Whether kicking up red Sahelian dust or the sands of the lower-lying coastal plains, the footsteps of twins throughout West Africa leave an indelible print along a customarily unified, synchronous path. The Temne of Sierra Leone tell of mythological twin brothers miraculously stitching together two diverging roads, forever fusing their destinies.

On whatever West African path twins take, they straddle an ambiguous line; the vague, intermediary, permeable line that separates the probable from the improbable, the expected from the unexpected, the usual from the anomalous, the mundane from the spiritual. Their position is traditionally ambiguous and paradoxical – two occupying one space, same but different, of this world and, yet again, not.

Twin Festival, Ouidah, Benin
Twin Festival, Ouidah, Benin. Image: Joao De Athayde

They are approached with both awe and apprehension. They are interstitial beings, a kind of interface symbolizing all that is opposing, yet interrelated, in the cosmological fabric of most West African societies: day/night, sun/moon, right/left, east/west. One but two, double but single, harmonious yet dissonant, twins are conjointly wrapped in the rites and rituals, elaborate celebrations and dedications, meant to swaddle and assuage this inherent contradiction.

Twins, Two but One

  • Series: "The Twins Of Koumassi". Photography of two four year old twin girls.
    Award-Winning Series: "The Twins Of Koumassi" by Anush Babajanyan, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Side by side, whether identical or fraternal, twins share a sole and unique social space and time. The Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin Republic refer to them not only as ibeji, double-birth, but as ejire, the intimate, inseparable two. They stand together, bound and powerful, as if a living, breathing microcosm of the greater Yoruban cosmological model; two halves of a gourd creating one universe ― Igbá nlá méjì s’ojú dé’ra won ― held together by a primal force that is itself bipartite, both benevolent and malevolent, called àse.

Sets of Fon, Winye, Dogon, Bambara and Maninka twins also seem to hold up a kind of cosmological mirror, reflecting the higher primordial archetypes of their respective cultures: those of dual creator deities, of sacred and sublime ancestral twins, or of more ambivalent, yet equally double-edged, primal androgynous beings.

Ever shifting their weight between earthly and ethereal worlds, twins wield, for better or worse, incredible power. Among the Bambara (Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal), twins, under the protection of the river-dwelling, balance-restoring, and androgynous god Faro, were thought to walk on water, solve disputes, foretell the future.  A blessing, a reproduction of man’s original androgynous nature, twins, or flaniw, were and are considered to be the ideal.

Not so much for the Kapsiki of northeastern Nigeria, where kwalerha are viewed as an anomaly, a curse yet blessing, potent but fragile, loved yet feared. They are likened to gutuli, spirits that roam the bush, with the spectacular power to command both clement rain and retaliating armies of scorpions. Scorpions that benignly symbolize twinness in Bambara and Maninka iconography, become a veritable avenging force for Kapsiki twins, who will even “go into a trance and faint, or in Kapsiki parlance, “die””*  if their terrestrial/spiritual needs aren’t met.

There is an equally persistent uneasiness among the Tusyan of southwestern Burkina Faso in the presence of twins; they are simultaneously compelled to please the twins’ spirits and to protect themselves against the machinations of the beguiling spirit world from which this mystical union emanates. Elaborate face-cleansing rituals, brass anthropomorphic amulets, and divinatory intervention limit the intrigues of spirits, or setan, and help to restore the harmony, unity, and balance that brings prosperity.

Temne twins of Sierra Leone are thekre, having supernatural power and the extraordinary vision associated with sòki, four eyes that pierce the potent spirit world. It is in their power to penetrate the thin veil between the human and spirit worlds that the ambiguous, anomalous nature of twins lies.

But many West African cultures revel in anomalies and ambiguities; twins among the Ga-Adangme of Ghana are irresistible, ‘desirable anomalies’. They are revered and annually celebrated in the Haadzia yele yeli festival, namesake of the twin divinity under which they are ever protected. And this revelry is amplified to a cult-like pitch by the Vodou (Ewe, vodu or Fon voduncultures of Benin and Nigeria, all the more compelling given that these countries have the highest twinning rates in the world.

Spiritual Doubles

“Ife kwulu, ife akwudebe ya.”

(When one thing stands, something else stands beside it.)

Igbo proverb

Shoulder to shoulder with one twin, stands that something else, a spiritual double; the visible, tangible, earth-born version of the more concealed, metaphysical counterpart of each of us, revealing the inherent twin-ness of us all.  Twins are the the divine counterparts of each other, indistinguishable therefore both sacred, whereas for the rest of us, our spirit doubles, or dual souls the chi of the Igbo, the oma of the Isoko, the enikeji of the Yoruba, the kindu kindu, or conscious shadow, of the Dogon stand relevant, yet unrevealed, remaining in the spirit world.

Yoruba twins, with feet only precariously planted on the ground, must be lured, through rituals, to stay earth-bound. As capricious and slippery as the high-climbing arboreal monkeys, or edun, to which they are likened, they can only be tethered down by exceptional human care.

Song of Ibeji:

“Ibeji re, omo edun ibeji re, omo edun kere-kere-yan”

(Behold twins, children of the monkey. They do not die.)

Everything done for one, must be done for the other and if, perchance, a twin does slip away sadly common, especially in the perinatal period, throughout West Africa this immaculate, equitable treatment continues through a symbolic surrogate; a carved figurine, continuously carried, coddled, catered to and cared for, day after day.

Variants of sculpted Yoruba ere ibeji, Fon hohovi, or Bambara anitokéléw, ‘same doubles’, can also be found among the Senufo and Temne.

Aspiring to Twin-ness

“The centrality for many African peoples of twins and twinning, doubles and dualities, pairs and couples, dyads and dialogics, [is] strikingly evident”.*  For the Winye of Burkina Faso, all good things must adopt the form of the original twin duo; for the Dogon of the central plateau of Mali, the form of the ideal, but lost, ancestral dual births. The allure of the perfect two, sacred in many cultures, often inspires twin-like connections, pairing, and all kinds of twinning behavior.

Those initiated simultaneously among the Bambara are considered fla and will remain flaniw, twins, throughout their lives. Linked patronymic groups, or senanku, are bound in synergetic, reciprocal-joking relationships that mirror the very ‘complementary duality’ of twin-ship. Intentionally identical pairs, aspiring to perfect symmetry, animate the Yoruba Gèlèdé.  And the Dogon, in bilateral marketplace exchanges, are, in that very moment, twins:

“Twins have noble, equitable words. They are of equal value. They are the same thing. The man who sells, the man who buys, both are also the same thing. They are two twins.”

— Marcel Griaule **

Nowhere is the aspiration to twin-ness, or dual selves, more evident than in the double-exposure and duplicated portrait photography found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. These paired-figure portraits   flani foto (Bambara), kinkirsi foto (Mossi), foto wooin (Karaboro), foto venavi (Mina), foto hohovi (Fon), and foto ibeji (Yoruba) or “twin images”, are sublimely symmetrical, symbiotic, symbolic …

“You are the ones who open doors on Earth.

You are the ones who open doors in Heaven

When you awaken, you provide money;

You provide children; you provide long life;

You, who are dual spirits.”

— Ibeji praise song

Sources and Further Reading

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21 December 2019 3:00 pm

Fantastic article! I currently work on article about twin village and your blogpost was one of the best sources I found on the internet. Thank you and greetings from Slovakia 🙂