Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Ogbanje, The Repeating Children

Ogbanje, the Repeating Children, or Changlings

My second book with the current trial title, When the Kola Nut Reaches Home, describes ogbanje, the “repeating or returning children,” in Igbo traditional belief. Sometimes ogbanje is translated as “changlings.”

I first read about ogbanje in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart during Peace Corps training at the University of California Los Angeles in the summer of 1962. Ogbanje are children who die, usually very young, and return to be born and die again. They cause huge grief and sometimes anger in their parents.

It is said they have a connection to the spirit world of the ogbanje. Because of the tie, they are called back to that world. Usually they cannot resist. But they leave a charm or totem buried near their birthplace. That gives them the power to be born again to the same family.

To stop the cycle of an ogbanje, it is necessary to find the charm, called iyi-uwa, he or she has hidden. Once that is found and destroyed, the child will live.

Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart

Ogbanje in Things Fall Apart

In Achebe’s novel, Ezinma is the tenth child of her mother. All the others died before the age of 3. As the novel says, “Ekwefi (the mother) believed deep inside her that Ezinma had come to stay. . . And this faith had been strengthened when a year or so ago a medicine man had dug up Ezinma’s iyi-uwa.” (p. 57, The African Trilogy, Everyman’s Library, Knopf, New York)

I don’t recall when I next heard about ogbanje. Probably Fred Hedglin, my colleague at the Federal Emergency Science School, would have said something about the custom. He was well-versed in and fond of Igbo customs.

Ogbanje in the Family

Clem near center in tie between his sister Monica and Papa. Godwin in back on right, Edna seated on floor on right.

Clem near center in tie between his sister Monica and Papa. Godwin in back on right, Edna seated on floor on right.

After I married I learned that Clem’s family had experienced the tragedy of ogbanje. He remembers the time. They were living in Onitsha. There were four children. Clem, the oldest was 8. Then came Godwin, Monica, and Edna, at roughly two-year intervals as was customary at the time. But the next baby, a boy, only lived a few months. Another boy was born but died.

Clem recounts the experience.

“I remember going three times to the maternity clinic in Onitsha where Mama delivered the babies. She would come home with them, but each one began to shake violently when he was just a few months old and was dead within twenty-four hours. It was terrible to see.

“Papa decided he needed to consult a Dibia to end the curse of babies dying. So he took us home to Nanka. An ogbanje oracle, a Dibia with a specialty in dealing with the babies who kept dying and coming back, came. He made us line up in front of the obi, the central hut in the compound. He told us to hold out our hands, palms up. Then he looked closely at each. I think he was looking for any suspicious marks.

“I wasn’t frightened, only a little anxious about whether I might be ogbanje. But I was safe. He declared that Godwin and Edna were ogbanje, and Monica and I were not.

“Then he pointed to two different spots in the compound. He instructed Papa and Ejike to dig at one site, and two other men to dig at the other spot. After a couple of hours, the first pair found a tortoise shell which they said was Edna’s totem. The others continued digging until they finally came upon an item, a bone of some sort, which the Dibia said was Godwin’s. The Dibia destroyed both, breaking them into small pieces and scattering the remnants over the fire. Then he declared Godwin and Edna were healed, and there would be no more ogbanje babies.

“We were all frightened, on pins and needles, when Geoffrey was born. Until he was 3, we didn’t think he was going to survive.”

Today many of the Igbo spiritual practices are fading. I doubt if people still believe in ogbanje.

New Novel Coming Soon

I was intrigued with the announcement of a forthcoming novel that includes the ogbanje experience. Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, gave the book a rave review.

The blog Brittle Paper says, “The official Grove Atlantic [the publisher] description of the novel isn’t terribly revealing. It says that Freshwater is an ‘autobiographical novel that explores the metaphysics of identity and mental health, told in boundary-breaking new form and centering on a young Nigerian woman as she struggles to reconcile the proliferation of multiple selves within her.’”

Ainehi Edoro says, “We know from Emezi’s posts on Instagram and Twitter that she relied heavily on the Ogbanje mythology to craft the novel’s principal character who happens to be a woman with ‘multiple selves.’”

Ainehi wonders how a first-time novelist can succeed in her writing. She compares Emezi to another Nigerian writer, Nnedi Okorafor. She says, “We think it has something to do with the fact that they have this uncanny ability to make old, forgotten things appear so present and urgent for our day.”

High praise! Can I make the ogbanje story come alive like this in my book? Other stories from the past? If you have a suggestion, I’d love to hear it.

I will watch for this novel. (Small warning: in the full article there is a supposed link to a spider fable. It didn’t work for me.)

Here is Why Taiye Selasi Loves Akwaeke Emezi’s Forthcoming Novel Freshwater

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

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