Introduction to Igbo Medicine:
Igbo Healers and Agwu Deity in a Therapeutic Society
Often folk healing and biomedical approach to health care beliefs
and practices comply with a set of professional expectations.
In each domain, practitioners undergo intense training ranging
from months to years. Igbo healers of Nigeria take training
and initiation into the institution of their medical therapeutics
seriously. Even though misunderstandings abound when lay people
and medical scientists hesitate to study healers in their own
terms, it is still a compelling need to understand the processes
and cultural demands of becoming a good healer in a therapeutic
society. In Igbo, healers are associated with ancestral deities,
established and competent agents as well as crave for material
and symbolic resources to facilitate the knowledge transmission
and ethics of the endogenous medical profession. This research
provides a general analysis of the deity of medicine and divination
among the Igbo in the neighbourhoods of Mbano, Umuahia, and
Given strong interests, requests and calls by readers, students
and researchers to continue the discussion on introduction
to Igbo medicine first posted in www.kwenu.com (Jan. &
Feb. 2006), I want to provide some insights on Igbo healers
and their deitific resources. This section therefore will discuss
Igbo healers, dibia and their medicine deity, called agwu. Some
questions to help us explore the topic are: who are Igbo healers?
Of what categories and specializations are they lined up with?
How do people become healers? How are healers validated as authentic
or non-authentic (fake, charlatan)? How is their burden of proof
as real healers represented? What forms of initiation and training
sessions are experienced by healers? What signs and symptoms
manifest as a pattern in the selection and training of healers?
Do healers train within and outside Igboland and how are they
recognized? What is Igbo medicine deity? How is it perceived
and allied with healers and patients in the context of care?
Has agwu, the medicine deity a gender perspective for Igbo kinship
network or system?
Others related search questions are: how does an agwu shrine
set up for a healer/s look like and symbolized in addition to
what role it plays in the belief and practice of medical and
helpful therapeutics? To be argued, in addition, is this, are
Igbo healers genuinely called upon and trained in the complex
array of culture, extra-human forces and in their kinship communities
and outside the neighborhoods? Attempt is therefore made to
outline the various categories and attributes of healers, their
installation into the agwu institution and healing office. After
the analysis, we come to the conclusion that healers are well
formed in their own field. But at the same time, neglect in
helping them to come to terms with modernism in their own terms
is the current battle between biomedicine and indigenous spheres
of medical knowledge of which its effect is consequently
faced by ill-persons.
Who Igbo Healer Is in a Therapeutic Ally
In a therapeutic ally, a healer is someone who cures, or treats
illnesses or injuries in order to restore the ill person to
continue normal life in society. Therefore, a specialist in
healing human forms of illnesses and misfortunes is a healer,
a therapeutic expert, a curer, a practitioner, a ritual formulator
to close broken boundaries of good health and relationships
between individuals and society. To become a healer requires
a culturally shared and accepted discipline, ambition, determination,
time and resources.
A man or woman trained and certified according to the norms
of indigenous medicine and healing system meets the status quo
of a healer. A healer or dibia in Igbo parlance of all ramifications;
whose call, initiations and trainings ally with Igbo customs
and traditions obviously performs the duties of a healer. This
includes good mastery of the field forces of the land, water,
forest, ancestral sphere and kinship. One is a healer when one
is having a good knowledge of all forms of misfortune, their
sources, and ways of redressing them. One having proper knowledge
and the workings of the deities of the land and their connection
to the life-world of the living is also an important
notion attached to being a responsible healer. Such a healer
may specialize in divination, herbal and animal and related
material resources, bone setting, surgery, rituals with appropriate
language skills, and any other domain of expertise as may be
needed to support the sick person to recover. An Igbo healer
is meant to be knowledgeable in the history of his or her community
and neighbours, as well as have deep ancient and modern history
of the Igbo in general. He or she will be able to tell what
symbols are associated with religion; as well as social, economic
and political ideas and practices of the Igbo in comparison
with that of Igbo neighbours. Secrets of the ancientness of
the Igbo society will be related to his shrine and therefore
represent a reality in the pristine and present symbolic archive
of the society. True healers embody a deep Igbo medical history
as a part of their training repertoires and representations.
In essence, the burden of proof of being a healer lies deeply
in ones relationship to the medicine deity agwu.
The various example of burden of proof of a healer will be discussed
in another paper as I will focus more on the healer and agwu
deity at the moment.
But it is important also to state that Igbo healers skillfully
deal with all forms of diseases, misfortunes and disabilities
presented to them. Each case of illness is studied, understood
and cured following interpretation of kinship relations, social,
cultural, economic and political circumstances constructed into
the illness situation. The need to deeply study and understand
the beliefs and practices of questioning misfortune is therefore
important for all healers. By questioning misfortune, I mean
trying to unravel the ways in which episodes of curses, for
example, are scrutinized, discovered and managed - given the
healers' skills and therapeutic approaches appropriate to the
society. In other words, exploring how divination is brought
to bear on that form of handicapping someones capability
and its implications on socially approved mental functioning
for a normal life challenges a healer to do whatever it
takes to heal successfully. Gathering cases and applying them
to the themes of healing-work demonstrates to healers a clear
impact that curses or mental illness might have on African thought
patterns and relationships. This includes but not limited to competitive
ways of discovering and fashioning mental disturbance, casting
spells, causations and effects as well as the restorations
or healing dimensions. Curses and mental illness issues carry
spiritual epitaphs, consciences and direct or symbolic
effects. Both individuals and groups, old and young people,
especially children are big carriers of curses. People in authority,
such as titled persons, ordained persons, family and community
leaders/elders, and in general any aggrieved persons may resort
to cursing as a means to show revenge through aggressive spoken
words. Healers try to understand the history of relationships
people keep with others close to them in determining causes
of illness and the effects of illness in society.
Agwu Deity for medicine and divination
Agwu deity is associated with a cultural spin on medicine and
divination skills. Etymologically, the word agwu is a name of
a given deity for medicine and divination. Agwu by itself is
derived from agwa, manner or behaviour. Specifically,
agwu refers to the major deity or god-head of medicine and divination
(chi ogwu). Its symbol is a doll-like human being made of wood
or covered with clay, also called agwunsi. Agwu is believed
to be the ally of men or women determining their destiny and
life skills. It is a god of care who directs human affairs while
navigating the world. One's chi or tutelary god is often regarded
as the same as one's agwu. Affliction of certain illnesses and
healing are primarily associated with agwu. Therefore, agwu
pertains to the domain of morality and continuity of tradition
of caring skills.
