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In Africa, where the birthrate of twins is among the highest in the world, twins can be seen as a burden to their families and a threat to the social order, or they can be seen as a gift from God and beings with unique abilities who bring about social harmony. Philip M. Peek and the contributors to this illuminating, multidisciplinary volume explore this rich cultural heritage by examining topics such as twins in artistic representation, twins and divination, and twins in performance, cosmology, religion, and popular culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223074
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/18/2011
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Philip M. Peek is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Drew University. He is editor of African Divination Systems (IUP, 1991).

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Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures

Double Trouble, Twice Blessed

By Philip M. Peek

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35624-6



Beginning to Rethink Twins


... there was no doubt about the fate of twins (ejima) under old Igbo law and custom; it was incumbent that they should be destroyed without delay. At the same time, reproaches were heaped upon the stricken mother for being the author of such a forbidden issue. (Basden [1938] 1966: 181)

Give us births, give us male and female, let us deliver two by two, that we may always hold twin ceremonies here. (Whyte 1997: 55) How could any phenomenon generate such diametrically opposed responses?

How could one society, such as the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, revile twins so much as to kill them and shun the mother, while another society, like the Nyoro of Uganda, rejoices with songs and prayers for more twins? Even if the Igbo did not literally kill twins, clearly twins were in no way desired. There are few events in the lives of African peoples which cause reactions as intense and dramatically different as the birth of twins does.

Although for some African peoples cultural practices surrounding twins have changed, for most the power of twins and twin imagery has not diminished. By way of introduction to this unique collection of essays on the ways that twins are thought of and treated in a variety of African and African American cultures, we need first to establish twins' biological foundations, then briefly review the ethnographic record and evidence from popular culture as well as the volume's essays. Before concluding, we will reflect comparatively on some issues that touch twins from other parts of the world. Previously, study of twins in Africa has focused on the problems they seem to cause for their parents and communities, but a closer examination of beliefs and practices throughout Africa and the African Diaspora demonstrates that in many cultures there is an acceptance of twins which is embedded in larger worldviews and epistemologies often based on complementary dualities. This provides a far more positive and enriching perspective on twins, a perspective that the scholars in this volume will develop. We can no longer assume twins are only causes of antagonisms and conflicts, because they can also stand for ideals of harmony and interdependence.

Fertility and Fatality

The ethnographic record about twins in Africa begins with horrifying accounts of infanticide. Some observers offered "rational" explanations to avoid the conclusion that the people they observed were simply heartless savages. The literature on twins has been so full of infanticide accounts that several scholars have studied that aspect alone from various perspectives (see, e.g., Ball and Hill 1996; Granzberg 1973; Leis 1965; Onimhawo 1996–1997). Some early studies assure us that the abnormality — usually interpreted by subjects as animality — of multiple births was considered so horrible that even the mother had to be killed. Accounts of the difficulties of nursing, feeding, and raising twins abound — and it is certainly possible that some Africans did resolve these problems via infanticide.

Speculation rather than statistics characterized these earlier accounts of twin births in Africa. Contemporary birth records clearly testify to the high number of twins throughout Africa in comparison to other parts of the world. While there are actually various types of twin births, our discussion will focus on the most common: monozygotic or "identical" (two children born from one egg) and dizygotic or "fraternal" (two children born from two eggs fertilized at the same time). A distinction between kinds of twins based on physical appearance is paramount for popular Western thinking about twins, but, intriguingly, is not emphasized or even noticed by most African peoples. In Africa, the criterion for twinness is not superficial similarity but the shared womb experience.

Birth statistics for twins, especially from Africa, are notoriously unreliable due to erratic reporting (the result of economic and cultural factors). Imperato and Imperato (chapter 2) provide a good summary of figures for West Africa. Generally speaking, Africa has the highest rates of twinning in the world, and West Africa is the most prolific area, with approximately 20 twins per 1,000 births. The Yoruba of western Nigeria have had the world's highest rates, with estimates ranging from 25 to 45 per 1,000 births (Pison 1992; Imperato and Imperato, chapter 2). Contemporary rates of twinning worldwide are increasing, with the United States now topping the list, having moved from 10.5 twins per thousand births to 28.8 in recent years — due primarily to use of fertility enhancements, in vitro fertilization, and more older mothers.

Pison (1992: 264) offers an excellent map of the distribution of those African cultures that accept twins favorably and those that have traditionally considered them an abomination. Decades earlier, Talbot (1926, vol. 2:721) surveyed the treatment of twins in southern Nigeria. Both scholars attempted to visually depict the responses to twins and show how neighboring peoples may have absolutely opposite responses. For sub-Saharan Africa, Pison identifies approximately forty-one cultures that accept twins, twenty-six that condemn them, and some forty-five that display mixed responses (1992: 264). Another regional survey is Seligman's (1932) for the Sudan; for Central Africa, Grootaers' charts (chapter 9) demonstrate great diversity among neighboring peoples. It appears that in previous research those cultures which viewed twins ambiguously were considered to despise them, but if we instead accept their middle position, then the acceptance rate of twins is actually greater than previous studies indicated. Complicating matters even among the "pro" and "con" cultures, practices may vary among villages of the same ethnic group.

