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Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 1

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Igbo Modes Of Mobilizing Extrahuman Forces To Respond To Illness And Problems In Society - Iga N’ajuju (Part 1) 


Alberta, Canada 

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Monday, January 23, 2006


Nobody Wants to Write in this Area; Why? 

I  have had a long standing interest in exploring African medical systems. As such, I introduce to you a course in African medicine and the perspectives of its practitioners. I am calling this course “Igbo Medicine” (IGBOMED 101). This way, I anticipate that readers will gain insights and stand up for Igbo medical heritage – therefore align it with vision in a changing global health care and development.  

So, what is Igbo Medicine? This course will engage readers in the exploration of African ways of inquiry and discovery when it comes to finding the causes of illnesses and suffering, and the ritualistic and therapeutic remedies that follow. It is my hope that one day an in-depth and expanded edition of “Introduction to Igbo Medicine” (Ogwu Igbo) will emerge, adding to the awareness of indigenous practices of healing and their relevance in the modern world.  

There is a need to give philosophical attention and meaning to culture and healing as they are seen by the practitioners in this area. In other words, understanding the principles around which illness is conceived of, explained, and used at cross-points of a knowledge system is necessary.


  Figure 1: Diviner’s Consultation Hut

Basically, related case studies of illnesses in Igboland, how they are explained, and how healing is dispensed by Igbo healers and their counterparts in other African countries should command greater attention than they do currently. In order to get to the root of the matter in a meaningful way, use of personal and related experiences should also be encouraged in the studies of African healing systems and the institution of African medicine. This pertains not only to the wide range of forms of illnesses and social problems that indigenous healers address, but also to the changing patterns in relationship with biomedical sphere, or so-called orthodox, medicine.  

In this work, I wish to discuss, specifically, Igbo divination systems. First, I want to question the composition of our knowledge that leads us to believe that the realm of the seen is more real than the realm of the unseen. Festus Adedayo’s (2005) The Dilemma of a Snake[1] points out that 

 “to establish the possibility of any knowledge, such knowledge has to be founded on some assumptions whose truth has to be guaranteed and to judge a specific knowledge process would be dependent on a knowledge already known to be certain and true as a standard. But obviously the need to ‘prove the reliability of knowledge always poses a problem.’”      

 While consummation with other cultures has broadened the Igbo cosmology of knowledge transmission, patterns of life, and worldviews, traditional values and practices have endured in the imbrications and realms of knowledge systems. Consulting superhuman forces in matters of healing, rather than throwing the Igbo into an epistemological dilemma, enables them to reach beyond the endless limitations of the human mind. In a serious sense, it allows them to engage in the symbolic and intellectual pursuit of resolving the dilemma of achieving true knowledge in regard to suffering and cures. 

Two key aspects of the scientific system of knowledge consist of ideas of the nature of reality and the quest for objectivity. When the question of the study of knowledge, commonly called epistemology, is raised, some scholars argue that there is no reality, but only an individualized/collective subjective perception of reality. Others contend there is an existential reality that we can know, but never perfectly.[2] Arguments such as these suggest that epistemological differences are challenging issues faced by people and cultures as they establish experiences that shape knowledge, such as in long lasting adversity, health disturbances, and folk methodologies or culture-loggia control approach.[3] Postmodernism (Katz 1996), as Rosenau (1992) has shown, “haunts” all systems of knowledge. It calls into question the very foundation and core of the social sciences. Contemporary debate on knowledge systems poses challenges to every mode (Chappell et al 2003:73). Ignoring much of the scholarship on the cultural modes of knowing in Igbo society not only hides, but also reaffirms the discomfort surrounding, expressive and meaningful folk modes.   

At home, healers are widely consulted in the search for causes of distress and illness and 'ritual cures.' Such consultations are concerned with a wide range of various ailments, illnesses, and misfortunes. Belief in sorcery, witchcraft, and superhuman forces has continued to thrive. In Igboland of south-eastern Nigeria, when a person becomes critically unwell, it is the cause of a great deal of concern among his or her family and kin members. People become seriously worried. If a malady persists, the burden becomes a subject of public discourse. There is, often, a need to try to make sense of the unwellness. The “purpose” of the illness will be subjected to scrutiny. Never is a serious illness allowed to rest without consultation with forces more powerful than those humans have to offer in order to gain appropriate insight and ritualistic remedies. The idea behind consulting extra-human forces (mmuo, agbara, oracle, deitific forces), is to ensure that all the care available in the network of kin-population is utilized. For that reason, family members, close kin-group members, and kindred elders consider the task of attempting to discover the source of the illness a moral obligation. They will shop around, far and near, in order to enquire, interrogate, and obtain a clearer understanding of what is at stake from authorized health practitioners so that they can shape and manage the crisis at hand. Often this happens in conjunction with biomedical treatment.  