A family with a record of healing art is likely to continue
this tradition. The god of medicine and divination, agwu, will
intrude upon a family member in order to transfer to him or
her, the divinatory seeing (visionary power) and healing skills.
This is also known as clairvoyance dimension. In the event of
refusal, this deity is responsible for pattern of illness or
misfortune called ara agwu (deific insanity). The intent of
which is temporarily to give time for a rethink to accept a
calling to assume a traditional responsibility to discover sources
of affliction and to heal them. It can only endure in the case
of total arrogance or negligence to listen and accept cultural
obligation for health and healing.
Broadly, ara agwu or deital-force related mental episode is
mostly a portentous or forewarning insanity and remains to be
the kind of ara (insanity) which is mostly misunderstood and
misrepresented. For example, while some people say ara agwu
is a devilish harassment of human, others note the deity to
be nothing good than being spirit of madness. Those who interpret
agwu from an overtly Christian perspective tend to depict this
over-excitation in very negative terms. In order to be a healer
one need not go through ara agwu or deital insanity. Rather
the affliction is a punishment given to those who refuse to
yield to their election into healing. My informants kept
saying that it appears in one's dreams, to call up the person
to take up the ancestral healing tradition. A cultural lore,
reinforcing this view, states that, agwu selects with
whom to work (agwu na-awa awa). Informants maintain that
it is a very good spirit, which sees to the goodness of people
and never fails in healing specific afflictions (oria). But
it may also afflict the wrongdoers as a way to punish them and
exercise its authority without further question. It is said
agwu deity does not approach just anyone but expects those approached
to reciprocate their call with respect and on time too.
Put differently, agwu deity has two faces at the same time,
the good and the bad. The good is for the innocent and well
behaved. It is called, mma agwu evoking good (its health and
progress). The other side is evil, and is referred to as njo
agwu. Those misrepresenting agwu such as bad healers or offenders
are punished severely by agwu. The double-edged sword of agwu
(mma ihu abua) does not fixedly make someone prone to penalty
if he or she does not behave according to its disciplinary measures,
such as when a healer is: (i) not charging too much money in
cases which do not allow it; (ii) preparing medicines according
to its directives; (iii) listening and carrying out appropriate
instructions; (iv) avoiding certain prohibitions, such as not
using ones healing power unduly against others; (v) not
sleeping with one's patient/s, or taking other people's wife
or husband; (vi) not going to sleep with a woman during her
menstrual period; (vii) avoiding certain places like funerals
of people whose behaviour in society are questionable;
(viii) not defying healing objects with unwashed hands, or petitioning
to it with inappropriate rites or its neglect at all; (ix)
being stingy instead of showing compassionate, liberal hands.
But one is liable and punished at any contravention that occurs
in order to guide against any wrong potentially hampering healthy
relationships and environment to come about.
Ara agwu, or its mental affliction, may also besiege someone
who willfully breaks or destroys any of its cultic resources.
The agwu shrine is found with statuettes in the home of any
healer and in many of the patients houses. In cases where
such shrine items are rebelliously being destroyed or burnt,
agwu inflicts untold hardships to the family. It can trigger
insanity as well as other forms of misfortune, such as accidents,
untimely deaths, loss of money or goods, and social isolation.
It can give people troubles that might even lead to their imprisonment,
or that bring entire failure if one would choose to oppose to
the calling for the role of diviner or healer. For a healer
to become truly immersed into the dynamics of healing knowledge
and strategies, initiation to the cult of agwu is a cultural
duty and essential for the start of the process of learning
and applying the skills with due protection in the ecological
perspective. The following then will explore and describe how
this is carried out to attain the underlying aims.
Initiating to medicine deity: Investiture of the deity
of medicine and divination, iru agwu
Investiture implies a process of deifying a healer-to-be. This
starts with a possession by agwu deific force whose spirit is
associated with the patrilineage of the healer concerned. According
to Amadiume (1987:111), possession by the spirit of agwu served
not only as a check against social deviation in men, but also
ensured succession to certain hereditary positions and professions
in the patrilineage. Those in line to succeed fathers or other
relatives in the dibia profession are most likely to be more
prone to possession by agwu. In all cases, possession by the
spirit of agwu warranting the investiture would be symbolized
by personal disorder, signs of mental imbalance, and general
tendencies towards irresponsibility. A person possessed by agwu
falls short of manliness (Amadiume 1987:111). While
possession related to agwu deity is merely significative, capturative,
to link-up with life-world and network of forces, processing
of body and mind, ontological, and of scaling a candidates
destiny, identity and empowerment, the institution of agwu in
itself is but a central force to be or not to be a healer within
the endogenous perspective.
The word iru means to install, to put the shrine for a beginner,
a neophyte, a novice, a learner, an apprentice. For the initiate,
it symbolises submission to the agwu deity or engagement into
the complex and expensive cultic celebration (ime agwu). A proverb
holds that agwu begins with the small, iru and grows to the
bigger ceremony, called emume or echichi (asi agwu na-esi nnta
ma riwa). This literally means the initiation into agwu starts
with small and inexpensive ceremonies and matures into complex
and noble ceremonies. As such, agwu is linked with the status
of a dignified human (ogaranya) when it comes to assert itself,
namely it begins as it advances to take names in the household.
As a matter of extrahuman intervention, good healers adore agwu
because of its kindness; one of its empowering and mobilizable
virtues being stereotypically let down and misunderstood.
As noted, agwu is phonetically related to ogwu (medicine) and
agwa (behaviour, manner, and character). These characterizations
are conveying its etymological meaning in the idiom of illness
and health. The individual is expected to be in good health
as a valued way of living, but he or she often falls short of
it. In that fact, his or her agwa (character, behaviour) changes,
the Igbo say. Then ogwu (medicine) is sorted out, prepared and
administered to redress the imbalance, restore the ill to order
of character. This way, agwu is said to predominate the events
around human health in the moral and physical order of things.
