I grew up in a small village in Western Kenya. I always believed my home to be liberal and progressive. I grew up seeing men supporting women; my own father educated my elder sisters and me. Girls received equal opportunities just like boys, and we all went to school.
But two years ago, my view of my community was shattered. I gave birth to firstborn twins, and came to realize that my village is still bogged down by the oppressive and archaic values of discrimination.
In high school, I had a classmate who relayed to me that because she was a twin, she and her brother experienced unbelievable discrimination. Others in our village wanted to kill her twin brother, and, eventually, her family was forced to leave their home to live in town.
As a teenager, this story touched me, but I did not realize quite how intense the burden of twins is for those living in Kenya.
Then, in my mid-twenties, I welcomed twins of my own. Little did I know how much superstition was attached to the children I was about to bring into this world.
Early in my pregnancy, my gynecologist asked for an ultrasound, which revealed I was carrying twins. I told my mum the news and fear was instilled in me that very day. She asked me not to tell anyone—not even my boyfriend—that I was carrying two babies. When pressed, she told me twins are taboo and bring bad luck.
On Dec. 19, 2013, I gave birth to pre-term twins at Aga Khan Hospital where they were given the very best treatment. The chief nursing officer even gave them Christmas gifts! I adored my handsome sons, as did my boyfriend, friends and family. But later when I took my newborns to the hospital, my mother’s warnings were confirmed.
A female nurse asked me: “Are these your firstborn?” My affirmative answer led her to say: “If they truly are, woe unto you! You are too young to have twins. Besides, it’s a bad omen for your marriage and relationships—none will last.”
Each time I took my sons to the hospital for vaccinations or medical check ups, different nurses echoed what the first nurse had said. I ignored them, but I lived in fear and constant worry for my sons.
Within a short time, everyone in my community was talking about the twins. Some whispered; others spoke openly to my face. They told me that I should die. They told me my twins should die.
A friend of mine who also had twins told me that her twins had been poisoned, and, heartbreakingly, only one survived. They moved to another town and have never been back to their home again. The pain was excruciating, and the incident unbelievable.
My friend and her husband chose to suffer in silence. Later, I did the same thing. But now I feel it is time to speak out. We must fight the beliefs and superstitions that lead to so much pain.
Ignoring the noise around me, I happily raised my sons. They grew healthy, strong and bubbly. Their father adored them and had grand plans for their futures. But, when our children were 10-months old, their father left the house, never to return again. I know he is alive, but he never asks about us. Everyone tells me it is because of the twins.
I, however, chose to believe that he left because of another woman. My boyfriend was a medical doctor, and in my mind, there was no doubt that he understood the complexities of reproductive health more than most in the community. How could he be bound to such cultural myths?
But when I asked his brother and sister, who had been supportive of our family, why he had left, they insisted they did not know his reasons for deserting us. Then, one day, his brother opened up to me that the father of my twins had left us due to the prevailing superstitions surrounding firstborn twins. The fears and worries I had battled since that first ultrasound were coming true.
My deepest fears were realized earlier this year. I was away for work when my house caught fire. One of my twins, Ammiel, lost his life.
Ammiel’s death was very painful, but the worthlessness, the ridicule, the betrayal and the shame that came with it make the pain indescribable.
We had a lot of land, which should have made burying my deceased child easy. But in my culture, I was not allowed to bury Ammiel in my father’s compound. As my grandmother, aunt and uncle put it, this would bring ill luck to the family. Instead, Ammiel’s body was trapped in the horrifying conditions of an overcrowded morgue.
This was a double tragedy for me. I was alone and lost.
Deep in my heart, I knew I wanted to bury Ammiel in my father’s compound. Eventually, with the help of the supportive members of my family, the elders accepted my request. While I was given space to bury him, I could not have a burial ceremony because of his status as a twin.
Ammiel was buried in a corner of my father’s compound, and only old men could dig his grave. My brothers and male cousins were asked not to go near the site. His grave remains unmarked, with no name or epitaph. I wanted to write his name and the simple words “Rest in Peace,” but I was denied the opportunity because of the belief that such actions would kill his twin brother.
My grandmother told my cousins not to attend Ammiel’s burial on the basis that they would die if they did. Ammiels’ surviving twin and I were not allowed to go near Ammiel’s casket, view his body, or even go near the gravesite. We were forbidden from even crying.
The only dignity and last respects I accorded my son was a nice casket and wreaths of flowers. His twin brother, playmate and friend will never step close to his sibling’s grave. I’ve never understood the reasoning, and he never will either.
A day after the burial I snuck out to go to his graveside and cried my heart out.
I want women all over the world to stand up against retrogressive and oppressive cultures that perpetuate the discrimination that tore my family apart.
Before Ammiel’s death, in the midst of the struggle to adapt to the superstitions surrounding twins, I founded a community-based organization called Western Twaweza Empowerment Campaign (WETEC). To this day, we advocate for teen mothers and teenage girls, focusing on sexual health and reproductive rights.
This is not just a channel for my own healing, but an effort to help girls understand their rights and have control over their sexuality. So far, we have reached out to more than 1,500 girls in Western Kenya over the last 26 months.
Ammiel’s death has strengthened my resolve. I have come to know that cultural attitudes affect not only us, but also our children and their children. I believe the power to change these prevailing beliefs can only be instilled in those who are young. For me, the struggle to help those who are impacted by cultural myths starts with reaching out to teenage girls.
Let’s raise our voices and speak out against all forms of stigma. Let’s do so for Ammiel—and for all the twins in Africa who have suffered in the name of superstition.
Immaculate Amoit is a contributor from Kenya. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.
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