By Chimezie Chika
We are legion.
My journey began long before I knew I was on a journey, long before I knew that I was not alone. How old was I? Two? Three? Four?
It is my earliest memory and sometimes it comes across to me through the haze of time as something dreamed—a nightmare shaky with the uncertainty of ancient memory. I was kneeling with my playmates in the sandy compound of our tenement, playing house. My companions were the children of the other tenants of the tenement. I felt a sudden coldness at the back of my neck, as if someone had placed ice on it. I turned and saw a very beautiful fair-complexioned woman in immaculate white lace garment standing near our playground. She was smiling at me. For some reason, I turned to the girl beside me and said, Negodu, Chinenye, look, she’s smiling.
I looked and there was no sign of her anymore. But I was sure she had been there.
Odi naabo, which is midnight.
There are other times when I have encountered strange women in my childhood—at school, near a market alley, in a bus. They all looked alike, as if they were born of the same mother. One night, it was a woman’s silhouette near the fridge in our room in the middle of the night; other times, it was a familiar face appearing in my dreams. Unlike my other dreams, there was something inexplicably real about these ones. The background is always somewhat shaky and glassy but the events were clear enough, the landscapes familiar. All the people I saw were kind and beautiful but they evoked fear in me. At some point in my childhood—a point in which my mind must have decided what was real and what was most likely not—I developed a chronic fear of things I could not easily explain: the events of a horror movie, the unusual shape of trees, earth, or animals. I was seeing things and meanings that others did not and, when I tried to explain, no one understood me. I saw complicity in the eyes of dogs and developed a combination of fear and loathing for dogs in my early years.
In the first decade of my life, that fear was a source of humour in my family. It had worried my parents greatly until the day it stopped. My mother tells a very strange tale of that day:
“It was afternoon and you were in the children’s room, sleeping. But your siblings were playing downstairs in the yard. You were always the quiet one. Your Dad and I were in our room talking. You ran into our room shouting, Nkita! Nkita! Nkita! Your Dad was alarmed and asked, ‘Where is it? Chimezie, where is the dog?’ You pointed in the direction of the children’s room. Your Dad started to go towards the room. I wanted to join him but you started crying, so I stayed with you. Your Dad searched the room and the whole flat but there was no sign of any dog. Till today, I cannot explain what happened that day, but that was the day your fear ended. Perhaps your Dad knew more.”
I cannot fully recall the events of that day. But I recall being chased by a ferocious yellow dog—ekeuke—on a lonely bush path. I ran, screaming through a pebbled path. I heard what seemed like laughter or thunder rumbling—or just a series of hollow echoes from the dog’s barking. The dog’s head grew larger with each minute, its bared teeth too (which looked very human); I slowed down as I ran, a difficult strain against the pull of gravity drawing me backward as I forced my legs forward. As the dog was about to pounce on me, I woke up, wild-eyed, jumped down from the bed, and continued running.
Otule aghari, which is confusion.
Reconstructing the many strange events of my childhood to better understand my journey to the native Odinani religion of my people is not an easy task. How do you adequately convey the map of a terrain that may seem too fantastic to non-initiates? Yet all religions are conflations of myth, faith, truth, and awareness of the Other. Growing up as a Christian created complexes which I did not understand until much later. There are things about African cultures that a non-African, even today, may never understand. When our writers create works that are labelled “magical realism”, are they creating a whole new world like Tolkien (assuming what he created was new) or did they merely show what had always been there?
Why did my mother drag us through all those many church missions and ministries? Was she looking for a miracle to assuage her suffering as a widow or was she looking for a space in which she could find herself again? After being told several times that her path to success had been blocked by evil people with witchcraft, perhaps what she sought in churches was the elusive thing that she tried to find in the many failed businesses she dabbled into to put food on the table. She genuinely believed that she could pray her hopes into reality. Yet, I suspect that there were moments she despaired with unbelief, wishing for a deeper solution beyond what her battered mental capacity could reach or conjure, for the serene finality of peace. Suffering numbs the poor, it bends them into positions in which they could do nothing but arch their ears, ready to receive any message of succour, however rushed and superficial.
My mother came back one day and said she’d had a terrible encounter.
What happened? I asked.
A woman saw me today outside the market, she said. The woman pointed to my forehead and said I was one of them. She said I had the same children as them and I immediately shouted, Holy Ghost Fire!
