Wednesday, 31 October 2012 00:00

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 4

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Why do Igbo people go to ask? Ihe ekwo aju 


Alberta, Canada

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Monday, March 27, 2006 


When people are faced with a severe condition of life such as illness, social, economic, and political problem, including accident, untimely death, un-employment, robbery, inability to marry, inability to stay in marriage, or work, non-progress in career or school, infertility, bad luck, loss of wealth or money or trading capital, and non-patronage in business, the concerned persons will develop angst, trauma, fear, and diminished psychological momentum and empowerment to cope with their situation. They will do something about it by going to ask from healers with knowledge of the supernatural realm and competency in order to gain knowledge of why and how to deal with the visible condition of suffering and misfortune.  

According to Haines (2005:185), healing is not simply about something that exists, it must be actively – and often very creatively – applied to the situations that arise. If circumstances change, Haines argues, core values which constitute a part of meaning making (in this respect, of healing, seeking fortune and progress) will need to be recreated, reworked, recalibrated, reinvented, or simply re-remembered. That is, a re-personhoodification will be the case to achieve desired result. An emphasis on meaning to heal as an act of creation also involves not only working through to values but also as an arena of negotiation (Haines 2005:185) and release (Iroegbu 2005) under most limiting circumstances.  

In this chosen theme as captioned above, I want to specifically outline the main reasons people told me in the field “why they go to ask” –  ihe ekwo aju. Before proceeding with that, I want the reader to know that in the course of this in-depth enquiry characterized by direct and extended contacts with healers and clients, more than twenty five divinatory devices have been identified and recorded for the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria. The first entry on the Igbo ways of questioning in this column discussed only three out of these – namely palm divination (afa olule aka), mirror divination (afa enyo) and seed object divination (afa okwe). An ongoing cross-cultural survey of divination systems shows that Igbo society has a most diversified use of divinatory techniques. The reason is probably associated with their high mobility or migration culture and receptivity to what works well in other societies the Igbo can live and work. The Igbo person is a risk taker and is capable of doing whatever it takes to give meaning to his concrete life struggles. As one practitioner stated, an Igbo likes to bring home knowledge and to show off with it; so when he or she acquires one, such as in divination methods, he or she comes home with it to establish identity and status in the society in line with the ecological related cultural initiations and endorsements. 

Now let us go straight to why people go to ask about what is disturbing their lives and chances to live a good quality of harmonious life? 

What Causes the Valid Move to Go to Ask?

            When I posed the question, why do people or what would really compel people to leave their house to go to ask with respect to divination? Three explanations are given. And I will outline them here accordingly. 

(1).       The first explanation is well-established in the argument that there is a given cycle of events that remain a mystery to human beings and for which they seek remedy. Divination hints at a cosmological process which is very consonant with the social and physical health processes. 

(2).       The second explanation is that any form of affliction, in the Igbo view, involves the group, or power to be interpersonal rather than intrapersonal. 

(3).       The third reason is that there is a need to come to terms with fate tying in ascendants and descendants. 

Let us examine each of these explanatory stands a little closer. 

For stirring aetiologies and the key remedy

When divination lays bare the source of illness or misfortune, it equally provides a first step towards a proper cure or solution. The remedy habitually involves redressing a ritual responsibility against the cause of the problem. For instance, if witchcraft is responsible, the witch can be confronted and made to halt his or her shady activities or face a counter-force or death. To show the point, let us report of three witnesses stating why they consult divination and will when it becomes exigent go all out and consult the oracle. 

Case 1:  Igwekere in need and about to consult

“Look (hu na ghota), I could not have been here without problems pushing me around. My son had married since four years now. Both his first and second child died in the same way. Now his wife is expecting a third child. Each night no one sleeps due to horrifying dreams and tensions relating to her dead children (umu ya nwuru anwu). She is being weird and traumatised. We had been to various clinics and maternities in consultation with doctors and midwives. I was referred to one traditional birth attendant (ogho nwa) who also examined the situation. Following her recommendation to see a diviner and probe the matter, I am here to obtain a clear view of the troubles. I want my son and his wife to be happy in their marriage. That is why you see me here. Summed in a proverb, I say to you that “the toad does not run without a cause in the daytime” (awo anaghi agba oso ehihi n’efu).  

Case 2: Rosaline moved to consult

“Last month, my brother-in-law, Cy, died. We are still observing for him the funeral respect (igba nkpe). As you would know, my husband and many others who returned for the burial had gone back to their places of work and business. Two days ago around evening time, I was alone in the house cutting oil bean fruit for a ceremony we had scheduled. Before me was Cy who sat down and spoke to me. Little did I realise that it was his ghost until afterwards. When he had finished giving a message and walked away, my head became clouded and I stirred up with fear followed by a loud cry and fainting. People came and helped me out of the commotion. However, he, Cy, requested me to go and ask his wife, Sabina, and son, Okechi that he has been half way, hot, and tinted with gross blame. Entirely because, while alive he had killed and eaten a stray dog (nkita ofeke), portraying a dog whose owner was unknown).[1] He was now ordered to pacify by buying another dog and offering it to appease the land. He called for to appease urgently before the next big market day, Nkwo. Having approached his wife and two elders in the kindred (ama), we decided to consult a diviner to learn more of the implications and how best and to where the sacrifice should be performed. The case is one of wrongdoing and needed to be addressed for the peace of the living and the dead. That is why we are here to enquire for more information in the matter. Some people in the kindred also frightened us not to waste time before other deaths will start rolling and we feel a need to tie off things like that. Now, on top of things, his son is very ill and hospitalised adding to our anxiety.” 

