— As I drove home from a party at about 2 am, I saw a lady standing by the roadside. I recognized her. She is a Nigerian, a Fashion Designer, known for her exquisite designs and good tailoring in the Nigerian community in the Washington, DC area. Wondering what she was doing there at that eerie time of the morning, I stopped. She told me that, as she was driving home, her brand new car abruptly stopped, and she could not figure out the problem. German engineering is superb. Therefore, it seemed almost impossible that her brand new Mercedes Benz 350 ML could have developed any mechanical problem. I immediately sensed her problem. Unless compelled by the need to pass an examination, Nigerians hardly read. She did not read her new car’s manual, and therefore, could only guess on the functions and applications of the different gadgets in the car. It was possible that she was yet to locate the car’s fuel gauge or read it accurately. I drove her to a nearby filling station, and she leased a jerry-can and bought petrol. We poured it into the fuel tank, and her car started.
She was grateful. She said that for about 10 minutes she stood all alone on the street, she was praying and calling on “Saint Christopher, the saint of the traveler and the stranded”, and that it was the saint that responded to her supplication. This Catholic belief that a saint – a dead ancestor of the Church – can come to the help of the needy is fairly reminiscent of Igbo religious belief in the spirits of our ancestors. In Igbo eschatology the spirit of the dead are alive and active, and can influence our lives. My maternal grandmother, Omenwa Ajija, regaled us, her grandchildren, with her testimonies of the repeated interventions of the spirit of her dead husband, Igwe Amobi 1 of Ogidi, to help, protect and fight for, her.
The Igwe was deeply in love with her, and she believed that even in death he had her in mind. In dealing with Ajija, he dispensed with equity and ignored the prerogatives of the senior wives. Although she was a junior wife (second to the last of his many wives), he designated an extensive plot of land for her and bought building materials to build a house for her. At his death, the new Igwe, Igwe 11, scuttled the plan to build a house for Ajija and sold the building materials bought by his father. Surprisingly, months later, he changed his mind; he bought new building materials and built a house for her on the same big plot of land that his father had set aside for her. He confided in his servants and aides that he was forced to build the house by his dead father, who kept troubling him. That, as he relaxed all alone in the evenings, the spirit of his dead father, frequently, appeared to him, beating his chest and asking him: “why did you leave Ajija and her children outside and the rain is falling on them?” But that since he built the house for her, his father stopped troubling him.
The Igwe 11 did not provide for his father’s wives. So, out of necessity, Ajija and some other of the Igwe 1’s wives took to petty trading. She recalled that once she entered the market with her wares, while other sellers tarried endlessly in the market, she, miraculously, sold all her goods within a very short time. To her, it was the spirit of Igwe 1 that facilitated her sales. And years later, in a child custody battle between her daughter, Anyanna, and her husband, her husband bribed the Chairman and the Clerk of the Customary Court; and the court ruled in his favor. Although customary law stipulated that a father cannot take custody of a child that is less than five years old, and the two children, in question, were under five years old, the court gave him custody of the children. Shortly after that court verdict, the Court Clerk, riding his motorcycle to work, was mysterious pushed off his motorcycle by an unseen hand. He did not recover from that fall till he died years later. He alone knew what happened to him. However, he went secretly to plead with Ajija and ask for her forgiveness. The Chairman of the court, all alone in his room, was screaming as though he was being beaten up by unseen hands: “I did not do anything to Ajija”, “I did not eat anything belonging to Ajija”, etc. In her belief, it was the spirit of her dead husband that fought those who perverted justice to victimize her and her daughter.
Of course, the spirits of our ancestors are alive and active. Just like the Catholics find validity in their saints, there is legitimacy in the spirits of our ancestors. God’s contacts with man and His revelations to him have not been limited to Abraham and his descendants: Jews, Christians and Moslems. In addition to Judaism and its sister religions of Christianity and Islam, God has, at different times and in diverse ways, revealed himself to different peoples of the world. No wonder, the Igbo names for God, Chukwu (Big/Supreme God) and Chineke (the God that creates) are completely indigenous to the Igbo language. They were not borrowed or adulterated from English, French or the other languages of the colonizing and proselytizing European powers that colonized the Africans and converted them to Christianity. Evidently, before the advent of Christianity in Igbo land, God had revealed Himself to the Igbo. Consequently, the Igbo already knew, revered and worshipped Him as “Chukwu bi na igwe”, that is, the Supreme God that dwells in heaven.
To dismiss my grandmother’s testimonies, as many Christians, especially, Pentecostal Christians will readily do, as spoofs or deceptions of the devil, will be staggering nonsense. And, the earlier dismissal of Igbo traditional religions as heathenism by the Europeans was monumental hoax.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria
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