There are myriad reasons for twins' significance, beyond the obvious demonstration they provide of fertility and abundance. For the Kedjom of the Cameroon Grasslands and the Hausa of northern Nigeria, twins are "children of God" (Diduk 2001; Masquelier 2001), while the Luba associate twins with kings (M. Roberts, chapter 12; see also Adler 1973), and the Nuer equate twins with birds and spirituality (Evans-Pritchard 1936). At the opposite end of the continuum one finds that twins were once abhorred among the Yoruba (see Lawal, chapter 4) and the Igbo, as well as throughout Southern Africa, where twins were abandoned (Schapera 1927). According to Beidelman, among the Kaguru, the perceived abnormality of twins in the past led to their being killed (1963: 55). But most typical are cultures in which twins are both loved and feared due to their extraordinary powers — these include the Mossi (Dugast 1996) and the people of northern Cameroon (Vincent 2001). Among the Himba (Van Wolputte, chapter 3) and in Mozambique (Granjo, chapter 16) twins are critically linked to rainfall and a fear that they could "dry the land." The Luba consider twins "children of the moon" (M. Roberts, chapter 12). Attitudes of deep ambivalence toward twin sexuality are discussed by Lamp (chapter 10).

Even where twin births are celebrated, they are usually grouped with other uncommon births. The category of "abnormalities" usually includes multiple births, babies born with a caul (membrane over the head) or with teeth, babies appearing feet or buttocks first (breech birth), albinos, or infants with major physical deformities (e.g., Downs Syndrome, hermaphroditism). The precise categories of normal and abnormal, as well as responses to them, vary greatly among cultures. Frequently, basic physical abnormalities are virtually ignored and such children are raised in normal fashion. Abnormalities, it seems, literally are in the eye of the beholder. Imperato and Imperato (chapter 2) describe how albinism and hermaphroditism are understood and treated by the Bamana and Maninka in relation to how twins are viewed; as it turns out, all three share some ontological features in this paradigm. An apt illustration of this flexibility of categorizing physical features is an explanation given for individuals with six digits among some African peoples as well as among Haitians (see Houlberg, chapter 13): extra digits are taken as evidence that the bearer is a twin — the additional digits being remnants of the twin who has been absorbed.

This explanation reflects the global "Vanishing Twin" Syndrome that has been receiving increased attention. Initially, this was limited to reports of a vague feeling that one had a twin somewhere, but recent medical information confirms that at least 4 percent of all births begin as twins. One twin apparently absorbs the other in the womb. Among the Nyoro, there are beliefs about Mukama, "the invisible twin," a twin who is not noticed at birth, is forgotten, and will cause harm to its "real" twin and mother until it is recognized and treated properly (Whyte 1997: 140–144). All of this echoes Micheli's comment about West Africans making "twin photos" (chapter 7) as trying to portray "a missing twin they feel inside themselves."

The causes ascribed to unusual births are dependent on culture, ranging from "gifts of God" to lightning striking the mother. Violations of taboos are often considered to result in various types of abnormal births. The most frequently encountered causes relate to the dangers of eating "double" foods (e.g., two fruits grown together). More recently, diet has also been considered a cause of twins among the Yoruba specifically (see chapter 4, for example). For others, dual births are understood to be evidence of dual fathers, one of whom may be understood to be a spiritual entity (e.g., see Grootaers, chapter 9) — a belief also held in ancient Greece and Rome. In this volume, Imperato and Imperato discuss the correlations between twins and albinos among the Bamana and Maninka of Mali, while Granjo analyzes contemporary associations between these unusual births and the fates of political prisoners. Recent reports of the killing of albino people in East Africa, allegedly for medicines, remind us of the real need to learn more about traditional beliefs surrounding albinos.

Altogether, it is clear that however they are explained, whether they are abhorred or desired, the unique biological nature of twins has always defined them as a special category in some way.

Traditional Approaches to Twins in Africa

There is little dispute that sensationalism characterized early observations by outsiders about practices surrounding twin births in Africa. While it is clear that twins are fragile beings — and increasingly at danger given the high infant mortality rates in Africa — it is noteworthy that this issue is seldom the initial observation Africans themselves will make about twin births. In fact, African traditions are far more likely to cite the wonder and spirituality of twins and/or the fertility of the parents, especially of the mother. Because twins embody extreme potentiality, there is usually apprehension as to which direction this power will take. Therefore, many communities have ritual responses which serve to control the situation. One cannot, however, assume that these demonstrate negative reactions to twins.

Surely one must be cautious in making generalizations. Nevertheless, most previous scholarship has indeed generalized and usually portrayed twins as a biological and/or social problem which needed to be solved. As we hope to demonstrate in this collection of essays, twins are exceptional not solely because of the problems they present but more for the solution they represent. Twins and twinning, along with dualities of many types, are fundamental for many African societies; their importance is demonstrated by their continued veneration in the Americas among communities of African heritage. Yet, this perspective has been absent from previous scholarly studies of twins.