To the fact, agwu is the same thing as chi (personal god), but
lies essentially with the whole ideological and pragmatic field
of medical activities for which healers own it specifically
as god of medicine (chi ogwu). Both general chi and agwu are
guardian angels. While chi stands by itself as both a personalized
and collective guardian angel, such as when the Igbo say chi
m (my god) and chi anyi (our god); agwu typically relates to
a line of transmission, deconstructive and reconstructive powers
in the corporate spirit category concerned with illness and
healing. In other words, we can say that chi is concerned with
general destiny and fate of which healing is one aspect delegated
to agwu, which is a female deity. Categorically, agwu is a female
spirit who provides caring knowledge and skills in matters of
life disruption, illness and keeping relationships for a cordial
social and cultural order.
Agwu in itself is also very significant with Igbo names. Agwu
initiates in our understanding ability that can compose kinship
names. We can argue here that kinship evolutionary logic related
to the Igbo as well as the pattern of name formation in kinship
circles first picked along with agwu best moments. Examples
of such names are Chiagwu (god of awgu), Nwagwu (child of agwu),
Ihuagwu (face of agwu), Nwaekeagwu (child of agwu creator or
corresponding market day), Osuagwu (agwu dedicated child), and
Iwuagwu (rule of agwu).
Agwu deity should be understood as a fundamental principle of
Igbo gender organization, relationship and of selection and
guidance of life affairs stemming from the spirit world. We
suggest a more kinship based extended study of agwu will be
of important anthropological interest. For a start, represented
below is a sketch of agwu kinship alignment in assigning relationship
of care in matters of family tradition and lineage focus.
The ancestral figures (ndi ichie) constitute the foundation,
legitimacy and authenticity of a healing cult being continued
through the descendants and heirs of past medical experts. By
affiliation to agwu cult, the ancestor provides not only the
origin but importantly also the structural links in the way
by which the medical system functions in a larger whole of healing
arts. It goes to reflect that an indigenous practitioner has
three important fields surrounding his or her practice, namely
his or her family and lineage, the forest and then the shrine.
To show his or her medical dealings derive from a strong base,
a practitioner refers to the systematic functioning of these
areas or fields. It is the responsibility of the agwu deity
to call upon heirs. And at any time someone selected delays
more than necessary or refuses entirely to answer to the call,
the deity punishes that person by inflicting even more serious
illnesses most often insanity, inability to progress, or even
incapacity to walk or deformity.
If a healer marries, bears children such as a first son (diokpara)
and first daughter (ada), agwu is being represented by the size
of the family in the same corporate membership formation. It
is such that there will be a husband or male agwu (di or oke
agwu), a female agwu (nwunye or nne agwu), a first son agwu
(okpara agwu), a first daughter agwu (ada agwu). Other kinship
terms refer to women agwu (ndomi agwu) and ohu agwu or enslaved
servants or attendants or aids (nwaosu agwu) and so on (see
illustration 2 [figure 1] above, indicating the agwu family
There are other symbolic representations in the complex family
of agwu which are essential and must be present before this
deity is being installed in the house of an apprentice. They
include an agwu seat (oche agwu), an agwu dog (nkita agwu),
a four-faced figurine (ezumezu agwu), and an icon of strength
and personality referring to right hand (ikenga agwu). Significant
is that both a male and female principle gender nexus,
that is the culturally ascribed masculine and feminine characteristics
must be present so as to domesticate and/or expel away forces
in relation to illness and healing.
These agwu dolls are planted into four stands plus a fifth
forked stand called ekwe oba. Oba is a name of a tree, which
is also important in installing the agwu shrine. When it is
installed, the dolls represent the life world of the healer-to-be.
The five significant trees which are essential part of the installation
of agwu are: (1) oku; (2) uha; (3) ogirishi, newbouldia laevis;
(4) ebube agu, sanseveria; (5) and ekwe oba. We examined one
informants shrine and we found that several deities or
chi such as agwu, ala ezi, ikpo ituaba, olakwuru mmuo na olakwuru
madu are sheltered in one single set of shrine status quo stand.
These deities or chi are very commonly called on at any moment
a healer sets for healing. Ikpo is particularly for guiding
against bad spirits (mmuo ojo) and it is strongly called upon
in healing insanity and other illnesses deemed to be characteristically
deep-seated and devastating.
Planting agwu symbols and attributes
An agwu shrine comprises the most vital live trees and plants
representing the layers of the cosmos, along with other important
symbols such as pot, machete, and stone, as well as several
kola nuts worth about 300-500 naira. Informants, Nze na Ozo
Agbaegbu, Iroabuchi and Anwueri describe agwu as Gods
creation of Adam and Eve (agwu dika ekere Adam na Eve). Simply
because Adam was staying alone, and God (chukwu) created Eve
for him to communicate and associate with.
Similarly, the male (oke) and female agwu (nne agwu) always
associate together. In setting up the shrine the two must be
put together along with other materials that would enhance their
co-habitation. The other images are namely oche agwu, nkita
agwu, ikenga agwu, odu agwu and ezumezu agwu. The installation
ceremony is a very simple one, feasted like other forms of title
taking. It is often said that agwu does not bestow an elaborate
ceremony unlike ozo title taking. This is because agwu is concerned
with illness and health, while ozo is merely a ceremony of title
taking that goes with eating, drinking requiring ostentation.
The Igbo say in this regard that one with appetite is
not likely to assist the agwu installation but will join in
where ozo is being taken (a si anaghi ahapu ebe a na-eshi
ozo gawa ebe a na-aru agwu). Following are the descriptions
of the most vital trees and images in the installation as well
as the depiction of their attributes.
Oche agwu: In reality, oche agwu is a seat and signifies
settling. It is also used to initiate a wife-to-be, particularly
at the early visits when she is being married into the family
(ije di ohuru). Such initiation allows the seat of agwu to be
offered to the new woman to sit down. If she feels approved
and does not make fuss or run away, it indicates that her coming
is fortunate. If it is otherwise, it means she is not welcome
into the family. It is also important for treating women with
menstrual problems. The initiation installs a healer into the
agwu seat to ensure the productive effect of his healing. The
implication here is that for a healer to perform he first has
to be properly seated with agwu, hence oche agwu to achieve
Ikenga agwu: A healer uses ikenga literally let
my force go on, to sustain his travels and entrepreneurships
by placing his right hand on it before leaving or engaging in
enterprises. Doing so helps to keep him on the right, which
indicates an intention to be strong and committed in his dealings.
