Odinala: The sacred religion of the Igbo

By Obi Nwakanma 

This week, dear readers of the “Orbit,” I will like to share with you, something else beyond the roaring political issue of our day. I will like to examine an abiding question of the religion and identity of one of Africa’s most vital cultures – the Igbo – many of whom are actually suffering from a profound level of identity crisis that numbs them from what Azikiwe called “Spiritual balance”: a cardinal condition for self-reflection and self-healing. I was born into a very Christian family and baptized, no more than eight weeks old into the Catholic Church. In fact, for his services to the church, my maternal grandfather was inducted into the knighthood of the church and received a papal medal from Pope John Paul 1. He died suddenly, exactly two hours later on January 8, 1978, on the day he received his papal medal. My mother has since then believed that her father is a Catholic saint. I do not doubt her. But I am a revert to Odinala, the sacred, covenant religion of my Igbo ancestors. Had my maternal grandfather not converted to Christianity, among one of the earliest of such converts in my neck of the wood, it fell to him to be the “Eze Ogwugwu” – the priest of the divinity sometimes called “Idemili” in parts of Igbo land, or “Imo mmiri” or “Ime muru Ochie” in certain other parts: the pillars that hold the ancient chthonic depths. It is the water principle. But my maternal grandfather had converted early to Christianity, taken the name “Francis,” become educated, taught school briefly in Victoria, in the British Camerouns, and returned, and retired as District Works Supervisor just before the end of colonialism, and in all that, allowed his half-brother to be regent- priest on his behalf, and as a compromise, paid all his taxes and the upkeep of the shrine according to the ancient laws. But even as a practicing Christian, my grandfather was known to possess the secrets of rainmaking, and to make rains sometimes, facing the direction of “Igweocha.” The rain-making stones are still buried in the compound of my maternal family. I do remember, during one of the holidays I spent with him, and as a very curious ten-year old, I had gone to him to teach me how to make rain, and he had said, “Taa gbafuo! Oke l’anya ya di gi?!” (“Scamper! Are you crazy?”) in the inimitable tongue of that part of Mbaise. I did scamper, of course, but I did not stop being curious about the sacred order of the Igbo world, which for a city kid like me, was extremely fascinating.

I started my observation of this Igbo world in my first experience in 1975 of the festival called “Ofo Ndi Iche” (the festival of the ancestors) when every family remembered and made offerings to the ancestors, and celebrated communal memory. It always began with the physical cleaning of the land by the youth (young men and women) and the spiritual cleaning of the land by the Four priests (“Eze Ala,” “Eze Agwu,” “Eze Ogwugwu” and “Eze Anyanwu” (sometimes in fact more regularly called ‘Eze Amadioha,” ), with the “Ndi Di Opara” (the Lord first-born sons of the land representing each compound) who would gather in the central shrine of the goddess of the land, Ala, before sun-down on the “Orie-Ukwu” preceding the day of the “Ofo” festival, and make peace offerings, and offer prayers to the great God, Chukwu, and the divinities of the land. Each “Okpala”/”Opara”/ “Okpara”/”Diokpa” was the priest of his family. But aside from that each man or woman was a direct communicant with his/her “Chi” and required no intermediation in making and offering worship to God. A day before the commencement of the week-long celebration of “Ofo Ndi Iche,” the women would have prepared ingredients for the special meal to be cooked; they would make “Usu” for the “mgbam,” and for the “Oriko meal” of that evening. They pounded the “Usu”(a process called “isu-oriko”) with which they would make “Oha soup” without salt, which a person will eat with his or her neighbor with whom they’ve been in enmity, or have exchanged harsh words in the period, before other witnesses, and pledge forgiveness and reconciliation, and make peace. It was often required that a man would carry a gourd of fresh wine with new palm fronds (“Igu-nkwu”)to his neighbor or kinsman preceding that week, and say, “whatever it is that I have done to wrong you, forgive it, as I have forgiven whatever it is that you did to wrong me. Let us make peace.” And it was often a process that was well negotiated, because the Igbo believed, according to their religion, that a world governed by the principle of chaos cannot sustain life. Odinala is consecrated on the principle of peace, called “Udo.” A man walks up to his neighbour’s “Obu/Ovu/Obi” and he is required by convention to make the “peace greeting.” A peace covenant is then made by welcoming him, and sharing the communion of the “kolanut.” The ancient Igbo is made up of five sub-nationalities: Agbaja, Isu, Idu, Oru and Nri. The “Agbaja” were agrarians and workers of the earth, the “Isu” were metallurgists, the “Idu” – what we now know as the “Benin” (some say it is from the corruption of “Ibinu” – an “angry people” bestowed on them from the founder of the Eweka dynasty) were the military lineage, the “Oru” were marine ecologist, while the “Nri” were the diviners and healers- and that is why when the Igbo gather to invoke the ancestors ad collective memory, they say, “Isee!” or “Ihaa!” after every invocation. I was struck by an interview in last week’s Sun newspaper, by Eze Onyenso, the current EzeNri, whom I’m sad to say, may have been educated outside of the culture and the real significance of his office. The colonial reference to the EzeNri as “priest-king” is false. The proper designation of EzeNri is “High priest.” He is no king or “Majesty.” He is an ascetic priest in the very order of Melchizedek, whom we in Odinala think is the ancient Eze Nri Meeabua, who was reputed to be capable of bi-locality. 
All priests of Odinala (“Ndi Eze Mmuo”) undergo the ritual 3-day death in their preparations for the priesthood, and are awakened to become “living spirits.” The Igbo covenant with their God, Chukwu, forbids the making of kings. It is abomination to bow to another man. After Amadioha’s heresy and dare, the Igbo sealed that institution ritually, until it was re-introduced, and not without fierce resistance, through colonialism. According to the covenants of “Odinala Igbo,” God is the only king of the Igbo, and each man carries a unique part of that God, indwelling in him or her called, their “Chi.” The Igbo believe themselves direct descendants of a supreme God, and generally call themselves “Umuchukwu,” and name their children in the many names of their God. Every Igbo man, rich or poor, is traditionally buried like a god, at the descent of the sun, because the Igbo believe themselves to be “gods” on an earthly journey, according to the ancient teachings of Odinala. They travel in death to “Ala Mmuo” on the wings of the sun’s disk, through the divine portal. No true Igbo is buried at noon. It is considered abomination. In actual fact, a very close examination of the preparation and ancient mortuary process of the Igbo reveals a strikingly similar burial rites reserved for the Egyptian Pharoh, right up to the slaughtering of a dog, called “Nkita Anya,” to accompany the dead through the underworld. A false group is now teaching that the Igbo are “Jews.” This is not true. As a matter of fact, we in Odinala believe that the Nazarene, Yeshua was a convert to Odinala. But this is another story. Odinala covenant constructs God as a duality – the unity of the male and female principles (“Chi” na “Eke”), rather than as a patriarchal trinity. Indeed, Igbo ideas argue that the principle of “three” reflects chaos and instability (“ihe mee ato, ya ato!” according to the divinatory language of the “Afa”), and would consider the trinity evil, within its epistemic systems. Odinala-Igbo believes that life (“ndu”) is the most sacred of our divine condition and is prior (“Ndubisi”) and that the human – “mma ndu” is the highest reflection of life. 
The conception of the human is universal in Igbo thought – “madu wu otu” (all humans are same) and “uwa wu ofu” (the world is one) – and the universality of mankind is at the roots of Odinala. Igbo therefore do not discriminate between humans, since all life is equal. To take a life is one of the most serious “nso ala” and a major violation of “Iwu-Ala” (the laws of the earth).
I should stop here for the moment.  




