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Maazi Mbonu Ojike speaks from the grave.
From the book: "My Africa"
By Maazi Mbonu Ojike (1946)
GOD, AS A CONCEPT, IS AS OLD AND UNIVERSAL as the word man; the idea of God is inseparable from the fact that there is man. Whether God made man in his own image or it is the other way around, the African ( Igbo) has always believed that there is God, the Being to whom he attributes all creation.
In my state, He is Chineke, God the Creator. In other parts of Africa, He is known by such other names as Olisa, Leza, Allah, Osebuluwa, Eke. Everywhere in Igboland, man's life is very much conditioned by his relation to his God. When, therefore, one uses the word "heathen" in describing Igbo, one makes a great philosophical blunder indeed. If there is one thing that is homogeneous in Igbo culture, it is spirituality. If there is one phase of Igbo thought that should have commanded universal respect, it is spirituality. But it is not the spirituality of one hero, of one humanitarian, or of one saint. Igbo spirituality respects virtues, ancestors, or souls of the dead, but it does not make one human being or character the center of religious philosophy.
That is why the Igbo has never tried to invent a religious system based on man. He hears about Hinduism, "The true rule is to do by the things of others as you do by your own" Zoroastrianism, "Do as you would be done by" Buddhism, "One should seek for others the happiness one desires for one's self Confucianism, "What you would not wish done to yourself, do not to others" Taoism, "Recompense injury with kindness" Judaism, "Whatever you do not wish your neighbor to do to you, do not unto him" Christianity, "All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" Islam, "Let none of you treat a brother in a way you yourself would dislike to be treated" Bahai, "If you look toward mercy, regard not that which benefits yourself, but hold to that which will benefit mankind. If you look toward justice, choose for others that which you choose for yourself."
To simplify these nine statements of religious ideas, we may boil them down to four simple words: goodness, others, do, you. In a sentence - You should do good to others.It sounds like unanimity. Conspicuously, however, this idea of treating others as you would like to be treated yourself has not been applied in the field of religion.
If religion consists mainly in doing rather than in talking, the Igbo has religion. If it is a concept of a "you-and-I" relationship, there is no room in the Igbo soul for a new ism. But, on the other hand, if religion really means talking about how good heaven is and caring less about how good the earth ought to be, then the Igbo has no religion. If religion consists in deifying one character in one country and crusading to make him acceptable to all the countries of the world, you have a very long, long way to go before you could convince the Igbo that there ought to be as many religious systems as there are countries and problems in the world. We do not care about this kind of religion, and I doubt if Igbo will ever accept one of those nine fabrications as absolutely universally as it has embraced the religion based on one God, the invisible spirit, creator of all, before whom, as Pharaoh Ikhnaton first propounded three thousand years ago, all men are brothers, all peoples members of one human family. Religion is not a college, a corporation, or a club of which there may be, if you like, as many as there are differences of race, opinion, nationality and geography. It is the one unifying element in civilization which equates man to man. The more we multiply and proselytize it, the harder it is for us to realize how fundamentally similar to one another we are. By all means let us differ as much as necessary in our religious doctrines and rituals even as we in political, economic, artistic, and social ways. But let us remember that the ideal of religion is the same all the world over and forthwith stop crusading for this or that theory. If man has one crusade to conduct, I believe it is that of converting peoples of the world to the ideal and practice of goodness, justice, tolerance, and brotherhood.
Igbo spiritual beliefs and discipline were strange to the West because the West did not understand them. For the same reason Western theories and practices were strange to the Igbo. Is it the correct attitude for me to dismiss the un-understood as “superstitious and confused? Is the West justified in treating Igbo spirituality that way?
A British information officer once said in connection with the topic, "The British Empire and the Four Freedoms" that no one pretends to justify imperialism, that the past records do not sound so human to the ears of a “Liberal.” He concluded that the contemporary question should not be, why did we get in? But rather, how can we get out? This is to me a fair statement that should produce an amicable solution of the thorny and complicated problems of colonialism. In religion, this same attitude would do everyone a lot of good. It is not so much that the West has not understood and respected African religion in the past and present, as that it should now find ways of attaining that understanding and thereby humanizing future relations.
2. CONCEPTS OF GOD
The spirituality of the Igbo is not founded upon man but for man: he does not make attempts to equate God to man. No man, we believe, is so good that he should be deified, considered God, or even worshiped as a special son or prophet of God. Consequently, you cannot find a human in Igbo spirituality who is the prototype of Jesus Christ, Buddha, or Bahai. All these were humans whose character ranked highest in their respective and contemporary communities. Igbo has produced men and women of similar noble lives, but they were never deified, because a real God is invisible and superhuman.
