Why an Ibeji Doll

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WHY AN IBEJI DOLL? by Tom Hebert, (4) 62-64 (Originally published 1988)

As the 40,000-acre grass fire encircling Pendleton last weekend swept towards my apartment near Blue Mountain Community College, a police cruiser crawled through the parking lot loudly and seriously suggesting that everyone evacuate immediately. At which point we renters all had to make swift and apt decisions about which seed corn or sacred fire we each required to reestablish personal civilization, if the worst happened and we all got burned out.

A light-traveling bachelor, my choices were easy: my old Simco saddle, Filson packer coat, a ZIP drive duplicate of my hard disk files, toothbrush, and carefully tucked into my bedroll, an ibeji doll.

Why I have packed that beautiful ibeji doll around with me since 1963 is also one of the reasons Nigeria—Africa’s "open sore"—is going to be much in the news in the next year as it moves from a decades-long military dictatorship towards yet another effort at electoral democracy and an illusive national unity. With much oil, 100 million talented, much educated, and culturally grounded people on a landmass equal to two Californias, Nigeria is the true heartland of Africa.

Zeroing in, the 20 million-strong Yoruba tribe of southwestern Nigeria has for several hundred years been the dominant, governing culture of the region. As an early Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria (1962-1964) I lived in, and was at home in, this Yorubaland. We can look forward to enjoying Yorubas on the NBC Nightly News when the recently legalized Nigerian political parties begin their inevitable roistering and whanging. Nigerian politics are, at their best, great theater. Listen to the Yoruba political leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, speaking at his famous 1963 treasonable felony and conspiracy trial:

"Look here, Dr. Maja. I am a pepper that no one can chew without tears. You have said grave lies against me. You will suffer for it. You have sworn in the name of God, but you are giving evidence in the name of Satan... Woe betide you."

Oh, I miss Awolowo!

Anyway, my ibeji doll is Yoruba. Let’s use it as a shortcut into Nigerian life.

Ibeji twin dolls. Likely an accurate familial likeness of the lost child, my ibeji is about 9" tall, carved from a soft dark wood, and is anatomically correct (male). From some old files: "Twins are in themselves sacred and formerly when one died an ibeji was carved, and washed, fed and cared for as the living child so that the surviving one would not die of loneliness or be called to join its twin." Isn’t that lovely? Isn’t that mentally healthy? But, you might ask, how did I come by this ibeji doll I saved from harm’s way last weekend?

By the 1960s Westernization and other modern madnesses had disrupted much of the traditional lifeways of the Yorubas. This once mighty engine of grand cultural accomplishments was letting slippery agent-thieves into the towns and villages of Western Nigeria to buy up such images of honor and worship. Many, but not all, were of museum quality.

When these scoundrels came around to our houses at dinnertime with pillowcases stuffed with fine art and graven images, what do you do? Buy the best and save it, or let it go next door to an expatriate buyer with less taste and less guilt, to be lost forever or to show up later in a London antique shop or Akron yard sale? When any traditional religion breaks down, its art is left to molder. Or get sold to grave robbers like me. In my defense, I donated the best of my collection to the federal museum in the capital city, Lagos. In exchange, the curators authorized an export license for a few pieces, including my ibeji.

Beyond a confession, the point of this Ibeji story is that Nigerian Yorubas have had the wherewithal—2000 years and the intellectual resources including a discerning creation myth and Olorun, a Supreme Being—to think through even such issues as grieving and death among twin children. Such artifacts as my ibeji doll do not come out of primitive societies. Call such sophistication "an easy knowledge of the world."

Nigeria is more than a messy plate like Indonesia or other far-off American problem. Before this generation’s troubles, for one brief moment in the early 1960s Nigeria and my Yorubaland was, like Shakespeare’s London, clearly the best place in the world to be. Filled with the most politically sensitive, sophisticated citizens known anywhere, it included the largest percentage of whole and sane people on the planet. T hen a national census went bad resulting, after many turns of the screw, in the promise of a secessionist Biafra dying under the guns of an American-supported military that once roused to tribal excuses and excesses never returned to its barracks.

How odd, how sad all that would have seemed to us in 1962. When then it was late-night Highlife dancing in political nightclubs, poets and playwrights in line for the Nobel Prize, and a vital, informed personal politics like no Americans have known since Andrew Jackson. As The New York Times editorialized recently, "Nigeria is a great, seething amalgam of tribes and religions, as exhilarating as it is dangerous."

Damn straight, watch for it soon. Now, where’s my ibeji?

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