February 16, 1996

A Tale of Two Worlds

The Yoruba people of Nigeria have a special word for infant death: Abiku. They also believe in reincarnation. Those who live in the villages inhabit a very different world from the city dwellers.

Duni rocked her baby and softly hummed "Malomo" (don't go away again), as the tears rolled down her cheeks. A short while ago, her baby was shivering with cold, now he was burning hot. Three times before, it had happened the same way; just when her breasts had lost their soreness and she was enjoying her child, it had left. Each time, the priest had told her that her child did not want to stay with her this time; but that if she prayed enough, and God wished it, its spirit would return in another child who would stay with her and bring her joy. Now it was happening as it had happened before.

The medicine that the priest had given her hadn't warded off the spirit that takes infants. She had prayed to the Great God Olu not to take this one; this beautiful boy who had actually smiled only a few hours after he was born and whose eyes had explored the room as if he had been there before -three times he had been there. What was it about her, Duni, that had made staying so unpleasant that each child she had born had chosen to leave her? Perhaps her milk was not sweet enough, nor her love strong enough. If she could only find out what it was and change it, maybe then she would be allowed to keep her child. Now, she knew that, once again, it was not to be. Before long this baby would convulse and then stop breathing and the elders would take it away and bury it. Duni rocked her child, hummed softly, and wept.

In Ibadan, a scant thirty miles from where Duni kept her vigil, Bisi (Mrs. Professor Adeloye) had just finished nursing her three month old daughter -she of the voracious appetite, who ate more than their other two children combined. She put the now-sleeping child into its bassinet and tucked the mosquito net around the mattress, carefully checking to make sure that no stray mosquito had entered while the net was open. She went into the living room, where her husband sat reading.

"Jide," she said to her husband, "you must speak to the children; they have been forgetting to take their antimalaria pills."

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