Consulting forces that see deeper than the human surface is, for the most part, a central part of the Igbo culture. Unlike the neighbouring Ethnic Yoruba in Nigeria, whose ifa oral divination system[4] is at the centre of her traditional culture, very little is known, from an intellectual, discursive point of view, about the field of divination in Igboland. And this creates an ethnographic learning gap. While studies that focus on patterns of conversion and faith healing abound in scholarly and traditional religious literature, a sociological and anthropological focus on cultural and endogenous diagnostic skills appears largely ignored in any form of written discourse (cf. Aneziownu 1988). As divination is, moreover, diverse across cultures (Karcher 1999, Peek 1991, Gilchrist 1987),[5] its specific patterns and practices in Igboland must not continue to be disregarded in that it constitutes a useful foundation for knowledge. Literature (e.g. Ezeliora 1994, Anezionwu 1988, Devisch 1991, DeBoeck 1993) indicates that divination forms have been presented merely as anecdotes in critiques, denying the institution the genuine sensibility, and intellectual and healing reality, that it strongly embodies in Igbo medicine and healing. Today in the western world, the presence of Asian medicine, Chinese medicine in particular, is pronounced, and is taught in University and College Curriculum. This medical approach is now emphasized, and follows biomedicine as a universal therapeutic response to imbalances in health. Can the Igbo system of medical thought be similarly rescued and given a process and place in the development arena?

In this paper, which consists of three serial parts, I discuss three Igbo cultural ways of seeking for, and questioning, causes of unwellness. For the most part, I will point out how these modes of divination are employed in day-to-day realities. I will emphasize the Igbo’s explicit cultural meanings and diagnostic techniques, the curiosity in probing for ritual treatments, as well as the relationships healers share with clients seeking to address events and crisis in their lives. Healer/diviners do not just offer advice on herbal and ritual resources, but also enhance holistic treatment techniques and foster cultural, psychological, and physiological components of interaction. The study of these modes shows that iga n’ajuju (going to ask) endorses all of the society’s core aspects of gender, cosmology, age, community, and culture. 

In particular, I look at palm divination, the grand mirror mode, and the seed model. I will specifically focus on these three modes in order to illustrate the concept and dynamics involved in questioning unwellness in the face of illness, social misfortune, crisis, and suffering at all levels. I argue that the ways in which the Igbo show sensitivity to the culture of knowing is not only both a cosmological and symbolic form of reality, but is also epistemological, intervallic, and significant to their lives and culture. To make the contribution and reading easier, I will present the three modes in three parts: I, II, III. My aim is to open a debate on this aspect of knowledge, and my hope is to evaluate what lessons can be applied to health and social policy in Igboland, Nigeria, and Africa. This part one of the three series will deal with the relevant terms and notions as follows.  

Diviners and divination, dibia afa, and igba aja        

            Igbo diviners, as empowered mediators between the visible and invisible realms of reality, are known as dibia afa, dibia ogba-aja, dibia nnyocha, or dibia nlepute. Igbo terms for divination include igba afa, (to name); igba aja (to identify a form of sacrifice); iga n’ajuju (to seek out by asking); nnyocha (to examine); nlepute (to look and find out); and ahu n’anya ekwe nke eshishi agugo (seeing is believing without doubt.) These terms are connected with the revelation of secrets and the undoing of the hidden agenda of the cause and effect of things that upsets daily life. The table below lists these important references to divination:                                                               

