Igbo Culture (historical and cultural information)
Identification. Igbo is the language spoken in Ala Igbo or Ani Igbo (Igboland) by the people who are collectively referred
to as "Ndi Igbo"; their community is known as "Olu no Igbo" ("those in the lowlands and uplands"). Before European
colonialism, the Igbo-speaking peoples, who shared similarities in culture, lived in localized communities and were not
unified under a single cultural identity or political framework, although unifying processes were present via expansion,
ritual subordination, intermarriage, trade, cultural exchange, migration, war, and conquest. Villages and village groups
were generally identified by distinct names of their ancestral founders or by specific names such as Umuleri, Nri, Ogidi,
Nnobi, Orlu, Ngwa, Ezza, and Ohaffia.
There are several theories concerning the etymology of the word "Igbo" (wrongly spelled "Ibo" by British colonialists).
Eighteenth-century texts had the word as "Heebo" or "Eboe," which was thought to be a corruption of "Hebrew." "Igbo" is
commonly presumed to mean "the people." The root -bo is judged to be of Sudanic origin; some scholars think that the
word is derived from the verb gboo and therefore has connotations of "to protect," "to shelter," or "to prevent"—hence the
notion of a protected people or a community of peace. According to other theorists, it may also be traced to the Igala,
among whom onigbo is the word for "slave," oni meaning "people."
Igbo-speaking peoples can be divided into five geographically based subcultures: northern Igbo, southern Igbo, western
Igbo, eastern Igbo, and northeastern Igbo. Each of these five can be further divided into subgroups based on specific
locations and names. The northern or Onitsha Igbo are divided into the Nri-Awka of Onitsha and Awka; the Enugu of
Nsukka, Udì, Awgu, and Okigwe; and those of the Onitsha town. The southern or Owerri Igbo are divided into the Isu-
Ama of Okigwe, Orlu, and Owerri; the Oratta-Ikwerri of Owerri and Ahoada; the Ohuhu-Ngwa of Aba and Bende; and the
Isu-Item of Bende and Okigwe. The western Igbo (Ndi Anioma, as they like to call themselves) are divided into the
northern Ika of Ogwashi Uku and Agbor; the southern Ika or Kwale of Kwale; and the Riverrain of Ogwashi Uku, Onitsha,
Owerri, and Ahoada. The eastern or Cross River Igbo are divided into the Ada (or Edda) of Afikpo, the Abam-Ohaffia of
Bende and Okigwe, and the Aro of Aro. The northeastern Igbo include the Ogu Uku of Abakaliki and Afikpo.
Location. Today Igbo-speaking individuals live all over Nigeria and in diverse countries of the world. As a people,
however, the Igbo are located on both sides of the River Niger and occupy most of southeastern Nigeria. The area,
measuring over 41,000 square kilometers, includes the old provinces of Onitsha, Owerri, East Rivers, Southeast Benin,
West Ogoja, and Northeast Warri. In contemporary Nigerian history, the Igbo have claimed all these areas as the
protectorate of the "Niger Districts." Thus began the process of wider unification and incorporation into wider political
and administrative units. Presently, they constitute the entire Enugu State, Anambra State, Abia State, Imo State, and the
Ahoada area of Rivers State; Igbo-speaking people west of the Niger are inhabitants of the Asaba, Ika, and Agbo areas of
Demography. In 1963 the Igbo numbered about 8.5 million and by 1993 had grown to more than 15 million (some even
claim 30 million, although there has been no widely accepted census since 1963). They have one of the highest population
densities in West Africa, ranging from 120 to more than 400 persons per square kilometer. Igbo subcultures are
distributed in six ecological zones: the northern Igbo in the Scarplands, the northeastern Igbo in the Lower Niger, the
eastern Igbo in the Midwest Lowlands, the western Igbo in the Niger Delta, the southeastern Igbo in the Palm Belt, and
the southern Igbo in the Cross River Basin.
Linguistic Affiliation. Igbo is classified in the Kwa Subgroup of the Niger-Congo Language Family, which is spoken in
West Africa. It is thought that between five and six thousand years ago, Igbo began to diverge from its linguistic related
neighbors such as the Igala, Idoma, Edo, and Yoruba languages. There are many dialects, two of which have been widely
recognized and are used in standard texts: Owerri Igbo and Onitsha Igbo. Of the two, Owerri Igbo appears to be the more
History of the People
Contemporary views in Igbo scholarship dismiss completely earlier claims of Jewish or Egyptian origin—that is, "the
Hamitic hypothesis"—as "the oriental mirage." Instead, there are two current opinions as a result of evidence derived from
several sources that take into account oral history, archaeology, linguistics, and art history. One suggests the Awka-Orlu
uplands as the center of Igbo origin, from which dispersal took place. The second and more recent opinion suggests the
region of the Niger-Benue confluence as the area of descent some five thousand years ago, and the plateau region, that is,
the Nsukka-Okigwe Cuesta, as the area of Igbo settlement. This first area of settlement would include Nsukka-Okigwe and
Awka-Orlu uplands. The southern Igbo would constitute areas of later southward migration.
