Ijaw and Ibo Beliefs: Self, Soul, and Afterlife

Karen Hauser'92 (EL32 1990

Death and the afterlife play a large role in the traditions and customs of the Ibo and Kalabari (part of the Ijaw) of Nigeria, both of which believe in worshipping spirits, in karma, in two souls, and in elaborate funeral ceremonies (including pilgrimages, feasts, dances, plays, and other rituals) that last for several years.

First of all, both believe that one is always being watched by the spirit of his ancestors. The living show appreciation to the deceased and pray to them for future well being. Before each meal, one takes a bit of his food and tosses it to the ground, calling out the names of his ancestors and every eight days (the "Fene Bene"), the chief sets out food and drink for the spirits. Every seven years a goat is sacrificed and the blood is sprinkled in front of images or clay pillars which represent the ancestors ("Nduen Fobara"). One can also pray to the spirits at special shrines to ask for help in emergencies (if, for example, a loved one dies with no apparent cause or if a man has continual bad luck). It is also against tribal law to speak badly of a spirit. If a man does so and refuses to apologize, the family of the dead retaliates by speaking against the dead of the man's family. If the man does apologize, they all must perform a special ceremony of atonement.

The Ibo belive that every man has two souls -- the eternal ego (the Ijaw "Teme" or the Ibo "Maw") and the life force that dies with the body (the Ijaw "Bio-Maw" or the Ibo "Nkpuruk-Obi"). Both souls leave the body on the last exhaling, but the life force can leave temporarily at times before that (in great fear of accident). If this soul does not return, however, the body perishes as well. The eternal soul leaves the body on the last breath and takes the form of a ghost, shadow, or reflection. For this reason the living consider it dangerous to step on a shadow, and they often use mirrors in religion in order that the evil spirits will strike the mirror "image of the soul" and not the actual soul of a living man.

As in the tribes of the living, there is a hierarchy in the ghost realm, too. There is a Ghost King (the Ijaw "Nduen-Ama Yana-Gbaw" or the Ibo "Eze Ala Maw"); and a ghost messenger (the Ijaw "Ffe" or the Ibo "Onwu") who appears as a skeleton who brings death upon a person by striking him at the base of the skull with a large staff; a ferryman ("Asasaba") who brings good souls across the river of death to be reincarnated into trees, animals or other living things.

Although different ethnic groups believe in different forms of reincarnation for good and bad souls, all believe in karma (the rewards or punishments in present life for doings in a past life). For example, a good Oratta Ibo will take the shape of a cow, elephant, or leopard; a good Bakama soul will be reborn into a tree, whereas the Amuneke believe that only evil souls are doomed to become plants.


Postcolonial OV Africa OV nigeria OV