1.   Igba afa

2.   Igba aja

3.   Iga n’ajuju

4.   Nnyocha

5.   Nlepute

6.   Ahu n’anya ekwe nke eshishi agugo

7.  Nkpughe ihe nzuzo


8.   Ago ndimmuo

1.      To name illness, i.e., giving illness appropriate name

2.    To identify an appropriate sacrifice

3.        To go and ask, inquire, question, seek out by asking

4.     To probe, examine

5.     To gaze out, sort out, look and find out

6.     Seeing is mainly believing so as to put out doubt.

7.     Opening up secrets, laying bare the hidden strands,

       disclosing matters

8.      Seeking justice in a case involving spirits

 Table 1: List of divination terms 

Becoming a dibia afa, Diviner

            Healers in Igboland practice various specialities within their calling. A dibia afa, for example, is adiviner who is generally perceived as a skilful clairvoyant. To be a diviner is to be viewed as holding a key to the secrets of lifelines, having knowledge of the underworld, and possessing an ability to see things and transmit that  knowledge to others in need. In order to become a clairvoyant, a candidate is usually called upon by the ancestral line’s deity of the art of studying and practicing clairvoyance. The diviner is often captured by an extra-human force and compelled to initiate and practice divination. Some diviners attempt, unsuccessfully, to flee their calling, and some cross sexual and territorial boundaries, gaining uncommon identities in order to become technicians of the sacred, hard-earned knowledge. Often, the source of clairvoyance comes from the crossing of boundaries; namely, entering into liminal or borderline  states of mind, which is sometimes paid for in suffering or dislocation (Karcher 1997:13). Divining, and learning to divine, involves tapping into the intimate power latent in human’s innate intuitive capacity and the invisible relay of forces. The learning of divining involves seeing patterns that interconnect time, spirit, and soul, and cultivating and training in this innate capacity in order to see beyond human’s usual perceptions.


 Figure 2: Diviner-healer’s initiatory power objects

         When tested and approved by a master healer, a candidate undertakes initiation into the prescribed stages. A special eye-wash ritual (itu anya afa), lasting about eight market days, is undergone. The most important stage in this ritual is called the isolation stage (ngbazo nwa dibia afa), during which a candidate is excluded from public view and contact. This is aimed at resonating with a psychic or extrasensory connection and enacting sacredness, purity, and diligence with the deity of divination. The only contact the initiate has is with his or her medicine deity, called chi okwe, agwu okwe. During seclusion, a candidate maintains direct focus on his or her agwu symbols. Eating and drinking is minimized, and renders the initiate vulnerable and eager to receive insights and “hear” voices that will guide his or her divination life-path. A leading master healer guides the initiate and instructs him or her on important divinatory symbols and significations, and prohibitions to effectiveness. In essence, the initiate is instructed on how to see clear - clairvoie and interpret received messages by drawing from the experience of this rite of passage (echiche, itu ugo ihu uzo, amamihe). Also crucial are learning how to beckon the deity for intervention and interrogation processes. At the end of the training and rite of passage, other healers gather to a feast of ibo ebi, (the finding of secrets or sources of suffering and attacks.) This rite enables the new healer/diviner to demonstrate his or her new diagnostic skills, including the categorization of suffering and its implications, thus gaining recognition and blessing from both the community of healers and the lay people. A diviner is accorded great honour insofar as the practitioner is effective and brings clients from near and far to the community.  

            Typically, those who accept the call to divine and heal view their bond with the forces as a long-term relationship. They operate in a consultation hut that is kept sacred—a divination house (ulo ajuju), which is built in the compound for the forces that are thought to dwell there. Divination shrines, sites, houses, or spaces (ogige afa) are surrounded with the rule of sacredness for purity, which includes such rituals as clients taking off their shoes and crossing the medicinally prepared foot-mat at the entrance of the house in order to thwart evil forces. The chancel (ulo ogwu) must be kept pure and sacred. Diviners also purify or neutralize themselves before consulting with clients. They clean their hands, chew whitish clay (nzu), rub yellowish chalk (odo) on their eyes, mark their hands with three or four strokes, and then pour libation with palm wine or hot drink, alligator pepper (ose oji) and kolanut (oji). Most diviners conceive of their relationship with their spirit forces as sacred, much like a marriage to the underlying force (ikuru mmuo). This constitutes a formal invitation to, and domestication of, the forces at work, and involves the sharing of tasks and obligations in the collaboration.  