Until about 1500, major economic, social, and political transformations led to continuous outward migrations from
overpopulated and less fertile Igbo core areas to more fertile lands, particularly east of the lower Niger River. The Igbo had
cultural relations with their various neighbors, the Igala, Ijaw (Ijo), Urhobo, Edo, and Yoruba. From 1434 to 1807, the
Niger coast was a contact point between European and African traders. This was also the period of trade in slaves; this
activity resulted in the development of many centralized states owing to greater economic accumulation and the
development of more destructive weapons of war. The Portuguese came to Nigerian coastal towns between the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries; they were the first Europeans to make contact with the Igbo. The Dutch followed in the
seventeenth century, and the British came in the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, mission Christianity
and colonialist interest worked together for the colonization of Igboland. The Church Missionary Society and the Catholic
Mission opened their missions in Onitsha in 1857 and 1885, respectively.
Social Organization. Traditional Igbo social life is based on membership in kinship groups and parallel but
complementary dual-sex associations, which are of great importance to the integration of society. The associations take
several forms, including age grades, men's societies, women's societies, and prestige-title societies such as the Nze or Ozo
for men and the Omu, Ekwe, or Lolo for women. The interlocking nature of these groups prevents the concentration of
authority in any one association. Age sets are informally established during childhood. Respect and recognition among the
Igbo are accorded not only on the basis of age, but also through the acquisition of traditional titles. In Igbo society, an
individual may progress through at least five levels of titles. One could liken the acquisition of titles to the acquisition of
academic degrees. Titles are expensive to obtain, and each additional title costs more than the preceding one; they are,
therefore, considered a sure means to upward mobility.
Political Organization. The basic political unit among the Igbo is the village. Two types of political systems have been
distinguished among the Igbo on both sides of the Niger River: the democratic village republic type, found among the Igbo
living to the east of the Niger River, and the constitutional monarchy type, found among Igbo in Delta State and the
riverine towns of Onitsha and Ossomali. Most of the villages or towns that have the latter type of political system have two
ruling monarchs—one female and one male. The obi (male monarch) is theoretically the father of the whole community,
and the omu (female monarch) is theoretically the mother of the whole community; the duties of the latter, however,
center mainly around the female side of the community.
Women engage in village politics (i.e., manage their affairs, separately from the men). They do this by establishing their
own political organizations, which come under an overall village or town Women's Council under the leadership of
seasoned matriarchs. It was this organizational system that enabled Igbo women and Ibibio women to wage an
anticolonial struggle against the British in 1929 known as the Women's War (Ogu Umunwayi).
Both types of political systems are characterized by the smallness in size of the political units, the wide dispersal of
political authority between the sexes, kinship groups, lineages, age sets, title societies, diviners, and other professional
groups. Colonialism has had a detrimental effect on the social, political, and economic status of traditional Igbo women,
resulting in a gradual loss of autonomy and power.
Religious Beliefs. Although many Igbo people are now Christians, traditional Igbo religious practices still abound. The
traditional Igbo religion includes an uncontested general reverence for Ala or Ana, the earth goddess, and beliefs and
rituals related to numerous other male and female deities, spirits, and ancestors, who protect their living descendants.
Revelation of the will of certain deities is sought through oracles and divination. The claim that the Igbo acknowledge a
creator God or Supreme Being, Chukwu or Chineka, is, however, contested. Some see it as historical within the context of
centralized political formations, borrowings from Islam and Christianity, and the invention of sky (Igwe) gods. The
primordial earth goddess and other deified spirits have shrines and temples of worship and affect the living in very real
and direct ways, but there are none dedicated to Chukwu. Ala encapsulates both politics and religion in Igbo society by
fusing together space, custom, and ethics ( omenala); some refer to Ala as the constitutional deity of the Igbo.
The Igbo concept of personhood and the dialectic between individual choice/freedom and destiny or fate is embodied in
the notion of chi, variously interpreted as spirit double, guardian angel, personal deity, personality soul, or divine nature.
