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Communities in Madagascar struggle to do away with twin taboo

posted 8 Aug 2012, 10:20 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 8 Aug 2012, 10:20 ]

Local rights organisations embark on campaigns to educate communities to abandon an age old practice of ostracizing twins. Historically twins would be killed soon after birth because they are thought to possess evil spirits.

An age old practice in Madagascar that ostracizes twins in some communities has come under the spotlight, as more and more families begin to shun the custom.
Traditionally, having twins in many communities in Madagascar, especially amongst the Antambahoaka was said to bring bad luck to the twins' parents and the community at large.

Condemned by tradition, twins were often rejected by their parents at birth, put up for adoption or risked being abandoned.

But in recent years, in the coastal town of Mananjary in Southern Madagascar, where the tradition is still widely practiced, new voices have risen against the tradition, where local activists have embarked on an exercise to sensitize communities.

Jeanne Lise Jacqueline, a 33-year-old mother of three who has a set of twins is one of the few women who have chosen to keep her fraternal twins. She says it has not been easy, but she found comfort in joining an association that supports families who decide to keep their twins.

"To be honest, we are all parents of twins in our association. There is also a woman who gave birth three times, and all three times she had twins," Jacqueline said.

According to experts, the belief that twins should not remain with their biological parents has been perpetuated by descendants of the Antambahoakas, a local royal family that elected 12 kings to reinforce their cultural authority.

"The children of the tragnobe (traditional royal house) have to follow their ancestral customs. They cannot keep twin children and cannot socialise with people who are twins or those who keep twins in their families," said King Nicole Andre, the current leader of the Antambahoaka clan family.

The taboo against twins is based on a cultural perception of historical misfortune.

According to historians, elders of Mananjary blamed the failure of the 1947 revolt against the French colonial authorities on twins as an example of the curse.

It is said a queen fled the fighting but forgot one of her twins. She sent soldiers back to fetch the child and they were all massacred, although there is no historical proof of the event.

In Mananjary, the CATJA transit centre for abandoned twins, which was created in 1987, by a missionary who is a twin himself and was abandoned by his family, has become a refuge for many twins.

Today the centre is home to hundreds of children, and has become a popular venue for prospective adoptive parents.

Historian Nelly Ranaivo says in recent years, the practice has caused deep divisions amongst communities and families who chose to keep their twins. They are often criticized by traditionalists for disrespecting culture.

"At the beginning, it's an individual decision. But thereafter, there are social consequences that arise, why? Because there is an imbalance in society. Because there are parents who prefer keeping their children (twins), which is seen as a threat to the rest of the community, and for those who want to maintain the taboo," she said.

Although many international organisations have tried to convince traditional leaders to do away with the tradition for years in Mananjary with no real success, a nearby village, Fanivelona abolished the custom in 1982 and 45 sets of twins have been born since, with no "curse" befalling communities there.

Using their neighbour's example, a group of people who are parents of twins in Mananjary created the "Hambana" organisation, which was established in 2011 and supports families who decide to keep their twins. They also try to educate those who are still following the age old custom.

Today, members of the organization are visiting a new mother 31-year-old Ursula Ravaliniaina, who recently gave birth to twins.

Because of her decision to keep her babies, her husband has abandoned the family, and she now faces life as a single mother.

"He has told me that he is leaving them with me. He told me before that I would be the one who would have to make all the decisions regarding these children, he wants nothing to do with it," said Ravaliniaina.

Sylvestre Henri Rakotomalala, a Hambana organisation member says he decided to join the group because he empathizes with affected parents after giving his new born twins years ago.

"When I was younger, just after I finished my studies, I didn't have any financial means, and I had twins, and because keeping twins was taboo, my children were adopted. Today, I am aware that I have a duty towards twins, and their mothers, to sensitize them to keep their twins," Rakotomalala said.

Christian Benoit Rasolonirina is Hambana's Secretary General.

"What we do is encourage these mothers, since twins are rejected by their families or even their parents when they are born. So we give them advice and give them counselling by telling them that we are going to raise these children together, that we are in this with them, if only to give them moral support," he said.

In Mananjary, twins occur slightly less that the national average with about 1.2 per cent of all births in Madagascar, but experts say this number may be a reflection of the area's taboo of twins, which may discourage births registration of twins.