            Common myths around divination are found in stories relating to the ability of diviners to identify the causes of problems and remedial strategies. Diviners are clearly aware of a public expectation and, indeed, a healer (dibia)knows that he or she will always be tested, and required to endorse and re-endorse his or her credibility, expertise, reliability, cultural wisdom, and community support. Through accurate presentation of the facts in cases involving health and life, misfortune and progress, crisis and stability, failure and success, defeat and victory, offence and revenge, a diviner must be able to recognize the best options for healing, as calculated by the superhuman forces available. Once a divinatory course completes its action appropriately, it cannot be disputed. The voice of the oracle,[6] that “other voice,” is unquestionable, because it does not blunder or play games. That is, the methods and results of establishing aetiology are culturally believed to attest to the truth, thus codifying sense to its practitioners and clients. In all these representations, a diviner (dibia afa) primarily “sees,” but does not heal, as such, like other healers do (Amadi 1983:106). The type of formation a diviner undertakes differentiates his or her area of interest from those of other healers in the cultural context. 

            When people go to consult a diviner (ogba afa), they express this action as “going to ask” (iga n’ajuju.) Primarily, this means to go and consult with a view toward finding the answer to a specific social, health, family, economic, or political problem. The term also, however, refers to the question one puts to the diviner (dibia afa) or oracular agent. When the Igbo say that they are going to ask the reason from forces that exist beyond the human realm, they mean that they want to ask the presumed agent of misfortune to reveal itself; that is, to say who it is and what it wants (White 1997:60; De Boeck 1993; Devisch 1991, Soldier & Pierre 1995, Iroegbu 2001).[7] Divination is the formal occasion for making uncertainty explicit and developing views on how to take proper action. 

       Given their activities, diviners have been referred to as “diplomats formal to the night” (Bekaert 2000). Sources, such as Chidi Osondu, strengthen this view when they describe how diviner-healers engage in research (iwa ohia) into the powers behind Igbo medicine and their efficacy in healing in a much deeper way than they are ordinarily perceived to do. A great diviner is described as one who shows a great sense of precision and the ability to pinpoint facts. He or she is said to have a deep and clear insight (idi omimi na ihu uzo nke oma).In order to reveal the secrets of herbs and roots, forces of the night, namely wind-forces (ikuku), are confronted and pacified.[8] In this way, night idiom is an important dimension for healers in the subject of knowing and relaying the appropriate remedies for a crisis. Folklore holds that the divination ritual is capable of cooling down the heat of crisis. The Igbo say, “when the mouth is oiled, it changes what it says” (onu raa ngo ya kwugharia). In that sense, divination must bring about such cooling down of the forces of disturbance by discovering what the forces are, and discovering what they require so that their untamed desires, which cause misfortune to humans, might be cooled down (Iroegbu 2000). 

Best Practices In View of Conducting Divination

            Rules that govern the modus operandi of consultation must be understood and made known by consults. A dibia ogba-aja,or diviner,is viewed as a broad-minded doctor of secrets. He or she formulates an appropriate recipe for consulting the invisible world of the oracle or spirit. The term ‘invisible,’ in this sense, means the world of ancestors and deific forces. Here, the dibia ogba-aja is the one who reveals which sacrifices and rites are appropriate for dealing with a particular hardship. He or she investigates the array of rituals in order to determine what will best pacify the agencies behind the crisis. Healers connect divination to both the heart (obi) and brain (uburu isi), and it is crucial, for both the diviner and the client, that all of the senses work together during a session and that all of the rules are followed. A diviner commonly uses instruments or tools in the act of divination, some of which include tortoise shells, cowry shells, coins, pebbles, sea stones, apple seeds, gongs, mirrors, and bells. They also enact esoteric songs while divining, transmitting messages and transforming their sense in the process. The responsibility of consulting a diviner comes with seniority and leadership in the family, as well as through uterine and agnatic ties. Apart from the rules of sacredness already discussed, some revering of the chancel is necessary, including a small fee called service or consultation money, which “opens the diviner’s mouth” (ego ajuju or ego iwake okwe). A specific amount may be asked for directly by the diviner or the fee may be negotiated. In one oracular session, the spirit simply pronounced how much was to be paid in either ancient money (isi ego) or in British colonial currency, and the diviner converted it.[9] All fees are to be placed in front of the shrine or divining space. 

