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Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 3

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Igbo Modes Of Mobilizing Extrahuman Forces To Respond To Illness And Problems In Society - Iga N’ajuju (Part 3) 


Alberta, Canada 

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Monday, February 6, 2006 

Both parts one and two of this presentation have outlined the definition and meaning of divination in the light of cultural device to manage episodes of illness in kinship based systems of society organization and relationships. Mirror divination is specifically elaborated to illustrate the sense of endogenous skills and creativity in a changing traditionism and modernism. This part three will take up two more modes of divination to establish the fact that modal variety is often a way of reaching deeper and broader layers of the cultural and cosmological fields of a society in the intervention and management of conflicts, health, social, economic, and political contours of troubled life and society. In the following, what palm and seed-object divination systems are in their processes and in their significances will be the main discourses.

   Palm divination, afa olule aka 

          Palmistry, also called “fate in your hand” (akaraka), is a common practice. Apart from specialists, commoners usually know and carry out palm readings (ile aka). Every person’s palms (obo aka) are marked differently, and each may have something to say about the current and future events in the life of the person whose palms are being examined. In this sense, the palm of the hand is crisscrossed with signs. Fingers and thumbs are also significant, as is the overall shape and texture of the hand. And the wrist wrinkles (“bracelets of life”) trace the pattern of overall health and life when figured in with the lines on the palm, thus weaving the life story of individual clients (Karcher 1997:42) into an unfolding tale. “Palmists” (ndi ole aka) are readers and interpreters of the palm markings (akaraka), and, in particular, the visible symbolic lines (akara gbaputara ihe). 

       But diviner/healers, in this case, go beyond the visible lines on the palm. They dig deeper in order to confront the hidden signs and bring out the unseen (akara zoroezo). In doing this, white powder, a mirror, perfume, and other objects, such as candle lights and burning incense, are usually employed. For example, in the examination of the hand of a patient, powder may be put in the hand and rubbed in well. A small divining mirror may then be placed on the hand to reflect underlying symbolic marks best known to the diviner/healer. A diviner constantly caresses the palm (obo aka), muttering questions and words in line with what she or he is observing. After all this, the healer identifies, in most cases, problems that the client may have encountered in his or her life. The healer will also warn against future misfortunes that might occur if nothing is done to balance events. Usually, ritual sacrifices will be indicated to solve ongoing problems and counteract future ones. People may consult this form of fortune telling to determine their future, improve their luck, determine what they are destined for in life, and how to go about achieving that destiny. 

       Particular healers, such as those dealing with owummiri, uke, and ogbanje, use palm examination as a “first call” to identify whether or not a patient belongs to any spirit cult, or to determine how fatal his or her case is and what therapeutic steps can be taken at that moment. In addition, the use of colours is important. The case below, in which a woman was close to death, illustrates this divination method.  

Case of a Woman Crying in Death Agony after Her Fifth Delivery

      Healer Nze Iwu Vernatius of Nsu, narrated this case concerning a woman who had contracted with her spirit to die after delivering her fifth child. Upon his arrival at the patient’s home, the healer found the people in a state of helplessness, and the woman’s husband was no less confused. The healer recalled how he worked and said: 

He (the husband of the dying woman) quickly hauled me inside, where his wife was laying writhing in pain, struggling, and crying loudly. First, I took her hands and opened her palms for examination. When I looked closely, I screamed aloud. I called out for immediate rescue or she would die! I pleaded forthwith, addressing the spirits to give way. “Hold on!” (Chere nu!), my voice passionately thundered. 

       In her palms were two bold and large colours—one red and one blue. Nobody was seeing these colours except me. I called the woman’s husband’s attention to it, but he also couldn’t see it. I declared that she needed to be bailed out (ngbaputa) at once or else she would depart to join her group of water spirits. “Her group is all dancing around waiting for her to feast together. Your wife is an uke”(i.e., belonging to owummiri, the water spirit cult) She was left with two options: to die or become insane if she refused to join them. 

Further to this palm divination finding, the healer pointed out that diviners are sometimes helped by what sort of cries the ill person voices. In line with this view, he reports of the dying woman: 

She had been crying out, “how can I ever leave my four children and the last one, and to whose care? I know it is the fifth that we agreed, yet I am confused, unwilling, unwilling, unwilling.”

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the healer went on: 

I requested that a hen that had laid eggs and reared chicks be brought to me quickly for the bail out (ina n’ebe). People moved into the gardens around and caught one. When it was brought to me, I went into service, and sacrificed the hen; with its blood I cleansed the blue colour, balancing all the colours into a unity of red (human blood) that gave the woman her life back. 

