African Culture And Women

About African Women, Culture and who they Are In The Society.

The Nsei, The Kpe of Coastal Cameroon

Posted by cultureafrico on February 28, 2011

The Nsei:
The Nsei people confine the mother and twins behind a fence for several years. When the fence is taken down, there is a great feast. A twin pot decorated with a large red spot surrounded by a black circle is put in the mother’s house. This post contains palm wine mixture with some large snail shells. This is noteworthy as generally cowri shells are used for rituals. Snail shells would be unusual and may survive in the archaeological record.

The Kpe of Coastal Cameroon:
Found along the coast, they are a Bantu speaking peoples. In this culture twins are considered a difficult thing and rituals are performed when a pregnancy is discovered to prevent twins. They are often sickly, they are difficult to nurture and it is believed if the twin does not like the house it is born into then it will die. Twins are welcomed if born, but are viewed with apprehension.

Twins and first-born children dying in infancy are buried with no coffin, in mwendene leaves (these grow to a large size, up to 1 ft. 6 ins. In length), the reason for this being to prevent such children being born again. I’ve been told that some children belong to the underworld and are born just to vex their parents by dying in infancy again and again. When such children are identified, by a diviner or the parents themselves (the parents will recognize this because each time this child is born it stays for three months and then dies), to prevent this from happening the above rite is used, or in the South-West province they will cut a limb, or finger or toe off the deceased baby so that the underworld will reject its return and it will be forced to be reborn to the parents and live. One account of a girl in Kumba holds that she had been born and died five times to the same parents. They cut her left arm off just below the elbow before her final burial. The next child born to these parents was missing an arm below the left elbow. This applies to twins as they are also considered children of the underworld. This accounts for their mystical and magical powers accredited to them.

The Yoruba of Nigeria:
Originally the Yoruba would kill twins and possible their mother. They believed twins were evil portents and that the mother had to have been with two men to have two children at once. This practice was abandoned in precolonial times except for the Igbo people of Onitsha. They held on to this idea that twins were an abomination that must be killed up until the introduction of Christianity. Now twin shrines and special observances have replaced traditional infanticide.The acceptance of twins into Yoruba society is explained by a myth that they are of divine origin and the descendants of monkeys. They must be treated with respect to gain prosperity for their family.

The Yoruba twin rituals have been studied more than any group in West Africa. They have the unusual rite of carving a wooden ibeji figure in place of a dead twin. This precaution evolves from the belief that twins possess one soul between the two of them, and with the death of one twin the living twin could not live with half a soul. The deceased twin’s half soul is believed to live in the ibeji figure. The ibeji is treated exactly as the living twin, it is clothed in similar garments, and ‘fed’ during meal times. It is also carried by the mother when she goes to the market. When the living twin reaches maturity the ibeji is handed over to them to care for. Ibeji figures have been so studied as they have lineage symbols carved into each one and act as an almost written record of family trees.

Fertility and Metalworking:
As twins are seen as representative of an almost hyper fertility they are used to describe many events relating to the success of crops and events such as metal working. As mentioned, certain crops and plants are associated with twins. There is often a communal area for twin crops where the families of twins plant and harvest the seeds for continual success for the next season. Twins are magical beings of divine origin and will bless all who treat them as such. This blessing transfers to the entire village if the correct rituals are performed. It is common for a Manyi to be held up in the market by people giving gifts and asking for fertility blessings. It is also common for people to treat me with this kind of respect at our local gatherings. My husband and I toast to the next Tanyi, the president of the organization, who is wanting to have twins the next time around. Although there is some jesting associated with these toasts, there is also an underlying hope that we will impart some of our own fertility success to to others.

In metal working the forge is often referred to as a body, and the process of making metal like a birth. If a forge is very successful a double bloom will be produced, like twins. Smithing is generally considered a male activity although among the Gbaya a woman born a twin may take up working the forge. Clearly the status of twin ship outweighs any cultural gender roles in this case. Among the Ekonda only smelters, hunters specializing in elephant traps, and fathers of twins may consume the prescribed menu of chicken, fish, palm oil, cane rat, and bananas. Once again this demonstrates the connection to the forge and the transcendence of status.

In many cultures the firing of the forge is associated with the fire it takes to make a baby. Twins are often thought of as the result of excessive firing in the uterus, and therefore have excessive power. In the We cultural traditions the firing is definitely associated with birth. When a double bloom is produced it would then be considered that the furnace had delivered twins, and then the smelters would perform the same birth celebration as for twins, with twin dances and songs. They would slaughter a goat and the whole village would rejoice. Just as twins represent ultimate human fertility, a double bloom was considered ‘divine favour’ to be celebrated.

As you are able to read, the role of twins in West Africa is unique and significant. There has to be some evidence of this in the archaeological record, this research will enable an archaeologist to recognize it. Mythological associations with twins are found in many cultures around the world but the God-like magic given them in the Grassfields is unusual. Other interesting things that may be determined from the presence of twins in the record is status change. I have concentrated on the material culture for this site, but there is abundant information pointing to a change in status of twins and their parents. In Bangolan a Manyi and Tanyi are elevated to the level of a fon and are not expected to bow in his presence. As related by several works, there are changes that cross traditional gender roles and occupations as well. A female twin may become a smith, a twin may become a ritual specialist.

Twins also produce a high amount of material culture. If one finds a certain patterned pot or a twins shrine near a compound then it becomes possible to expand this find into a cultural application. It becomes easier to postulate the status relations and roles in that compound in that village. I am excited by the possibilities this research carries, I hope you are too.


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