In Igbo mythology a child that dies as an infant or in childhood is referred to as Ogbanje which literally means “children who come and go”.
It was believed that within a certain amount of time after birth usually before puberty, the Ogbanje would die and be reborn into the same family as another child repeating the cycle and causing grief. They can be born into the same family several times.
Ogbanjes are believed to have secret stones called Iyi-uwa that they bury somewhere. This Iyi-uwa allows them to come to the world many times and wreak havoc on their chosen family. So to stop them from leaving the world and making their powers useless, a priest had to find the stones and destroy them. After its destruction the child is no longer Ogbanje and is confined to the human world.
To prevent an Ogbanje child from returning, they would be cut or mutilated and if they returned they would be identified by their physical scars. They could also be identified by birthmarks and behavioral similarities with a child that had passed.
An easy way to identify an Ogbanje child was if they frequently fell ill or were constantly getting into trouble. In modern times though belief in Ogbanje has wavered. Many believe it was a way of understanding or explaining what were once unknown diseases like sickle cell anemia and sudden infant death syndrome as they shared signs compatible with the Ogbanje legend.
The Ogbanje legend is not only present in Igbo mythology, it can also be seen in Yoruba mythology with Abiku and the changeling in European mythology. The Ogbanje legend is fascinating and has been written about by many acclaimed authors including Chinua Achebe in his book “Things Fall Apart” with the character Ezinma who was considered an Ogbanje because before her birth ten of her mother’s children had died in infancy.
The protagonist of Dizzy Angel by Grace Osifo is also an Ogbanje.