The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 24, 2009

Twin Town

The Nigerian town of Igbo-Ora is known to have the highest incidence of twin births in the world. If you are pregnant woman in this place, your chances of having twins is four times higher than a woman in London.

There are fairly few households that do not have twins in this town that proudly proclaims itself the twin capital of the world. Nobody is entirely sure why this is the case, although there is some evidence that the heavy concentration of cassava in the diet might cause it. (But considering that this tuber is eaten throughout the region, it clearly is not a full explanation.) For the Yoruba, though, the arrival of twins is a sign of God's favour.

Sadly, the infant mortality rate is very high as well. To console themselves after the death of a twin, a Yoruba family commissions a local sculptor to carve a stylised figure of the child. The choice of the sculptor is made under the aegis of a shaman, called a Babalowo. The image, called Ere Ibeji (from ibi, meaning 'born', and eji, meaning 'two', ere means 'sacred image'), is treated just a child would be - bathed, fed, clothed, anointed with sacred oils, worshipped, fussed over, made much of, loved. It is kept standing all day, or carried around by the mother, and put to bed at night. But the Ibeji is no child - it is built as an adult, with genitalia and facial tattooing specific to the gender of the child - and maintains the calm poise of a Yoruba artist.

The responsibility of watching over the Ibeji is a lifelong one. When the parents of the figurines die, other relatives take over. Early in Yoruba history, the Ibeji were considered evil, meant to be placated, but sometime after the 18th century, they came to be treated as harbingers of fortune, and much love is lavished upon them. Indeed, the Yoruba feel that a person who does not take the responsibility of taking care of his Ibeji seriously is cursed.

The souls of the deceased children need to be consoled, and the Ibeji is the only way the Yoruba can assure this. Heartbreaking though the loss is, the family obtains a modicum of solace.


1. Pemberton, J., et al, Ibeji - The Cult of Yoruba Twins, 5 Continents Editions, 2006.

2. Januszak, W., The Sculpture Diaries Part I, Channel 4, UK, 2008.


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