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Alumni Essays

Ibeji Dolls

Nicholas Cunningham

When in 1969, having spent two years in Nigeria I returned to the School of Hygiene, four of my former students at the University of Lagos School of Medicine turned up on N. Wolfe Street as MPH candidates.

We decided on a little reunion at my house which was opposite what my 2-year-old son called "Silly College." After a convivial libation, we adjourned to the dining room for supper, where the conversation abruptly stalled. I noticed them casting their eyes about the room, and soon identified the source of their discomfort. On a ledge that surrounded the room, I'd placed about 30 or so "Ibeji" dolls.

Most of these I'd bought from a trader in Ibadan, when en route between Ilesha where I was the attending pediatrician at the Wesley Guild Hospital, (and where, from two nearbye villages—Imesi, the site of David Morley's pioneering "Under Fives Clinic" and Oke Messi Ekiti, the other "Imesi"—I was collecting the data for my doctoral srudy), and Lagos, where my thesis advisor, JHU's Professor Robert Wright was the chairman of a new department of Community Health. I made this trip frequently in my little Austin Mini, and having found this one trader who had hundreds of the twin dolls piled in a closet, I'd stop there and examine them one by one, picking out the most interesting ones and then, after some haggling, purchasing them.

Twins in Yoruba land are frequent, (about four times as common as in Europe or the U.S.), and regardless of sex, are always called Taiwo and Kehinde. Because ot the high 0-5 mortality and because twins are at extra risk, they often died. Centuries ago, they were seen as bad omens for the family, but this belief gradually reversed while at the same time, a cult arose and became an important part of the indigenous religion (with its center in a shrine at Oshogbo, near the sacred River Oshin). Part of this cult involved the carving of a small wooden doll to embody the spirit of each dead twin or twins. Each village (the Yoruba, unlike, say, the Amharic in Ethiopia, have long collected themselves in villages and towns) had its own wood carver who developed his own style of carving and who proclaimed his village by decorating them with the scars characteristic of that area. It is thus possible to know exactly from which area any Ibeji came. The bereaved mothers would dress these dolls, put bangles on them and carry them around.

Christian missionaries abhorred these Ibeji dolls, seeing them as symbols of paganism, and burning them whenever they could, but for me as I got to know them, they were art objects, uniquely stylized and fascinating. I believed (or perhaps wanted to believe) that by collecting them I was perhaps saving them from destruction. Nonetheless, to make sure that I wasn't removing part of the national heritage, I submitted them in groups to the National Museum in Lagos. Some they wanted and I donated them; others were duplicates or not valued and they were returned to me. I visited the shrine in Oshogbo and developed a real appreciation for the richness of Yoruba culture and belief.

In any case, I ended up with quite a few Ibeji and enjoyed seeing them preside over the dining room. The Nigerian doctors clearly did not. They were all fully qualified medical doctors, two Christians and two Muslims, but all expressed astonishment that I would want these objects in my house. I asked them why? At first they hesitated but then one explained that the Ibeji embodied live spirits. I asked what could be done to rid them of their spirits and at first they all said nothing. Finally Dr Salami said that were I to take them outside and scrub them with Clorox, the spirits could possibly be separated from the Ibeji and find a home elsewhere.

I'd always had the feeling that European religions were for many Nigerians a sort of overlay on profound indigenous spiritual beliefs, and here was the confirmation. But I was also reminded that some missionaries shared these beliefs. I once called on a very old retired Baptist missionary in Ilesha, who told me with enormous satisfaction how he had conquered an indigenous healer, in the presence of a large crowd by placing a fetish that he'd picked up, between him and the healer and challenging his adversary to pick it up. The healer declined to do so, whereupon the missionary triumphantly walked up to it and crushed it under his heel. But even in the telling of it, it was obvious that he himself also believed in the spirit embodied in the fetish, and that he'd demonstrated to the assembled believers his power over Satan, death and the forces of evil.

My colleague and friend, Professor Olikoye Ransome Kuti, at that time Professor of Pediatrics at Lagos, but later visiting professor at "the john", and still later Minister of Health of Nigeria for seven years, had his own method of dealing with so called "witch doctors." He was known to view them as ignorant, superstitious, unscientific and tended to avoid them, viewing them as obstacles to his efforts to bring the population into more effective allopathic primary care. They however were constantly complaining about being sidelined, not listened or ignored.

One day while working in his office at the Federal  MOH, R/K's assistant informed him that a large delegation of indigenous healers were waiting to see him in the large outside waiting area. Ransome Kuti made no response. Fifteen minutes later, the assistant reminded him that they were still there and becoming agitated. Again, no response. Meanwhile, in the big waiting area, the head of the association, a large aged man in robes and absolutely covered with amulets and charms of all sorts noticed the fancy arm chair at the head of the long table and approached it. After a slight hesitation, he touched it and after a few moments eased himself onto this sort of throne. Almost immediately, his head fell forward and he seemed to faint. R/K's assistant went running back to the office, crying out to R/K to come quickly, that the man was in trouble. Once again, R/K made no response. Meanwhile all the healers outside were fussing over their leader, singing chants, providing potions and stroking his body. Finally, Ransome Kuti appeared, laid his stethoscope on the man's chest, and then said, "this man's dead!" and went back to his office. After that, he had no more trouble from the native healers, who'd spread the word far and wide, that the Minister of Health possessed extra powerful "juju"!

Nicholas Cunningham MD, (JHU '55), DrPH (International Health, JHU '77)



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