       As ignorance is co-generative to the investigation, clients are asked preliminary questions and instructed on proper decorum while the session is going on; for instance, they should not cross their legs or show indecency, which would render the efforts of the diviner non-productive. Another standing rule is that the diviner should know no details of the case beforehand; rather, these are to be exposed by the process of divination. As a matter of concern for the people, a client should go to a diviner far away from home in order to avoid a local diviner being influenced by previous awareness of the case or by community gossip (asiri oria). Once this influence is mitigated, the revelation should be discerned by a neutral “other voice of the forces who see better than man.” Going to divination means going to listen to authoritative sources. It is particularly important for both the client and diviner to begin a session in a state of uncertainty (White 1997:67-68; Devisch 1999; De Boeck 1991). Joseph Ayim Nwanoro in Ohaji, a master diviner, notes that spirits are more sensitive than men. Speed in the consultation approach is preferred (ime osiso ka mma), as Spirits are meant to write with “thunder lights” (amuma oku ezelu) as they read a client’s face and assess the problems presented.     

            There are cases where clients do not come to a diviner in good faith, but, rather, to test or find fault with him or her. But consultation is expected to concern itself with a client’s problem, and opening a long dialogue with the oracle, except when it is required, is to be avoided. The oracle will always identify a particular client’s purpose in coming, and then move swiftly along to the task of accounting for other events in the patient’s life. Posing unrelated questions is not encouraged, as long narratives might complicate the psychological mood of the client and weaken the diviner’s ability to ask relevant questions. If the oracle receives no further questions when he or she should, the session will terminate. The ending of a divination session means that a spirit called up will not be summoned to re-appear on the same day for the same client in the same session. An initial explanation of the rules of consultation prepares the session and begins the divinatory experience. The following three modes—mirrorization, seedification, and palmization—are significant and will illustrate further these cultural concepts and methods of coping with critical unwellness.




*[1] Dr. Patrick Iroegbu is Social and Cultural Medical Anthropologist and of the Department of Anthropology, Economics and Political Science, Grant MacEwan College, University Studies. Edmonton Alberta, Canada. Please send comments, suggestions and permission to reproduce part or whole to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or the web-publisher.


[1] Festus Adedayo (2005). “The Dilemma of a Snake”  Guardian Newspapers Ltd. Online article. Tuesday, February 1, p. 4. In:  

[2] Chappell Neena et al, 2003. Aging in Contemporary Canada. Toronto: Prentice Hall. See chapter 3, p. 72, discussing knowledge building and older people in society.  

[3] I am using the term culture-loggia management approach to mean culturally situated ways of identifying and addressing problems of life’s crisis.

[4] Bascom, W. Ifa Divination. 1969. See also Abimbola. W. 1977.

[5] Gilchrist, C. and his Divination: The Search for Meaning.

[6] “Oracle,” in its most basic term, refers to a culturally appropriated mode that speaks out, revealing what spiritual forces are active in one’s problem or event and what might be done about them. Shrines, altars, incubation sites, temples, grottoes or caves, deity ground forests, trees and rivers are examples of oracular signification of presence. According to Karcher (1997:13), these symbols encourage special kinds of perception, a way to see through the surface of things and hear what is at work behind them. Oracles make the capacity to see, hear, and feel extra-human forces moving and acting in fostered sites of close encounters. Oracular sites give access to a divine mindset, a knower of fates, a world soul bringing both rational and phenomenal experiences and thoughts together. Oracular sites provide means with which to gather information about the invisible world through the source, nature, and power of the diviner/agent who has been chosen and planted in the professional sight by the extra-human force involved.       

[7] Pierre, St. M & T.L. Soldier. 1995. Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers – Medicine Women of the Plain Indians. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

[8] Fieldnote  March 1998.

[9] Here, the spirit pronounced that 400 naira should be paid, half on the spot, and the remainder at the commencement of the therapy.  

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 2

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 3

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 4

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Patrick Iroegbu Ph.D

Patrick Iroegbu is a Social and Cultural (Medical) Anthropologist and lectures Anthropology in Canada. He is the author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in a Changing African Society: The Igbo of Nigeria (2007). He equally co-ordinates the Kpim Book Series Project of Father-Prof. Pantaleon Foundation based at Owerri, Nigeria. Research interests include gender and development, migration, race and ethnic relation issues, as well as Igbo Medicine, Social Mental Health and Cultural Studies.