The strength of a healer is being on the right course (iju ogu).
Elsewhere, the body dimensions of agwu will be fully explored.
But it is important to mention that ikenga is a fruitful symbolization
of being on the right side by the Igbo a virtue, which
healers and elders appropriate in matters of life, personality,
prosperity, health and wellness. Setting a healers shrine
cannot be said to embody virtuosity and firm characterisation
without the force of ikenga agwu. Therefore ikenga along with
other symbolic power objects will technically and symbolically
ensure that a healer is guaranteed with capacity to will out
a considerable right force to heal and settle matters
of personhood and identity.
Ozo mpata or mbata: Is a symbol of the title that grants the
initiate its legitimate seat of healing. As ozo is the highest
traditional social title among healers, it is at the same time
granted after initiation is completed. Initiatory rites confer
on healers the traditional title of nze na ozo. Ozo refers to
originality, and indeed to being traditionally affirmed in office
and identity. When a healer is called to lay hands on other
title-holders-to-be, he acts as a king-maker in line with his
own initiation. Ozo mpata signifies legitimacy and authority
to carry out the investiture for other healers-to-be. It confers
agwu title, endowing one with its authority and significance.
Nkita agwu: The dog (nkita) is perceived as a warrior
and trusting being. It pursues away evil spirits and is seen
as having a driving power of pursuit until it kills its prey
(ochiwa ochigbue). In all cases, a dog is conceived as a spirit
(agbara) and hears the foot-marches of intruders which humans
cannot easily hear; and whatever that may attack agbara is turned
against the wrongdoer/the attacker itself. Therefore the use
of dog (nkita) is considered important for the security of the
shrine. It is a watchdog so to say. More relevant in this function
is the use of a he dog (oke nkita). Regarding explanations,
a dog sees spirits and consequently reacts. In setting up the
agwu shrine for a healer, it is unavoidable to slain a male
dog (oke nkita) and use the head in the shrine as one of its
most important empowering parts. A dog in this task means to
draw out war against intruders and the bad willed. To heal is
to give rise to combat against forces in the manner of the compelling
combatant virile dog.
Ezumezu agwu: Like ikenga, ezumezu has also been and
will further be discussed elsewhere. For now, ezumezu agwu points
to somebody who has a complete mastery of all the skills of
healing. The cult of agwu is being represented with a doll indicating
completeness called ezumezu agwu. It is said to be important
in the sense of wholeness, totality, comprehensiveness, embodiment,
collective, en ensemble, being complete (izu oke) in healing.
With four faces which ezumezu agwu embodies, it is capable of
facing issues from four or more dimensional points. A master
healer is expected to be a rounded person in his or her expertise
in a symbolic sense of ezumezu characterization in dealing
with health and societal order and challenges. (On the one hand,
people in community may commonly take chieftaincy titles such
as Ezumezu 1 of a place or field of occupation.
On the other hand, cultural events may be named equally as ezumezu
festival such as the Igbere people of Abia State and Enugu people
of Enugu State). When ezumezu is appropriated in this way, village
and town persons attempt to respect the notion of collective
gathering and involvement to act and represent their values
and identity. In healing, a healer entitled as ezumezu embodies
the circle of rites and decorum at a level of cultural mastership
and solid moral representation. Ezumezu in human body captures
the front, back, left side and right side as well as the top
and down of human standing and spaces of contacts and defences.
Oku tree (tree of wealth): Oku here means wealth. A tree
known as oku is used to represent this in the installation of
agwu. The oku tree is meant to bring wealth, fertility and progress.
Thus agwu is embodied in all this.
Uha tree (pterocarpus soyauxii): Is very significant
both in setting up agwu and chi shrines. It is
life. Its purpose is to bring harmony, wealth, fertility and
progress like the oku tree. However, uha is one of the domesticated
trees, whose leaves are used for fufu soup and for rituals related
Ogirishi Tree (newbouldia laevis): Is installed for protection
against the shrine and its user. If any harm is aimed at it,
the tree will persistently resist it. That is, it will hold
on resisting (shishighide ya). The tree is also meant for peace
and basically holds on any one around it, man or spirit, with
resistance. Tree and dog figures conjoin to sustain stability.
Ebube agu (sanseveria): Stands as an awesome plant against
trespasses, whose power are beyond words in the installation
of the agwu shrine. It brings to the shrine bravery (ebube)
comparable with that of a lion (agu), hence the name ebube agu,
meaning lion-like intimidation. Thus, ebube agu is a leaf that
sustains that prowess of a lion around the agwu shrine. It is
meant to be untiring and hypercritical to opposing forces.
Ekwe Oba: Is a yam barn seat (ekwe). Its purpose is
to represent a mans world associated with yam for male
(oke) and cocoa yam for female (nne). Altogether, agwu is made
for both man and woman, as gender is a matter well defined in
the investiture. It also signifies agreement and a seat for
obtaining knowledge. Overall, agwu shrine is a force, interrelating
healer, patient and the entire community for culturally determined
good health and normal life.
Training to heal
According to all healers spoken to and worked with, apprenticeship
is an important undertaking, including formal training for efficiency
in one way or another before commencing practice. They see it
as something expected to make themselves skilful or proficient,
as well as to make themselves obedient to orders in line with
ancestral alliance and systematic valued repertoral codes. Healers
are trained in order to promote their clients welfare,
growth, harmony, and the continuity of the community of which
they are also part.
After selecting a candidate, followed by the installation of
the agwu shrine, the potential healer undergoes apprenticeship
that may last between 3 to 10 years. During this time the apprentice
learns the therapeutic properties of healing plants, the mysteries
of nature and the healing arts. He or she also learns about
the nightly realm and the sacred forces. The type of selection
of a candidate may also determine how he or she is to be trained.