If it is necessary to give a name to the Igbo spiritual system so that it may be more clearly understood by those who like definitions, the word is OMENANA. It is a system which holds that man’s activities are limitable by what is good for all. The name comes from the word ana, which, as I told earlier in connection with the functions of the village leader called amana, means the earth, the soil, the land, and also custom, tradition, law, constitution. Doing things in conformity with the constitution of the land or the good of all is called Omenana.
For us, religion and law are unalterably interdependent. Religion establishes the social reason for the ideal, while law or government regulates how the ideal can be attained. Stealing is evil because it is contrary to the general social aim, namely, that a man is entitled to the possession and use of his own property. The thief has not conducted himself in accordance with what is good for all. God, under whom the community set up the Omenana system, does not sanction theft. Thus the action is both sin and offense. The thief must, therefore, cleanse himself and his family of the double guilt. First, he must perform sacrifice to God; and second, he must recompense his neighbor twofold or tenfold depending upon the custom prevailing in the community where the loser lives.
Broadly speaking, there are two related concepts of God: Chineke, and Chi.
The first idea is the Supreme Being, God, the Creator, the universal God. He is the same for all persons and races and nations. He has no angels or holy messengers because he needs none. He can do everything. He created the whole cosmos alone and without fatigue. He is not human and does not possess an animal nature that would need food and drink; our sacrifices are symbolic. No one has ever seen him physically and no artist dare portray Him in wood, bronze, or painting. He is a spirit and communicates to man not in body but in spirit.
We believe that man is different from lower animals only in one primary sense: God left in every man a portion of his breath. When this element leaves the edifice called man, the residue is a mere matter. From this belief we derive our idea of personal gods, called Chi in Ibo (Igbo) language. There are as many Chi as there are personalities. No one Chi is like another, because no two persons are identical. A rich man’s Chi is rich and a poor man’s Chi is poor. A man’s Chi is masculine while a woman’s Chi is feminine. A man’s Chi is equal to that man. This personal god does not leave its master until death. It is a personal guard to which God entrusted every human being.
It is a common saying that a man is as great as his Chi. Thus in art, the personal god of a baby is represented as a baby. This god is visible through the individual persons. Hence it is not an invisible being, although it cannot be separated from the person without causing death to the individual. This is the concept of Igbo spirituality which has been most seriously misunderstood and misrepresented both by foreigners and some Igbo who are trying to interpret its relation to the social order. It is often taken as evidence of fatalism.
The notion that the Igbo is fatalistic is utterly false, for he always struggles to advance his status. Slaves had been known to save enough money to redeem themselves before the legal abolition of slavery. Kings have been pushed down from their thrones by common citizens whose personal struggle promoted them to the position of highest social honor. Some workers have become employers because they were not satisfied with their low position. They labored hard, and their Chi helped them on to eminence. Facts fill the pages of Igbo history which prove that the Igbo does not say, since I am born poor or slave, I will do nothing about it because, “where one falls, there his own god pushes him down.” We in Igbo-land, like other peoples everywhere, believe in daily struggle to rise above the social stratum in which one finds one’s self. WE believe that in that strife one’s Chi is one’s partner and guide. Doing, and not being, is what counts in Igbo society. In my own town, once an eldest son of a family lost his right to succession to the second son because at the funeral of their father the eldest was unable to provide the money required for the funeral. The second son did it and became king.
The history of many other African kingdoms is replete with incidents where warriors from common, ordinary families used their military prestige to snatch leadership from the ruling families. That is why royal families change in most countries of Africa. In Onitsha, the Gold Coast, Basutoland, Dahomey, Benin, etc., if the society had been stratified and everyone had had one’s station in life, there would not have been so many changes in leadership as history of these kingdoms shows.
Today, the wealthiest family in my own town is a family which less than a century ago was among the poorest. Even in religion, a priest can lose his station in life by acting contrary to Omenana. It is a feature of Igbo society that everyone has opportunity to struggle hard to rise.
Take Nigeria alone as an African community; it took half a century for Great Britain to bring the whole territory into its empire. In spite of the British power which Nigerians see and feel every day, they still struggle today to free their country from foreign rule. As late as 1940, a king of Gold Coast sent a sympathetic message to the king of England pledging that his nation would stand behind Britain in the war against the Axis, and closed his communiqué by these significant words: We do not want to be ruled by foreigners. A fatalist would have accepted foreign rule long since.