Igbo have varied accounts of myths of origin because there are many gods and goddesses. According to one Igbo
worldview, Chukwu created the visible universe, uwa. The universe is divided into two levels: the natural level, uwa, or
human world, and the spiritual level of spirits, which include Anyanwu, the sun; Igwe, the sky; Andala (or Ana), the earth;
women's water spirits/goddesses, and forest spirits. Through taboos, the Igbo forge a mediatory category of relations with
nature and certain animals such as pythons, crocodiles, tigers, tortoises, and fish.
Religious Practitioners. There are two different kinds of priests: the hereditary lineage priests and priests who are
chosen by particular deities for their service. Diviners and priests—those empowered with ofo, the symbol of authority,
truth, and justice—interpret the wishes of the spirits, who bless and favor devotees as well as punish social offenders and
those who unwittingly infringe their privileges, and placate the spirits with ceremonial sacrifices.
Death and Afterlife. The living, the dead, and the unborn form part of a continuum. Enshrined ancestors are those who
lived their lives well and died in a socially acceptable manner (i.e., were given the proper burial rites). These ancestors live
in one of the worlds of the dead that mirrors the world of the living. The living pay tribute to their ancestors by honoring
them through sacrifices.
Kin Groups and Descent. Igbo society places strong emphasis on lineage kinship systems, particularly the patrilineage,
although some Igbo groups, such as the Ohaffia, have a matrilineal descent system, whereas groups like the Afipko Igbo
have a double descent system. In all the Igbo groups, one's mother's people remain important throughout one's life.
Kinship Terminology. The umunna, children of one father or a localized patrilineage, is made up of specific compound
families, which consist of even more basic matricentric household units of each mother and siblings. The umunna is made
up of both male and female cognates of an Igbo man's father's lineage. All blood-related kinship groups are bound in the
morality or ethics of umunne, the ritualized spirit of a common mother. Ndi-Umune, or ikwunne, is the term used to
describe the mother's agnates.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Marriage is not a matter for the man and woman alone; it concerns the close kin of both. Marriage
arrangements are negotiated between the families of the prospective bride and groom. With regard to the paternity of the
wife's children, they belong to the lineage of the husband. When a woman has children out of wedlock, however, they
belong to her natal lineage, and not to that of the children's father. Igbo have also institutionalized marriage options
permitting "female husbands" in woman-to-woman marriages, in special circumstances. Some daughters with a male
status (i.e., "male daughters") do not even have to marry to procreate.
Although females are brought up looking forward to this dual role, it would be misleading to think that the major roles of
women in Igbo society are as wife and mother, since Igbo women are prominent in public life as an organized force in both
economics and politics. A significant part of a young girl's or a young man's childhood training is geared toward their
future roles in the family and as useful and responsible citizens. Women are fully involved in matchmaking and usually
participate directly or indirectly in the actual negotiations of marital arrangements for their sons or their daughters, in
cooperation with the male members of the families concerned. Women have powerful and active behind-the-scene roles in
seeking out the girls they would like their sons to marry. The approval of the mother is vital because the young bride is
generally expected to live with her mother-in-law and to serve her for the first few months of marriage, until the new
couple can set up an independent household and farmland.
Domestic Unit. Most Igbo lived in villages made up of dispersed compounds. A compound was typically a cluster of huts
belonging to individual household units. The typical Igbo village consisted of loose clusters of homesteads scattered along
cleared paths that radiated from a central meeting place. The village meeting place usually contained the shrines or
temples and groves of the local earth goddess and also served as the market. Large communities often had two such units.
Most local communities contained anywhere between 40 and 8,000 residents. Homesteads were generally comprised of
the houses of a man, his wives, his children, and sometimes his patrilineal cousins. They were often surrounded by mud
walls and were nearly always separated from neighboring homesteads by undergrowth or women's gardens. Northern Igbo
women normally decorated the mud walls of their houses with artwork. In the south, houses were made of mud on a stick
framework; usually either circular or rectangular, the houses were thatched with either palm leaves or grass and were
floored with beaten mud. Co-wives had their own rooms, kitchens, and storerooms. Young children and daughters usually
stayed with their mothers, whereas the males lived in separate houses. Population pressure and European architecture has
forced significant changes in these old settlement ideals, introducing (cement) brick houses lacking aesthetic appeal.
Inheritance. The bulk of inheritance allotments are granted to the eldest son, who, at the time of the inheritance,
becomes responsible for the welfare of his younger siblings. If the eldest son is a minor at the time of his father's death, a
paternal uncle will take charge of the property and provide for the deceased brother's family. There is also marriage by
inheritance, or levirate—a widow may become the wife of her brother-in-law. In some localities, widows may become the
wives of the deceased father's sons by another wife.