A candidate may receive his or her training partly with the
spirit world and partly with a master healer. Some link their
formation with a master healer after a due and formal spirit
transaction, which may last according to needs and capability
of the healer to master the art. In other words, both spirit
and man interplay in the training pari passu with how a particular
trainee is to function. The story in the box discusses and sheds
light on this.
Case 1: Training through transaction with spirits
Osondu, a healer reported his training as a diviner thus, To
begin I stayed in the forest without proper food for eight days
and nights with strange forces that took me away. I came back
bringing with me some divination objects. The correctness of
my divinations, side to side the fact that I was acclaimed by
the community as a successful dibia who sees clear and deeply
beyond this world, built up my standing promptly. But until
I started training with a master healer who initiated me into
other zones of knowledge and practical fieldwork and socialisation,
I was rather limited with the experience of herbs and roots.
I testify that I was too busy interacting with spirits during
my disappearance to focus much attention on the fieldwork which
the experience of roots and herbs required.
We deduce from this account that training involves some form
of fieldwork without which efficiency would be lacking. In whichever
manner, training exposes to seeing forces, interacting with
elements of life, and doing forms of socialization and healing
by words and practice.
The art of ritual and herbal healing can be inherited or acquired
especially in families renown for a particular therapy. At the
early age the heir embarks upon apprenticeship, which may last
till his adulthood. Our meeting with the son of Nze na Ozo Agbaegbu
of Umueze 11 of Ehime Mbano, is enlightening in this. The 14-year-old
boy sees his training as a legacy to grow up with while further
going to school at the same time. He witnessed to this when
he talked about some of his realisations. For example, he was
proud of his status and the income from it, which allowed him
to pay by himself his school fees. Similarly, another informant
spoke of his son in America who trained with him before proceeding
for further studies to specialise in western psychiatry in view
of rejoining him and eventually taking over his art soon after
his studies. Yet acquisition of different skills or methods
or knowing certain herbs and roots and their uses may also be
obtained at any time a healer deems it fit or as it may be necessitated
by trouble-shooting events. The apprentices moreover, learn
the verbal arts, hence the art of clairvoyance combined.
The expenses involved in learning entails an agreed fee to be
paid, called ego eje asa nye ogwu (literally meaning a fee to
share and transmit body of medical knowledge), as well as for
providing required materials essential for addressing cases
Sharing spaces and regenerative forces by a master healer with
the apprentice in the environment is a condition that makes
knowledge transmission possible. Why, because, the world of
healers is unique to each of them, and yet they share so much
in common with their fellow citizens. Healers sometimes look
strange and feared or suspected. To enter into the world of
healers presupposes codes of compliance; and the building of
trust (okwukwe, ntukwasi obi) is very much emphasised. Belief
(nkweta), and secrecy are by and large a crucial and incisive
requirement for one to be informed about it genially and authentically.
Indigenous medical knowledge retains the tradition of secrecy
since it is said to involve filiations and ancestry heritage,
discipline, sorcery, and since it also provides a source of
income. An apprentice needs to be composed and vigilant to adapt
to the disciplinary controls in order to gain healing knowledge.
This regards in particular the knowledge about herbs and roots,
the recipes, the incantations, prohibitions, and invocation
(ikpo agbara na muo) to the deities, spirits. It also fits into
place the art of linking-up the human condition with the extrahuman
forces (such as thunder, water spirits, and the earth). People
wanting to obtain information from a healer are made to abide
by strict oath and payment in some cases. Being a stranger may
pose a problem until trust has been established and roundly
assured. An apprentice who is prepared to understand a healer
and his art has no better choice than comply. Else he or she
trails on shrouded truths and layering of facts. A healer no
doubt might see a learner as threat to his survival due to competition.
But this is forestalled by intimate subjective understanding,
which training to master healing spaces and regenerative forces
do entail. Psychological imaging of who comes to a healer to
learn also applies to what and how much the unreciprocated image-out
of the healer may cause in the long run.
Entailing sharing, offering, and compliance, the training to
heal is mainly appropriated and maximized. To establish the
master-initiate rapport to share with a healers contradictory
spaces and identities is not all that easy. The effort to establish
rapport, win confidence, and gain access to all forms of sacred
healing possibilities shows that the matter of secrecy is not
easily played out. Anyway, when confidential efforts are made
to be successful, the understanding of healing tradition gains
a core primal grip. We did undergo some of the processes of
trust building that gave us deeper insight on how things are
organised and carried out. By so doing, secrecy was made clear
to us as an important tradition.
Understanding the information presented by healers in the training
sessions show how much the healers monopolise extensive knowledge
of territorial medical and symbolic traditions, resources and
healing ideals. An apprentice is compelled to grasp the healers
and their art in their complex components (cf. Balick and Cox
1997:44). The following scholarly-apprenticed experiences are
illustrative in themselves. In other words, entering into a
trust relationship is achieved through related forms of ritual
enactment, namely commensality, placing bare feet on stone and
earth, blood rites, black power or ifu onunu ceremony, sealing
of alliance with ofo and ogu to legitimize (Ejizu 1986). Initiatory
information shows that familiarity with the extrahuman forces
world is where the core of the institution and practice of Igbo
medicine lies. There is a constant representation of extrahuman
forces providing the necessary resources of inspiration, direction,
know-how, guidance and support required for the skills and practice.
Meanwhile, I want to leave out detailing the stages involved
in creating trust between a novice and a master healer. But
I need to sound a strong note that learning to heal will not
occur until all forms of confidence building rites are carried
out. Due to the intense regard and risk in dealing with the
complex forces involved in training, revelation, and empowerment
to heal meaningfully, healers value and consider a safe ground
initiated through confidence and good-faith so important in
their relationship with their mentees and even with consults
and visitors alike.
In the following, I will outline the processes of activating
the visionary skill of the apprentice in becoming an initiated
ACTIVATING SENSE OF VISION, IGBA OKWE
Necessity of ritual eye wash, Itu anya
Apart from the processes of entering into trust between the
master and his apprentice necessary for transmission of knowledge,
skill and experience, there exists an important ritual during
the apprenticeship called, ritual eyewash (igba okwe or itu
anya). The aim is to open the eyes of the apprentice, making
him or her become as clairvoyant as possible to see things beyond
ordinary vision and act meaningfully and accordingly. Igba okwe
goes with the throwing of seeds, and itu anya with putting drops
of medicine and animal blood into the eye with incantations
to activate and potentialise or empower the apprentice. That
is to capacitate the eyes (iwake). Diviner-initiates are mostly
concerned, although all healers undergo it. If a healer were
to be a diviner, the degree of eyewash is more intensive and
rigorous. A diviner would have this eyewash as a mark of his
ethereal call (itu anya na-awa awa).
