traditional, religious and biomedical beliefs,” she added. “And while biomedical factors such as inherited conditions or antenatal care were increasingly talked about, these explanations did not negate other culturally-based accounts.”

The findings reveal that underpinning all of these explanations is a desire to make sense of disability and, particularly for carers, to improve the given situation. And where an explanation of wrongdoing or the presence of an evil force might result in a visit to a local witchdoctor, a medical attribution might be followed with a visit to a medical centre.

The project also looked at the challenges faced by people with disabilities and their carers.

Dr Bunning said: “What tends to happen is that these types of cultural beliefs affect how individuals with disabilities view themselves and how other people see them. Attributing the child’s condition to some form of malevolent preternatural force by reference to demons, evil spirits and witchcraft contributes to the view of disability as both undesirable and unacceptable.

“People with disabilities in Africa have poor access to health provision, low school attendance, limited employment rates and low wages. More extreme consequences include neglect and abuse – with sexual abuse reported to occur at some time in the lives of 90 per cent of the population with learning difficulties. People with communication difficulties are at a high level of risk because they are less able to report abuse.

“We found that children with disabilities are often kept apart from the local community in restricted environments – contributing to the social distance between them. Although in many cases this is to protect them from abuse and keep them safe.

“The burden of caring for family members with disabilities also led to discrimination by association,” she added. “And the stigma associated with people with disabilities is so great that it also extends to anyone trying to help. The implication being that anyone offering help would also give birth to a disabled child.

“But we found that the more people come into contact with disability, the better their understanding. Real life encounters with people who have disabilities can be a really positive step, so raising disability awareness in small communities can really help.”

‘The perception of disability by community groups: Stories of local understanding, beliefs and challenges in a rural part of Kenya’ is published in PLOS ONE on August 3, 2017 . The research was led by UEA (UK) in collaboration with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kenya), the University of Oxford (UK) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK).

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

The secret life of Giant Pandas

Giant pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca , have usually been regarded as solitary creatures, coming together only to mate; but recent studies have begun to reveal a secret social life for these enigmatic bears.  GPS tracking shows they cross each others path more often than previously thought, and spend time together.  What we don't know is what they are doing when together.  Photo by  Sid Balachandran  on  Unsplash For such large mammals, pandas have relatively small home ranges. Perhaps this is no surprise. Pandas feed almost exclusively on bamboo. The only real threat to pandas has come from humans. No wonder then that the panda is the symbol of the WWF.  Pandas communicate with one another through vocalization and scent marking. They spray urine, claw tree trunks and rub against objects to mark their paths, yet they do not appear to be territorial as individuals.  Pandas are 99% vegetarian, but, oddly, their digestive system is more typical of a carnivore. For the 1% of their diet

Work Capability Assessments cause suffering for the mentally ill

People suffering from mental health problems are often the most vulnerable when seeking help. Mental health can have a major impact on work, housing, relationships and finances. The Work Capability Assessments (WCA) thus present a particular challenge to those suffering mental illness.  The mentally ill also are often the least able to present their case. Staff involved in assessments lack sufficient expertise or training to understand mental health issues and how they affect capability. Because of  concerns that Work Capability Assessments will have a particularly detrimental effect on the mentally ill,  an  e-petition  on the government web site calls on the Department of Work and Pensions to exclude people with complex mental health problems such as paranoid schizophrenia and personality disorders. Problems with the WCA  have been highlighted in general by the fact that up to 78% of 'fit to work' decisions are  being overturned on appeal. It is all to the good that they