In the mythology of the Igbo people in West Africa, an Ogbanje is an evil spirit who is born as a human baby and then dies only to re-enter its mother's womb over and over again, deliberately plaguing the family with misfortune.
Ogbanje in the Igbo language literally means children who come and go. Sometimes the word Ogbanje has been used as a synonym for a rude or stubborn child.
The Igbo of Nigeria believe that everyone is ogbanje (reincarnates) but malevolent ogbanje differ from others in being revenge-driven, chronically ill and engaging in repeated cycles of birth, death and reincarnation. It was believed that upon being born by the mother, after a certain amount of time (usually not passed puberty), the evil Ogbanje would deliberately die and repeat the cycle causing the family grief. Female circumcision was sometimes thought to get rid of the evil spirit, whereas finding the evil spirits Iyi-uwa, which they had dug somewhere secret, would ensure the Ogbanje would never plague the family with misfortune again. The Iyi-uwa was the Obanje's way of coming back to the world and also a way of finding its targeted family.
The dead child would be cut or mutilated so they would not return. Some ogbanje, however, do return, bearing the physical scars of the mutilation.
Sickle cell anaemia might have contributed to this belief, as the inheritance of the disease within families may have led people to conclude that the children involved are all from the same malevolent spirit. A recent study involving hemoglobin analysis showed that 70 of a sample of 100 children described as malevolent ogbanje had sickle cell disease (SCD); while 68 families had death-related names.
- The word ogbanje is often translated as changeling, due to the similarities they share with the fairy changelings of Celtic and broader European mythology.
Ogbanje has been popularized by the critically acclaimed book by writer Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart with the character Ezinma who was considered an Ogbanje.