Ritual eyewash takes an apprentice to seven places or spaces
in order to be fully initiated for effectiveness. Such places
are namely (1) the local stream (iyi) for immersion for a number
of times and are further complicated with a turn to search and
recover an alligator pepper thrown into the water (flowing stream
or river). The rigorous stages help a candidate to be acquainted
with things of the river (ihe si na mmiri). (2) Next is a womans
kitchen (usekwu nwanyi), where he or she is exposed to the importance
and implications of the hearth (usekwe) in connection with the
feminine and family matters. (3) Sexuality and women (agbatukwu
nwanyi) is another significant domain a healer-apprentices
notice is appealed to. Insight of what it entails in the culture
and implications in illness and care are emphasised as an important
boundary between life giving, illness and death. (4) Next is
the latrine or toilet area, human bodily discharge or waste.
It is not pleasant a matter but so important in illness and
healing. An apprentices attention is equally drawn to
the implications, such as the danger of poisoning and the parody
or farce of contamination. (5) Another high up place is the
market (ime ahia). Like other institutionalised spaces, the
market as said before is essential for proper briefing on its
place in the culture. The market forces that intermingle within
it and for what missions, the role it plays in medical resources
and healing, as well as the notion it conveys about ara in the
collective transactional analysis of behaviour are instructed.
(6) An additional important place is the forest (n nkpa,
ikpa, oke ohia) belonging to the extensive wild zone of forces.
A healer-apprentice is made to understand the bases of domestic
and forest forces and materials and how to deal with them. (7)
Finally, the frame of ones matrilineal sphere (umune or
umerenne) is referred to. The matriliny is important since in
Igbo a person is owned by two lineages his patrikin and
matrikin. At death both must be present much like in all other
important events in life. Transfer of initiatory medical knowledge
may also come from both the patrikin and matrikin. Healing is
therefore an important process that brings the whole field of
double filiation into unity and mutual support. And this mutual
support is very obvious at the very stage of ending the apprenticeship.
Ordinary members of community may as well undergo a rite of
passage of eyewash (itu anya). Doing so brings initiates into
a virile status or oke madu being a measure of strong-bodied
persons displaying endurance in life before or after marriage.
It may also result from disturbance in ones life-world
requiring ritual solution. Altogether, the pattern is described
as agwu cultic eyewash (itu anya agwu) in order to relate well
with the deity and be guided by it accordingly. It may also
be to appease agwu from disturbing an initiate with rites of
pacification in this form. This is referring to the eyewash
of masculinity and freeborn status (itu anya nwadiala). That
of becoming a healer is called the eyewash for roots (itu anya
mgborogwu) and for a diviner, it is divining eyewash (itu anya
afa). Women are exempted from the predominant masculine activities
and involving rigorous ceremony and lasting three weeks duration
of ritual eye-wash. Of the long three weeks (izu ato), counted
on a four-day basis per week, each ceremony is to take place
after the other during four days gap of the week.
Performing itu anya ritual
As itu anya is important for healers, an apprentice should pass
through it and encompass its values. The activity begins and
ends on a market day of orie. For a healer more particularly,
it is organised for his personal medical initiation. And for
the lay person, especially young boys, it serves the purpose
of the rite of masculinity (nwadiala turu anya), that is a free-born
fully initiated and capable of seeing good and bad in their
right perspectives. It enables one to see and understand the
transformation of beliefs into cultural practices that critically
guide life and matters in living. Performance begins with the
gathering of necessary materials such as the agwu figurines
called ikpo, resembling a lions leg with teeth carved
into it. Two of them are bought from herbalists or carvers in
the market. Other items are white and yellow chalk substance
(ode and nzu), yams, kola nuts, alligator pepper, and the horn
of agwu (odu agwu). Elders and a capable dibia will initiate
the candidate within the ambience of traditional music and the
dance rhythm to the music which is also taught to the candidates.
A healer performing this initiation bears the name dibia anya
odo, implying that his eyes are painted with odo substance (yellowish
chalk substance). It denotes him as a peace mediator in rituals.
With his kola nuts and other vital materials, he begins the
ceremony on orie market day. With the aid of the ritual guardian/s
of the candidate/s, he sees to it that a candidate is properly
dressed and rubbed, masked or painted with white chalk substance
(nzu) across his body and a yellowish chalk substance (odo)
on his eyes. No dresses are worn except shorts or pants and
no footwear is accepted either. A pair of agwu figurine (ikpo
agwu) is worn across both shoulders stretching in alternate
sides down the chest or waist permitted by a long rope with
which it is hung. The hair may or may not be scrapped, as the
choice is left to the candidate. But he is better asked to barb.
Full psychological preparations are necessary since after the
session a candidate goes into seclusion.
FOUR STAGES OF PERFORMANCE
First Stage: Seclusion period, Ngbazo
This is a sacred period for the candidate, who is not expected
to talk or eat with anybody or bath. He stays at a place, just
in his home or may take a walk around it for a short moment
in particular for easing himself and then retires. All communions
are expected to be with his agwu. In fear, danger, indecision,
or distraction, he beckons on his agwu. He may for instance,
alarmingly say, Oh my agwu! (agwu meeh!). To avoid talking except
with his master or guardian, a candidate may put young palm
leaf (omu) in his mouth being indicative of sacredness. It also
indicates a style of restriction, that is, someone who is strictly
designated not to be spoken to in his sacred moment of immersion.
Seclusion is an essential critical moment, which demands that
the initiates mind and whole person be focused on the
agwus virtues of creativity, protective capacities and
action as the ultimate reality in his life and tasks ahead.
