Oyeyinka Adegoke, the elderly tribal chief for this steamy little village, has fathered three sets of twins in his 70 years, a feat not much rarer in these parts than an afternoon rain shower.
“There are many, many twins here, yes,” Adegoke said one afternoon not long ago, as heavy clouds rolled in. “But as a Yoruba man, I know there are twins everywhere.”
The 18 million Yoruba people of western Nigeria, in fact, have the highest rate of producing twins in the world. Every third house or so in villages like Asejire has a pair of twins, known as ibeji.
Precisely why so many of Nigeria’s Yorubas have twins remains a mystery more than 15 years after the high incidence was first documented.
May Be Related to Diet
Researchers think that it may be related to diet, such things as yams and beans. But they may never know, for the twin rate among Yorubas has begun to fall, from 4% of all births in the 1970s to about 3% more recently. Still, that is twice the rate of 1% to 1.5% worldwide.
What is not in doubt is the exceptional standing of twins in Yoruba land. They are regarded as bearers of happiness, good luck and riches for their parents, but also as familiars of the gods, with extraordinary powers for good and evil.
These “wonder children,” as Alice Adegoke, one of the chief’s three wives, calls them, are thought to bring such things as good growing weather to farming communities like Asejire, which got its name--"maker of twins"--from its founder, himself a twin.
Twins turn their mothers into mini-celebrities. “Iya ibeji "--mother of twins--is a term of great respect throughout western Nigeria. But with all their special needs, twins can be difficult to raise.
Rooster Helps Out
“We bring a rooster to appease them,” Alice Adegoke said. “And then we pamper them with beans.”
All Yoruba twins, boy or girl, are named Taiwo and Kehinde. Taiwo, meaning “he who has first taste of the world,” is the first-born. Kehinde means “he who lags behind.”
Seniority in the tribe is an important question in the case of double births. The Yoruba believe that in the womb the stronger and dominant twin is Kehinde, who deserves senior status. Kehinde is born last, they believe, because he or she forces Taiwo out of the womb first to see if the world is safe.
Chief Adegoke remembers that at each birth of twins he has witnessed, the junior twin who arrived first screamed “Mabo, mabo, mabo” (“Come, come, come”)--Taiwo’s report back to Kehinde. If Taiwo does not cry out when he or she is born, it is feared that the second baby will refuse to be born.
Twins are said to be a blessing reserved only for the poor and kind-hearted.
“Twins are delivered to poor people to make them rich,” said Kehinde Eghobamien, 30, a twin who works as a clerk in Lagos. “Within three months you will see the parents of twins building a house, and so on. The twins have brought them good luck. It happens all the time.”
Twins are thought to bring luck to those who see them and touch them, and they are showered with gifts and money from strangers in Yoruba land. Delia Pitts, an American in Lagos, took her year-old twin boys to a small village market in Nigeria not long ago and a grinning crowd soon gathered.
“We couldn’t get out of the car,” Pitts recalled. “They were singing and chanting and pointing at my boys.”
Once, in a Lagos store, a woman picked up one of the Pitts boys and rubbed her own abdomen, saying she hoped the child would bring her good luck--a set of twins--one day.
The curse of a twin, however, is considered lethal, and the mother of twins is believed to be able to send her twins to harm her enemies.
“We are very dangerous and we are very powerful,” said Kehinde Adedeji, a soft-spoken 23-year-old office clerk in Lagos. “You must know how to take care of us.”
And another twin, Kehinde Eghobamien, said: “If someone gives offense to me, I can go in a corner and say I want something to happen to this person and that will be all. It will happen. If your mother annoys you, you have the power to hurt her, too.”
Mothers of twins in very isolated Yoruba villages, where neither Christianity nor Islam has made inroads, have even more responsibilities. When a twin dies, the mother has a small effigy carved from wood. To placate the dead twin’s spirit, she treats the effigy as if it were the living sibling: bathing, feeding, clothing and carrying it.
These figures, usually about 10 inches high, are abundant throughout Nigeria, partly because infant mortality rates, especially in the case of twins, have been high. They are also valued in the Western world as important African art work.
Priests’ Advice Sought
When twins are a few years old, their mother seeks the advice of the village priest. The priest consults Orisa Ibeji, the god of twins, and tells the mother what she must do.
Most often, she is advised to sing and beg for money, and in some parts of western Nigeria, young women carrying twins can still today be seen obeying the gods. Sometimes the mother is advised to sell palm oil. All are urged to feed their twins beans and fruits.
If a mother ignores the priest’s advice, it is believed her twins will die and she may become barren. Traditional Yoruba mothers also ask their twins to pray for them each morning.
Mothers of twins in traditional societies are under tremendous pressure to have more children. It is believed that Idowu, the name given the child--male or female--born after twins, will drive the mother crazy until she gives birth to him or her.
While these beliefs are declining, even the modern Yoruba people cling to some traditions. Twins have their own festival, 35 miles south of here in Ishara, a picturesque city on steep hills with red dirt roads and gingerbread-colored houses.
“We celebrate Christmas, New Year’s and Odun Ibeji (Twins’ Day),” said Taiwo Onaeko, 31, a female twin who works as an orderly at the Ishara Comprehensive Hospital.
Dances in the Street
During the celebration, all the twins in Ishara wear matching clothing, dance in the streets and exchange gifts. Their mothers cook the food--mostly beans, of course.
