On the 5th of November, 2016, I attended the second screening of Children of the Mountain for the African Film Festival in London, a film directed and written by Ghanaian-born Priscilla Anany.
When I first read the description of the film I was quite excited and surprised to see an African film on this topic, disability generally being something rarely touched on in film, media and literature. Yet, I was slightly worried that the plot would run along the lines of a child being born with a nameless ‘mysterious’ disability, in an attempt to emphasise the presence of an abnormality and trivialise health diagnoses. Children of the Mountain was particularly interesting for me because I could relate it to my Medical Anthropology module, which I am taking for my ‘African studies with health’ course.
To summarise the film, the protagonist, a young woman called Essuman, gives birth to a baby boy who she later names Nuku. She does this at home, in the presence of her partner and his mother. They notice that the baby has an oral deformity and the joyous setting almost instantly switches to one of fear and denial. After a doctor’s visit Essuman is informed that the deformity is a ‘cleft palate’ and also discovers that Nuku has both Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. The doctor ensures Essuman that surgery could be provided to restore the cleft palate, but that the two other conditions would be long term and incurable. Essuman’s partner denies paternity and any future associations with her as long as she insists on keeping Nuku. She is shunned by her community and begins to struggle with her job selling yams in a market. Gradually she becomes determined to find a cure for Nuku’s health anomalies and eventually embarks on a quest to find affordable non-westerns treatments for her baby. On this journey she encounters several individuals who boast their treatments as ‘silver bullet’ cures. One of them, a pastor, promises to cure Nuku’s ailments through spiritual prayers, but instead ends up sexually assaulting Essuman. In a rather dramatic scene nearing the end of the film, Essuman hopelessly leaves Nuku by a lake and returns to her mother’s house. On her way back a lady stops her and asks why she is crying. She explains that she had just left her disabled child by the lake because she felt she had no other choice. The lady tells Essuman that she does not get to pick her child but that a child picks his parent, and that she wouldn’t have been given Nuku unless she could care for him. Toward the end of the film, Essuman is happily reunited with Nuku and decides to continue her life without fighting against the incurable. The ending shows Essuman, a few years on, pregnant with her newfound love, and Nuku, now older with a scar across his upper lip, indicating that he has had his cleft palate surgically restored.
The choice of the title Children of the Mountain can be understood through certain lines in the film, which have ties with real-life incidences. In one scene, Essuman is told by Nuku’s (paternal) grandmother that in older days, children like Nuku were never named, but left in the forest for ancestral spirits to “take away”. Interestingly, abandoning or killing children used to be (and in some parts of Africa still is) a common practice. My friend’s grandfather, who was born in the early twentieth century and was from the Ivorian ethnic group Ahizi, had a twin brother who was killed as a baby. The notion back then was that there were dualistic personhoods of twins; one is evil and one is good, and only the good one should be kept on earth. A proverb given by the wise lady Essuman meets after abandoning Nuku, captures a more positive narrative to the essence of the Ghanaian supernatural belief surrounding abnormal children; that the spirits residing in the mountains of the earlier “unwanted” children that have been left in the forest to die, reincarnate in the form of children with disabilities, and therefore they are ‘Children of the Mountain’.
Priscilla Anany’s intention was to tell a story about womanhood. Upon doing her research on an appropriate female topic in Ghana, she heard stories of pregnant women having issues with hospital accessibility. This generally meant failure to attend antenatal check-ups that could potentially bring to light any problems with foetal development. The focus of the film subsequently became about the problems that arose when a woman gives birth to a child with observable disabilities in a place where abnormal features are associated with the mother possessing a “dirty womb” caused by witchcraft. Such perceptions affected Essuman, as people would turn away at the sight of her baby. The film was thus aiming to bring awareness to the problems faced by women and the disabled in Ghana, but also to the failures of the Ghanaian healthcare system.
The way in which Essuman was seeking cures from both western and local medicine portrays a very real situation for many African people. Often, when western medicine ‘falls short’, people turn to local medicine, and the same applies when the tables are turned. From Essuman’s perspective both systems were failing her: one limited her choices of treating Nuku’s ailments, whilst the other was fraught with deception and danger. Drawing on my medical anthropology lectures, I appreciated the acknowledgment of the different cultural narratives that exist within illness and healing. The normative discourse is often to assume that western medicine is the most rational remedy to turn to when it comes to treatments and curing. Although many forms of local treatments can be perceived as ‘alternative’, they may still be effective. I believe it is important to get a sense of how different populations perceive disease and curing, and to prevent Eurocentric ideals to dominate by only giving value to Western biomedicine. In this film for example, a medicine man provided a pot of herbs for Nuku to consume in order to treat his disabilities.
The film sheds light on issues related to traditional notions of disability and abnormality prevalent in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, and how these may affect not only the child but also family ties and economic situations. It also highlights the social exclusion and stigma faced by people affected by disability. Showcasing local treatments was an important feature in the film, giving an insight into how circumstance may determine healing and treatment options. The ending shows Essuman living peacefully with her new family, no longer worried about treating Nuku. The take home message of the film is thus to put less focus on ‘curing’ disabilities, and perhaps more on finding a suitable way to live with them. This emphasises the value of viewing the positive aspects of disabilities rather than the restrictions, in a similar manner to the lady by the lake, who took a cosmological belief on spirits and abnormalities, and turned it into a life filled with happiness.
Vanessa Ansah-Pewudie is a student on the UCL African Studies Masters Programme, taking the Health pathway. Vanessa conducted her undergraduate studies in Biology at Queen Mary University of London and is interested in how disability is perceived and managed, particularly in Ghana. Vanessa would like to partake in developing practical relief models, tailored for disability issues in an African context.