Introduction to Odinani

by Omenka Egwuatu Nwa-Ikenga

Who are the Igbo people

Ndi Igbo (the Igbo people) are a West African ethnic group who trace their homeland to an area of what is  now known as southeastern Nigeria. They are known for their rich, vibrant culture and history, and they have been the subject of many world renowned works of both fiction and non-fiction including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ifi Amadium’s Male Daughters and Female Sons as well as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

There have been Ndi Igbo occupying their present location for over 8000 years, and they have left behind such artifacts as the Igbo Ukwu scuptures, which are the earliest of their kind found in West Africa, as well as the Nsude pyramids which resemble some of the step pyramids of ancient Egypt and Sudan. For a large portion of its history, Alaigbo (Igboland) did not have a central authority, and within it existed many states including the medieval Nri kingdom and the more recent Onitsha and Arochukwu kingdoms, although the Arochukwu confederacy did have a considerable influence over Alaigbo for a few hundred years.

Nsude pyramids

The Maafa (Transatlantic Slave Trade) removed hundreds of thousands of Igbos from Alaigbo, placing them in significant concentrations in colonies that would eventually become the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, as well as the United States. These Ndi Igbo did not come empty handed, but carried with them their Omenala (customs and traditions), their Odinani (spiritual sciences), and their unbreakable wills. Their descendants helped play  key roles in such slave uprisings as the Nat Turner Rebellion as well as the Haitian Revolution.

The Maafa was the beginning of the colonization process of Alaigbo by the British, which they resisted through numerous battles such as the Anglo-Aro Wars, the Ekumeku rebellions, the Aba Women’s riots and culminating in the Biafran War. It was not until 1970 that Alaigbo was under the total control of  the (neo)colonial state of Nigeria. As a result of slavery and colonization, the lifestyles and practices of the majority of Ndi Igbo and their descendants has dramatically changed.

What are Omenala & Odinani?

Historians like to perpetuate the idea that Africans who ended up in the so called New World lost their African culture, which stems from the fact that most Diaspora Africans do not speak the exact same languages of their ancestors, eat the exact same foods, or practice the exact same spiritual systems. However, just because something is not exactly what it was previously does not mean it is has become “lost.” Customs and traditions, like everything else, can go through transformations and adaptations, especially when they are carried to a new environment and people undergo new experiences.

There are also many voluntary African immigrants that now live in North America. These people do not live the same way that they did in Africa, and their children do not have all of the same practices and ways of thinking that they have. The food eaten is often different, the clothing worn is different, and the language might not be passed from one generation to the next. However, you can still analyze them and make a conclusion about where they came from without too many problems. If so much can be changed in just one generation from a voluntary immigration, how much would be transformed from many generations after an involuntary one?

"Other African Americans"

Even when historians admit that some African cultural practices were retained, they will systematically ignore (either directly or indirectly) the Omenala of the Ndi Igbo, especially as it pertains to their descendants in the United States. Historians will admit that Ndi Igbo did come to the “New World” but seldom ever speak on the practices that are derived from them. Rather, they attempt to paint the majority of the Diaspora as being either Yoruba or Akan.

The reality is that the majority of the Diaspora was not Yoruba or Akan, and the Ndi Igbo comprised a significant portion of it. Secondly, the practices of a people in the Diaspora are not always a signifier of who they trace their ancestry from. There are many Africans of Igbo descent in the Diaspora that practice the Yoruba religions because of the fact that the strong central organization of that particular system, as well as the ones of the Bakongo and Fon/Ewe, made them more apt  to flourish in the Diaspora.

Likewise, there are people of Igbo descent in Africa that practice the Roman religion called Catholicism or the British religion called Anglicanism, but neither of these groups of Igbos are from Rome or Britain. Furthermore, the idea that the traditional religions are dead in Alaigbo or in the rest of Africa is more misleading propaganda that people fail to double check on. If the traditional religions are really dead then why do all the African “traditional healers”, “medicine men”, diviners and priests still have so much clientele, even in predominately Christian or Islamic nations? As embellishing as Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry) can be at times in its portrayal of Nigerian life, this is one thing that they are not exaggerating. The fact is that regardless of what imported tradition an Igbo (or any other African) may practice, when it begins to fail them, they will go back to the Omenala of their forefathers and foremothers that provided results.

