IKOM, Nigeria—Stella Immanuel, the Houston doctor who praises hydroxychloroquine and says that face masks don't necessarily stop the transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus, recently earned the nickname 'Demon Sperm Doc' based on her claims that illnesses like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.
But those convictions don’t come out of thin air. While Dr. Immanuel's assertions may have deep roots in early Jewish and Christian stories, her beliefs, according to people from her hometown in Cameroon, can be traced to an age-long assumption that infertility in women is caused by the fact that a woman has had a sexual relationship with an evil spirit.
Decades ago in parts of Bali, the small southwestern Cameroonian town where Dr. Immanuel was born and raised, a woman who couldn't immediately conceive after marriage could be sent out of her matrimonial home, as it was believed that she had had sex with a demon and, as a result, could no longer bear a child for a mortal.
“Having sex with a demon automatically makes the demon the husband of the woman and the custodian of her womb,” Clement Abuo, a local chief in Bali told The Daily Beast. “As a result, it becomes impossible for the woman to carry the child of any man.”
According to a number of former residents of Bali, who spoke to The Daily Beast in the Nigerian border town of Ikom, where many Cameroonians live, up till the early ’80s, the period Dr. Immanuel finished up her secondary education in Bali, women in the Cameroonian town were sometimes publicly shamed and sent back to their parents for being unable to conceive. Some men further demanded that the bride price they paid to the parents of the woman they married be returned to them, as a sign that the marriage has been annulled.
While the act of chasing a childless woman away from her matrimonial home is no longer common today, the belief that women who can't conceive children have had sex with demons is still strong in Bali.
“Children are still being told by their parents and other relatives that a childless woman is spiritually married to a woman who has taken away her womb,” said Abuo, who currently lives in Ikom. “There are still men who chase their wives away from their matrimonial homes because they believe that their childlessness is as a result of having their having sex with demons.”
Another thought held by Dr. Immanuel that may also be traced to a traditional belief in Bali is that of inheritance of curses. In the pediatrician's website, she offers a prayer to take away a generational curse originally incurred by an ancestor but transmitted through the placenta.
According to people conversant with the customs in the doctor’s hometown, children are thought to inherit the curses placed on their parents through their mother’s placenta. It’s a common practice in parts of Bali that when a man or woman is cursed by anyone in the community—for committing an offense like adultery or conspiracy—that rituals involving the slaughtering of an animal have to be carried out to wipe away the curse, otherwise it will be passed onto future generations. That tradition, they said, still exists till date.
“They are called cleansing rituals,” Vincent Ndiefi, a Bali-born commercial bus driver based in Ikom, told The Daily Beast. “People who think they are not succeeding in life also undergo this ritual make sure their problems aren't as a result of a generational curse.”
Cameroon, in general, is a country deeply rooted in tradition. A widow can be forced to drink the water used to bathe her late husband’s dead body as a sign that she isn't behind the death of her spouse. Homosexuality, which attracts a five-year jail sentence, is seen as demonic and a man can be imprisoned for smiling at the wrong guy or humming the wrong song.
The country's most painful tradition is a practice known as breast ironing, whereby adolescent girls’ breasts are pounded and massaged by their families using hard or heated objects in an attempt to flatten them and make so that the girls become less desirable to men. It’s a practice a quarter of women in Cameroon are believed to have undergone. About 1,000 mostly Cameroonian girls in the U.K alone have been subjected to the practice (the figure could be a lot higher as the tradition is hugely secretive), a sign that many Cameroonians take their customs with them wherever they go.
“Cameroonians usually don't forget their cultures and traditions no matter the country they live in,” said Ndiefi who has lived and worked in Nigeria for a decade. “Over the years, parents have told their children how vital cultures and traditions are and why it is important to uphold them.”
In Bali, a town of about 32,000 people, there is a widespread belief that everyone from the area is interrelated and is the reason why many often refer to Dr. Immanuel as their “sister.” But even those who have never met the Houston-based physician—yet claim to be “family” with her—are convinced that her preachings are influenced by the age-long customs and traditions of the Bali people.
“The average Bali person values our tradition so much,” Cletus Agbo, a 63-year-old Cocoa farmer who said he might be a distant relation of Dr. Immanuel, told The Daily Beast. “She just hasn't forgotten where she comes from.”