Twins are a mixed blessing for some West African parents

Twins in green dresses outdoors
Twins at the Patte d’Oie district of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November, where mothers of twins come to beg on the road. In Burkina Faso, a country with a strong belief in the supernatural, twins are regarded as children of spirits whose mothers were specially selected to bear them.
(Sophie Garcia / Associated Press)

In her dreams, Eveline Zagre believes her two sets of twins share premonitions and make demands of her — buy a chicken, beg for money.

“Their spirits will enter your dreams and let you know what they want and then you have to get it for them,” she said.

Despite the burden of following their dream directives, Zagre considers herself doubly blessed. The 30-year-old mother of five is raising 3-year-old twin girls and 13-year-old twin boys in Burkina Faso — one of the West African countries where twins are revered for having special powers, like healing the sick, warding off danger, bringing financial prosperity and predicting the future.


The majority-Muslim country, with its strong cultural embrace of the supernatural, regards twins as the children of spirits, and the mothers of twins as specially picked to bear them. This deeply rooted perception stems from the days people could not scientifically explain how twins were conceived. In other parts of West Africa, twins are seen as a curse.

“People were afraid of twins because they couldn’t explain ... why these children were born two instead of one,” said Honorine Sawadogo, a sociologist at the government-run National Center for Scientific and Technological Research in Burkina Faso.

Parents of twins would turn to witch doctors who came up with rules they believed they must follow in order to keep their children and themselves safe, said Sawadogo, who did her doctoral research on the mothers of twins. These beliefs and practices persist today despite the established scientific explanation for how twins come into the world.

Zagre and her husband, Ousmane Nikiema, visited a witch doctor after giving birth to both sets of twins. For their boys, the parents were given no directives. But a witch doctor told them their girls, Victorine and Victoria Nikiema, needed to beg for money on the side of the road or risk being killed by a family member’s spirit.

“If [the witch doctor] sees a spirit in the compound, you’ll have to take the children to beg in order to prevent the curse,” said Nikiema, who lives with his family in Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou. “[The spirit] might not kill them, but he’ll do something to them. He can make them insane or something similar, or he can paralyze them.”

Throughout Ouagadougou, mothers and their identically dressed twins can be seen sitting on mats alongside roads and begging. They are driven by dream requests and witch doctor instructions, mothers told the Associated Press.


As they beg, visitors offer gifts, like chickens, honey cake and seashells, in exchange for blessings.

“I bless people when they come and give us things, I say may God heal you if someone comes and is sick,” said Marcelline Tapsoba, the mother of 2-year-old twins.

As they sat on the ground in their usual spot in the city’s outskirts, Tapsoba and her children were surrounded by other mothers and their twins who also were begging and offering blessings.

Tapsoba said those who receive her blessings often return weeks later to thank her for their newfound romantic or financial success.

Similar scenes play out in Ghana. “If you give birth to the twins in Ghana, you have to follow the twins’ rules,” said Kasim Amadu, a businessman. It is thought that wronged and unhappy twins can lead to personal harm for the parents and others, he said.

Most cultures in West Africa cherish twins, and soothsayers believe they can enhance their communication with the spirit world through them, said Philip Peek, a professor emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey whose research includes folklore and African religion.

Peek, who is the editor of the book “Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed,” said there is a longstanding global belief that twins have a heightened ability to communicate because of the bond they form in the womb, which allows them to connect to higher powers.

“They communicate intuitively and the ability is certainly recognized in secular terms, not just spiritual,” Peek said.

Not every West African community embraces them.

Twins are considered evil in some neighborhoods surrounding Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, said Stevens Olusola Ajayi, a Christian missionary who has rescued 19 sets of twins out of fear they would be killed. Ajayi, who has been doing this work since 1996, brings the children to live with his family and community. This year he returned six children to their parents; it is the first time he has been able to arrange such family reunions.

Even in countries where they are viewed favorably, twins can be at risk of being exploited for financial gain. Some mothers borrow children from neighbors and pass them off as twins to make more money from begging, said Sawadogo, the sociologist.

It is not easy being the parent of twins. In Ouagadougou, Fati Yougma, 27, said her twin girls beat her in her dreams if she doesn’t obey their demands.

Despite that, Yougma is honored to be their mother.

AP journalist Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.