|Volume: 4 Issue: 3 Year: 1971
Publication Name: African Arts
Ibeji Custom in Yorubaland
by TIMOTHY MOBOLADE
When the following piece was sent to us it attracted considerable interest. Unlike most
of our articles this was not the work of a distinguished scholar shored up with all the
apparatus of his discipline, it was a deeply felt and warm discussion by a young
Yoruba boy of what the ibeji figures meant to him and the important part that they
played in his young world. Set against the previous essay by Dr. Thompson it makes a
most piquant comparison: the outer and inner visions as it were. The first essay
exemplifies interpretation through intellectual analysis and study, the second that
precious appreciation that rests solely upon the urgently shared cultural experience of
a people. In spite of the relative youth of this contributor the essay is an intelligent and
accurate presentation that adds much to our knowledge of the ibeji cult, yet adds too
a note of human warmth that can only be found when a writer, no matter what his age,
draws upon the richness of his personal memory.
Yorubas worship ibeji as a god. This god is portrayed by two wooden figures. This
happens because the two figures represent the two twin children traditionally known
as Taiyewo and Kehinde. The ibeji god is given sacrifices of beans and vegetable
soup. The twins' parents make sacrifices to the ibeji god at least until the mother gives
birth to another baby after delivery of the ibejis. This other child is known as Idowu,
otherwise referred to as esu lehin ibeji, (trickster behind twins) because the Idowus
are usually very difficult children.
Traditionally, the Yorubas regard ibejis as divine children who are capable of bringing
affluence to either or both of their parents or impoverishing them according to how
well they are treated.
The ibeji children are usually not interested in their parents' occupation. However, at
times, they may influence the parents' choice. This is especially true of the ibeji
mothers. When the parents go to a fetish priest to inquire about the sickness of the
children it is the mother who must yield to the occupational preference of her children
in order to aid in their cure. Often instead of introducing an entirely new occupation to
their mother, the ibejis add one or two other small occupations to the already existing
main one, such as the hawking of red palm-oil, the selling of salt, beans, etc. Often
the ibeji may tell its mother to dance about begging for almsl This type of ibeji is
known as "Onijo," that is "dancers," although the ibejis do not dance themselves. One
schoolmistress near our house resorted to begging for alms because that was the
preference of her children! If the mother fails to accomplish the ibejis' wish, the result
might be permanent sickness of the twins or their ultimate death, which is, of course,
terribly painful to the mother. Also, the mother may fall sick and eventually die.
The ibeji children are rather festive. And so every week, fortnightly or monthly the
twins' mother makes a feast for her children. This is a sacrifice to the ibeji god This
sacrifice is offered with some of the following foods: beans, red palm-oil, vegetables,
pumpkins, sugarcane, cake and ekuru. All are welcome in this sacrificial feast,
especially die neighboring children.
In hard times, the ibeji give their parents money through their supernatural power. The
mother may either find the money on a footpath, by the roadside, or on her bed. It is
possible that one of the twin-children may give her the money face to face. There is
one ibeji who gave her mother one shilling at dawn when she realised that the mother
was penniless. Two days later, as the mother was going out at about 6:30 in the
morning, she found a one pound currency note on the footpath in front of her door.
How thankful the mother was to her three-year-old twin girll This is an example of the
super-natural power which makes a god of twin-bom children.
Ibeji children are not referred to as being dead by their parents. Instead, they are said
to have gone to a commercial town to bring wealth home for their parents. Usually
when one of the twins dies, the deceased is said to have gone to Lagos to bring
clothes for the surviving twin and the parents. Perhaps this is to dissuade the survivor
from going to meet its twin in death.
It is customarily believed that an ibeji child is as powerful when it is dead as it was
when alive; therefore, the Yorubas carve figures to represent either of die two that is
dead or both if each is dead. If die dead one was a male twin, die figure would contain
all die parts of a male being; so also if it was a female. On many occasions when die
two twins are said to have "journeyed to Lagos," two images of die ibejis would be
carved showing their masculine or feminine features.
When the ibejis are living, statues of them are not carved, for the essence of the
carvings lies only in vindicating their memory when they have suffered death as
infants, and in invoking their spirit for blessing. Therefore, periodically, as the mother
was accustomed to doing when the ibefi children were alive, she makes a sacrifice in
the form of a feast. The party, consisting mainly of small children, is seated in a circle
and given many foodstuffs to eat. There are beans and palm oil with efo (vegetable)
soup, sugarcane, pumpkins and akara (cake). The latter two are also prepared with
beans. Before the young guests commence eating, the ibeji mother sits with all of the
food in front of her. The ibeji figures with their clothes on are also placed before her.
