Sunday, 14 August 2016 14:59

Agwuishi and isa aja in Alaigbo

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Agwuisi, Isa Agwuisi And Isa Aja In Alaigbo

Ozodi Osuji


I did not study Igbo culture; what I know about Igbo culture was learned in the couple of years I spent at Alaigbo when my parents sent me to their village to go learn their language and culture; they had been told by the people that I am supposed to replace my uncle, Akakporo, the then high priest of Amadioha and, as such, had to go to their town and learn about spiritual matters and Igbo culture in general. Thus, at age eight I left Lagos and spent a couple of years in the village and returned back to Lagos to complete my elementary school.

I do not presume myself well educated on anything Igbo. Indeed, I do not even speak the Igbo language well.

However, I found myself at Nigerian Internet forums and hear Igbos who present themselves as authorities on everything Igbo. What they write on Igbo culture seem so far removed from what I learned during my brief stay in Igbo land that I have an urge to correct their harebrained write ups on Igbo culture.

One such misconception is Agwu. Let me take this opportunity to share with folks the little that I know about Agwu in Alaigbo.


In Alaigbo the elders observe all children.  They see certain children behaving in what we might call abnormal manner.  In the Western world such children probably would be given psychiatric labels, such as neurotic, but in Alaigbo they are related to differently. They are seen as the pool from which Igbo shamans (Dibias and Lolos) and medicine men and women are selected.

The elders generally consult Dibias and Lolos, loosely translated to shaman and psychic, to tell them about their people. Thus, when a young person behaves differently from other persons Igbo elders consult Dibia to find out what is going on with him or her.

The Dibia may tell them that the young person is "onye agwuisi", a person possessed by evil spirits.

Agwu is evil spirit;

ishi is head;

"Onye Agwuishi" means a person in whose mind is evil spirits. If a young person is considered possessed by evil spirits, Dibias may recommend that he should undergo an exorcism to remove the evil spirits from him or her. The ritual designed to remove the evil spirits in that person is called:

Isa Agwuisi or Isa Aja

This ritual leads to some people becoming Dibias or Lolos.

This ritual is excruciatingly painful; it is designed to drive the evil spirit away from the individual and open his mind and eyes to more positive spirits.

The idea is that where there is evil spirit if that evil spirit is chased out more positive spirits would take their place in the individual.

The ritual enables the individual to develop spiritual eyes, spiritual visions and spiritual seeing. He learns to communicate with unseen spirits and ancestors.

The elders persuade the "abnormal" young person to undergo the Isa Aja ritual. The ritual takes place over weeks (I am not sure how long it lasts but the two that I witnessed appeared to have lasted about a month).  How is it done? Since I have not undergone the ritual, I do not know but here is what I gleaned from looking at what I saw from afar.

Experienced Dibias oversee the ceremony. One day, three or more dibias gather in the compound of the young person to be initiated into Dibiahood (for men), Lolohood (for women) through "isaya Aja".

They strip the young person naked and tie a piece of lion cloth around his groins.  He is made to lie on the ground.

All sorts of herbal portions are administered into his mouth and eyes. I am told that some of those "eye drops" are very hot and painful to the eyes.  During the ones that I witnessed, the young people initially shouted out in pain when whatever the dibias put in their eyes were put into their eyes but they were told to endure the pain and they did and stopped complaining.  The dibias held the dibia aspirant down and administered the herbal portion into his eyes.

His entire body is robbed down with all sorts of herbal portions and paints. Indeed, incisions, cuts were made all over his body and hot portions were robbed into the wounds.

The first day is devoted to essentially punishing the young person with painful herbal medicine. As the dibias performed these rituals they kept chanting what to me seemed like sacred music.

From the second day onwards, the dibias marched the young person through the town. Our town, Umuohiagu, has four villages: Umuagwu, Eziala, Umuorisha and Umuanyamele (and, unfortunately, a small section for osus, outcasts, called Amuga).

Each village has a god or goddess; each god or goddess has a shrine.  The shrine is a hut with plants around it; sacrifices are made to the gods in the shrine or around the trees in front of it.

My village, Umuorisha's shrine is called Amadioha (the shrine is in the Umuamadioha kindred, my kindred).

My uncle, Akakporo was the high priest, "onye ishi Amadioha". Since I was supposed to understudy him and eventually replace him I was compelled to observe what he does. Actually, no one compelled me to do so for I immediately gravitated to the shrine.

Upon returning from the town's elementary school, St. Michael's Catholic School, I went to my uncle's Obiriama (House) and watched him do whatever he did during the afternoon and evening.

His duties included performing sacrifices to Amadioha on behalf of villagers that sought his intervention with that god (god of thunder and lightning, metaphors for God of light, God of knowledge) and ancestors.

