Academic journal article Ethnology

Reviewing Twinship in Africa

Academic journal article Ethnology

Reviewing Twinship in Africa

Article excerpt

This article serves as an introduction to the existing literature on twinship in African contexts, as well as an introduction to the articles in this special issue of Ethnology. The authors note that the paradoxical nature of twinship for social structure has been a staple of the literature on Africa since the work of Isaac Schapera in the 1920s, but was made more central to the discipline by Evans-Pritchard (1956) and by Turner (1969). The articles in this issue revitalize and resituate the debate about multiple births, bringing to it a social-historical consciousness as well as an understanding of contemporary ritual. This is particularly important since cultural analyses of multiple births now languish in anthropology while multiple births themselves, through new reproductive technologies and media coverage, have become increasingly prominent. (Twinship, literature review, Africa, ritual practice)

The unusual event of twin births has called for explanations and inspired stories in many times and places. For example, in the Old Testament story of Esau and Jacob, twins represented the possibility of social divisiveness: "two peoples ... [who] shall be divided." By portraying the junior twin's divinely predicted but socially anomalous ascendance (cf. Southall 1972:83) as the inheritor of his father's blessing, twinship here provides a venue for reflection on the meaning of primogeniture. Similarly, in the well-known essay on twins in The Ritual Process, Turner (1969) argues that distinctive interpretations of twinship in Africa reflect the structurally disruptive position of two born out of a single body into the social position of one (cf. Schapera 1927). These two may therefore be treated as one ritually or may literally be made into one by more drastic means.

Other interpretations and stories about twins relate to other visions of the world and the problems that arise for those who hold such visions. For example, in the thirteenth century, during the time of Thomas Aquinas, concerns about proper social groupings of people based on religious belief and practices were played out in debates about baptism and whether twin-born children had two souls or one (Schwartz 1996:50; cf. Evans-Pritchard 1956:156 for a Nuer opinion on this question). In a more recent example, Schwartz (1996:21) argued that many Europeans and North Americans are, due to the proliferation of facsimiles reproduced in Western society, preoccupied with duplication and authenticity. This preoccupation, along with anxiety over the perceived loss of strong family ties, has contributed to an obsessive "searching for past twins in singleton births." Such explanations for twin births and the treatment of twins (present or vanished) are not only socioculturally specific but are transformative over time. The essays that follow all consider how contextual specificities have been changing in four contemporary African societies in Cameroon (Kedjom), Niger (Mawri Hausa), and Nigeria (northern Igbo, Ekiti Yoruba).


While anthropological and art historical studies of twinship in Africa have enjoyed several periods of intensive study, particularly in the 1920s (Carey 1925; Hall 1928; Schapera 1927; Thomas 1921), the late 1960s, and early '70s (Abraham 1972; Brain 1969; Chappel 1974; Granzberg 1973; Houlberg 1973; Imperato 1975; Kilson 1973; Mobolade 1971; Segy 1970; Sirota 1967; Southall 1972; Thompson 1971; Turner 1969), little has been published more recently (cf. Diduk 1993; Gufler 1996; Pison 1992) on African twinship in either discipline.(1) Medical studies of twins in Africa also cluster around certain dates, notably the 1960s (Bulmer 1960; Hollingsworth and Duncan 1966; Knox and Morley 1960; Nylander 1969; Nylander and Corney 1969), although intermittent publications span a broader period (Creinin and Keith 1989; Jaffar et al. 1997; Nylander 1969, 1970; Ouaidou and van de Walle 1987).

How can we understand the apparent dearth of anthropological and art historical studies in the 1990s? …

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