There have been several basic anthropological approaches to the study of twins which we might broadly characterize as being symbolic, stemming from Evans-Pritchard's research; structural-functionalist, epitomized by Turner's writings; or in the vein of Levi Strauss' structuralism. Turner's approach seems to be most frequently applied, as seen in several of our contributors' essays (e.g., A. Roberts, chapter 11), but this volume as a whole takes no specific theoretical orientation; rather, aspects of all three approaches as well as straightforward ethnographic description are employed. As opposed to an either/or stance, a more productive orientation for twin studies here emerges, one which does not deny the problematic aspects of twins but does emphasize the positive dimensions. Van Wolputte develops this basic point in his insightful discussion of intertwinement and a matrix model of simultaneous factors (chapter 3). Ultimately, with such a flexible orientation we will gain a better understanding of twins in African cultures.

The first major statement about the ideologies surrounding twins in Africa is Evans-Pritchard's writings based on research among the Nuer of the Sudan in the 1930s. They consider twins to be two physical beings but with one personality — a concept found widely throughout Africa. The Nuer also assert that "twins are birds" in that they share, symbolically, a similar relationship with "Spirit" (Evans-Pritchard 1967: 80–81). When analyzing Evans-Pritchard and the Nuer, many make this assertion more of a puzzle than is necessary, as Evans-Pritchard himself has said (see Littleton 1949). There are indeed several ways by which the association of birds and twins can "make sense." However, by their very nature, twins are ambiguous, as are snakes and other reptilian creatures frequently used to symbolize anomalies including twins (many of this volume's contributors demonstrate this point). More important is the Nuer belief that "twins form the closest possible human relationship" (Evans-Pritchard 1936: 234) — a perspective that is central to this introduction and several of the essays gathered here.

Most recent studies of twinship in Africa begin either with Evans-Pritchard's "puzzle" or Turner's discussion of the social-structural stress twins create for the Ndembu of Zambia. Turner's argument is in debt to Schapera's earlier work on Southern African peoples, which was the first to identify the social-structural problem about twins in that their "social personalities will ... be identical" (1927: 135). Turner later rephrased this issue of two beings occupying one social position: "... twinship presents the paradoxes that what is physically double is structurally single and what is mystically one is empirically two" (1977: 45). Do two become one or does one become two? Thus, for Turner when twins come into this world at the "same" time and perhaps sharing the same soul, they disrupt carefully wrought social systems based on one entity in one position. The Ndembu respond to this ambiguous and potentially threatening situation with a number of rituals for which Turner (1977) provides detailed symbolic analyses.

Many have found Turner's model the most appropriate. In a survey of the study of twins in Africa, Renne and Bastian (2001) and their collaborators build on Turner's observations by adding several important qualifications focusing on contextualization, both historically and culturally, of any study of twins. While they share an "awareness of dissonance," they urge caution in using outside analytical models. In the present anthology, we find further comment on Turner in Van Beek's and A. Robert's chapters (8 and 11), while Grootaers' (chapter 9) provides a review of Evans-Pritchard's work.


Excerpted from Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures by Philip M. Peek. Copyright © 2011 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Beginning to Rethink Twins / Philip M. Peek
Part 1. Roots
2. Twins and Double Beings among the Bamana and Maninka of Mali / Pascal James Imperato and Gavin H. Imperato
3. Twins and Intertwinement: Reflections on Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Northwestern Namibia / Steven Van Wolputte
Part 2. Doubles and Dualities
4. Sustaining the Oneness in their Twoness: Poetics of Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì) among the Yoruba / Babatunde Lawal
5. "Son Dos los Jimagüas" ("The Twins Are Two"): Worship of the Sacred Twins in Lucumí Religious Culture / Ysamur Flores-Pena
6. Twins, Couples, and Doubles and the Negotiation of Spirit-Human Identities among the Win / Susan Cooksey
7. Double Portraits: Images of Twinness in West African Studio Photography / C. Angelo Micheli
Part 3. The Centrality of Liminality
8. Forever Liminal: Twins among the Kapsiki/Higi of North Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria / Walter E. A. Van Beek
9. Snake, Bush, and Metaphor: Twinship among Ubangians / Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers
10. Fiction and Forbidden Sexual Fantasy in the Culture of Temne Twins / Frederick John Lamp
11. Embodied Dilemma: Tabwa Twinship in Thought and Performance / Allen F. Roberts
12. Children of the Moon: Twins in Luba Art and Ontology / Mary Nooter Roberts
Part 4. Transformations
13. Two Equals Three: Twins and the Trickster in Haitian Vodou / Marilyn Houlberg
14. Divine Children: The Ibejis and the Erês in Brazilian Candomblé / Stefania Capone
15. The Ambiguous Ordinariness of Yoruba Twins / Elisha P. Renne
16. Twins, Albinos, and Vanishing Prisoners: A Mozambican Theory of Political Power / Paulo Granjo
List of Contributors

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University of East Anglia - Ferdinand de Jong

Well-researched, well-presented, and theoretically informed. This volume displays a good range of themes as well as extensive geographical coverage.

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