Another underlying sensibility for consulting the forces is also the following, as explained below. 

Case 3: Iwuoha consults for his son’s misfortune   

Iwuoha was found late in the evening of an orie market day depressed and visibly in shock and panic. When he was asked why he was the way he appeared, he gave a heavy sigh and shook his head. He then narrated the episode of his son’s misfortune involving a stolen vehicle and merchandise worth millions of naira. Iwuoha’s son was a trucker or “trailer driver.” He was hauling goods for companies. In one of his trips from Northern Kano to Onitsha in the East of Nigeria, he made a stop over in one eating spot for restauration. Before he could finish with his conductor or road facilitator, the trailer and the loaded merchandise had disappeared, that is, became stolen. The police was called upon who helped to contact the company concerned in view of the development and confusion. Iwuoha’s son was meanwhile arrested and detained while the police and crime investigation team searched for the missing vehicle and goods. It is a common experience in the area that vehicles could get stolen or snatched at gun points by robbers at anytime. In order to understand what went wrong and the fate of Iwuoha’s son, Iwuoha had gone to enquire into the matter. As Iwuoha stated it, no one will be much concerned with going to ask unless there is a serious trouble mitigating it. In his case, his son needs to be saved and reassured while dealing with the juntas of the misfortune. A cleansing ritual for the safety of his son and a proper retaliation against the offenders consist in the circumstances that would compel effort to seek for divination and a rite of order, he claimed.     

When it is necessary to involve others, re-new harmony, and make relevant decisions

Christian Igbo claim that divination is improper to seeking out agencies (Green 1964, Shelton 1965, Brends 1993,Osuagwu 1984). On this behalf, Ezeliora (1994:46) asserts that divination works with the principle of probability, punctuated largely with some applications of psychological principles. Yet, as one healer-diviner boldly said: 

The so-called religious, i.e. Christian, people still come to us at night seeking our diagnosis in view of cure. By so doing the uninformed that are carried only by unsustained faith suffer immensely. In specific terms, there is nothing like Father or Pastor in religious piety in this regard (o nweghi ihe dika fada maobu pasuto n’akuku nke a). It should be understood that divination is a thing of reality, which is appropriate in the handling of affairs that disturb daily life being vividly at play with the ancestors and the living. 

About the subject of truth about divination, a master-diviner-healer, Chief Iroabuchi, made the following statement: 

If divination is not true and a truth-finding procedure conforming to reality, as is known and accepted by us, why is it that a healer like myself will go to another diviner-healer to find out things when I have personal problems? If it is a manipulative game-like or non-believing claim, I will not waste my money and time engaging in it! Also even after trying to solve sometimes my problems by myself unsuccessfully, I am left with the option of seeking further assistance through divination by someone else rather than doing it by myself. An important issue is that the need to consult another relates to the forces also one is used to. In particular, the objects of difference (the divination objects) we use are so common to us in dealing with the problems of others that to turn them again to some personal problem does not make meaning in the logic of difference. One has to seek out others to deal with one’s own affairs in the face of problems, illness and health.  

Master Healer of Insanity, Diviner and Leader - Chief S. Iroabuchi of Ubakala Showing three divination devices – nwaekpe oracle (right), seed (middle), akwukwo nso (left). And with his ofo dibia ritual symbol on the floor (left) to legitimize aetiological and remedial pronouncements. As he said, these devices are not for decorating his shrine. They mediate causes and healing of problems that consults present.


This corresponds to people’s saying that “a healer does not heal him- or herself” (ogwo-oria anaghi agwo onwe ya). Insofar as consulting a diviner and finding out the true original position of problems and remedy to those problems, divination is basically addressing aetiological issues. The only problem, Chief Iroabuchi further said, is that the two systems (Christian versus traditional Igbo divination) hate one another, and the survival of the Church depends on this strategy of hatred. He further emphasised a paradox, namely that some authorities of the healing church seek the services of healers at night.


The following questions cropped up in the course of investigating divinations. 

(1) Is divination not a form of superstition, as Christians would have it?

(2) How can an indigenous diviner prove his truth? 

These questions would mean there is an accepted factor of uncertainty in any divinatory project. Healers seem to bear surprises regarding such tick-off perceptions. For example, one had said, “we were surprised at how people often laughed over the position of those who still sustain the view of divination being a superstitious undertaking.” They described those who attribute divination to superstition as being ignorant of what the art is involved with. They also said that divination, by its very systems of establishing the root causes of problem, provide solutions to problems, is unfairly being indicted as superstitious. Whatever stand people adopt, people come to question their problems because in divination, truth is revealed, tensions are released and some harmony is renewed (cf. Park 1963, Ezeabasili 1982). 