I felt the fear in her voice, in the wild glazed redness of her eyes. Who were they? She declared three days prayer and fasting for us, saying that there were evil people and witches after us. Even then, I felt that my mother was running away from a certain knowledge, a revelation so terrible she was too afraid to confront it, hiding behind a performance of Christian fervour. Most of us in Africa seem to be contending daily with the neurosis of our colonial past, so that we tend to demonise what we do not understand about our own selves. What we are really contending with is duality—of our old bloodlines and the modern legacy of Western ways of living and thinking. The curious one, like me, will seek to know the origins of this neurosis, but the vast majority will continue to live with it, staunch in their own belief in the shallow present, morbidly afraid of the dense past, aware that our way is not the easy way.
Obala ora, which is a spell.
I have often wondered why many things seem very difficult for me—and not in an existential way. Almost everything I did in my life was a drag, an effort to survive, to scale very low fences. There was the truth of my limbo with my degree certificate at the university, even after years of graduating. There was the reality of not ever having anything my peers had. I have often wondered if there was something against me that I was not aware of—something monumentally metaphysical, real yet unreal, bestowed by unseen beings greater than me, something determined to make me miserable in stages of life others found normal. This thought did not occur to me like an ordinary thought; it occurred to me like déjà vu, as if I knew something about it.
In one of the churches my mother had taken us to in our teenage years, a prophet had once declared that there was a curse on my twin brother and me. At this declaration, my mother nodded with eagerness as if she was on the cusp of a monumental discovery. The prophet would go on to prophesy a deliverance that involved the reading of dozens of psalms, exorcism sessions in church, monetary donations, and incessant prayers. We went through all that and nothing happened. This was the story that repeated itself over the next five years. The only significant thing at that point was that I stopped seeing those strange women. Still, I struggled to anchor my memories to reality. Nothing was ever too sure.
Years later, while living in the village during the pandemic, the loneliness of distancing added new dimensions to my trauma. My dreams came back, acquiring the sinister colour of intangible things. An amorphous figure chased me in my dreams. Sometimes it was a masquerade, sometimes an animal (a cross between dog, leopard, and elephant), and sometimes a nondescript giant. This dream almost always ended the same way: I would run and run and run and eventually come to the edge of a steep cliff, the being still chasing, and then I would jump into the gaping chasm, screaming and falling, arms flailing, without ever hitting the bottom. In another recurring dream I would feel a heavy weight bearing down on my neck, chest, and ribs. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and yet I knew that there was something wrong with me or my surroundings. Sometimes I’d wake up at night and take a walk through the dark deserted streets of the village, past the dark shadow of silent houses, where I would sometimes hear rhythmic snoring from sleeping bodies. I’d continue walking, cold, lonely, and unafraid of the overbearing swish of the tree branches in the night breeze, or the hoot of owls, or the orgies of tiny night voices. In the Igbo traditional belief system, nighttime is a period when spirits merged with the living, when otherworldly beings roamed the earth freely; a persistent nightwalker is sure to stumble upon an insouciant spirit one day. Woe betide him!
One night, I danced to a song by Passenger after getting off a call with my professor who made some life-changing promises to me on the call. After that night, I started seeing cobwebs everywhere I turned. Sometimes, when I went to town, I would walk through a large thoroughfare, where cars and people passed and, inexplicably, I would stumble into a cocoon of cobwebs. Sometimes I would stand near a kerb trying to disentangle my face from the cobwebs that had invaded it and a passerby would ask, What are you doing?
My professor never called again and never picked my calls nor answered my emails. Again and again, I asked myself what my problem was. Was it something in my character, in my aura? Was it beyond me or was it something I could try to get to the bottom of? Surely, no normal person had the experiences I had. I was ill for three weeks afterwards.
When I recovered, I went to Enugu to see my friend Arinze, an amateur footballer. He told me he would take me to see an old woman in his hometown.
The journey of my self-discovery took me through a long dusty road in the eastern countryside. From Enugu to Amagunze, Arinze’s village, is just 25 kilometres as the crow flies, but there was no functional road through that route. The available road—the Nenwe-Umuowalagu-Akpugo Road—stretched through a meandering route to about 37 kilometres. This was the road we followed. Through the arduous bus journey to Amagunze from the rowdy motor park in Enugu, I was full of the many thoughts and images that troubled me.
