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Folu Oyefeso

Deconstructing ‘Ibeji’, Twins in Igbo-Ora, Oyo State

Today's road-trip led us to Igbo-Ora, a small town in Oyo State reputed for having an abnormally large occurrence of twin births. Only two other towns in the world share this phenomenon - Kodinhi, India and Candido, Brazil, but Igbo-Ora has the largest population. The goal was to gain some insight (especially from the locals) into the reason for multiple births, meet some twins, and understand their significance in Yoruba society.

Igbo-Ora is a 2-hour drive from Ibadan, and on arriving, we had no idea where to begin, as this was another semi-spontaneous excursion. Thankfully Igbo-Ora is also the home of the Oyo State college of Agriculture, and a university is always a great place to find information. We engaged a mixed group of staff and private contractors who gave us the privilege of their time and their seemingly endless pool of knowledge.

Many people here believe Ilasa, a dish made from okro leaves is responsible for the large number of twins, and it is often eaten with Amala (yam flour) here. This is the only place I know in Nigeria that consumes this ingredient, as other places mainly eat the okro fruit itself. Though this is yet to be scientifically confirmed, it is interesting to note this and other theories we heard. Other schools of thought, though not extensively researched, point to genetics, water sources, and some believe its the yam flour that is responsible.

ilasa and twin births in igbo ora
Ilasa - The leaves of the Okro plant come together with red stew and bushmeat (Grasscutter), served with Amala. A dish believed to contribute to the large twinning.

Twins in Nigeria

Regardless of what the cause (or combination of causes) is, twins have a special place in Nigerian cultures today. This wasn't always the case; many tribes including the Yoruba have a dark history with twins, often associating them with misfortune. As a result, the babies and mother were excommunicated, sent to die in evil forests or out rightly killed. It's hard to trace where this belief system came from, or why it showed itself across multiple tribes.

It was also patriarchally skewed, as it only targeted the mothers of the twins, not the fathers. This practice received heavy criticism from many (Nigerians and foreigners alike), and many people lent their voice to stopping the destructive culture. A popular idea in Nigeria is that Mary Slessor stopped the killing of twins in Nigeria, but she was not alone.

meaning of taiwo taye and kehinde in yoruba
Taiwo and Kehinde - Ta-Aye-Wo is a name reserved for the 'older' twin and it means 'having the first taste of the world'. Yoruba people believe that Kehinde is older however as Kehinde sent Taiwo out to sample the world, and Kehinde "arrived after the other".

The Ibeji belief system

The Yoruba believe that twins share a combined soul, such that when one of the newborns die, the soul of the other is at risk because of the imbalance. To correct this, a special ritual is required, and a small wooden statue is carved as a symbolic replacement for the deceased twin. If both twins die, 2 statues are carved and they are called Ere Ibeji. There are a large number of Ibeji statues in Yoruba land and we can attribute this to poor healthcare infrastructure and high rates of premature deliveries in traditional Nigeria.

Now that the departed twin(s) has a symbolic body, their parents would care for the statue as if it were their child. Symbolically, they would bathe, clothe and feed their child, and these actions helped them cope emotionally with the loss. In some areas, at least once a year, mothers dance with the effigies and sing special songs of praise for them. There is an official twin festival in Igbo Ora, which is also held annually in honour of these special beings.

twins have supernatural abilities, yoruba land
Twin power - It is believed that twins have supernatural powers and we noticed this. The individuals are so close that they often communicate in subtle ways only known to them. To an outsider it is supernatural but you are observing individuals who shared a womb, and are very very close.

This to me is a marvelous practice, because how do you cope with the loss of a child or a sibling? It's hard to imagine something more devastating and Igbo Ora made it clear how important our traditional belief system are.

It is also interesting because it reminds us that culture can and should change. Once a cultural practice brings more harm to the society than good, we need to cut it off and move with what moves us forward - and that is how we evolve. The warmth of the people of Igbo Ora doesn't go unmentioned. They welcomed my friends and I with open arms and smiling faces, facilitating the trip without hesitance, despite us showing up unannounced. The aura warmth lingered as we drove back off into the dusty Oyo sunset.

ibeji deconstructed by Folu Oyefeso
Ibeji Deconstructed - Taiwo and Kehinde Aderogba are my muse(s) in this image. They were of great help in our excursion to Igbo Ora, so I can say they brought us many blessings. Fine Art Photography and Digital Colouring, Editions of 10.



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