“Coming and going these several seasons, do stay out on the baobab tree” or “In vain your bangles cast charmed circles at my feet I am an Abiku, calling for the first and the repeated time”. The lines above are excerpts from John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka’s poems coincidentally titled “Abiku”. Both poems, as the title of the poems suggest, describes a persona that embodies a child who could have the uncanny power of mastering death. But instead of starting a brawl, let me draw your attention to one thing which is the fact that both poems capture the same concept, thus illuminate ideals of the African cosmos, thereby projecting how Ogbanje exists in the spiritual world of African mythology.
The African culture is rich with precepts and statutes that give coordination to life, though the foundation of the African belief system is without a doubt infused with foreign bodies that add to its richness. In other words, the African traditional religion is meshed with Christianity; at the least when we look for the silver lining in the belly of colonisation and assimilation.
Despite the modern times’ mesh of Western and traditional religions, there are lots of beliefs that resonate in the hearts of many Africans: the Abiku norm is one of them. The Abiku is believed to be an evil spirit that dies multiple times to reenter the mother’s womb to be reborn again. The spirit is able to do so from a hidden totem that binds the spirit to earth and the family it hunts. So the sacred symbol is used as a compass to navigate back to its precise home each time it returns. They are thought to be the bane of their immediate family and are a threat to anyone who comes their way. Hence, an Abiku is no different from an Ogbanje, they are simply different in terms of the name usage which is a result of one’s culture and ethnicity. In Efik, it is called Mfumfum while in Edo, it is called Igbakhun.
But ever wondered why African cosmos defined the Ogbanje to be a vessel only women enter? Invariably saying the Ogbanje or Abiku is primarily a gender-selective spirit closing gender fluidity. Well, these people live a life of cycle like everyone else but they die to reenter the same womb and family as before, constantly leaving a cycle that inflicts pain to the family. The early depictions of Ogbanje are evident in Achebe’s groundbreaking novel Things Fall Apart, whose subplot tells the story of Ezinma as he echoes creation of Igbo cosmogony as well as treats the discourse of Ogbanje to reflect the belief formation of an ethnic group in Nigeria. Toni Morrison too, in her novel Sula, depicts the Ogbanje/Abiku notion in her work, exploring the West African metaphysics.
Is Ogbanje gender-based, or are there male figures that are also called Ogbanje?
While we do not have this answer, what comes to mind about them is that they are interested in tormenting the world and particularly their family. Whereas on another standpoint, they actually live a cursed life coming to earth as disturbed individuals not having an iota of control. If I may say they live a life of doom cursed to appear and disappear without having a say in their destiny not like we do either.
Tracing this concept from the past to the present, change always has a pivotal role to play in the switch that inevitably takes place. Nowadays in modern times, the belief has dwindled paralleled to the strong conviction in the past. Those times can be said to be dark times when man tried to make sense of life which wittingly or otherwise may be related to a lack of understanding of diseases.
Medical advancement and understanding have since refuted the Ogbanje/Abiku conception in modern times, thus fostering better knowledge of life. It is almost undisputed how the Ogbanje principle shaped and influenced perceptions towards childhood diseases like sickle cell anaemia and the likes consequently resulting in child mortality. The contemporary families of today do not hinge its belief in the African cosmogony thus one wonders, how the dying belief affects the reality of the supernatural word of the Ogbanje/Abiku.
Ogbanje/Abiku is not just an Igbo or a Yoruba belief, but a conceived belief by Africans interconnected with reincarnation and the cyclical state of life.
Today many of the traditional and spiritual practices are fading and being run over by modern theories. However, do you think that despite that the Ogbanje/Abiku notion which seems to be fizzling out still has a role in our ever-busy life? And has the plunging belief in Ogbanje/Abiku seized to give life to the reality of the mystic world?