At Amagunze, we took a motorbike to a mildly forested area on the other side of the town. Just on the edge of the forest, there was a cluster of mud houses roofed with zinc sheets, as if to declare that the occupants were interested in the old and the new. The matriarch, a thin old woman in her late eighties or early nineties, with her very dark face covered in waves of heavy wrinkles, welcomed us. She took us to her shrine, where the strong smell of incense and a heap of tiny female dolls stared back at us. I could not look at her face, for I felt my heart lurch violently when she lifted a bunch of cowries and threw them on a white plate. It was my first time visiting a dibia.
“You are welcome, nna a, she said, studying the cowries on the plate. You are one of us, do you know?”
I shook my head.
She began to speak in a very low voice, in her dialect. I didn’t understand some of the words and Arinze helped with the occasional translation.
“There are many of us spread all over the world who had entered the world through different channels; there are four channels: water, earth, sun, and wind. There are many things you will not understand yet,” she said, “but the important thing is to know that you are not alone. I see here that there are two of you. Are you a twin?”
Yes, I said.
“That makes it even clearer now.” Her eyes were glued to the cowrie pieces. “Twins are water children, under oath to never be alone, to come together. We have a life elsewhere; we are both here and there. Adjusting to life on this side is always difficult because we are never entirely rooted here. We continue to talk to our companions on the other side. Sometimes they threaten us or haunt us if we are not keeping our own part of the contract. We all signed a spiritual contract, an oath, to be here.”
She lifted the cowries and threw them again on the plate.
“Are you encountering difficulties?”
“Do you have problems in your life?” she asked.
Yes, I said, many problems.
“Having problems is a normal thing, but there are also problems that are not usual.” She was looking straight at me; I tried to avoid her eyes: roundish, strange, dense with glaucoma. “You will have difficulties until you align with your companions and spirit guides. Our life on earth is always difficult if we don’t go through the process of connecting back. It is not easy to connect back…But if you show strength, you will be okay. Our journey here, what we came to do here, is not easy.”
She said that the first thing I needed to do was visit a water body for alignment, preferably the river in my hometown, for that was the portal through which I had entered the world. She listed items for the water alignment—fruits, biscuits, a can of Fanta, red cloth, white cloth, and yellow cloth, fresh eggs, nzu, edo, two fowls (hen and cock). Each of these items would be double, for I had to do this ritual with my twin brother.
I left Amagunze, knowing that I had no money to fulfil these obligations. But I knew something had opened up. A novel knowledge was beckoning, demanding that I take the first step.
Ete obara, which is revelation.
I came of age the night I saw myself, my body, on the shores of another realm. I am the same person, the same body, but I am living another life. There is a market on the banks of an emerald river; so many magnificent women, men and children mill around. The men are tall and stately, the women supple-skinned, glassy-eyed, with dark flamboyant hair. There are exchanges going on but I do not see what is being sold.
The dream shifts and I am running around an uncompleted house in the middle of a bush, chasing a fair woman, the same fair woman. We are laughing. Playing. She comes forward, demurs, runs back. Her face changes to vague shapes. But her main face keeps returning. Her fine teeth flashes, her hips bounce as she runs. Her laughter echoes and echoes. Somehow, we are in bed in a windowless room. Her beguiling tenderness draws me in; she’s a knowing temptress. She folds her cool arms around my neck. The feeling is delicious. We move together. I feel heady. Sweetness builds up, like heated gas. We explode.
I woke up sticky and wet.
That was how the dreams started. Over the next few months, I had variations of this dream, each time waking to sticky wetness. I was frustrated. A year before, a girl I was deeply in love with had gone back to her ex. I blamed the nature of my dreams on my chronic celibacy.
Over the next few weeks, I began to chat with a girl I knew from Onitsha on WhatsApp. Two months later, we met and had unsatisfactory sex. Whatever I sought with her lacked emotional connection. She was interested in television and showbiz and left me no room to discuss what I considered deep things. I must have disappointed her too. I was restless and troubled. I wanted to make an effort but there was no way in; we were incompatible.
Agwu nshi, which is the spirit of thought, knowledge, and everything in-between.
I visited a dibia afterwards. In his chambers, he cast convoluted ugiri strings and told me that the spirits have said that I was full of otule ose, which in afa divination language meant a combination of bad talk and strong doubts. He said, I was being tormented by my wife from the marine realm whom I had left behind with strong promises while coming to earth. I had not fulfilled any of those promises. I had instead become consumed with doubts about what she was. To appease my spirit wife, I must first follow a process of knowing my chi, the guardian spirit of every Igbo person, and then head to a river.
