Tag Archives: Igbo Religion

Revisiting Igbo Ukwu: A Lost Ancient Civilization

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Knowledge of history and the context in which things happened is essential in order to have a more balanced view of the world. One important site to the history of Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) is Igbo Ukwu (literally, the Great Igbo), where a number of original artifacts were found beginning in 1938.

“Igbo Ukwu is an archaeological site in Igboland, in Anambra State to be exact. These artifacts are dated to approximately 900 AD, but they may be much older(in fact I’m sure of it), and indicative of a lost ancient civilization in Igboland.

Strangely there isn’t much known about these artifacts beyond what you will find in standard Google searches. What you will generally find are brief descriptions of what was uncovered at Igbo Ukwu with some picures. Mind you there are hundreds of pieces, and you will not find them all online. Also, sadly, many of the Igbo Uwku artifiacts, our artifiacts, because these are indeed ours, are locked away in the British Museum.

Igbo Ukwu artifact

These pieces, which I believe to be indigenous productions, are vital in helping to reconstruct some of the ancient history of not only Igbos, but of the human existence within ancient Africa.”

To read more about Igbo Ukwu, visit this blog that deals with Igbo migrations, which is also listed in our related links page.

The Call

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Royal Woman in the making 

Ezenwanyi reawaken

Royal woman

Open your veil and let your eyes behold your beauty

Light of Chukwu sacred gateway

Sing the:

Divine Mother tune

For …

She longs to bathe you with her sunlight

Wash your sorrows with rain

Adorn your crown with flowers

Delight your taste buds with her fruits

Dazzle you with her colors

Caress you with her winds

Make you walk on lushes of green

Lighten your steps to the tune of silence

Sing you lullabies in the coos of a bird

Reawaken your existence as the universe at play

Dance you daughters of God

Move your hips to the rhythm of the cosmos

Dance

Dance

Dance

Away

The subjugations, the denials

The definitions, the sorrows

The incisions, the invasions, the blame

The censorship, the forced responsibilities, the lies

And

Many

Many

Other fixations

For your Queendom is finally at hand.

By Ebele Chizea

 

The Transmission of Odinani & Omenala in Pre-Colonial and Modern Society (Part 1)

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by Omenka Egwuatu Nwa-Ikenga

A good portion of the people of the world today attribute their beliefs and practices from one or more texts that they consider to be sacred. These “holy books”, as they are called, contain the cosmogony, proverbs, traditions, mythology, laws, customs, and other characteristics of a group of people, and are often considered to be either the “Word of God(s)” or the words of men that were “divinely inspired.”

“Holy” Book

Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) on the other hand, did not limit the transmission of their Odinani and Omenala on scriptures written by men. The reason for it is simple. When a group of people is able to see the Divine in everything, they do not place limits on how they transmit their points of view (the fundamental definition of a cosmogony is how a people see the world). While the transmission of Odinani and Omenala are found in every walk of Igbo life, this series of articles will only focus on some of the main avenues, which include: aha (names), ilu (proverbs), egwu (music), ukabuilu (parables), ifuru (mythology), okwa nka(art), and kentoaja(rituals)/mmemme (festivals). Modern additions such as literature, movies, poetry, and comic books/graphic novels will also be discussed.

(Aha) Names

Alot of information could be gathered from an Igbo name, as each one carries some significance and meaning. From an Igbo name, one could gather information such as the market day someone was born (Okafor means a male born on Afor day), their clan (Nwaneri means a descendant of Eri), the profession of their father (Ezeana means the descendant of a priest of Ani), as well as the circumstances around their birth (Ijeagha refers to a child born during war). Besides these things, alot of Igbo philosophy is apparent in many names. Take for example, the meanings of these names:

Afulukwe: “Seeing is believing”

Akobundu: “Wisdom is Life”

Azikiwe: “To turn one’s back is better than getting angry”

Chibueze: “God is King”

Ezinne: “Good Mother”

Jideofor: “Hold on to righteousness”

Nneka: “Mother is Supreme”

Nkeiruka: “The future is greater”

Nwachukwu: “Child of God”

Onyemobi: Who knows the heart?

Onwuasoanya: “Death respects no one”

Tabansi: “Have the patience (of a vulture)”

A more extensive list of Igbo names and their meanings can be found at this site as well as this one.

People were not the only things that were given special names, the Igbo Alusi (spiritual forces) were also given names that revealed alot about them and their functions in the society:

Chukwu: “The Big God” (the sum total of everything)

Amadioha: “Freewill of the people”

Anyanwu: “Eye of the Sun”

Idemilli: “Pillar of water”

Ikenga: “Place of strength”

More time will be spent in future posts explaining the meaning of the names of the Alusi as well as their attributes.