It can be seen from this narrative that incidents like this call for immediate action and cool heads in the logic of sorcerous exchange (wete isi bia were isi). In order to deal with sensitive emergencies successfully, one requires a healer/diviner who is not only capable of identifying the problem on the spot, but is also able to rescue the patient by personally confronting the attacking forces. If not, the critical position (the blue colour in this instance) before such a healer would prevail without opposition. Offering the sacrifice cancelled the verdict (the blue), and changed it to red, normalizing the woman’s humanity. Significantly, the blue colour meant the breaking of ties (nkabi njiko) between the patient and his or her cult group. If the healer had not met the patient until the colour was black, the situation would have already reached a “deadend” (uka agwula), with no hope of rescue whatsoever. And this was close to taking place; no rescue would have occurred in the black colour zone, in which the sealing of the covenant would have been irrevocable. The black colour is a point of no return, a point where all negotiations are closed. The following box depicts this: 

Palm divination reveals colours significant with covenants. They are namely:

Red:      danger, blood

Black:   dead-end, ended matter

Blue:     breaking of ties, judgement


These basic colours indicate critical moments for the ill person. A healer reads them and interprets the implication of each colour signification. Therapy is therefore constructed on each colour indication, and may differ by intensity and type of resources needed to face it. Cases of insanity and traumatic distress are given proper care.


  Box 1: Colours in palm divination and significance

 Seed-Object divination, afa mkpuru okwe (igba okwe)

             This is the most ancient and popular of divination techniques still in regular use. In this device, each of the intervening objects or seeds represent or indicate a specific cause or source of the problem. A dibia who uses seeds to question the forces involved is described as “a specialist of a hundred seeds” (dibia ohu okwe iri). These seed objects are sacred and deeply symbolic. Apart from seeds, this divination may also include the use of beads (ego, okwe, ola), and symbols of the heart, cross, and seat (ube mgba, ekwe, oche). There are also symbols for agwu, such as a button, ear ring, plate, coffin, or chain, as well as fertility items such as gravel, breadfruit seed (udara, okwute), a precious stone, and male and female chimpanzees. The healer holds the key to the significance of these materials, which can only be revealed if it is considered necessary. For example, the ring may represent a woman’s sexual affair, and the seat may depict family affairs. When the cross and chain join together, this indicates that the client is chained or tied up. If it is the cross alone that appears during aetiological investigation, this indicates prayers. If it is agwu, it means that the client has an unresolved agwu problem, such as being called to become a healer; udara symbolises a marital relationship; and money (ego) indicates that the cure will be, or has been, ineffective.  

            The number of seed objects a diviner might use evolves according to his expertise. They may be even or odd in number, such as 16, 24, 35, 40, or 50. Only the diviner knows what each one represents, so as to protect their sacredness and secrecy, as well as their effectiveness. Divination seeds are not obtained just any way or any where; they are revealed by the cosmological field forces, and obtained through the knowledge shared by its practitioners within a system called isa okwe.   

            To diagnose problems, the diviner first scrapes some yellow kaolin (odo) and sprinkles it on the seeds. He or she licks white kaolin (nzu) and then perfumes his or her body. The diviner then takes his or her ofo dibia[1]  and waves it over the seeds and stamps it twice on the seeds and ground. Doing this “activates the divinatory objects” (iwake okwe). This activation calls for the presence of the forces (spirits and ancestors) connected with divination. After the activation rite, the seed objects are turned into the diviner’s hand from whatever container they are being kept in, such as a tortoise shell (okpokoro mbe), a calabash bowel (ogbara mbele), or a basket (ekete, nkata). The diviner then begins building up energy with incantations. He or she will beckon and greet all of the spirits and ancestors to be present to hear the complaint of his or her client. Sometimes a healer might hear a “dim dim” or “gbim gbim” sound, indicating that the beckoned spirits are present, which will enhance accurate diagnosis. The spirits are never forced to assist. Forcing them is risky, as it may result in them fleeing the scene altogether or confusing the head and heart connected with divination. They may also “squeeze to death” a diviner who has forced them to act when they are not prepared to do so. A good diviner is always careful not to force unwilling participation, but will carefully determine the proper times and circumstances under which divination will occur.  

            At the point at which the energy is fully charged, and the presence of the spirit forces is sensed, a healer pauses and asks the client questions pertaining to his or her wish. He or she then continues to chant, transferring the seed from the right hand to the left hand. The diviner then finishes by indicating what he or she wants to verify and throwing objects onto an animal skin, mat, or marked-off space. The outlay, or sequencing, of the seeds is observed, read, and interpreted for the client in relation to the problem. Seeds could, for instance, point to a victim or a suspect in a case of theft. Follow-up questioning leads to further answers in regard to whether the individual suspected has really committed the offence, and how. 

            A case in point is that of Ngozi Nweke, a sales girl at a Tonimaz petrol filling station. Fuel has long been a problematic issue in Igboland; despite the fact that Nigeria is a leading oil producer, fuel is often scarce, and that scarcity causes an increase in food prices due to high transportation costs. 

