In my father’s autobiography, Onyenkuzi, he told a story of how his stepmother, my grandfather’s first wife, died during childbirth. It was a gruesome tale. She was pregnant at the time of her death. Tradition demanded that a pregnant woman must not be buried with the unborn child in her womb. So, the woman’s womb was opened. Two fetuses were brought out. All three, mother and the twins, were buried in separate graves.
This incident happened sometime in the 1930s. Some 50 years before that, those twins, if they had been born, would have been dead, anyway. They would have been dumped in the evil forest to die. And their mother would have gone through elaborate cleansing rituals because she was a conduit for evil.
The reason is that where I come from, twins were considered evil. It was an abomination for a woman to have twins. In the understanding of my forefathers, a child should occupy the womb all by itself. It was a bad omen if two children shared a womb at once. Some considered it a form of inbreeding by the fetuses. It was only animals that were expected to have multiple births.
Also children born with teeth, babies born feet first and boys with one testicle were also considered evil. They were usually killed and their bodies thrown into the forest.
The tradition was ongoing when in 1876, a Scottish woman named Mary Slessor arrived in Nigeria. She was the daughter of a shoe maker. She signed up for missionary work with the United Presbyterian Church at the age of 26. She arrived in Calabar and learned how to speak Efik.
At just 5 feet tall, Mary Slessor walked deep into the hinterlands of South East Nigeria, spreading the message of Jesus Christ. She walked barefoot into places no European had ever stepped into. Her courage and genuine interest in the people endeared her to locals along the way. She challenged witch doctors, chiefs, warriors and everyone in-between.
Her tough childhood in Scotland, under an abusive alcoholic father who made her begin work in mills at a young age, prepared her for what she encountered in Nigeria. She saved children and slaves trapped in the traditional world of the lower Niger dwellers. By the time she died in 1915, she had become everybody’s Ma.
Some Igbo people have protested that it was not all of the people in Igboland that killed their twins. They said that the practice was concentrated in Ibibio where Mary Slessor was based. They said that the Europeans simply painted the whole of Eastern Nigeria with the same brush. They blamed its inclusion in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for finally sealing it as the sin of all Igbo. While it may not be widespread across Igboland, some make this case just to disassociate themselves from a despicable practice of the past. The truth is that no part of Africa was free of one or two forms of appalling practice during the pre-colonial era.
Obviously, my forefathers knew nothing about anatomy and physiology. Even though they had the decency to give an unborn child who died in its mother’s womb its own grave, they were ignorant of what happened during human reproduction. Their ignorance was costly.
Ignorance is always costly. It is especially so when we close our minds to any examination of the coherence of our logic. It also happens when we subdue any iota of curiosity in us. The most deadly incubator of ignorance is intellectual dishonesty.
Our forefathers were not killing twins because of a complete lack of compassion. It was rather because of their total immersion in ignorance.
To the credit of my forefathers, when the message of Mary Slessor got to them, they did not claim moral relativism. They embraced the message and stopped the practice of killing twins and other multiple birth children.
How we know is as important as what we know. In fact, the former determines the later. A society is measured not by how it treats the majority, the powerful, or the mainstream but by how it treats the minority, the weak and those who are different. There are things that we all do today believing that they are right. But hundred years from now, they will be shown to be wrong.
Whatever influences culture and religion bring, there has to be a noble goal in what we think, say, or do. The Rotary Club has a four-way test that asks: 1.Is it the TRUTH? 2.Is it FAIR to all concerned? 3.Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? 4.Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker wrote that, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ‘culture’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.”
I strongly agree with Sam Harris that the noblest goal for us all is to constantly “find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people.”
Whether it is in the matter of human rights, religious rights or gay rights, let us pursue this noble goal because it is the right thing to do. Another reason to do it – as a payback for all the twins we killed.