The Ogbanje and The Abiku: How true were the stories?

The Abiku is a yoruba word that describes a child that is born at a particular time and prior to puberty age dies. This is only for the child to be reborn again to the same parents and as before gives up the ghost before even hitting puberty age. The Ogbanje is the equivalent of the Abiku in the igbo traditional culture. It is said that these set of children make numerous journeys from the 'land of the dead' to their parents and prior to puberty age, die and take a return trip back to the 'land of the dead'. The theory is that the children are malevolent spirits that has decided to play malicious tricks on their parents, causing them emotional pain. The circle is said to go on and on until it is said that the child eventually becomes 'tired' and decides to 'stay' or in worst case scenarios, 'decides not to come back again to the parents'.

The Ogbanje and The Abiku: How true were the stories?

1. 'In vain your bangles cast charmed circles at my feet; I am Abiku, calling for the first and repeated time...'


2. "...How is my daughter, Ezinma?"  "She has been very well for some time now. Perhaps, she has come to stay,"  

"I think she has. How old is she now?"

"She is about ten years old."

"I think she will stay. They usually stay if they do not die before the age of six."


The first narrative is a line from the poem accredited to Prof. Wole Soyinka, 'ABIKU'. In it, an Abiku  is seen to be talking to a certain individual or individuals (presumably it's parents) accentuating it's ability to neutralise supernatural devices that are aimed at compelling it to remain alive.

The second narrative was adapted from the book 'Things fall Apart' as authored by the late Prof. Chinua Achebe. It is a composition of a conversation occurring between Ekwefi (Ezinma's mother) and Chielo (a high-priestess) as regards to the girl, Ezinma. Ezinma is alleged to be an Ogbanje that has frequented her mother's womb in different life times and as a result her mother, Ekwefi had sought out the help of the priestess, Chielo to ensure that the girl child remains alive.

The phenomenon of repeated deaths and rebirths of children in primitive African societies was a case of mystery and loss at what action to take to explain and curtail the occurrence. When it was ascertained that a child was frequenting a particular household through constant deaths and rebirths, 'spiritual' solutions were usually the steps taken to address the dilemma.

Some of these 'spiritual' solutions included the first step of making an inquiry as to the nature of the child's 'spiritual' origin and his/her mission on earth. This was usually a ritual performed for the parents by a powerful witch doctor. When the witch doctor confirms that the child is an Ogbanje or an Abiku, the parents are instructed to take the second step of the ritual which was making a pattern of incisions in a strategic part of the child's body. This incision was a device invented to help the parents as well as the General public recognise the child if it was to be reborn. The belief at the time was that if the Ogbanje or the Abiku dies and 'comes back' to it's parents in another rebirth, he or she would be recognised by the marks (tribal marks) they bear as a result of the incisions made on their skin in the 'previous life'.

The aim of the incisions therefore, was to discourage the 'intentional' death and reincarnation of the Ogbanje/Abiku. The incisions was however not the last bus-stop in the aim to keep the child from dying. Ancient witch doctors of the time have theorised that every Ogbanje/Abiku  have a 'treasure' buried deep in the bowels of the earth that connects them to their 'spiritual' family. This treasure, as suggested by witch doctors needed to be dug up and destroyed, thereby severing the link between the child and the spirit world and thus ensuring it's prolonged life on earth.

From what you have read so far, you will be correct to say that strange things did happen in those times. Of course, they pretty much were able to effectively handle their business even in the lack of scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements; but the case of the Ogbanje and the Abiku was one case that extremely perplexed and knocked the wits out of the people of the primitive era.

In recent times however, with the help of science and technology, some of these primitive mysteries have virtually undergone the process of dymystification. Some occurrences of the time have been allocated sound explanations as to the nature and circumstances behind their occurrence. One of such phenomenon aptly explained is the case of the Ogbanje/Abiku.

At a time in primitive history, some deadly diseases had scourged the people and resulted in fatalities. Having only a knowledge of the symptoms and no prior knowledge of the cause and eventual cure, these diseases could not be explained by the people of the time and as a result of this lack of knowledge, they failed to procure a cure for themselves to fight off the disease and it's spread. In most case scenarios, children were the hardest hit.

The diseases mostly suffered by children that often led to their untimely death if proper care was not given is the small pox, measles and from hereditary means, sickle cell anaemia. The afore-mentioned diseases, studies have shown had terrorised the children of the primitive times and because their parents had no prior knowledge of the nature of these diseases, they succumbed to allowing the cold fingers of death snatch these children away at a tender age. And because it is in the human nature to try and give meaning to something it is perplexed about, the theory of a child who frequents his/her mother's womb in different life times via numerous deaths and births, was coined in the story of the Ogbanje and the Abiku.