Abikus: West African Changelings

Kneeling Yoruba worshiper with child; photo by Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The words abiku and ogbanje refer both to a child who dies before puberty and to the evil spirit that brings about that death. Abiku is the Yoruba word; ogbanje is the Igbo word.

An abiku is a “spirit child” sent by his or her other spirit playmates to be born into a family and terrorize them. The abiku spirit world is said to be populated by children who play all day long and are engaged in all sorts of merrymaking. They often choose a rich family as their victim. The child of this rich family then repeatedly falls sick, causing his or her parents to squander their wealth seeking for a cure.

Eventually, at a previously determined date (especially on a joyful occasion like a festival or marriage), the child falls sick and dies. Then he or she is reborn again and again to the same family until they are totally exhausted emotionally and financially.

There is no known way to divest oneself of an abiku. Sometimes, however, when a mother repeatedly gives birth to an abiku, he is branded at death so as to be recognized when he comes back again. They are often spoiled by their parents in a bid to persuade them to stay.

Certain Yoruba names suggest the suspicion that a child is, in fact, an abiku. Such names include Durojaiye (“stay and enjoy life”), Banjoko (“stay with me”), Malomo (“don’t go again”), and Durosinmi (“stay and rest”).

In Igbo folklore, ogbanje are often very beautiful girls.

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