So sad that everthing cultural seems to be overrun by politics. The culture is no more what it was. The story about Iri ji Mbaise is so interesting.
Legends have it that the cradle of creation took place in Ezinihitte Mbaise at “Orie-ukwu” with the birth of five clans-EZINIHITTE, OKE-OVORO, AGBAJA, AHIARA AND EKWEREAZU. In those ancient days, the celebration of annual Iriji took place in every village and town in Mbaise on an important market day of the week like –ORIE-UKWU, EKE-UKWU, AFO-UKWU, OR NKWO-UKWU. The cultivation and planting of farm crops between January to end of May resulted in shortage of food. Families would feed on little available food. This famine period would continue through the end of July when the first species of yam called “Ji-Igwe” would be harvested. This particular species of yam is nicknamed “cut and come again” because when you dig and cut off the early tuber leaving the head underground, it will grow and produce another tuber which will be planted in the next cropping season.The fathers of the households in the villages and towns would be very happy and thankful to God for having survived the famine.To them, this wonder of nature calls for celebration hence a day was set aside for the celebration named “Iriji-Ohuo” -New yam Festival. Ahiajoku is the acclaimed god of farm crops especially yam. During the celebration, prayers and libation would flow in praise and thanksgiving to god of yam.

Before the advent of Christianity, early inhabitants of the Mbaise Nation, “our great grand parents” had Ahiajoku shrine in every household where food and drinks were offered to the Ahiajoku god. Fowls, Goats, Sheep were used as sacrifice. They had the notion of mini gods and one supreme God, the Almighty and Creator of all things.
There are farmers in every village and town who grow and harvest more yams than others. These great farmers were given the prestigious title of “EZEJI”.
They are acclaimed as having the largest farms and could feed hundreds of people with out running out of supply. Though the Ezeji title holders regard Iriji as their particular ceremony, the event is for every person big and small. In the modern age, yam which is the head of farm crops have come to symbolize among other things in our lives—-accomplishments, jobs, productivity in your field, overcoming adversity, another birthday, etc.
On the 15th of August every year, Mbaise people all over the world must celebrate this thanksgiving event individually or collectively with friends and well wishers. They come together to celebrate their achievements and accomplishments over the year with special thanksgiving to God.

Ezeji cultivates the yams, owns the yams, harvest the yams and gives them to people to eat.
It is the role of the Ezeji to roast and cook yams enough to feed the masses that attend the ceremony.
The Ezejis are great and powerful landowners. Ezeji title holder is expected to be an outstanding personality in the community.
Ezeji people play important role in the settlement of land disputes. They pray and bless the new yam, taste it and give it to others to eat.
A ceremony officially marking the eating of new yam
Iriji is sustained and nurtured by Ezeji title holders. Other supporting groups include EZURUEZU MBAISE, MBAISE PEOPLES CONGRESS, NDI EZE MBAISE OR THE TRADITIONAL RULERS. Iriji annual event attracts people from all over the world. It has attracted Chief executives, top government officials, governors and vice presidents over the years. It has become a symbol of unity and home coming for Mbaise sons and daughters.
Unlike many other people, the Mbaise person cultivates and farm in other communities outside his town. The real Mbaise man or woman is hospitable and kind.
He is strong and can withstand hardship. He plays host to unknown visitors. You will find him in almost all parts of the world including areas with harsh climatic conditions and difficult terrain. He hates cheating and will always stand out bold to claim his right. There is a famous axiom that the fifth person in any Igbo gathering is an Mbaise person or th
at person knows an Mbaise person as a friend or in-law.