Posted by News Express | 22 December 2013 | 3,543 times
Born in Ghana, he was branded a ‘kinkuru’ – possessed by evil spirits – after eight of his relatives, including his parents, died
As a soldier in the British Army, Paul Apowida has been in great danger many times.
During a tour of Afghanistan he calmly led his team to safety after an IED went off 50 metres from one of his men.
But the rifleman’s instinct to survive is unsurprising once you learn that the 28-year-old had cheated death three times before the age of five.
Born in Ghana, he was branded a ‘kinkuru’ – a child possessed by evil spirits and believed to bring misfortune – after eight of his relatives, including his parents, died.
His own family attempted to kill him by giving him a poisonous drink before leaving him outside to die in 35 degree heat.
But Paul’s life was saved when he was found by a local nun.
Now he has told his remarkable story in his autobiography, Spirit Boy, and is working with the British charity that supported him and aims to put an end to the ritual killing of “spirit children”.
He says: “I believe I was kept alive to be used to help the people and to let the world know about me and what I’ve gone through.
“I’m proof there’s no such thing as evil children or spirit children. You never know what a child might grow up to be.”
Meningitis was the likely cause of his parents’ death and shortly after six other relatives died.
“My mum did all the chores so the disease spread through the family – but my community didn’t know,” he explains.
“They couldn’t understand how a tiny baby had survived when all these healthy adults had died.
“It wasn’t a hard conclusion to reach. There was no obvious cause except me.”
The belief in spirit children is deep-rooted not only in Sirigu, Paul’s remote village, but across the whole northern region of Ghana.
It’s not known how many children have suffered because the practice is shrouded in secrecy.
He is one of the lucky ones. Most don’t make it to adulthood.
After his parents’ deaths, Paul’s worried uncle turned to a soothsayer who ordered his stepmother to give him a lethal dose of poisonous herbs.
“They gave me a concoction like a medicine, and then left me out in the sun to die,” Paul says.
Luckily, he was spotted by Sister Jane Naaglosegme, 60, a Catholic nun who had been posted to his village to care for children like Paul.
She had converted a former toilet into an orphanage called the Mother of Mercy Babies Home.
“She came to my aid and took me,” he says. “She nursed me through the pain I was going through. I’m so grateful to her.”
Sister Jane allowed Paul to return to live with other relatives but after they made two attempts to kill him she brought the five-year-old back to live with her at the orphanage.
There he met British charity worker Georgie Fienberg, 35, who would become his legal guardian. She was 18 and on a gap year when she first visited Sirigu. After hearing about Sister Jane’s work, she became a volunteer at the orphanage.
She later returned to the UK to study at Oxford Brookes University but continued to visit Paul every summer. She also raised £30,000 to help support the orphanage.
In 2002, Georgie founded the charity AfriKids which, along with contributions from Sister Jane, helped put Paul through boarding school in Ghanaian capital Accra.
Too young to remember his ordeal, Paul was 18 when he heard the truth from a villager. “They told me everything,” he says. “I felt really, really sad. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be alone.”
After leaving boarding school, talented Paul won a place at art college in Accra and looked set for a promising career as a painter. But in his final year, he changed his mind. Instead he decided to join the British Army as a way of showing his gratitude to this country.
“I wanted to do it to say thank you to the people that helped save my life,” he says. “I told Georgie that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to stand on my own two feet and return to my community one day with my head held high.”
As members of the Commonwealth, Ghanaians are able to join the British Army - and Paul moved to the UK in 2008.
Georgie became his legal guardian to help strengthen his application for a visa.
Shortly afterwards he joined the 1st Battalion, The Rifles and as well as Afghanistan, has served in Northern Ireland and Germany.
Two years ago, Paul visited Sirigu with AfriKids, which has worked tirelessly to bring to an end the killing of spirit children and babies born with physical abnormalities.
“I want to let people know that killing innocent children is not right,” he says.
While there, he met the ‘concoction men’ who prepare the lethal herbs that almost killed him.
He says: “I decided to be bold and brave and use the training I had from the Army to face them. I was ready for it.
“I asked why they were doing the killings and they told me the parents bring the children to them. They know it is wrong but they told me they can’t turn people away.
“They apologised and then they asked for my forgiveness. I told them I forgive them.
“I was thinking about my mum when she came to me in a dream. She told me to be nice to people, and not hate anybody, always forgive and forget the past.”
Paul also met the two older brothers he never knew he had. “They hadn’t come looking for me because they thought I was dead,” he says.
“It was really difficult but I was really happy as well. I hugged them and sat down with them for a chat. They took me to where I was born, to our family house, and showed me the land.”
Paul was also reunited with Sister Jane last year after she came to the UK to see him. “She had never been out of Ghana before. But the first thing that she did when she got here was call home. She had rescued a little girl, two weeks old, and wanted to see how she was doing.
“Every day she called home to find out how the little girl was. She has given her life to save the kinkuru and build a better Ghana. She is an inspiration as well as a mother.”
Earlier this year, local leaders in northern Ghana announced the abolition of the ritual killing of spirit children. The concoction men have a new role, working with the disabled children they once killed.
But Paul says there is still more work to be done as the ban only covers seven villages.
Killings are still thought to be happening in other parts of Ghana and AfriKids is looking to expand its programme. Paul continues to support them by selling his vibrant artwork showing his village’s life.
“My painting tells my story about back home. When I’m painting, I’m always thinking of my mum. She inspires me in everything I do.”
The proceeds from Paul’s book, which is also dedicated to his mum, will also go to the charity.
He says: “It’s been really difficult trying to write my story but the Army has helped. It has given me discipline and courage. It has made me strong.”
And it’s given him something he thought he’d never have. “The Army has given me a family,” he smiles.
•Credit (except headline): Daily Mirror (UK). Photo shows Paul Apowida.
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