Dissonant Heritage and Ontological Ambivalence

Colonial Encounters with Igbo Cosmology – the case of ‘twin killing’ in Southeast Nigeria

By Prof. Dr. Paul Basu and Dr. J. Kelechi Ugwuanyi

This pilot study explores the dissonant heritage and ontological ambivalence resulting from colonial/missionary encounters with Igbo cosmology, particularly in relation to the Igbo concept of nso ani, literally translated to sanction or taboo.

Nso ani provided the principles for establishing rules and values that guided life and living among Igbo communities to maintain the rhythm and balance of life, following a process that connects humans and nonhumans into the cosmos of ani, the spirit or goddess of the Earth.

The dissonance between ‘indigenous’ and ‘colonial’ worldviews is brought into sharp relief in the case of taboos around ‘twin birth’ regarded as an aberration against nature and the earth spirits, which had dangerous consequences for the wellbeing of the human and nonhuman world.

In order to maintain cosmological balance, such children were thrown away or left to die in the forest.

The only individual capable of abrogating such taboos was the figure of the Eze Nri, the divine king of the town of Nri in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. However, for colonial authorities and missionaries, such acts were regarded as barbaric acts of infanticide and outlawed.

While the colonial government prosecuted offenders, missionaries established ‘twin settlements’ to house the children and their mothers (in some cases). Our project interrogates the ambivalence of these encounters.

We are scoping and gathering primary documentary sources in colonial and missionary archives in Germany, France, UK and Nigeria. We are also establishing research partnerships with prospective collaborating institutions, especially in Nigeria.

The pilot study is aimed at preparing a funding application to undertake a more ambitious research project. The research will bring together different disciplinary approaches, including using historical and ethnographic methods, but also engaging with art historical, linguistic, legal, theological and philosophical ways of engaging with nso ani.

The initial study is funded by the Global Heritage Lab and the Transdisciplinary Research Area: Present Pasts, University of Bonn.