Nigeria, twins and a love-hate relationship

On our arrival in Nigeria’s self-proclaimed capital of twins to investigate the proliferation of multiple births in the small rural town of Igbo-Ora, we are greeted by the news that a woman has just delivered a healthy pair of babies at the local clinic.

Their mother is a twin – her twin brother is in the ward taking photos of the new arrivals, his nephew and niece. Surrounding the bed are the babies’ grandmother, who is herself a twin, and their great-grandmother, who has given birth to two sets of twins.

“That’s how we do it here. We give birth to twins. It makes our town special,” the five-hour-old twins’ grandmother tells the BBC.

“It makes us proud and we love them. We love our twins. They bring us success,” she says.

“People are disappointed if they don’t give birth to twins.”

It is true that Igbo-Ora, in south-western Nigeria, appears to have a higher-than-usual number of twins – walking through the town it is easy to spot younger sets of twins, who tend to wear matching clothes.

The global average birth rate for twins is around 12 per 1,000 births, but in Igbo-Ora it is reported to be about 45 per 1,000.

In Yoruba culture, which predominates in the south-west of the country, twins are a blessing and their names are predestined.

Irrespective of gender, the older twin is called Taiwo, meaning “the one that tests the world”, the younger is called Kehinde, meaning “the one that came after”.

The next day, at Igbo-Ora’s high school we find out that these names tend to dominate roll-call. When we ask a group of around 1,500 students during morning assembly to raise their hand if they are a twin, or have a twin in the family, nearly everyone’s arm shoots up.

So why are there so many twins in the area?

According to oral folklore, the village was founded in the 14th Century by an exiled prince of the Oyo Kingdom, who was told to make specific offerings to the Yoruba gods in pairs and in return, the village was blessed with twins.

Many locals though put their fertility down to a dish called “ilasa”, made from okra leaves. These spinach-like leaves are added to a pot of boiling water along with salt and spices, locust beans and melon seeds.

The reason behind Igbo-Ora’s multiple births is a genuine subject of study in Nigeria.

Only a minority of the twins born in Igbo-Ora are identical – when one egg is fertilised and then divides.

The majority are non-identical, meaning multiple eggs are released and fertilised at the same time.

Researchers are investigating whether natural chemicals in the local food, like ilasa or perhaps even the local yams, might make women produce multiple eggs.

Prof Akinola Kehinde Akinlabi, rector of the Oyo State College of Agriculture and Technology based in Igbo-Ora, thinks genetics may have more to do with it.

The academic, who is himself a twin – and father of twins – says someone born a twin in these parts will not find it hard to find a wife or husband.

“Twins are venerated almost as deities who bring good fortune and protection. People present twins and their families with gifts, money and offers of help. All that encourages people to marry those from twin-producing families,” he tells the BBC.

The traditional ruler of the town, known as an oba, is eagerly awaiting the results of scientific studies.

“My vision for this town is to see us holding the world record for highest multiple births in the whole world,” says Oba Olajide, who is of course a father of twins.

“Things that will follow will be tourism, hotels.”

With this in mind, the town launched an annual international twin festival several years ago.

Prof Akinlabi hopes the focus on twins will also lead to investment for the broader community to tackle things like its poorly equipped and old health centres.

Such is the status of twins that despite the adoption of Islam and Christianity in this area the traditional Yoruba worship of them is still prevalent.

Kehinde Adeleke, our local guide and a younger twin, takes us to witness a ritual offering, including palm wine and beans, to the twin gods at a shrine in her family’s community.

“I feel specially blessed as a twin,” says Ms Adeleke who has two children, but no multiple births as yet.

“I will be disappointed if I don’t have twins – it’s the twins I need,” she admits amid the drumming and singing at the ceremony.

Such attitudes were a complete anathema for some members of the minority Bassa-Komo community near the capital, Abuja. Twins for them have been a source of fear.

In the mid-1990s, Nigerian missionary Olusola Stevens heard the villagers in this remote and poorly developed area thought twins were evil and that they were mysteriously dying.

Such beliefs were not unheard of in Nigeria – especially in the south-east of the country where different communities once killed twins, though such practices ended long ago.

Pastor Stevens, based in Gwagwalada, about 600km (500 miles) north-east of Igbo-Ora, decided to investigate.

“We started going from community to community asking: ‘Where are the twins?’ The normal response was that the gods had killed them. In fact in some cases, the mother would not breastfeed them so they died naturally,” he says.

The missionary found out that sometimes the babies would be given a plant concoction that stopped them gaining weight.

It is not clear exactly why such children were regarded as bad luck, but it may be that in the past they were linked to deprivation and increased risk of maternal mortality.

Pastor Stevens and his team began rescuing these children and set up The Vine Heritage Home orphanage, which currently looks after around 200 children.

To change attitudes, they began by providing villages with medical care, and wells to access clean water.

The orphanage also works with the charity Action Aid on an outreach programme funded by the European Union, while the government has also run a big awareness initiative.

As a result, many from the Bassa-Komo community now keep their twins, but if parents are still worried or in trouble, they hand the children over to the orphanage – and go to visit them there.

In fact, 27 of the children have grown up and accepted invitations to return to live in their family’s village – though it is not always an easy decision for them.

“The first time I saw my biological father was when I turned 18 – I was angry because he abandoned me,” says Olufemi Stevens, known by his nickname “Wonder Boy”.

He grew up in the orphanage after his mother died in childbirth, but is pleased he was brave enough to go home: “When they saw me they came to realise these children are not evil.

“And when I went back I was amazed to see some twins with their own mum. My plan is to go back and set up a school for them – education is the key.”

In a way, the orphanage children are much sought after as they have received a level of education that is unobtainable for most in their own community.

By Peter MacJob & Alex Last

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