A lot of Mary Slessor’s work was geared towards removing the taboos associated with twins in sub-Saharan Africa specifically Calabar, Nigeria. In that colonial time, twins were believed to be messengers of evil spirits and were either killed or discarded in what was known as evil forests. But I hope you know that this practice cannot in its entirety be taken as 100% Nigerian or African in application. Remember Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex that Ola Rotimi adapted as The Gods Are Not To Blame. In Oedipus Rex, the new-born child was fated to kill Laius, his father the king and marry and bear kids by his mother Jocasta the queen. Consequently, they had ordered the poor lad to be killed but the executioner hadn’t the heart to kill Oedipus. He gave Oedipus to be adopted by a hunter thereby keeping him alive to fulfill a destiny that was said the gods prescribed.
Let’s go back to Calabar and Mary Slessor. It is not possible for me to say now what the situation would be today if Madam Slessor had not embarked on that crusade to rescue those unfortunate children and nurture them. Really what would it have looked like? Would we still practice that custom that twins were messengers from evil spirits and deserve to die as soon as they were born?
I cannot answer that question. But what I do know is that in today’s Nigeria, twin children are very attractive and somewhat celebrated. The parents of these children usually get some kind of support from neighbours and friends particularly when it seems that it is mostly the abjectly poor that often have twins. There was a time in Benin City when a couple had sextuplets – six of them. Our town buzzed with excitement and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the children but three of them had died before the government got there. Their parents were poor people.
But the neo-taboos in place today concerning twin children cannot be said to be precipitated by incidences of parental poverty. First, twin children for example among the Yoruba are seen as a source of blessing. Second, they must be fed on a special meal of gbegiri (gbe gi ri, the stress being on the first syllable), a meal made from beans and palm oil. In fact there’s a song they sing to indicate how comfy they are with twinship that goes thus:
Ekpo be, ewa n’ be O (2wice)
Aya mi ko ja, Oye, aya mi ko ja
La’ tin bi beji O
Ekpo be, ewa n’ be O
There is beans and there is palm oil (2wice)
I don’t have any qualms concerning
Giving birth to twins,
As long as there’s palm oil and there’s beans.
Beans and palm oil taken as metaphor for the availability of food needed to keep the twins alive and well apart from the mother’s breast milk.
The other thing that is said you must do as the parent of a pair of twin children is that you must present the kids to be used to ask for alms. You are to do this even though you may have a zillion bucks in your bank account. The question of whether you are rich, I gather, hardly arises because the taboo stipulates that if you did not do this, the kids may die in the long haul.
So what then if I’m a zillion dollar rich parent and am stupid enough to believe this yarn, should I take my kids out to beg, as it were for their lives? No, that’s not a problem. There are certain ladies contracted to take your kids to road junctions particularly where it forms a T-junction. In the scorching heat, there they are displayed most of the time on the bare floor for commuters to gaze on, at and bestow an act of kindness. Those who know what gives concerning a display of twins-in-the-open-to-beg, turn a blind eye to this despicable act. It is those of us who are obviously not in the know that express shock and want to find out what the hell the matter is. Of course, I’m no Mary Slessor. If she were still here, I’m sure she would march right down there and take those kids away from the scorching sun and provide them that initial love and care that every child is entitled.
Even though people are no longer willing to kill their children or throw them in an evil forest because they were seen as the messengers of the gods, the diseases of ignorance and superstition of the Mary Slessor era still abound. I cannot imagine that in this age of the internet, of Christianity and of living our lives at supersonic speed that there are still people, people no matter their education and exposure to basic science and math that still prefer to wallow in superstitious beliefs. Someone here has suggested to me that this whole beg-for-the-life-of-your-twins-by-begging is a product of fear. He has asked the question: would the Nigerian who lives in the US or in Europe put his twins through this because he thinks they would die if he does not?