Academic journal article Ethnology

Twinship and Juvenile Power: The Ordinariness of the Extraordinary(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Twinship and Juvenile Power: The Ordinariness of the Extraordinary(1)

Article excerpt

Much anthropological literature for sub-Saharan Africa has explored twinship as culturally exceptional and paradoxical. This essay suggests that although twins represent a surfeit of fertility and present contradictions for the social structure, their power poses similar problems to that of other juveniles in a gerontocratic system. The Cameroon Grassfields is a region noted for highly stratified societies and the prevalence of double birth and single children who are metaphorically like twins. Any child who exhibits the capricious and extraordinary capacity to transform mystically has marked consequences for the social, economic, and political order. To understand juvenile power requires contextualizing at the local, compound, and family levels, as well as in relation to the highly stratified political order. (Twins, symbols, power, children, Cameroon)

Twins in the Anglophone highlands or Grassfields region of the Republic of Cameroon embody a postmodern moment. They shift attention away from an essentialized conception of twins on multiple levels. First, they are a protean concept left undefined by biology alone. The term "twin" in Pidgin English in fact refers to a double category of both multiple births (including triplets and so on), who are "children of God," as well as "single twins"; that is, single children born with special signs pointing to extraordinary powers.(2) Second, the significance of twins as a social and symbolic category changed under the influence of missionization, European medical practice, and the decreasing importance of indigenous ritual and political power in the British mandate/trust era. However, more recently the power that twins are said to exercise appears to have intensified. In particular, single twins have grown as a category, often identified ex post facto via divination to explain misfortune (Diduk 1993a).

At the same time that twinship in the Grassfields assumes patterns that clash with what is expected from anthropologists' theories and generalizations, local knowledge about twins rests on a decidedly modernist foundation. Twinship is a God-given capacity that gives universal content to the category. As a natural endowment, it cannot be learned or acquired socially, although it is given expression in society. Even in those cases where people are designated as twins long after birth, it is the diviner (or healer, through consultations with gods) who discovers the identity. Being labeled a twin rests ultimately on criteria that are assumed to be external to the social order; i.e., being born with God-given faculties.

Twinship in the Grassfields reflects a broader pattern in sub-Saharan Africa; namely, that twins may include all multiple births, as well as certain kinds of single births (Beattie 1962; Wilson 1957:152). It is true that birthrates for identical (rather than fraternal) twins are quite high for the subcontinent and certainly in the Grassfields. Thus, as Schwartz (1996) suggests, whenever high rates of twinship occur, society accounts culturally for this phenomenon. However, Grassfields and other African societies also "invent" twins where they do not exist biologically.

Of added significance is that families of multiple-birth twins spend considerable sums on twin rituals today. The paralyzing economic crisis facing Cameroon since the 1980s has neither curtailed these rituals nor reduced their cost. While the expenditures are made once in the life cycle of a domestic group, they are exorbitant relative to per-capita income.(3) The cost exceeds that of all other rituals with the exception of bridewealth payments, but the latter are paid over an extended period of time.

The sheer number of twins, the fact that single twins are increasing, their cultural invention, and their expense in a time of economic crisis all suggest that twins are more than an arcane cultural category. What is especially important about twins is that they share with other children the power to transform mystically (fentah). …

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