He is devoted to the condition of an immanent or immersed rebirth
with agwu. It is a credible moment of desire, of utmost order
and of knowledge. Specifically, in the terms of Kpaferer (1997:149),
seclusion is conceived of as a place and moment of calm, of
order, of contemplation, of knowledge and truth, and also of
regenerative fruition. It suggests a path of intentional consciousness
toward a full marriage and title to agwu. This act of projection
towards agwu is dynamic and stands as the initiating force in
developing further dynamism in the candidate over how to commune
with his agwu in facing challenges ahead. Moreover, the orientation
is an act of consciousness into the ordering of life especially
the ill persons.
By immersing into the reflexivity of agwu conveyance and caring,
one of the active wishes and forward looking towards the goals
of healthy mind in a healthy body deepens. Thus, seclusion provides
a systematic period of consummation of the entire agwu sacerdotality,
purity of purpose and the potential secret space essential in
healing. However, like a pure bride for a perfect gift and one
of re-creative potency, a candidate then consummates all that
there is to rebuild life and world order.
Second Stage: Picking a medical object from the cooking
pot, ima achu oku or Isi ite oku
Following the next orie market day, a pot of medical concoction
is prepared. It contains all sorts of objects, such as egg (akwa),
roots (mgborogwu) and snail (ejula). The pot boils for four
days, and turns really red. Young boys undergoing this initiation
would be lined up so that each will dip his hand inside and
pick out an object from it. Each tries to succeed. In the event
of failure, the unsuccessful candidate is mocked and called
names such as un-cooking cocoa yam (ede mgburu),
referring to cocoa yam that cannot cook or one lacking
potency (enweghi ike omumu), as well as one being labelled
to be cold and un-sharp handed (enweghi aka nkoro).
From then onwards the latter will be kept at the back of the
line-up during the remaining period of the initiation. If any
would pick out an important root, it signifies that he has a
talent for becoming a healer. He would be encouraged to proceed
with the apprenticeship. The ceremony serves for talent hunting
as well, in which participants possessing healing talents are
discovered early enough and advised accordingly. A healer-apprentice
must, however, succeed in picking out an object from the boiling
pot. Whatever he picks out is important in view of interpreting
opportunities for him in the healing career. A candidate therefore
tries to pick out something more relevant and most probably
an important root, which will accord him special respect among
other healers. References are often made to what one picked
out from the pot when healers gather and tell stories or give
account of their lives to other people. The sense of dealing
with hot pot particularly is very significant all through ones
life and career as it does in being able to cool problems down.
Third Stage: Immersion in water and crossing young palm
leaf: Ida mmiri and Ikpu omu
A candidate is led to the river by his guard/s and the dibia,
and is kept at the low-level point. Two bamboo sticks are positioned
across the river being tied and led across with young palm leaves
(omu). At this low level where the candidate is staying, the
dibia prepares a water stand with medicine enhancing it to rise
in height well enough. As it continues to rise, the state of
mind or mood (onodi mmuo) of the initiate moves in response
to the water level. As this is continued, the candidate keeps
calling on his agwu saying: Oh my agwu! (agwu meeh!, agwu meeh!)
whenever he is gripped with fear or being writhing in pains.
The candidate stays in this flowing and rising stream, which
may cover him up, while the ritual expert departs. He will carefully
go to the upper side of the stream from where he will introduce
a good quantity of alligator pepper (ose oji) with incantations.
At this moment, the candidate is immersed into the water called
ida mmiri and is literally referring to eyewash in the water.
Asking the candidate to search desperately and recover, at least,
one alligator pepper follows this. If he does this successfully,
he stands up with it and hands it over. Doing this is vital
because in healing alligator pepper is always useful, giving
the practitioner that power for clairvoyance with water forces.
This over, he will be led out from the water during which the
dibia does not necessary talk to the candidate directly but
through the elders, who may be healers also guarding. The expert
concentrates rather on performing the rites. This is because,
the specialist or dibia anya odo is specially perceived as the
master of ceremony who can do or undo, rectify or destroy. He
is left alone to wrap up the ritual most credibly.
Now the youngest palm leaf (omu) separating the ritual specialist
and the candidate, here inter-plays with the dynamics of the
upper and the lower stream, rising and falling, immersion and
re-emergence in the representation of transmission of power.
When the alligator pepper crosses this omu and is collected
by the candidate, a fulfilment of transfer of force is said
to take place. To take this force home as accomplished, the
candidate is led out of the stream, making the omu phase to
come to an end. It also signifies final departure and separation
of powers at which the specialist and the candidate may now
go home and live their ways. For the young boys initiation,
this stage serves as searching for the secrets in roots and
herbs as well as the sacred (ibo ebi). However, a healer-candidate
faces ibo ebi in a more intricate and considerable detail as
something having a deeper significance.
Fourth Stage: Eye focusing on the sun, itu oba anyanwu
This is the final stimulation part of the eye-washing ritual
(itu anya) performed on the first orie market day, when the
sun (anyanwu) is high. Banana leaves (akwukwo unere) are cut
and spread on the ground near the boiling pot and the candidate
lies down on it for the agwu with his face raised upward to
the sun (ita anyanwu). A piece of cloth is worn (ije akwa nukwu)
and moreso a young palm leaf (omu) is tied around the waist.
Blood of a fowl (obara oke okpa) is put in aboshi and ogirishi
leaf funnel, and directly made into the eyes and nostrils.
The mixture administered into the eyes and nostrils in the lying
position of the candidate hurts with effect, making the aspirant
behave somehow wildly. Sneezing follows with water dropping
from the seasoned eyes. A candidate sees stars! Strange things
are experienced through the sense of sight, which has been crucially
washed, first with water and now with light from the sun in
which the eyes are directly sensitised. The systematic focusing
and stimulation of the eyes in the sun reveals the world-to-be
in view of what life will become for the candidate, showing
also how he can cope. By so doing, he becomes strongly linked
to his agwu, which reveals things to him in continuous vision
of life force.
Washing the divining eyes, itu anya afa
A diviner-apprentice rather takes special eyewash, which is
different from the general one, described above, for all healers.
A good healer sometimes undergoes this as well since it is understood
that such a healer should be capable of carrying out divination
for minor cases while referring difficult ones to a specialist
Itu anya afa lasts for seven days (abali asaa). And each is
carried out according to the type of divination one is to practice.