Ilu (Proverbs)

An Igbo proverb about proverbs states: “Ilu bu mmanu e ji eri okwu” (Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten). There are not many things that can teach you alot about a group in such a concise manner as a proverb, and Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) are amongst the most prolific in the world at producing them. In fact, I would go as far as to say that its probably impossible to have a full conversation with an elder Igbo person without hearing at least one. It makes you wonder whether ancient Igbos spoke in nothing but proverbs like Yoda.  Here are a couple that  give a taste of Igbo philosophy:

Eze mbe si na nsogbu bu nke ya, ya jiri kworo ya n’azu” (The tortoise said that trouble is its own; that’s why it carries trouble on its back)

Explanation:  One should try and shoulder one’s own burden

Nwaanyi muta ite ofe mmiri mmiri, di ya amuta ipi utara aka were suru ofe” (If a woman decides to make the soup watery, the husband will learn to dent the fufu before dipping it into the soup)
Explanation: One should learn to change tactics to suit a situation.

Madu bu chi ibe ya” (Man is God to his fellow Man)
Explanation: God works through human beings

Onye ahala nwanne ya” (Never leave your brothers and sisters behind)
Self explanatory

Aku m diri Ubani” (My wealth lies in the good in my community and what I do to bring it forth)
Self explanatory

Ebuno jị ibi éjé ogụ” (The ram goes into a fight head first)
Explanation: One must plunge into a venture in order to succeed.

E gbuo dike n’ogu uno, e ruo n’ogu agu e lote ya” (Kill a warrior during skirmishes at home, and you will remember him when fighting enemies)
Explanation: Don’t destroy your leaders.

Ugo chara  acha adi(ghi) echu echu” (A mature eagle feather will ever remain pure)
Explanation: One well trained will stand the test of time.

Ome nta ome imo, ya gwuo-nu ala lia onwe ya!” (A man who believes that he can do everything, let him dig a grave and bury himself!)
Explanation: Its not wise to believe that one is without limitations

Amara akagh ngburu oke madu.  Akaa anugh ngburu onye ogbede” (Knowing (the truth) but not telling it is what kills old men.  Hearing (the truth) but not heeding it is what kills young men.)
Self explanatory

Egbe belu-Ugo belu. Nke si ibe ya ebena, nku tije ya” (Let the kite (type of bird) perch and the hawk perch, and if one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken)
Explanation: Live your life and let others life their lives

More Igbo proverbs can be found here and here.

Egwu (Music)

Ndi Igbo, much like other African peoples, had a soundtrack for every occasion in their life. They had songs for children being born, songs for marriage, and for when people were being laid to rest. They had songs for work and for play. They had songs to prepare for war, songs to celebrate or call for peace, and songs to show discontent.

One such way of showing discontent through song was demonstrated through the act of “sitting on a man”, which Igbo women used to protest a man who they had felt that wronged them. “Sitting on a man” or a woman, boycotts and strikes were the women’s main weapons. To “sit on” or “make war on” a man involved gathering at his compound, sometimes late at night, dancing, singing scurrilous songs which detailed the women’s grievances against him and often called his manhood into question, banging on his hut with the pestles women used for pounding yams, and perhaps demolishing his hut or plastering it with mud and roughing him up a bit. A man might be sanctioned in this way for mistreating his wife, for violating the women’s market rules, or for letting his cows eat the women’s crops. The women would stay at his hut throughout the day, and late into the night, if necessary, until he repented and promised to mend his ways.Although this could hardly have been a pleasant experience for the offending man, it was considered legitimate and no man would consider intervening. (van Allen, Judith. “Sitting on a Man”: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 6)

Songs dedicated to the birth of children were a bit more positive than the ones that dealt with “sitting on a man.” These songs, which were referred to as omumu nwa songs are sung by groups of women after a successful childbirth. It is also usually accompanied by a dance. Below are two contrasting examples:

Uha (Lies)

Ye-ye-ye-yeo mumuo ma (Ye-ye-ye-ye good childbirth)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Omumu otuotuo oluilu (Childbirth sweet and bitter)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Omumuo ririu darao cha (Childbirth eater of ripened udara fruit)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Aha we uha ekwu we r’ezi (Whether they are lying or telling the truth)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha. (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

