By Obi Nwakanma
First, let me wish readers of the “Orbit” a happy Easter. As you read this column, and contemplate today’s symbolism, which for Christians is the proof of hope, and of God’s abiding love, in the resurrection of his Son after his cruxification, as the immortal sacrifice for the redemption of sinful man, it is important to key-in to the meaning of “sacrifice.” That’s my hope for the Christian brethren. I do of course confess that I’m a bit skeptical about the story of actual resurrection, and have always wondered why an all-powerful God would find the need to subject his “son,” conceived through the human vessel, Maria, apparently impregnated by the Angel Gabriel on behalf of God, if we are to believe the story, and then predestined to die in the most humiliating of ways, only so that all men who believe in this story of his humiliation and death and resurrection can be redeemed and given a pass to heaven.
It is a bit of a stretch. But it is a great story, the literalist version that most Nigerians believe. And I’ve always wondered if it speaks to something primal and primitive in the believer’s mind to believe this. But that’s ok too. I’m a revert to Odinala – the ancient belief system of my Igbo ancestors- and Odinala says, “Nke onye diri ya.” That is, to each, their own. “Ndu Mmiri, Ndu Azu” we say: life to the fish, and life to the river in which it dwells.
May we not all believe in a single story. May all the stories of the world, which the poet of St. Lucia, the late Derek Walcott says “belongs to one place,” offer us the leaven with which we will always quicken our world, and thus make it tolerable and habitable. That is what Ester means to me: communion with the spirit. In the Igbo calendar, this is the fifth month, when we celebrate “Ofo Ndi Iche.” While the Christian brethren celebrate the resurrection of their God, we practitioners of Odinala-Igbo, celebrate “Ofo” – the Festival of the Ancestors.
We bring down the wooden offering plate from the lintel, and make sacrifice to our God, Chukwu, and our ancestors, our departed fathers and mothers, who had ascended the conclave of eternal life or immortality, whom we the Igbo collectively call, “Ndi Iche” – the immortal or living beings. We invoke them in this season to join us, and be part with us in cleansing the land of “aru,” and helping to quicken the earth to be fruitful and generous, not only in crop and livestock, but in the abundance of children, and those who would replace us, and keep the earth humming.
We ask our ancestors to intercede with Chukwu to continue to provide the shield of peace on the land, of riches and wealth, the kind that we can live with, but that would not make us bloated and false; to make the world sweet for a man as for a woman, and for the child too, and for all who dwell among us. Because as we are taught in the ancient Igbo religion, “if it is good for one man, and it is not good for his fellow, the world will not be in a balance.” That is how we pray in Odinala: not just for our individual selves, but for our neighbours and kinsmen, whom we call, “Ikwu n’Ibe.” For us in Odinala Igbo, prosperity means nothing when only an individual in the land is prosperous, and the rest of the land feel woebegone. That is the difference between us and the Christians and the Muslims, we think. We do not seek salvation. For we have committed no great evil against God.
Life as we live it is between an individual and his/her “Chi.” Nor do we seek to convert another, for we know that “Chi awe out” – our paths to the divine is not by a single and uniform way. If it were the will of the creator of all things, s/he would have so ordained it in that way. The God of the Igbo – Chukwu- is not also like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is an angry and “jealous” God. Chukwu is an amused and benign God, who has no history of setting fire on anything to prove his divinity, or ordaining the sacrifice of his “only son,” in order to prove his magnanimity. He leaves the routine questions of impiety and sacrilege to Ala – our Earthmother – on whom all moral laws and the authority of retribution is endowed.
To illustrate a typical, traditional Igbo response to this story, there was once a mad fellow, as the stories go, in my ancestral village, who was called “Oche-Ogugu.” He was born Guardian of the Woods – that’s what his name suggests. But he had become mad. Among the Igbo, madness is a condition, not an impediment. It was not pathologized in the ways contemporary western medicine and religion pathologizes mental ill health these days. A mad fellow could be a vessel of the gods, and could live a full and adventurous life. He was of course, “Ogbe-nye,” that category that the Igbo, always desirous and protective of his sovereign rights, never wants to be: that is, fed on public goodwill (“Ogbe-nye.”) And Oche-Ogugu was such a mad man.
His daily haunt was the market square, where he was daily fed by kind and often amused villagers, and where he retrieved remnant, unsold scrap that kept him going. One day, a preacher had come to the market preaching about this God who had sacrificed his son in order that all men shall be free. Folks found Oche-Ogugu scratching his beard in confusion, and come question time, Oche-Ogugu raised his hand promptly, and asked the preacher, “This God, is he one of the folks from Payan? (Equatorial Guinea)”
“No! He is almighty God, and he lives in heaven,” said the preacher.
“And you say, he knows everything?” Oche-Ogu asked still confused.
“Yes! He is called “omniscient.”
“Isi Odikwa ya mma?” (“is his head correct?”) Oche-Ogugu asked, “to kill his own son?” It was not just that Oche-Ogu was a little mad, it was just that this possibility was simply outside the frame of his conception of the universe. Gods do not go about doing stuff like that. Ekwensu? Well, yes. But not omniscient Gods. They ought to know better. I’m afraid, the more I study and interrogate Christian theology, they more I’m skeptical about this hermeneutical ground of its foundation and mission. And then comes Notre Dame. A great Cathedral, one of the iconic altars of stone long built and dedicated to the worship of this wonderful Christian God, and one week to the resurrection of Christ, fire engulfs it, and its roof – the crown atop its pillars – burn down. In Odinala, we would say, “this event did not come with empty hands,” meaning, a message, powerful and precise lies behind it.
We would seek the face of God, and the interpretation of his divination. We would go to a “Dibia Afa” – the Divination Priest – to summon the signs together, and tell us the mind of God, or of his elemental emanations. What have we done wrong to cause such an imbalance in the world? And the Afa would speak; and the emissaries whom the elders of the land would have sent to the oracles, the Igwe Ka Ala at Umunneoha, or the Agbala at Awka, or the Ihu Chukwu n’Aro, would return bearing the injunctions.
And they would find the true cause, and make the appropriate offerings of intercession, and the balance of the earth would have restored. There was no idea of a permanent, immortal sin, or a permanent condition of redemption. Indeed to the Igbo, No Condition is Permanent. The philosophy and practice of Mbari demonstrates that. But this is another question entirely. It is just that in Odinala-Igbo, no one single man, or factor of God can permanently carry the sins of the world, or determine the single cause of our being. It would be presumptuous, and its consequence has been exemplified for us in the story of Amadi-Oha, and his immoderate ambitions and presumptions. Yet we in Odinala also offer oblations to Jesus Christ, who is annually resurrected in this festival of resurrection and ascension by his followers and admirers.
His given name after all is “Immanuel” – which in Igbo means, “Chidumebi” or “Chisom.” We accept his condition as spirit (“mmo”) or as emanation – “Arusi” – of the divine God. For we too in Odinala know and believe that “mmadu bu mmo loro uwa” – man essentially is divine spirit returned to an earthly journey. We accept his teachings about love, justice, piety, and modesty, and the continous resurrection of the spirit, which we conceive as “Ilo uwa,” and its final ascension in unity with the great divine creator through “I no n’Iche” –to be part of “Ndi Iche.”
And that is why, even as a lapsed Catholic, I do my retreat through the Lenten period, commemorating the passion of Christ, and have joined the congregation of my Christian brethren at Mass today, here at the Basilica of the Virgin, Queen of the Universe in Orlando, as I do every Easter, to celebrate the resurrection of our holy master, the convocation of the Apostolic and Catholic church, and the promise of renewal inscribed in this season. Happy Easter, dear reader.