In Igbo land, it is believed that children born dada are of spiritual origin – the dark side – and are possessed because their mothers visited shrines and made pacts with deities to conceive them.
And I am dada.
I should be furious. I should claw my way into my mother’s grave just to ask her why; but if I ever find the stomach to do the excavation, it would only be to embrace her and tell her how much I miss her. Why? Because dada is just a type of hair that is naturally and untidily matted.
The word ‘dada’ also refers to children born with that kind of hair and, though it’s of Yoruba origin, the sentiments around it are more dominant in Igbo land. The hair is similar to dreadlocks and is tough to comb. That’s probably why the bearers are sometimes called dreds – but not in Igbo land.
The Igbo people call children with dada ‘ezenwa’, meaning ‘child king’. One could argue that this is because the toughness of the hair denotes resilience, which a king should exude, or that it is because the hair most times sits over the head like a crown.
The reason behind the name, however, resides in the so-called ‘spiritual origin’, which apparently gives a dada immeasurable wealth and success etc; and a mother making a pact with a deity means her dada child is under that god’s protection and has been destined for great things that would favour the schemes of that god.
Hence, the Igbo people observe many traditional rules and beliefs when dealing with a dada.
The most important of them is the ritual performed before clearing a dada’s hair. The hair must be cut by a chief priest (this means a jujuist in Igbo Land), but since the advent of Christianity in Nigeria, most parents would rather employ the prayers of Catholic priests. The ceremony also entails calling friends and family over and treating them to a nice feast after the shaving.
Dadas whose hair is cut without the proper ceremony are believed to die within three days after the shaving. Even so, there have been cases of those who survived after being shaved without the ritual. My parents were not very superstitious, hence did not observe the tradition, but I survived, although my dada had to be cut three times for normal hair to start growing.
Prior to the shaving, touching a dada’s hair, whether to feel its roughness, to scold the wearer by pulling at it, or to comb it, can be tempting considering that it looks unusual; but that would only make the child sick – unless of course you are the mother. Why, because only the mother can touch the hair without making the dada sick. That you are the father does not count.
However, if you could not resist touching the hair or you mistakenly touched it, you must give the child money or tie a cowry to his hair to stop him from becoming sick. That is why most dadas carry a good number of cowries on their hair, the number representing the many or few times their hair was touched by someone other than their mothers.
The cowries, I think, rank among the reasons dadas do not comb their hair; that is, along with the difficulty that comes with combing something so tangled up. But most Igbo folks believe the hair is left unkempt because dadas are considered to be the Samsons of our time. Combing or cutting their hair without the proper ritual would only alter their grand destinies.
Dadas are sometimes also called ‘ogbange’, meaning the reincarnated. Most Igbo communities believe they are the reincarnations of some great men and women, jujuists, and even deities.
These rules and beliefs about dadas make them live in isolation through their childhood as other children point fingers at them and avoid them, whispering, “He’s possessed. Ogbange…”
While this can be damaging to a child’s psychology, it can also give the child some sense of security, since the stigmatisation is as a result of fear and not disdain. But it should be noted that fear can stir violence. Thus, that sense of security becomes an illusion.
These are just children born with hair most communities in Nigeria aren’t comfortable with. Do they deserve such a damaging childhood?
Walter Dinjos is Nigerian, a Writers of the Future winner, and a runner-up in the Writers Bureau’s Writer of the Year 2017 Award.
His short stories have appeared (or are upcoming) in Writers of the Future Volume #33, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Deep Magic, Galaxy’s Edge, Lamplight Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and elsewhere. His poems have appeared in three The Literary Hatchet issues, and he hopes to portray the peculiar beauty of Nigerian cultures through his writing.
When he is not writing, he travels across Nigeria, visiting the country’s many historic sites and communities to experience their diverse cultures and traditions first-hand, and when he writes, this rich cultural heritage becomes the heart of his prose.