For example, if a boy child was born in the village the parents brought a ram to sacrifice to Amadioha and ancestors; if a girl child was born they brought a dog; folks brought a whole bunch of hens and cocks to sacrifice to the gods for assortment of reasons, including healing them of their illnesses or healing their sick children or enabling their farms yield better crops or for them to make money.

In addition to performing sacrifices to the gods, my uncle was an artist (many members of my family are artists); he was a sculptor. He carved all sorts of figures from pieces of wood. He was also the Mbari sculptor.

He went around Owerri sculpturing Mbaris (see Herbert Cole's book, Mbari of Owerri; in it he talked about Akakporo's work).

I memorized the various chants that my uncle mumbled as he performed his duties.

The dibia to be is brought to my uncle's shrine; he spent a day there. All sorts of herbs were administered to him. My uncle made his chants to the gods and ancestors asking them to remove from the dibia aspirant the evil spirits occupying his mind and in their place positive spirits.

In effect, the aspirant is subjected to exorcism of sorts whereby evil spirits are removed from his mind by the exorcists (experienced dibias) and the gods are asked to replace them with more propitious spirits.

The Dibia aspirant does this in all the four villages of our town; I am supposing  that he spent a day at each shrine  in the town; at each undergoing the brutal punishment I saw inflicted on him at our shrine.

Thereafter, he carried a covered basket on his head (I was told that it contained skulls of famous but dead Dibias, I do not know that this was the case) and the Dibias initiating him to their club walked around the villages with him, chanting all sorts of somber songs.

The chants are reminiscent of what one hears in a Catholic church during the ordination of priests (I have witnessed two ordinations of priests).  The music is very elevated, as if human beings are trying to reach their gods.

Well, the dibias and their student walked around the villages of our town, sometimes they went to neighboring towns, such as Obiangwu, Logara, Nnorie, Ihite and Obube.

I was not with them as they went about the neighboring towns so I do not know what they were doing; I am supposing that in each village  of the towns they visited  they repeated what I saw them do at my uncle's shrine, administer the debia to be with  medicines.

This punitive process goes on for weeks. I am told that the idea is to open the young person's eyes to the spiritual world, to kill his ego self, the false self that blocks his awareness of spirits.  In time his old self is supposed to die.

I am told that part of the ritual is to bury the dibia aspirant in the ground to hasten his ego-body death.

His earthly self is supposed to die and a new self-resurrected in him. The new self is the spiritual self, the self that is able to communicate with the gods of our people (ala umuohiagu, Amadioha and other gods).  Above all he is taught how to communicate with Chi, Chineke and Chi-Ukwu (the three phases of God).

He is taught how to keep quiet, what in India is called meditation; he is taught how to silence his ego chattering so that he can hear the gods of the area talk to him.

Sometimes, initiates close their eyes, keep quiet and claim that a spirit entity is now speaking through them. The villagers listen to what the spirits are saying and ask them questions.

Eventually, the dibia to be is taught how to read cowrie shells. He would throw, say, five cowrie shells on the ground and read what their falls and positions mean. Sometimes he does so with stones (crystals).

People visit dibias and have them talk to the gods and ancestors; they often do so by throwing and reading cowrie shells and rocks (this is sort of like reading tarot cards).

Generally, folks go to dibias and Lolos (Duru) to find out what the future holds for them.

When a child is born in the area the parents visit dibias who tell them who the child was in previous life times and what he came to do in this life time.

I am not privy to the specifics of what the dibias do with the person they are trying to initiate to their club. What I know for certain is that after about a month of this brutal ordeal a new dibia is minted. He is now called a dibia (if he is a man) or a Lolo if a woman).

He is now, as it were, licensed to be a shaman/psychic and folks consult him to read their futures for them.

Some dibias specialize in herbal medicine and treat sick villagers and some specialize in consulting the gods and spirits getting information from them on what the people need to know to organize their lives.

Dibias work closely with the high priests of the town. "Onye ishi muo" (high priest) works in concert with the dibias in his village to take care of spiritual matters in the village.

In sum, certain young persons are deemed possessed by evil spirits; those evil spirits are exorcised from them and in their place good spirits are invocated to replace them.

In Western psychological categories, the individual's grandiose ego is killed and his higher self resurrects in him; his higher self is deemed spirit and is able to communicate with the towns spirits and with the peoples ancestors' spirits (spirit guides).

I hope that this little vignette helps folks to understand the Igbo practice of Agwu, Agwuisi, Isa Aja and Isa Agwuishi.

Hopefully, an Igbo person who has actually undergone the Dibiahood initiation ritual can come forward and tell us what he went through.

This is a way Igbos can preserve their traditions. What they do not want to see is see Igbos who know diddlysquat about Igbo customs come to the public square and grandstand as experts on every Igbo practices.

Ozodi Osuji

August 14, 2016

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176