When it is a means to open up the communicative environment and world rebuilding

            People seek divination ultimately to help mirror the sufferer’s or sick person’s life-world by reviewing in the process causal chain enclosing the problem. The diviner mediates between the basic ideals and concepts of the society and current realities, thereby finding breaks and distortions, and integrating old and new, private and public, this world and that world, stage by stage and generation to generation(cf. Peek 1991, Bakker 1993, Park 1963, White 1997, Iroegbu 2005). In the main, the therapy management group experiences a more intensified capacity to formulate together ideas of cause and satisfying therapy to the problem. 

When there is an urge to come to terms with lasting, chronic or acute cares 

People consult diviners in particular when confronted with prolonged health crisis, repetitive or acutely dangerous situations and death-threatening illness, misfortune, and deaths. Divination is solicited at a point when all avenues known to help-seekers have been exhausted (Devisch 1991). Divination provides people with a means of aetiology and brings about explanation and communication of things that are hard to say in the ordinary life. It is hoped that it will afford them an opportunity to manage symptoms and new paradigms of recovery. 

Equally, the decision to divine demonstrates a collective will to know and to handle situations according to exigency. Fear of sorcery and extra-human forces is underlined as a factor to seek divination. Sorcery due to envy, jealousy, hatred, illicit sexuality and other malicious intentions obviously forces people to consult the oracle. Divination is cultural and symbolic; therefore is an empowered diagnostic cultural device at the agency of cultural mobilisation of extra-human forces to respond to situated forms of relational, corporeal, life crisis and health disturbances – time and place, home and being in diaspora notwithstanding. 

In the forthcoming articles, I will debate the benefits and implications of training healers in university settings as it was recently indulged in by the University of Lagos. In addition, I will discuss the category of Igbo healers – how people become healers and their therapeutic domains. I will illustrate in view of their authentic signifiers or markers of identity – why and how they either voluntarily or forcibly emerged as healers. Proper to the theme is to critically examine the “Igbo medicine deity” called agwu, “the big one,” among other major deities and fields of order and disorder. I am sure you will be surprised to notice that many issues are yet un-researched and un-communicated in Igbo life and culture.



Bakker, J. 1993. The Lasting Virtues of Traditional Healing: An Ethnography of Healing and Prestige. In: The Middle Atlas of Morocco. Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Brends, W. 1993. African Traditional Healing. In Theological Digest 40 U.S.A., 247-251.

Devisch, R. 1991. Mediumistic Divination among the Northern Yaka of Zaire. In: Peek, P. (ed.), African Divination Systems. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ezeabasili, N. 1982. Traditional Ibo Ideas about Disease and Its Treatment. In: Erinosho, O.A. (ed.), Nigerian Perspectives on Medical Sociology. Virginia: College of William and Mary, Department of Anthropology. No. 19, pp. 17-28.

Ezeliora, B. 1994. Traditional Medicine in Amesi. Enugu: CECTA Nigeria Ltd.

Green, .M. M. 1964. Igbo Village Affairs. London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd.

Haines W. D. 2005. Cultural Anthropology: Adaptations, Structures and Meanings.

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson – Prentice Hall

Iroegbu, E. P. 2005a. Iga n’ajuju: Igbo Ways of Questioning. In Gottschalk-Batschkus, C.E. & J.C. Green (eds.) Ethnotherapies in Cycle of Life – Fading, Being, & Becoming. Pp. 179-200. Munchen-Germany: Institute for Ethnomedicine.   

Iroegbu, E. P. 2005b. Healing Insanity: Skills and Expert Knowledge of Igbo Healers. In Africa Development, Vol. XXX, No.3, 2005, pp. 78–92. CODESRIA - Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Osuagwu, C.S. 1984. The Shrine and the Spirit in Igbo Culture, Religion and Time. Paper at 1st International Congress on Igbo Religion. Nsukka 28-30 August.

Peek, P. M. ed., 1991. African Divination Systems. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Park, G.K. 1963. Divination and Its Social Contexts. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 93, No. 2 July-Dec. pp. 195-209.

Shelton, A. 1965. The Meaning and Method of Afa Divination among the Northern Nsukka Ibo. American Ethnologist, 67, pp. 1441-1454.

White, R.S. 1997. Questioning Misfortune: The Pragmatics of Uncertainty in Eastern Uganda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


*[1]Please do not reproduce any part or whole of this article except with a clear permission. Always send comments, contributions and suggestions to the author - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Dr. Patrick Iroegbu is Anthropologist and is of the Department of Anthropology, Economics and Political Science, Grant MacEwan College, University Studies.    

[1]This sort of stray or missing dog (nkita furu-efu) whose owner was unknown, was probably having some association with the underworld forces. Normally, when people’s domestic animals get lost, local announcement is yelled out at night and a curse may be placed on any one having knowledge and denying or pretending. Such cases emerge to be known when an offender as a result becomes ill or dies and reparation will be called for. Going to seek for an authoritative voice here is to lay out appropriate ritual to placate the offended for the wrongdoing.  

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 1

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 2

Introduction to Igbo Medicine - Part 3

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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.