Paul Apowida is a soldier in the British army. He is also an accomplished artist. He has served in Afghanistan with the 1st Batallion Rifles where, in firefights against the Taleban in Helmand, he has seen friends killed and wounded. He has narrowly escaped death himself.
Paul is lucky to be alive in more ways than one. His is a remarkable and inspirational story that he has told in a new autobiography entitled Spirit Boy. He was born in a remote village called Sirigu, in the Upper East region of Ghana, a poor region in a poor country where deep-rooted traditions still linger. It's a hot, dry and dusty area where the land is infertile and the people scrape by on the margins. Malnutrition and disease are rife. Shortly after he was born, Paul's mother and father both died suddenly, most likely of meningitis. Subsequently, six other relatives died too. Paul was branded a "spirit child", believed to be an evil spirit masquerading as a human being. Such spirits are believed to be intent on causing harm to the family and must be eradicated to prevent further evil and to placate the spiritual ancestors. The practice seems to represent a way for families to make sense of ambiguous circumstances and misfortune. It explains to them, for example, why certain children are born deformed, mentally impaired or with complex medical conditions.
Paul was poisoned and left out in the sun to die. Fortunately, a local nurse spotted what was going on. Twice she tried to resettle him with other family members but each time they made attempts to kill him. Eventually, she took him to an orphanage out of reach of his relatives' clutches. Paul became the inspiration for a new child rights charity, Afrikids, to try to rid the area of the spirit child phenomenon. Under their auspices over the last decade, local workers, through painstaking efforts, have largely eliminated it. They have persuaded reluctant mothers to attend new antenatal clinics constructed by the community themselves, giving a sense of common ownership. These have provided medical reasons to replace traditional explanations for certain conditions. Women have been empowered through small-scale finance, to form co-operatives and support networks, so increasing their self-confidence in influencing the larger patriarchal decision-making process and to voice their misgivings about killing so-called spirit children. The local herbalists, known as concoction men, who traditionally administer poison to the so-called spirit children have been gradually persuaded of the wrongdoing of their practice. They've been given alternative means to replace lost income.
In the meantime, Afrikids nurtured Paul's artistic talents and paid for him to go to art school in Ghana's capital Accra. He only discovered the truth about his childhood as a teenager. When he was 22, he applied to join the British army as a way of being able to serve a country whose people had saved him. As one of the few spirit children to survive, he sees it as his duty to help the campaign to stop the killing. Two years ago, he returned to Sirigu in full army battledress. As he puts it in his book, "I'm going home to the people who tried to kill me." It was the best way he could find of proving them wrong. "People at home think that being in the British army is like being the King of England."
Paul Apowida is a humble, generous, reticent yet determined individual who doesn't want to be defined by his having been deemed a spirit child. He wants to transcend and defy the notion using it to provide a strong, motivating force for himself. He is devoting the proceeds of his book sales to Afrikids as part of what he sees as his obligation to pay them back. Yet his modesty doesn't recognise what he's done for the charity - becoming a living symbol of someone who has overcome traditional prejudice to survive against the odds.
His paintings evoke the spirit of Sirigu, a busy, vibrant village of mud huts and inhabitants dressed in their elegant, bright colours. His favourite is that of a mother and child. He says, tearfully, "I would have liked my mother to see what I have become."
Spirit Boy is published in hardback by Silvertail Books, price £20. The pictures used here are courtesy of Afrikids.