The Re-Awakening of Omenala & Odinani


Today, with the advent of DNA testing that allows people to trace their ancestry, more and more Africans in the Diaspora are uncovering their Igbo genetic heritage, and seeking to learn more about the Omenala of their Egwugwu (ancestors). However, a careful analysis will reveal that they don’t have to visit Alaigbo to discover them, as they are literally right in front of their faces in the traditions and habits that they already know and cherish.
Likewise, Nollywood is helping to spark a renaissance in interest in the Omenala of Ndi Igbo within Africa, by producing alot of films that take place in pre-colonial Alaigbo. These movies often feature Igbo language, traditional attire, make-up, and other things pertinent to Omenala. Authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) are helping to build the Igbo renaissance in the literary field by picking up the torch originally carried by people like Chinua Achebe.

Forest Whitaker & Danny Glover reclaim their Igbo heritage

This blog was motivated in part by  the developing Igbo Renaissance, and the growing need to reclaim the Omenala of the Igbo both in the Diaspora and the Motherland.  However, simply reclaiming and reviving Omenala is a drop in the bucket. The most vital thing is to reawaken the Odinani. Whereas Omenala can be paraphrased as “what you do”, the Odinani is “why you do it.” This fundamental relationship is the key to not only reviving old traditions and practices, but creating new and better ones that can raise the state of our people wherever they may be.

The vast majority of the people in the world today have beliefs, practices and traditions that they uphold but lack understanding about. Consider yourself as an example. Why do you feel the way you feel about certain things? Why do you believe what you believe? Who defined your values? Who is the one that designed your lifestyle? Have you ever thought about these things?

Likewise, when it comes to conditions  in society or in the world as a whole, people often don’t think about the root causes of things; why things are the way that they are. They simply just accept definitions given to them by their religious leaders, social scientists or politicians. What we call religions today are not much more than the deification of a culture of a people. People can’t tell the difference between their cultural practices and the principles that caused them to come into existance.

Odinani was the means through which the Ndi Igbo sought to understand their natural environment. In pre-colonial times, their worldview was limited to their village and their surrounding villages, so their definition of Odinani would have been “laws of the land.” However, with the dramatic expansion of the Igbo worldview that came with colonization by the Europeans, a more appropriate translation of Odinani would be the laws of the Earth, or the laws of Nature. We know this today as science.

Observation

According to Webster’s Dictionary, science is defined as “a systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” By this definition, Ndi Igbo, much like other African people, were scientists in the true sense of the word. They were master observers, able to pick up the minutest of details as well as things right in plain view that often go overlooked by most people. Ndi Igbo were also practical people who adopted traditions after they had been tested and found to produce results that could be reproduced. They did not have time for theories that had not been demonstrated or for blind faith in anything. However, there were two major differences between their view of science and the Western view. Those are, the fact that they did not separate the spiritual from the physical, and that they were also intelligent enough to never claim to have discovered anything.

Ndi Igbo knew what scientists are now finding out: that all matter in the universe is energy, that vibrates at certain frequencies. What we call the physical world is matter that is vibrating at a lower frequency. When the frequency increases, things can become inpercievable to us, even though they are still there. An example of this would be radio and television waves.  Matter at a  higher vibration is what the ancients called spirit. The understanding of the science of spirit is what we would call metaphysics, which is defined as “the theoretical or first principles of a particular discipline.” In other words, metaphysics is the first cause of everything in the physical.

Although Ndi Igbo, as well as other African people have produced their own Leonardo DaVinci’s, Issac  Newtons, Albert Einsteins, etc, these African people did not take credit for finding out about things that have always existed, as Europeans have a very nasty habit of doing. The very notion that an individual “discovers” anything in nature, be it a place (especially one that is already inhabited), a thing, or a concept, implies that no other people that lived before knew it, or that that individual has some type  of “ownership” over it. Ndi Igbo, like other Africans, acknowledged that they did not discover anything, they simply became aware of something that had already been there. Every other year, a new “discovery” by the Europeans renders their old “discoveries” null and void, which goes to show that they are not “discovering” anything at all, but simply uncovering a “bigger piece of the pie.” In regards to Odinani, one good way to describe it would be as a process of becoming aware, of ones self, and of reality.

In conclusion, I would like to say that if Omenala were a play, Odinani would be the script. If Omenala were a software program, Odinani would be the source code. If Omenala would be the actions one takes in response to the changing seasons, then Odinani would be the cyclical  nature of the seasons themselves. The customs, traditions, and rituals that you have will change depending on season or environment, but the laws of nature themselves remain the same. And as you read the articles written by different authors, and view the different symbols and works of art that are posted and deciphered, you should be aware that nothing that is being shared should be considered true unless you can research it, observe it, and prove it true to yourself. Yagazie (May we prosper).