The Igbo believes that there two kinds of superhuman beings, the good and the evil ones. To the evil one, Ekwensu, he attributes all unexplainable evil occurrences. When he experiences flood, hurricane, or pestilence, he says it is caused by the evil god. The West calls such events acts of God. Personally, I do not believe that our God, whose nature is always good, would send flood, hurricane, and pestilence to destroy His creatures. War, for instant is an evil. God does not cause or incite wars. Conflicts between men become wars because the forces of evil have temporarily conquered the forces of good. “Acts of God” means disasters that by the science of today are unpreventable. No weatherman can prevent floods, hurricanes, heat or cold waves. But in the West, as in Africa, man is still at work to discover their control measures. We in Igboland know a heavy rain or flood is about to occur just as the Westerners do. We know we cannot prevent rain or flood, but we know how to protect lives and property from those acts of God. Were we fatalistic, we would stay under the rain, leave our property to be damaged and be carried away by the flood.
The Christians call the evil god Devil; in Igboland it is called Ekwensu. That is to say, neither Christians nor we really attribute evil to God; we both struggle to eliminate evil from the society. And as the Bible attributes the advent of evil in man’s world to the woman Eve, so do we have Igbo stories of the origin of evil in which the woman is the scapegoat:
In the beginning, there was no evil in the world. Death, war, pestilence, famine, flood, hurricane, and accidents were unheard of. Whenever man wanted anything, he went to the hillside, called upon God and obtained his requests. There was no struggle for existence or for higher standards of living either. Life was easy, a bed of roses. One day, a woman was preparing an evening corn meal, and instead of sitting down as was customary, she stood up and went on beating the corn. The wooden pestle which she was using was so tall that its top end pierced the sky. Immediately, rain and diseases and sin and death and all sorts of evil poured down on earth. Since that day, the world has been filled with sufferings and hate and murder and war and all the rest. Life became a struggle, and so it will remain until one dies and returns his spirit to God who gave it.
As far as the history of man’s existence on this planet goes, the problem of evil has remained speculative as that of the composition of man himself. Gautama of the Hindu philosophy, born about 568 B.C., started his legendary search for the truth by living an ascetic life. He ended in rediscovering an old truth: that proper food and healthy living are the first noble truth. Further, he found that pain is the second truth. Annihilation of suffering, and the eightfold path of right, constitute, as he thought, the other two. This theory does not attribute evil to the woman; it suggests that evil is due to the desire and lust for power, for food, for drinking, and that so long as humans, both men and women, have carnal desires and lusts, so long will there be suffering and pain and evil. It does not discuss the source of the acts of God. It confirms that life is nothing but suffering. We suffer at birth, at old age, during sickness, when we are united with the unloved, when we are separated from the loved, and when we fail to obtain our desires.
Buddhism did not exert any direct influence on Igbo religious thought and practices, but there is a notable parallel between the Buddhism of India and the Omenanism of Igbo: both stress the need of thinking, speaking, and doing right things. Rather, Igbo religion affected distant lands in the days of old. Buddhas of India as shown in Siam are Negroid. The statues at Nagpoor near Benares are Negroid. The Japanese earlier gods were represented with woolly, Negroid hair. Thus, in religion, Igbo seems to have influenced the whole Asiatic world.
The aim of religion is clear: to control life to the end that good may prevail. In search of an ideal control, the techniques which we call rituals and forms of religion have been devised in Igboland as in other communities.
Igbo shrines are comparable to Roman Catholic churches in the matter of religious forms. Neither represents God in the place of worship. This would be impossible, because no man has seen God: He is invisible, spiritual, and superhuman. The Roman Catholic theology uses angelic forms not as God but as messengers of God through whom God can be communicated with and worshiped; Igbo Omenana theology uses personal gods for similar reasons and objectives. In Roman Catholic altars, paintings or sculptures of the saints of old are reverently and conspicuously installed and prayers are offered to God through them. The Igbo Omenana system uses images and sculptures of the dead heroes and great ancestors in accomplishing the same process of prayer to the invisible Deity. Roman Catholics maintain that the Bible and the priest’s ring are sacred objects as well as the holy table and the altar itself; Igbo regard Ofo as a sacred symbol of truth, justice, law, and authority.
Ofo is not a book. It is a short bough cut from the branch of an Igbo tree known as ofo (Detanum Senegalensis, in Latin). It is cut to about one foot long and one inch in diameter. From this form came the idea of using some other living trees not as Ofo but as a medium of worship – a shrine or altar. An Ofo becomes larger and larger as it is handed from generation to generation, who during sacrificial rituals, paint it with animal blood and sacred alligator pepper, chalk and wine. Some Ofo are straight while others resemble a question mark (?), the figure seven (7), or the relief of South America.