As example, in glass water and alligator pepper divination (details
will be given in the following chapter), an informant states
that for seven days beginning from the first to the last, he
received each morning or evening eye drops (ntuntu anya) of
a special concoction for washing the eyes. The giving of this
eye drop as in above with ogirishi leaf funnel or similar medicinal
leaf is referred to also as washing the eyes (itu anya). The
apprentice is given this continuously for seven days, while
staying in seclusion right inside the compound.
After the seventh day, the initiator will invite other healers
and common members of society to feast together. On this occasion,
senior healers may offer the initiate gifts of roots and other
things to divine, and to show to the public that he has acquired
such a skill.
Defending and hunting the secret, ibo ebi
The nerve to hunt and defend the secret (ibo ebi) follows immediately
the eyewash. This final celebration emphasises the fact that
a healer is both cause hunter and defender. It allows a candidate
to be given a round calabash container (ebi) of a special nature.
Its mouth is concave and small. It is usually found in a big
forest and its leaf looks like that of a coconut. It has a green
colour and when cut open, its content is of white chalk (nzu)
with paw-paw-like seed arrangement. There is a divining-container
(ebi afa) standing for where divining objects are put.
Apart from hunting and defending the secrets surrounding the
causes of misfortune, illness and death, ibo ebi also signifies
the patterns to testing and defending the healing power of the
newly initiated. Engaging in this battle, adaptation and survival,
healers and kinsfolk that are gathered will observe the newly
initiated healer have his power and skill tested and defended.
A medicine (trouble) will have to be buried for him to discover
and deal with it. It is like giving him sorcery, misfortune,
an important part that creates problem in human health. As a
healer, he will first defend for himself what he has to solve
for others in daily life. The medicine in question is referred
to as igba uta, iku aka, iti uja, iku ogwu, and igba igwe (literally,
these are terms associated with violent attacks in view of competition
for superiority). Igba uta is famous as a test of medical power
and so a candidates leaders help him to ensure that he
succeeds. By all means, it is a crucial test of ending his apprenticeship
and to impress with his acquired healing skill. It portrays
a moment of heart pounding, a point he will not be throwing
party in his mind; but a moment to charging out energetic ambulance
feast of his social and medical skills aimed to achieve rescue
As informants pointed out, a healer needs more than a firm connection
and relationship with the forces. He needs at the same time,
as the ebi rite shows, a helping hand in especially
channelling the ability and curative powers of roots, herbs
and other resources to cure his patients and deal with problems
in society requiring his intervention.
With the ebi in hand, (acting like a sensor) he moves around,
looking for the buried medicine or source of an activated trouble.
The directional force of ebi draws him muscularly (ibu aka)
close to and indicates the point where the medicine is buried.
It represents a collective force of his new skill. While he
is struggling with the forceful movement of the medicine the
ebi contains, aggressors try to stop him from getting through;
depicting apparently what obtains in daily life. When he finally
succeeds, a collective shout of hurrah echoes! It reflects a
moment when an important goal is scored in a soccer contest
for victory! And he is immediately hugged by his lead master,
congratulated and offered various gifts by healers, kinsmen
and friends. This then rounds up a candidate's initiation rites.
It is meant to summon, at the same time, up many spirits and
extrahuman agencies to assist him in the responsibilities ahead.
He is dedicated with libation and collective blessing with ofo
stamped on the ground. At this point full authority is blessed
and the instruments, which would help and provide him more understanding
and means to healing, are elucidated. As it also marks a performance
of a communal feast to end the long preparation to becoming
a healer, it wins for the beginner the importance of social
certification and recognition. Among all his invited public
witness to the final graduation ceremony marked with eating
and drinking together, it constitutes his public declaration
of solidarity and responsibility for the promotion of the health
and wellbeing of the community. In the joyful response and participation
by the community, it serves for the novice as a clear indication
of their support and recognition of his new role. It also affirms
the legitimacy of the extrahuman forces around their lives in
which the new healer has emerged to handle in ways believed
and practised among them. By playing host to the community,
the healer is as it were paying back a debt and reciprocating
the favours he has received from the primal life-source.
A communal celebration as in the ebi rite is always a big event.
In concert, it finalises the according of acceptance of one
as a healer. Its kind of occasion brings out psycho-cultural
values of prayers and sacrifice to guardian spirits in an elaborated
form. As membership into the association of healers is for the
trained and qualified healers, such ceremony helps to differentiate
well-formed healers from the quacks. In other words, only well-constituted
healers perform such a public celebration, which is meant to
dissolve grudges in commensality or commensal sharing. Communal
participation is believed to symbolise a relationship of debt
and reciprocity, of sacred bond and a recreation of sentiments
of profound cultural, social, and religious significance all
of which music and dance in the session draws their appeal and
social promise among participants.
We have argued here that becoming a healer highlights the difficult
relationship between the healer and the biomedical primary cum
community health care. Clearly, it has been our concern not
to think of indigenous healing as a profession that is frozen
in time. It is an activity that must be looked at as lastingly
constituting an integral part of a larger cultural whole. Healing
produced by healers is not bereft of dynamic style but full
of creativity in response to circumstances and peoples
seeking therapy satisfaction. Healers are developing a demanding
role given the fact that they are increasingly being called
upon by many people, which indicates their important place in
society to promote national or community health. There has to
be ways in which the mutual suspicion between western-trained
doctors and healers can be overcome so as to work together and
solve health problems. A way proposed is to support healers
and their associations with effective policy and leadership
and take into consideration their culturally provided habitus,
rationale and techniques to operate within well-defined association
where they are most effective to improve the health care at
the base. The description also shows how healers are formed
based on family and ancestral allegiances. A healer, it is revealed,
is unable to refuse his or her call without consequences to
be faced. As a tradition of cultural dynamism, the healing office
is a destiny marked by important identity symbols of call to
duty. At rather low costs, for the community, specialised knowledge
is being transmitted and fostered through sharing inter-subjectivity
and specialised training. Ritual beliefs and practices such
as in the stages of initiation into agwu institution and collegiality
are important aspects of building up professional ethics which
healers must conform to be recognized and authenticated
as genuine masters of the culture and its forces of therapeutic
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Patrick IROEGBU (Ph.D) 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. Contact by e-mail: email@example.com