Infanticide—and more specifically, the killing of twins—although peculiar and unjustifiable in our modern minds and eyes, was an old custom that was perceived as the norm throughout much of the cultures and societies of what is now southeastern Nigeria. In pre-colonial Igboland, the birth of twins was widely perceived as a bad omen, since society bore the impression that multiple births at a single instance of pregnancy was strange, inhuman, animalistic, and peculiar to animals such as hens and goats. Such births were thought to be caused by sinister forces, and so among various societies and communities, elaborate cleansing rituals were devised to rid any household that would’ve been unlucky enough to bear twins of its shame and guilt.
Naturally, births were accompanied with much merriment and fanfare. Twin births (as well as any birth in which more than one child was born was born at a time), on the other hand, were hushed and muffled and lacked any celebration. As customs demanded, as soon as they were born, twins would be taken from their mother and carried a safe distance away from the community and into the forest, where they would be killed or abandoned to die, before news of their birth could spread. Such families risked severe ostracization and discrimination if they failed to handle the matter swiftly and accordingly, since it was believed that their offence, having tarnished the earth, would bring grievous consequences for the entire community.
Although this practice was well entrenched into society’s values, as is natural, there existed individuals such as Nwoye in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” who did not necessarily agree with this tradition and instead wondered what crimes they [twins] had committed that they were decreed criminals worthy only of destruction upon entrance into the world.
The arrival of Christian missionaries into Igboland in the late 19th century signalled the beginning of the end of this practice. Missionaries and natives-turned-evangelists, much to the bafflement of indigenes, rescued abandoned twins and reared them in their religious communities and prayer houses, which were far removed from
towns and villages. One particular Scottish-Presbyterian female human rights activist by the name of Mary Slessor (depicted in the photograph above) spearheaded the anti-infanticide and anti-slavery campaign in parts of eastern Igboland. Having spent many years working and living amongst the Efik (an ethnic group) of Calabar (in modern day Cross River State), in the year 1904, she and her entourage paddled down the creeks and arrived at Arochukwu, an Igbo town which had just been conquered by the British two years earlier.
Using her political backing by the Colonial Government, she began her missionary work there and eventually set up a trade school, where ostracized mothers could learn sewing and various other trades and make a living for themselves and their children. By the mid twentieth century, due to the work of both native and foreign missionaries like Mary Slessor, who currently has a memorial college erected in her honor at Arochukwu, this practice had disappeared.#igbohistory