As the Bible is kept under the care of the priest and must be placed before the altar during religious exercises, so is Ofo placed in charge of the priest, who must display it at the shrine whenever worship takes place. Every Christian may have a small Bible; every head of a family has his own Ofo and must put it in his bag when he attends a shrine. As the Bible is a sacred object of oath throughout Christendom, used at the installation of kings and presidents in office, so is Ofo used in all important investitures and at courts. To tell a man, “may Ofo kill you,” is like saying, “go to hell”; but it is not done lightly. Igbo Omenana worshipers wear symbols about the neck or wrists, waist, or ankles; and sometimes chalk marks are made on the forehead or any other conspicuous part of the body for mystic reasons, as crucifixes and other symbols are worn by Roman Catholics; and where these use candles and herbs, pots and fire in sacrificial offerings and incense, Igbo use palm leaves, eggs, animals, kola nuts, fire, chalk, and wine in the performance of religious sacrifice. WE share with the priest such edibles as meat, yam, kola nuts, pepper, and wine, comparable to the bread and wine of Christian communion or mass.
Our Alusi, which may be male or female, is the symbolic presence of the ancestors and heroes in our place of worship. Ikenga, the image kept by the householder, is a family guard against evil. Ekwu is kept by the woman in charge of the family, perhaps so that it may protect the kitchen from food poisoning. Another form found in Igbo homes is called Agwu whose duty is an over-all and all-time protection of the household. Let me stress again that these forms, whether they are human, animal, vegetable, or mineral, are not regarded as God; they are symbols used to make the presence of God and the ancestors felt in the places of worship. This is the partial picture of Igbo Omenanism, which the West has not understood. Its members are not superstitious and heathen; their forms of worship are no more so than one sees today in Christian churches. Neither have they produced less results in religion and morality than Westerners have.
Its element of mysticism is the secret of the hold that our religion has on our society. It is this reverence and fear of the unknown, the ever-present, all-seeing and all-powerful, that motivate man to be law-abiding, loving, and brotherly. Scrap it and you have multiplied the human problem of social control. Destroy this ingenious channel of social control and you have severed the religious fibers that bind man to man in families, societies, and nations.
Central in our forms of worship are prayer processes which we call ichu aja, sacrifice. We offer prayers first thing in the morning, usually through the family head, who is the family priest as well. In a minor worship, chalk and kola may suffice, while in a major one, a goat and wine may be required. Music, which accompanies Christian worship, is not a part of Igbo ritual although it may be played before or after. During the ceremony the priest may be heard praying audibly to God and sometimes requiring his members to respond just as in certain Christian rituals.
There are ceremonies for birth, death, sickness, marriage, war, acts of God, prosperity, and other human experiences. Numerous festivals are kept during the year, and special cloths are worn when one comes to the altar.
A priest at the altar is dressed most neatly and conducts himself with reverence and solemnity. He looks up to the sky when offering sacrifice to God because it is believed that the sky is the direction of God’s abode. That is why God is referred as King of Heaven. No thinking person will fail to be impressed with the reverence which surrounds the African hour of worship, an atmosphere which is typical of most religious devotions in other lands.
Some spiritualism is practiced when a man has a disturbing problem. He goes to the priest whose spiritual insight enables him to advise the individual. In the West, spiritualism is not only practiced but it is made a business, and many trust to rituals which in the case of the African the Western man contemptuously dismisses as voodooism, paganism, and superstition.
In Africa, I was first a member of Omenana, then a Christian for fifteen years, then I studied Christianity when I wanted to become a Christian minister. I took Oxford courses on religion and became so enlightened as to the essential similarity between Omenanism and Christianity that I went to study comparative religion. Then, after my six years of study, lectures, and personal experiences in Western society, I have had to return to the respect of Igbo religious practices from which I was converted twenty-five years ago. That is my present stand in religion because Omenanism is as effective for Igbo as Christianity is for the West, or Buddhism, Mohammedaism, Taoism, and Confucianism are for Asia.
Religion is far from being reduced to absolute scientific analysis anywhere. So it is with Igbo religion. There is so much that has to be accepted with faith and no logic at all. For instance, at Christian burial ceremonies this statement of ritual is made: “The Lord has given, the Lord hath taken away.” This is illogical because it attributes death to God. No good father would like to deprive his son of the happiness and life. God would not, therefore, being more merciful than earthly fathers, take away life or cause sickness. Yet no one stops to discuss the validity of this ritual. The African is not free from such confusions. I remember an Ashanti prayer which says: “Of all the wide earth the Supreme Being is the elder. If you wish to tell it to the Supreme Being, tell it to the winds. If God gave you sickness, He also gave you medicine.” Why should God give us sickness, of what good is it to Him? Perhaps it is His purpose to make men learn by suffering. If so, then His aim is to strengthen, not weaken us, through our being liable to trials and sufferings and needs. It may be that without struggle and suffering life would not be pleasant at all.
