A chorus of children’s voices fills the air in the little orphanage in Madagascar. Twins, in particular, playfully run around the dusty grounds with beaming smiles – oblivious to the horrific fate that could have awaited them.
In some rural parts of the southeast African island, there is an age-old belief that twins are cursed and bring misfortune to those around them. And amongst the Antambahoaka tribe, where superstition and social dynamics are governed by ancestral customs, women who give birth to twins are compelled to abandon either one or both of their twins.
“They didn’t actually kill them,” Sylvester, the deputy director of the orphanage, told SBS Dateline. “They left their twins in the wilderness. So of course…the results were the same. The babies died, even though they didn’t actually kill them.”
It is discernible that the killing or abandoning of babies is a criminal act, and the Madagascar Government devised a special law, which stipulates that parents cannot reject their children. Yet, it is a complex paradigm where historical traditions might override the law.
Sylvester added, “It still happens. Usually, priests and nuns and local authorities bring them [twins] to us. For example, we have one baby boy here who was found after two days. He was almost dead. His skin…it had completely dried out and was coming out.”
In times gone by, twins were disposed of by being left in cowsheds to be trampled on; in the wildness to be eaten by wild animals, or even by being physically smothered. Hundreds of babies lost their lives over the years in this way. Nowadays, more and more twins find themselves in centres like the one where Sylvester works. They were either abandoned on roadsides or by riverbanks, or dropped at the centre itself with the hope that someone would one day adopt them. Sometimes, that new parent might be found in a country abroad, thereby allowing the children a gateway to better opportunities.
The twin myth often supersedes the instinctive bond between a mother and her child. Women, who speak out against the antediluvian custom and insist upon keeping their babies, are often ostracised. Wrought with fear and a lack of education, many of these mothers feel they have little choice but to abandon their twins.
Rooted in the idea that dead ancestors live amongst the living, the Antambahoaka believe that those forefathers communicate through village elders. And it is those leaders who are adamant that the practice must prevail, claiming that the ancestors will smite them if a mother is permitted to keep her twins.
Although no one is certain exactly how the myth began, there are different variations to the story. One local soothsayer, Norbert, explained to SBS Dateline that twins conjure an ancient curse from one of the dead Kings.
“The ancestor suffered from raising twins. That’s why the Antambahoaka people, in this region, were cursed by the ancestor. They believe that if twins are born, they won’t be real human beings. When they [mothers] have twins, they get rid of them as soon as possible. They don’t want to ever have contact with them again.”
Another popular lore comes from Madagascar’s failed revolt against the French in 1947. Legend says that the Queen from this tribe forgot one of her twins behind whilst fleeing. When she sent her soldiers back for the child, everyone was slaughtered. There, however, remains no historical evidence to support this story.
Despite attempted mediations from NGOs and some local consensus, this cultural practice persists in uneducated corners of Madagascar. In these patriarchal societies, a congregation of old men – who remain steadfast in their beliefs – determines the demise of these children. As revealed in a documentary by Unreported World, when village elders were probed about why they do not simply ask the ancestors to abolish the twin taboo, one responded, “As long as we are alive, we are not going to dilute our ancestral culture. If you dilute your culture you can no longer ask the ancestors for blessings.” While another chief said that keeping twins was like eating faeces and that anyone who wanted to keep twins had no soul.