The belief that twins should not remain with their biological parents is perpetuated by descendants of the Mpanjakas, a local royal family whose 10 elected chiefs reinforce their cultural authority. The taboo against twins is based on a cultural perception of historical misfortune.
The elders of Mananjary blame 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. There is no historical proof of the event.
“There is really no reason at all for this custom, and if I could decide again I would have kept the children,” Marie Louise Zisllene, a local school director, told IRIN. Her twins were adopted by a Canadian family in 1988 and she has had no contact with them since then, but says they have probably had a better education than they would have received in Madagascar.
Prof Ignace Rakoto, co-author with Gracy Fernandes and Nelly Ranaivo Rabetokotany of a recent study on the town’s rejection of twins, Les jumeaux de Mananjary, entre abandon et protection, told IRIN that “The taboo causes great suffering among the families”. He belongs to a clan that does not practice the twins curse.
“I grew up in this area without knowing this [giving twins up for adoption] was happening, as no one ever talked about twins. Some people became very upset when we started investigating,” Rakoto said. “They asked us why we wanted to talk about these things in the press.”
Rakoto, who is also a former education minister, said the chiefs see the taboo as “part of their identity - I try to tell them that you can’t build your identity around a tradition that is wrong”.
When Voangy Razafy, 31, gave birth to twins she tried to convince the family that she should be allowed to keep the children, but Razafy’s grandfather, a chief of the local Antambahoaka clan, refused to break with tradition.
“In the end even my mother turned against me and told me to leave,” she said. The cost of defying the taboo meant Razafy had to move to another part of the town, where she lives in penury, ostracized by her family. “They said that my children would turn against their parents when they were big.”
Twins are conceived either when multiple eggs are released during ovulation, or a single egg divides, and incidence varies greatly. In Central Africa the incidence of twins is estimated at 6 percent, while in the US it is 3.2 percent.
In and around Mananjary, twins occur slightly less often than the national average of about 2.8 percent of all births in Madagascar, according to Rakoto, but this may be a reflection of the area’s taboo, which may discourage birth registrations of twins.
The belief that twins bring misfortune upon communities is mainly prevalent in the Vatovavy-Fitovinany region in the southeast of the country, from the north of Manakara to Mananjary, which has a population of about 233,697.
The tradition demands that twins be abandoned at birth and left to die; the lucky ones are found and taken in by others. In the town, abandoned twins are put up for adoption and the practice can cause deep divisions.
“There was this one case where the children had been found next to a garbage dump. A family of another ethnic background took one of the girls in. Years later, when the biological parents saw her, they wanted to take her back, but she refused. Even now, as an adult, she doesn’t want any contact with her real family,” the authors noted.
In 1987 the Catja Adoption Centre for Abandoned Twins was established, but it was greeted with resentment by some members of the community. “When we just opened the centre, the neighbours complained that the wind, which was blowing over our house, was making them sick. So we had to move to this place, far away from the town,” Julie Rasoarinanana, who runs the centre, told IRIN.
Some members of her family also disapproved of her work and warned her that she would be barred from entering the royal huts, known as the Tranobe, because “I touched twins”.
The centre has arranged the adoption of 300 pairs of twins since it opened, and has had to navigate tougher adoption rules after the authorities imposed stricter regulations to deter child traffickers.
It is now overflowing with 96 children because some street children have also sought refuge there and single mothers work at the centre in exchange for board and accommodation.
In Mananjary, which has a population of about 27,000, it is becoming more common for birth parents to keep their twins, but many others still abide by the tradition and attitudes in the surrounding villages have not changed much.
Looking for answers
The centre distributes boxes, food and blankets through its network in outlying villages to help twins given up by their parents to survive the journey to the centre. “It’s mostly the midwives and friends who bring them, because parents are still afraid to travel with twins,” Rasoarinanana said.
The Mpanjakas are still seen as figures of authority and the arbiters of custom and tradition. They decide who participates in traditional ceremonies and who is permitted into family tombs to visit their deceased ancestors. Access to the Tranobe is also seen as essential, as it is the forum where disputes are resolved and decisions affecting the community taken.
Rakoto is forming an association to fight against the custom. He suggests the use of “both the carrot and the stick, but more carrots than sticks” in attempting to lift the taboo, and believes it would only make matters worse if the authorities forced parents to abandon the tradition of the twins curse.
He would like to see financial assistance for the parents of twins and training for midwives and doctors. “The most important decision is taken at birth. It will help the parents to decide if there is already a package with extra milk, clothes and blankets available right there. Because, on top of having to defy tradition, the parents have the additional cost of caring for two children at once.”
School director Zisllene, who plans to join Rakoto’s association, sees the need for showing the mothers of twins an alternative. “What we need are concrete examples,” she says. “Women should not only keep their children, but they should also bring them to the ceremonies. They shouldn’t be so timid about it. This way others can see that it’s possible.”
There may be a solution. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), working closely with the researchers, is looking to a neighbouring community where the chiefs arranged a special ceremony for lifting the taboo on twins.
“It was a real cultural liberation,” Rakoto said.” When I went there, the mothers were walking proudly through the village, one child in each arm.”