The Igbo’s Traditional View on the Sanctity of Life*
As we get caught up in the Eurocentric 21st century disregard for life, we forget that those we marginalize and relegate to non-existence, still have much to teach us…
By Dele Chinwe Ukwu and Anthony I. Ikebudu
Chinua Achebe discussed several customs and beliefs of the Igbo people in his powerful novel, Things Fall Apart. One of the issues he discussed was how the Igbos (Nigeria) viewed suicide.
Traditional Igbo burial rites ensure safe passage into the spirit world.
Ekwe = Wooden Drum
Suicide is intolerable in Igbo society even in this modern time. It is considered an “nso ani“, a sin against the Earth. The Igbos do not concede to the difficulties of life or to the demands of everyday life. They do not accept suicide, in any form and at any age, as a solution to any problem regardless of the complexities. Suicide is believed to be a terrible and evil way to die.
The Igbos strongly believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation is one of the ways they share their love with their loved ones who have passed. Consequently, death by suicide is believed to be an evil act and “a bad death.” If one committed suicide, that person was never (and will never be) at peace with him/herself, the community (i.e. village), relatives, and most importantly the gods. Only people who lived and died a “good” death reincarnate. A person who died a “bad” death does not (and should not be allowed) to reincarnate.
The Igbos scorn murder and the penalty for murder can be extremely severe for the murderer or murderess and their family members depending on the murder case (i.e. if the murder was an accident, if the murderer was caught red-handed or if one is suspected of actually committing the crime). At the minimum, the punishment for murder may include ostracism of the suspected murderer or murderess and their family members from society. Otherwise, the penalty for murder is banishment of the murderer or the murderess from the village or death. If the murder was committed by poisoning the victim, or if a victim died under an obscure or suspicious circumstance, an abominable curse may be placed on those who might have committed the murder. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo was forced to leave Umuofia for a seven year exile in his mother’s village for accidentally killing a clansman. Achebe explained that Okonkwo did not receive a more severe punishment because the crime was categorized as “a female” (i.e. lighter offense) since it was an accident. Hence, he would have been severely punished by the gods and the people and possibly banished from his village for life.
The above methods of punishment are nothing compared to those for committing suicide. Suicide is considered more evil than murder in Igboland. Suicide is a shame to the family, the village, and the town of the deceased. It creates problems and severe consequences for the deceased’s family. Since it is considered an abominable manner to die, grownup ladies in the family may not have “good” suitors. The men will also have problems marrying from a “good” family.
Suicide is considered an omen. As a result, detailed ceremonies were performed when one commits suicide to completely exorcise the deceased’s spirits and to calm or eradicate the evil spirits of the dead and to appease the gods. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo was a great warrior and wrestler, took the ozo title in Umuofia, fought very hard to preserve his tradition and ended up committing the most horrendous of all offenses against the earth goddess–take his own life. His clansmen can neither touch his corpse nor bury him with all the rites due a great warrior and an ozo as they did when Ogbuefi Ezeudu died. The elders would offer sacrifices to cleanse the desecrated ground which Okonkwo had polluted.
On pages 207-208 of this novel, Achebe recounted the conversation between Obierika, Okonkwo’s clansman and friend, and the District Commissioner:
Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo’s body was dangling, and they stopped dead.
“Perhaps your men can help us bring him down and bury him,” said Obierika.
“We have sent for strangers from another village to do it for us, but they may be a long time coming.”
“Why can’t you take him down yourselves?” he (i.e. the District Commissioner) asked.
“It is against our custom,” said one of the men. It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.”
“Will you bury him like any other man?” asked the Commissioner.
“We cannot bury him. Only strangers can. We shall pay your men to do it. When he has been buried we will then do our duty by him. We shall make sacrifices to cleanse the desecrated land.”
Obierika turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously:
“That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog …”
The above scenario from Things Fall Apart is a fact not fiction about the Igbo people’s view of suicide. In Igboland, if suicide was committed by hanging from a tree, not everyone was permitted to touch or to bring the corpse down from the tree. When the corpse is finally brought down, able-bodied men in the community will cut that tree down with very sharp cutlass and axe for several reasons. First, as a precaution to prevent another person from committing suicide on the same tree. Second, the tree is regarded as an “evil” or “bad” tree.
If suicide was committed inside the house, that house is supposed to be destroyed to prevent another suicidal attempt by someone else. In some villages, if suicide is committed inside a house, nothing can be removed from that house. The house will be destroyed along with everything in it. The body is taken to an evil forest, and buried there.
If suicide was committed inside a yam barn, no yams would be removed from the barn. All will be destroyed. At times, a servant who is maltreated by a master may retaliate by committing suicide between the entrance to the animal house and the yam barn. In this case, nothing would be removed from the master’s barn or from the animal house. Everything would be destroyed and the master would loose everything.
If the suicide took place in the farm land, the grave is dug directly under the hanging spot. When the rope is cut, the corpse falls directly into the grave.
When suicide is committed by drowning in a water well, that well is filled up with sand and closed for forever.
Igbo Ukwu model of the Universe with conjoined hexagrams and equilateral triangles reflecting the Law of Correspondences in Sacred Geometry.
There is no fitting funeral ceremony for someone who committed suicide, even at an old age. No one is allowed to cry or weep publicly for the deceased. There is no wake, cooking, or drinking. Finally, cleansing ceremonies are performed by the deceased’s family so that such an evil will not happen again. The elders would offer sacrifices for peace in the land, and for the extinction of such thought and illness from the land.
The Igbos celebrate death as they do birth. Death at an old age is regarded as a blessing and is celebrated with feasting. In Things Fall Apart, when Ogbuefi Ezeudu died, the people of Umuofia celebrated his death with lots of food, drinking, and dancing. The nine respresentatives of the ancestral spirits, the egwugwu, and various types of masquerades came to pay their last respect. There were gun salutes,
“the beating of drums and the brandishing and clanging of machetes …” (p.123).
He was given a befitting burial because he was a wrestler, warrior, an ozo (a titled man, he took three of Umuofia’s four titles in his lifetime), and was one of the oldest men in Umuofia.
In the modern world, chiefs, and other well-known people are preserved when they die and are buried several months after their death due to the preparations involved. The body will lie in state at which time friends and relatives pay their last respects to the dead. The corpse is clothed in beautiful garments and the room and bed are colourfully decorated. Elders are usually buried in the family’s compound. A chief is normally buried inside his “obi” (his palace or meeting place). The head of the family may be buried inside, in the front, or to the side of his house, so as to continue his bond with the living. In spite of the introduction of Christianity to Igboland, Igbos still maintain close ties to their ancestors and ancestral spirits. Elders still pour libations to and share kolanuts with their ancestors.