Often, barren women go to God with gifts asking Him to give them children. They do not think that God purposely made them barren; rather they say that they sinned against God and are being punished just as a mother punishes her disobedient child. Under such an anxiety, an Ibo (Igbo) woman can be heard praying: "O Great God, Keeper of Souls! What have I done to anger Thee? Look upon me … Behold! I bring gifts and beg Thee to have pity upon me and give me a child. Grant this prayer, and all my life I will be Thy servant."
The Harvest thanksgiving service is as old as African society itself, and everywhere a striking observance. Only small crops are given to God because we know that He does not touch earthly gifts of man. He does not exist in physical form. Why then should man waste his big yams at the altar? He would be a fool to do so! But gifts for religious work and to the priest must be big and impressive. In South Africa it is methodically and solemnly performed; crops are classified according to their species and represented at the shrine in that arrangement. When one type of yield is held up by the people, the priest says, "Seeds we bring" Then the people respond, "Lord, to Thee; wilt Thou bless them, O Lord!"In a similar manner, all the farm implements are presented and blessed. At length the priest says, while all the people raise their hands, "Hands we bring" The people reply, “Lord to Thee; wilt Thou bless them, O Lord!” Finally the priest blesses the entire people by saying, "Ourselves we bring." All bow down their heads most reverently and reply, "Lord, to Thee; wilt Thou bless us, O Lord!"
The crops, the tools, the hands, the people themselves are presented before God and blessed before new crops are taken into the barn. All good things are felt to come from God, and men are grateful for the benefits He bestows. In Christian Thanksgiving services, this very idea is carried out in similar rituals, only somewhat more uniform because they have been committed to writing. In the case of the African all such rituals are committed to memory. No one knows when they and how they began, but both the priest and the people know when and what to recite or sing.
Meditation follows the sacrificial ceremony. Sometimes both the priest and the worshipers leave the altar so inspired that they will not talk, look back, or walk fast on their way home. They have to maintain that period of silence to commune with God, Who is believed to speak to everyone in silence.
Belief in the immortality of the soul raises the question of where the soul of a dead man goes. Does it return to God and reunite with that source of immortality, does it hover near the tomb of its master, or does it come back in a new person? WE favor the last theory, which we call inuwa, incarnation, or coming back to earth in a new human form. When sickness or accident destroys life, the indestructible spirit self stays near the family, visiting them and helping them to obtain for it a new body; that is, a baby in whom it comes back again, bringing its total life experience. When a child is born, its father goes to the priest to determine whose incarnation it is. There must be some dead members of that family whose lives were honorable. To one of these the priest must trace the baby, never to a man or woman who led an ignoble life.
Unlike the Hindu law of Karma, the African theory of incarnation does not limit the reborn soul to its original family and class. The only limitation is sex. For there are numerous examples in modern Ibo (Igbo) villages when a soul has been reincarnated in a new village and family. A statesman who died in my own village during the second decade of the twentieth century was called Ozuomba. When his soul returned, it was found in a child born in another village. In personality, bigness of mind, and ideas, this new Ozuomba, as I know him, is very much like the dead Ozuomba.
On the Gold Coast, West Africa, the late Dr. Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, who was the most brilliant African scholar in the twenties, was supposed to have been born in the seventh incarnation. It is firmly believed that the higher the incarnation number, the more intelligent the person becomes, because the greater is the life experience he inherits.
Though it is far from being conclusively convincing, the inuwa theory is positive in its social effect. It acts as an incentive for doing good. Life is endless, and one who hopes his life will continue to be respected endeavors to it worthy and honorable. The principle invokes an imperceptible idea of hero worship, and immortalizes good lives while bad ones dwindle into oblivion. Some criminals are burned publicly so that their undesirable soul will not return. To the young, striving to climb higher in life, the belief brings confidence because their foundation warrants success. It makes them optimistic and psychologically determined to succeed, rather than pessimistic and fatalistic. And it calls upon their pride, for one would be unwilling to sink below the level of achievement and character reached by one’s predecessor, through lack of effort after a good start.
Elements of belief and faith make every religious theory unscientific and dogmatic. So it is with African concepts ( Igbo concept) of God and religious forms. Different faiths express and serve different peoples. The African’s ( Igbo’s) is valid and effective for him, and seeks neither to divide nor to conquer.
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