As the children start on the food, the ibefi mother rubs a little of each kind of food on
the lips of the ibeji carvings. As she does this, she addresses the mute "children" as if
they were alive. She also chants a few of the special lullabies for ibejis, gracefully
caressing the figures as though they were truly her lost children. Many of the verses
consist of wordings which, if the dead could hear them, would almost wake them from
their long, long rest. The hairs on the listeners' heads even stand on end as the
mother lauds the wooden children. I hope to give birth to one. Two finally descended
on me. Bless me so that I might follow you home. Escort me so that I might leave you
alone. Friend of etektsa, cousin of the prosperous.
If one of the ibejis remains alive, the image of the dead one is carved. All its natural
features: its general appearance and sex are represented in the completed figure.
Even the dead theft's tribal marks (if he had any when alive) would be included. The
result is a miniature of the dead twin child. As in the case of two ibeji figures, the
mother offers a sacrifice to the dead twin child although the other one is still alive.
During this sacrifice, the mother brings out the image of the dead twin. Whatever the
living twin wears is also worn by the image of the dead one. As the living twin eats, the
mother rubs the stew and other food on the lips of the image. She then gently
caresses the animate and the inanimate children in her arms as she sings their
praises in heartmoving choruses.
After the feast, the ibeji figure or the two figures (if the twin children are both dead)
are sometimes moved into the shrine of the god which the parents worship, e.g. die
Shango shrine. It may, on the other hand, be kept in the room of the mother. This is
more common, for if Taiyewo is dead, and Kehinde then falls ill, the mother will bring
out Taiyewo's image and coax Kehinde in the name of Taiyewo. Thus, it is hoped that
the living twin, Kehinde, will quickly recover. In the event that both Taiyewo and
Kehinde are no longer living, and the mother falls ill, the mother would then offer a
sacrifice, bring the images out, and invoke their spirit to give her a quick recovery.
And she would speedily recover!
If the two dead ibeji children had ordered their mother to beg for alms before they "left
for Lagos," the mother would continue after their death. She would put one of the two
figures on her back and the other one on her chest as she danced about for alms. If
one of the twins is alive, she would mount the living one on her back and the image of
the dead twin on her chest. A particular woman here in Ibadan hawks about for alms
with an ibeji figure on her chest and the living twin child on her back.
The ibeji figures are actively worshipped if, after the twins' death, ill-fortune befalls
either or both of the parents. Such ill-fortune might be: (1) stoppage of the mother's
menstruation, (2) miscarriage during pregnancy, (3) unusually long period of
pregnancy, (4) infant mortality, (5) sudden poverty,
(6) destruction of property by such things as white ants,
(7) persistent sickness of either of the parents.
In order to cure or prevent what may result from the twins' indignation because of the
improper care given to them by their parents, the ibejis are usually well brought up
and deified by their parents. If the father neglects the mother and feels no worry about
the welfare of die twins, the father will suffer; so also for the mother who fails to
succour her husband for die necessary care of die children.
It is widely assumed that die food liked best by ibeji children is that prepared with
beans and red palm-oil (ewa or tunpulu), and ekuru which is also made with beans. It
is believed that die ibejis want those who have abundant supplies of such foods to be
their parents. As parents want their ibejis to live, the mother usually takes to trading in
beans and palm-oil. No wonder that those who sell these stuffs or those who have
diem in abundance are not afraid of welcoming die delivery of twin children, for they
have enough to satisfy die ibejis. It is thus not unusual for many people to swagger-
There is palm-oil, there are beans.
I am not therefore afraid—oniye.
I am not therefore afraid of giving birth to twins.
There is palm-oil, diere are beans.
The Yorubas were (and many still are) worshippers of die traditional gods. It is
therefore not surprising to see that die deification of ibejis is universally acknowledged
throughout Yorubaland. Legend tells us that ibeji parents used to assem¬ble in a town
near Badagry where an ibeji shrine was situated It is believed that die ibeji god and its
worship orig¬inated there. In this town, die visitors (ibeji parents) would offer sacrifices
to die ibeji god. Energetic dancing and singing would then ensue.
I shall celebrate, I shall celebrate die festival with die
god of twins.
Be favorable, be favorable
Taiyewo be favorable, Kehinde be favorable quickly. Be favorable, be favorable.
But die outcrop of modern civilization in die shape of Islam, Christianity and more
especially education is doing much to gradually abate this belief of many Yoruba
people. Yet striking occurrences and careful reasoning have unmistakably proven, in
many cases, that twin-born children in Yorubaland are special children enveloped and
sealed with supernatural power and mystery.