According to the article, “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” by Grace Okere: “This song is an expression of joyful disbelief by the mother of a woman who has successfully and safely delivered her child. They must be telling lies, she sings, although she wishes and knows that they are telling the truth. Apart from the rhythmic effect of the repetitive refrain, “uha-a aha we uha, uha” (“lies, they are telling lies, lies”), the song exploits the literary devices of paradox and imagery to effectively communicate meaning. Childbirth is paradoxically said to be “sweet and bitter.” This is so because it can bring boundless joy to the household into which a pregnant woman safely bears a child. On the other hand, it is “bitter” if the woman dies in childbirth. Then, there would be no songs of joy but sorrow and tears. Childbirth is also personified as “eater of ripened udara fruit.” This is an apt image used to communicate the fact that childbirth can kill a woman in her prime. This euphemistically expresses the sorrowful side of childbirth, when a woman dies in the process. The song brings out the antithetical qualities of childbirth- it is sweet but can be bitter, good but can send a young woman to an early grave” (Okereke, Grace Eche. “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Women as Oral Artists (Autumn, 1994), pp. 19-32)

This song offers a very different perspective:

Ah Nwa (The War of Childbirth)
Aha nwas u r’abalii si, osur ‘ogorowu (If the war of childbirth happens  in the night, it happens in the afternoon)
Niyi aso egwu, oha era (Do not be afraid owners of breast )
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ejem eje, ala m ala (I will go, I will return)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ma m’eje aha nwa (If I don’t fight the war of childbirth)
Mbia ji agbu enyi nkwu? (Shall I use rope to climb palm tree?)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ma m’eje aha nwa (If I don’t fight the war of childbirth)
Mbia ji egbe eje ogu e-e? (Shall I use gun to fight e-e?)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Aha nwa bu ogu egbe ndi iyom (The war of childbirth  is the gunfight of women)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je. (The war of childbirth we must go.)

Regarding this song, Okereke states that: “a stylistic analysis of the song reveals a rich exploitation of literary devices like metaphor and imagery, rhetorical questions and reversal of word order. All these combine to generate a solemn effect on the audience, especially the women themselves. The epithet “oha era,” literally meaning “owners of breast,”is a synecdochic expression used to praise women and challenge them to action in matters of grave importance affecting them or the entire community. By aptly using the image of war to describe childbirth, the song brings out the physical  strength and valor required of women in parturition . It also brings out the suffering and danger of losing one’s life during childbirth as in war.The women’s courage, confidence, and determination to achieve victory in this “war” are brought out in the repetitive emphasis  of and resolve in the words” I will go, I will return.” This determination and certain victory derive from the fact that most women throughout history have fought the war of childbirth and have returned victorious-alive with their babies. This positive mental attitude can go a long way in aiding a woman’s safe delivery.

The reversal of the word order in the refrain,”ahan wa ayi ejebekwa eje” (“the war of childbirth we must go”) gives the song a militant rhythm, which raises it to the status of a war song. This befits the war situation of childbirth….The rhetorical questions “If I don’t fight the war of childbirth/ShalI l use rope to climb palm tree?/ …/ Shall I use gun to fight e -e?,” not only spur woman to victory, but further reinforce woman’s view of her relevance in the traditional community as being anchored on childbearing. The double metaphor in the expression ” the war of childbirth is the gunfight of women” shows how highly women value this duty, and how they see it as their “crowning glory,” as the greatest of all their achievements. Like men in war, childbirth is the arena in which women prove their worth and valor; it is the achievement that will etch a notch on a woman’s bow of honor, just as the number of human heads a man brought home from battle determined the number of notches in his bow in the old days o f inter-ethnic wars. (Okereke, Grace Eche. “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Women as Oral Artists (Autumn, 1994), pp. 19-32)

Igbo musicians

It is my opinion that music is the most effective and efficient way of transmitting a culture. From this single tool, you can transmit a language, history, proverbs, mythology, dances, rituals and much much more. Music is perhaps the one thing that people of African descent have not regressed on, in fact, its the one area that I believe we have even outdone our ancestors in. Despite the abominable state that we have found ourselves in worldwide , nobody can say that we are not the best in the world at making music. If we are to create the new systems that can meet the needs of our people and elevate us to a higher level, music must play a critical role in their development and implementation.

Ani Song

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We are the children of Ani

The great mother of life

We are children swimming in the pool

Of her sacred rivers

We hop with the butterfly

Coo with the bird

Delight in the fragrance of flowers in bloom

We dig our feet deep in the sand

Play with ocean tides

Flap our arms against the wind

Pick up stones, wear or put them in jars

We climb tree branches

To perceive its secrets and wisdoms

Collected through the rings

Of time

We are not from here or there

We’ve existed before and forever will

We come time and time again

Because of love

And though we may be persecuted

Tried and refined by fire

We understand she is our friend

Together with water and air

We are the Kingdom of heaven

With all its riches buried within our hearts

We are the Queendom of earth

Come to manifestation

We are the children of Ani

The great mother of life

And our ammo is freedom

By Ebele Chizea

Introduction to Odinani

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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).