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 Nigeria's 'Land of Twins'

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CowboyBuck
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 14, 2007 9:12 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Nigeria's 'land of twins' baffles fertility experts
by Joel Olatunde Agoi

Mon Nov 12, 1:00 AM ET
IGBO-ORA, Nigeria (AFP)

Igbo-Ora, a sleepy farming community in southwest Nigeria, welcomes visitors with a sign proclaiming "The Land of Twins"

"There is hardly a family here without a set of twins", said community
leader Olayide Akinyemi, a 71-year-old father of 12, as he settled a
dispute between two neighbours.

"My father had 10 sets, while I had three sets. But only one set, a male
and a female, survived", he said.

The town's high incidence of twins has baffled fertility experts --
underscoring a more regional twin trend and an array of elaborate
African rituals around them.

The rate of identical twins is pretty steady throughout the world at
about 0.5 percent of all births, according to a 1995 study by Belgian
researcher Fernand Leroy, who has worked extensively on twins.

But West Africa bucks that trend, particularly with a much higher
incidence of fraternal, or non-identical twins than in Europe or Japan .
That is especially true, experts say, amongst Nigeria's Yoruba community
which is largely concentrated in the southwestern part of the country
where Igbo-Ora is located.

Overall, almost 5 percent of all Yoruba births produce twins, the
Belgian study said, compared with just around 1.2 percent for Western
Europe and 0.8 percent for Japan -- although fertility drugs in the
developed world are changing those figures.

Yam consumption may be one explanation for Africa's largesse, some West
Africans and Western experts believe. Yams contain a natural hormone
phytoestrogen which may stimulate the ovaries to produce an egg from
each side.

For their part, Igbo-Ora's residents appear nonplussed about their twin
phenomenon.

Some like Akinyemi support the yam theory -- and point specifically to
the reputedly high oestrogen content of agida, the local name for yam
tubers.

"We eat a lot of okro leaf or Ilasa soup. We also consume a lot of
agida. This diet influences multiple births", he said.

Others are not so sure.

"The real cause of the phenomenon has not been medically found", said
Akin Odukogbe, a senior consultant gynaecologist with the University
Teaching Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan , the nearest big town.

"But people attribute the development to diet", he continued, adding
that studies have shown that yam can make women produce more than one egg which can be fertilised.

Chief nursing officer at the hospital Muyibi Yomi, who records a monthly
average of five twins for every 100 births, puts it all down to
genetics.

"If a family has a history of multiple births, this will continue from
generation to generation", she said.

That should be good news for Yorubaland, where twins are regarded as a
special gift from God and bearers of good luck, Akinyemi said.

"Twins are treated with affection, love and respect. Their birth is a
good omen", he said.

But while many African cultures see twins as blessed, they often believe
twins also have divine powers and the ability to harm those who cause
them displeasure.

In pre-colonial times some communities used to kill twins and
occasionally their mothers, believing a double birth was an evil portent
and that the mother must have been with two men to bear two children at
once. A Scottish missionary is credited with ending this practice.

In Yorubaland and indeed in large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, twins
are also believed to possess one soul between them. This belief accounts
for a whole series of distinctive, and in some cases macabre rituals
that are often country specific.

If one twin dies in a Yoruba family, the parents order a wooden figure
called an "ibeji" to be carved, to take the place of the dead twin. The
half soul of the deceased twin is thought to live on in the ibeji figure
-- which is clothed, "fed" and carried by a mother exactly in the same
way as the living twin.

When living twins reach maturity they take responsibility for the
ibejis' care.

Meanwhile, a twin who dies in Malawi is buried with a piece of clothing
belonging to the surviving sibling.

But when a twin dies in South Africa , the surviving twin is made to lie
face down on his sibling's coffin the night before the burial, to mourn
his death and say goodbye properly.

Another variant has the surviving twin being made to lie face up in the
freshly dug grave the day before his sibling is buried. If not,
communities fear the surviving twin will pine so much for his dead
sibling that he will also die.

Amongst the Yoruba -- one of Nigeria 's dominant ethnic groups who are
also present in Benin , Ghana and Togo -- a mother who loses both twins
will take part periodically in ritual ceremonies where she dances with
both ibeji figures, either one in each hand, or both tucked into her
shirt.

Anthropologists say the elaborate rituals surrounding twins go back to
the days when perinatal mortality was very high for twins -- the
increased chances of premature delivery compounding the problem of
inadequate healthcare in traditional societies.

The rituals were destined to help communities come to terms with the
loss of the babies.

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