            In 1998, Ngozi and the two other salespersons were no longer selling fuel. Ngozi had been accused of stealing the proceeds from the sale of petrol, but she insisted that the accusation was untrue. She was traumatized by the harsh and aggressive treatment she suffered at the hands of her boss as the issue dragged on. It became obvious that Ngozi and her workmates had to leave the employee of the station, as they were no longer trusted. Ngozi and the other employees, bent on defending their innocence, were forced to contact their parents for advice on how to “go and ask” how the money got lost, and who actually participated in its removal. In the event that the money had, in fact, been taken by one of the salespeople, it was necessary to establish this. Thus, Ngozi and others involved in the situation embarked on a long journey to visit a recommended healer/diviner in Ngwa in Aba of Abia State. 

            Upon arriving at the diviner’s homestead, they were welcomed and Ngozi’s boss introduced himself to the diviner and told him that a problem had led them to him; they were seeking his assistance with their problem, and wished to hear that authoritative, extra-human voice. The diviner made the necessary preparations, collected the N200.00 (roughly US$2.00) consultation fee, and led the session. While saying, “whoever has taken the fuel money (ego mmanu ugbo ala), be identified!” (mbo mbo owu onye? – literally counting one, two, and three, who is it?), the diviner threw the seed objects down on the floor. One quickly ran to the feet of Uchenele, who was the junior brother of the boss and the main assistant in selling fuel. The other seeds stayed closer to one another, displaying a pattern the significance of which the healer would explain.  

            When this symbolic capture of Uchenele occurred, everybody looked at each other and back to the diviner. The diviner took his ofo and stamped it on the ground. He then looked up, and laughed in a very rollicking manner. 

       As can be seen in this diagram, the seed formations A to D are uniform. Yet the seeds A-B-C do not invalidate the D formation. Out of the D seed formation, one seed fell out of formation, being detached from the others. Not only did that one fall out, but it also fell on someone. It fell on Uchenele, the brother of the boss. The diviner cleared his throat before asking Uchenele to identify himself as the culprit. The diviner warned him that his divination shrine is a sacred one, and is not a place to deny or argue the truth; it is a place essentially for finding evidence, a symbolic proof of reality (iji ihe egosi ihe, itusa ago). Therefore, if Uchenele had done something, he should declare his position. If not, further investigations would reveal the true extent of his crime. Before Uchenele could reply, the diviner went further and told him the very Igbo market day on which the incident had occurred. In addition, the diviner revealed where the stolen money was hidden. The diviner then stopped and asked Uchenele to say something about the divination result. Although he was ashamed, Uchenele admitted that he had removed the money. He also confirmed that the other information the diviner had given was correct. He apologized for his actions, and confessed that he had hoped that he would not be discovered. The wrongly accused salespeople were exonerated and avenged. They regained the confidence of the boss, and their own sense of pride. Ngozi emphasized that there is truth in what diviners are doing. They are real, strongly authoritative, and eager to vindicate the just by creating a setting in which the offender or cause of problem can become known and dealt with customarily. 


        Over all, this paper of three parts, has shown that recourse to divination provides useful ways of critically examining interrelated, substantive questions about unwellness and various forms of distress. Consulting a diviner stems from the desperation and disappointment encountered in adopting common therapeutic methods of dealing with suffering, illness, and death. Igba afa (divination) provides certainty, explanations, and endogenously- situated and appropriate cures. It has also been demonstrated that the task of diviners consists of tracing causal links between illnesses and social and cultural settings and conditioning. The forms of divination outlined produce a broad-based framework within which problems are addressed with proper ritual care. As demonstrated, the centrality and relevance of “going to ask” depends largely on the satisfaction, credibility, and support of all those involved. 

       A contention of this paper has been that, unlike other approaches to healthcare, examining misfortune through extra-human forces is a culturally sensitive move that enables people to address ill health, sorcery and witchcraft, disrupted development, unemployment, general unwellness, and a great variety of socio-economic problems, on their own terms. Despite persistent efforts to explain illness in biomedical or Christian religious terms, divination—properly speaking, “going to ask” (iga n’ajuju)—remains vital in the reasoning and acting of Igbo people. The main rationale behind the people’s decision to go and ask for divination and, indeed, the practice of divination, is that illness is primarily a culturally embedded experience. Ndi dibia ogba afa (diviners) play an increasingly central role by bringing together culturally symbolic, social, and existential approaches to the handling of clinical cases and other problems. It has been said, rather unkindly, that tradition has diminished and offers nothing significant in the field of caring for the health and wellness of people. Quite to the contrary, the Igbo example points out that the presence and functioning of the divinatory systems can help expand the approach to genuine diagnosis and healing today. Their going-to-ask system (iga n’ajuju) has deep cultural and existential meaning, and, as such, is unavoidably relevant to both the restoration of their souls and in mobilizing the strength of the body of society and culture in the explanatory premise of healing. Iga n’enyo, or going to view the mirror oracle, as well as the other cultural divination modes discussed here, not only makes sense for the Igbo, but also serves as indisputable verification of the facts related to suffering, and as a provision for identifying proper solutions.   



References and Endnotes

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[1] In general, women do not handle ofo. Women healers use alternative symbols relative to their shrine and medical expertise. 

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 1

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 2

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.