One in every 23 births at the Ishara hospital last year involved twins, and this city of 46,000 residents seems overrun with twins playing barefoot over the rocky hills.
Esther Kolawole, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, and her husband have year-old twins. But the Kolawoles’ Taiwo girl and Kehinde boy are just one of four pairs of twins living within 100 feet of each other on their block. Next-door neighbor Moriamo Olusanya, a 35-year-old trader, has 3- and 8-year-old twins.
Although Esther Kolawole is a Christian and does not follow the cult practices, she does believe in the special powers of twins.
“I know twins bring wealth,” she said, noting that the fortunes of her and her husband, a printer, have increased in the year since Taiwo and Kehinde were born. But she knows that “if we aren’t nice to the twins they can hurt us too.”
The high twin rates in these parts were first charted scientifically by Dr. Percy Nylander, a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. His first findings were published in 1970, and more research followed through the rest of the decade.
Rates of identical twins, from a single egg fertilized by a single sperm, are not appreciably different around the world. It is the rate of fraternal twins, those from two eggs fertilized by separate sperm, that varies from place to place.
Fraternal twinning rates are generally higher among older women, but they also vary according to race. Blacks, for example, have the highest rates generally and Asians the lowest. Whites fall somewhere in between. But the rate among the Yoruba is exceptionally high.
Although heredity is an important factor in twin births in most places in the world, it does not appear to be significant in western Nigeria, Nylander’s studies indicate. He says he believes that environmental factors may be more important than genetic factors, and he suspects that food is the reason.
“There seems to be something in the diet that acts like a fertility pill,” Nylander said in a recent interview in Ibadan. “But it will be extremely difficult to isolate.”
The professor’s case is supported by plenty of circumstantial evidence, including the following:
--The twin rate is very high among low-income Yoruba people, who still eat an indigenous diet of such things as beans and yams, and very low among the wealthier groups, who have a more modern diet. “As people eat less of the indigenous diet, the twinning rate drops,” he said.
--High levels of the hormone FSH, which stimulates ovulation and therefore increases the chances of having twins, have been found in Nigerian mothers of twins. A similar study of mothers in Scotland found no difference in the FSH levels of mothers of twins and mothers of single children.
“That indicates something is stimulating FSH, and increasing the chances of twins beyond the statistical chances that exist elsewhere,” Nylander said.
--The twin rate is falling among the Yoruba, who are becoming increasingly exposed to the outside world. A recent follow-up to Nylander’s studies found that the twin rate was 2.7%, still about double the worldwide rate but a significant drop nevertheless. “The environment is changing very quickly among the Yoruba now,” Nylander said. “They are eating rice now, drinking coffee and milk, eating sugar. Those sorts of things were available to only a few before.”
Most Likely Factors
The two most likely candidates for causing increased twin rates are yams, which have long been a staple of the Yoruba diet, and beans, which have been linked with twins in Yoruba culture, Nylander said.
Certain yams grown in West Africa contain a substance that, when extracted and treated chemically, is used in birth control pills to control fertility.
Although there is no evidence that eating yams enhances fertility, Nylander said, “if it can work in birth control, perhaps other varieties of the plant or other parts can be used for increased fertility.”
Beans become an important food in families that have twins, and one of Nylander’s studies found that mothers of twins in Nigeria were more likely to have twins again because of the high FSH levels rather than heredity.
Treating twins with reverence and respect is a relatively new development in Africa, and in the Yoruba tribe.
Centuries ago many African tribes, and other civilizations around the world as well, considered twin births an aberration and a terrible curse. Often twins and their mothers were ostracized by the community; in many cases, one or both twins was killed.
In those tribes, giving birth to more than one child was considered either sub-human, because only lower animals had more than one offspring, or evidence of two fathers--adultery. In some cases, the arrival of twins was thought to bring very bad fortune to the village; elaborate purification rituals were performed.
Rejected From Villages
Historians say “twin towns” appeared across Africa in those times, and twins gathered there to live after being rejected by their villages.
Mary Slessor, a British missionary in eastern Nigeria in the mid-1850s, worked for nearly 40 years to stop the killing of twins in the area around Calabar. She took mothers and twins into the church compound for their protection and helped to enact laws that put an end to the practice.
Father Raymond Ezeonu, a Roman Catholic priest, tried to stop the killing of twins near Ezzagu, in eastern Nigeria, by setting up a twins’ home in 1978. In the nine years before it closed last year, 160 twins had passed through the home.
Although Ezeonu says the custom of infanticide has stopped, the Twins Mothers Union, an association of mothers of twins and triplets saved in the past decade there, continues to raise funds and provide assistance to mothers who have multiple births.
Some researchers believe that in early times the Yoruba practiced similar sanctions. But the attitudes changed over generations and were replaced by a society that welcomed twins.
Made a Believer
Art Alade, a Lagos musician, television producer and restaurateur, still remembers how, in 1976, his twin sons made him a believer in tradition.
“One day I was completely tapped out--didn’t have a penny,” he said. “I had a TV show to do and I told the twins, who were just 5 at the time, ‘OK, you guys, go bring me some luck.’
“Then, just before the show, some guy who had owed me money for ages showed up and said he’d come to pay his debt. The first thing I did was go out and buy the boys a few presents. Just to say thank you.”