Twins in West African Culture

Are you twins? Who’s older? If I slap you, will your sister feel it? Do you even need a mirror? I mean, can’t you just look at your sister and know exactly how you look? Sister Sister! Double Trouble! I cannot count how many times I have heard these lines. Both annoying and intriguing, I decided I wanted to learn more.

I would like to say that I am fortunate to have a twin sister, though I did not always feel this way. From ages 10-13, we tried so hard to create our own identities that we ended up keeping secrets from one another and sharing them only with our respective friends.

When we asked our parents for something, we often held our breaths anticipating the ever-daunting response: “sure, but you will have to share with your sister”. I mean jeez, I had not asked to be introduced to this world at the same time as someone else, who, to top it off, “looked just like me”!

But as we grew older we realized how fortunate we actually were to have each other. My twin is the only person who knows exactly how I feel without having to so much as look my way. She can read my thoughts or know what I will say without my saying it. She feels my pain as if it were her own. She knows when I am lying and when I am telling the truth. She knows when something is wrong even when we are not in the same place. And guess what I recently learned? If my sister or I had a baby it would be impossible to tell who the mother was!

My twin sister Sarata (left) and I

There are so many myths and beliefs surrounding twins in West African culture that I really wanted to learn more about it. Unfortunately the literature surrounding the topic was not at all what I had expected. Very few pieces have been written about it. I did however, find a few good articles.

Interestingly enough, it seems that twins can be viewed as both a blessing and a curse depending on the culture. Some even say twins have divine powers (um…I have yet to prove that one LOL). I found an interesting essay regarding some practices. In some parts of Nigeria for instance when a twin passes away, they are buried like kings seated on a throne. For the Bali people in Nigeria, parents will put 2 bells in the twins’ room so that if someone walks in the bell will ring and announce they are there so as not to startle the twins and cause the twins to harm them or curse them.

It was really interesting to see how families and societies treat twins in this piece. For the Kpe people of Cameroon for instance, twins are viewed as a burden and people actually hold rituals during pregnancy to prevent them.

There was also an interesting paragraph from an article I came across: “Among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, twins are called ibejis after Ibeji. People believe that, depending on how they are treated, twins can bring either fortune or misfortune to their families and communities. For this reason, twins receive special attention. One myth links the origin of twins with monkeys. According to this story, monkeys destroyed a farmer’s crops, so he began killing all the monkeys he could find. When the farmer’s wife became pregnant, the monkeys sent two spirits into her womb. They were born as the first human twins. To keep these children from dying, the farmer had to stop killing monkeys”. How interesting is that?

I remember my mother always saying that if you give something to one twin you had to give the other something too. Yes, I have used that to my advantage a couple of times ;). What? Is that a Valentine’s Day gift for my sister? I know you have mine somewhere right? Right??

In some parts of the Ivory Coast, twins are also said to be able to stop the rain and are often called upon when there are manifestations or events and the weather turns inclement. In Guinea and in the Ivory Coast, when one twin is getting married, the other is also treated like the bride. You hear that fellas, you are actually getting 2 brides ;).

With all of these beliefs there is only one thing I am sure of, there is definitely a strong bond between twins and there are times when our similarities and connection baffle me but I would not have it any other way! (Not that I had a choice or anything…:)) And though my sister prays she is not the one of us who will have twins (because she thinks being so close to another sibling is a tough thing to handle, what with the possibility of losing your other half), I think it’ll be a blessing! Ha! There you have it! See we are different after all!

So, what do they say about twins in your culture?

Saran Kaba

Saran Kaba

Born in New York City, Saran also spent 7 years of her life living in Guinea, Conakry. She has a B.A in International Studies and an MPA (with a focus on Nonprofit Management). She has many years of experience in the fundraising and project management fields having worked for various NGOs. In 2004, Saran founded (along with her twin sister) an organization called Guinée Espoir aimed at bettering the lives of children living in Guinea, West Africa (www.guineeespoir.com). Her passion? Helping others.
Saran Kaba

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Comments

  1. says

    Hi there Saran!

    I am not sure of the mysteries associated with twins in west African culture, but I did meet one Ghanaian man who totally did not want to hear of twins, he must have thought they were evil, he was no angel himself, not sure whether he noticed.

    I do have a younger sister though. We were always stopped by people who would ask if we were twins, not that we are identical, when we look at each other, we only see how different we are. I am pretty certain the situation was not helped by my mom constantly dressing us in the exact same clothes and forcing us to go everywhere together. My friends used to tease me saying, “You are probably going to have to take your sister with you when you go on a date!” We still do many things together when we are on the same continent.

    Not that this has anything to do with West Africa, but I recently came across a film on TV, which involved a twin engaing in a near death attempt in order to connect with her dead twin who had commited suicide, I know, extremely eerie, I quickly walked out of the room and do not intend to watch the film, too wierd! The film is called Constantine.

    • Saran116 says

      So interesting! I wonder what his justification was for that…

      That’s awesome that you and your sister were/are so close! The dressing alike part, now that would have made me crazy ;)

      Wow, thanks for the warning about the movie. I am staying away from it as well! LOL

      Saran

  2. Nicole says

    Beeing a twin is truly a blessing! I can’t beginning to describe it..makes me emotional lol. My twin is my best friend.

    Saran, do you know to this day my little brother thinks you and Sarata inspired us to be dress/be different?!?
    One thing that bothered me growing up was when people assumed that because my twin, Emilie, liked something that I would too! I mean it might have been the case but at least ask me too! We also didn’t like when people referred to us as “Les jumelles” (twins); we’d say “No it’s Emilie and Nicole”!

    • Saran116 says

      LOL…Did we really inspire you to be different? hahaha
      My older siblings used to call us “les jumelles” all the time so I guess we were used to it and it did not bother us as much. Being a twin is definitely a blessing. I can’t imagine my life without my other half!

  3. says

    Interesting post indeed! Just yesterday I came across an article that showed that Nigeria has the highest number of twins in the world. Another one states that the number of twins in West Africa is four times higher than in the rest of the world. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/people/highlights/010607_twins.shtml This is real mystery!

    Among the Igbos in Nigeria where I grew up, Twins are just referred to as twins (rarely called by name, and I now wonder how they are distinguished). They do no get a different kind of treatment these days. However, in the olden days, it was an abomination to have twins and they were often abandoned. Obviously, this sad superstition has long been abandoned.

    I am sure people don’t mind having twins these days but I suppose it is more work for the parents. It must be fantastic to have somebody you shared the womb with! What can be closer than that?

    • Saran116 says

      It’s funny how every article I read seems to mention the “yam diet” hum…maybe I will put that theory to the test! LOL

      It is definitely a lot of work according to my mom (though I would like to believe I was the perfect child ahem…ahem…)!

  4. says

    GREAT post, Saran!

    I’m also an identical twin and can totally identify with your progression from resisting it in an attempt at individual identity, to embracing it. The info you’ve included is fascinating. I read a while ago that dogs can smell the difference between all individuals except identical twins…so much for our own DNA!

    Enjoy your BEAUTIFUL sister :-)

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