I went home that day thinking about the recurring images of water, earth, animals, and the fair woman.
In Igbo Odinani religion, there seems to be a great emphasis on the individual and the symbols, both personal and collective, surrounding him.
On that basis, I have concluded that there is a deep psychological superstructure in Igbo cosmology and Odinani religion. Myth is excavated not for its lore but to examine its relation to human and non-human phenomena. Ani, the earth, the greatest deity in the Igbo pantheon, is the mother of all creation. All civil laws and statutes of living are based on her. There is Ogwugwu, the mother of justice, with family-based fertility deities such as Omumu beneath her. There is Amadioha, the thunder deity; Anyanwu na Agbara, the dual deity of the sun; Udo, the enforcer of justice; Ekwensu, god of war. There are many other gods and deities, each operating with a set of symbols related to everyday living. Omumu, for instance, has the udara tree as its symbol. The udara fruit is not harvested by hand; it is allowed to fall on its own from the tree. The fruit, when opened, has an uncanny resemblance to the female genitalia. The presence of the tree is associated with fertility and abundance.
The method of afa divination often mixes psychoanalytical methods with psychic ability and spirit possession. The mythic symbols within Igbo cosmology and culture are excavated in relation to the dreams and physical experiences of the person seeking to know something about his life. In his 1903 thesis, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, Carl Jung argues that neurasthenia, epilepsy, and hysteria are different states of consciousness comparable to occult phenomena experienced by shamans and spiritual mediums. He observes that science ascribes names—somnambulism, double consciousness, lethargy—to these states to explain their conflicting characteristics.
Are my dreams and trances—if I call them that—different levels of consciousness attained? If the identification of spiritual planes within a metaphysical ontology are just hierarchies of consciousness, then perhaps the entire cosmology of a people is within the realm of the psyche. The only other way to psychologically explain the recurring appearance of the fair woman or my past wet dreams is through Freud’s theory of the sexual neurosis, which stray too far from the Odinani religion, in blaming neurosis on early sexual trauma, which I never experienced.
I discovered that I could make symbolic connections and associations in people’s dreams, and it was as if cryptic inscriptions were opening up to me with new meaning. The discovery of my ability to interpret dreams is one of those things in my life that I cannot explain, but it has helped my soul-searching process. The Igbo believe that dream interpretation is a form of minor afa divination.
In “Egwuobi Umuoji”, Theresa Ojialo and her troupe sing about a female relative who was weeping:
And I asked her, what is wrong with you?
And I asked her, what is wrong with you?
She said that her husband left her
and went to the spirit world
She said that her husband left her
and went to the spirit world
And I shouted okoooo
In this world, you stay for a while and join the spirits
And I shouted okoooo
In this world, you stay for a while and join the spirits
I pity the children of this world
I pity the children of this world . . .
The foundation of our belief system is in what came before us and why we are here. Every person has a purpose. This is what drives the Igbo man rooted in the tradition. We have inverted Descartes’ “I think, therefore I exist” to “Others exist, therefore I exist.” We often speak of the first people, ndi mbu na egede, the ancestors, with great reverence. The moon is all beauty and good auguries. The sun is the arbiter of revelations. But there are malevolent spirits, too, that must be avoided: age mates we left behind on our way here, dead people who did not fulfil their destinies and angrily refuse to go back to the spirit world, malevolent ogbanje whose companions did not keep the oath. When we provoke the deities and our spirits guides, they may punish us with these malevolent spirits (Ogbo nu uke or Akaogheli). We must be in harmony with our chi, our guardian spirit, who will always protect and plead our case in the other world.
We did not appear from a vacuum, empty and unaccompanied. Our essence is full of primordial connections from other realms. We come to the earth through the portal of the akpu-okalete tree, the portal of life, where the last oath is sworn before a final entrance into the world through the four elemental pillars of creation—sun, water, earth, wind (eke, orie, afor, nkwo, respectively). When we pray with the kolanut, we call on those four market days and add the refrain “Iseee” to symbolise that the fifth and final symbol of creation is the human being.
The language of afa divination is deep and has no semblance to spoken Igbo. It is not for the seeker to understand in its raw state. It is for the dibia, who sees what the ordinary man cannot see, to explain in lay language.
Akwu ora, which is home.
In July 2022 I visited twin female dibias in Awka with Obumneme, a friend and a dibia in his own right. The twins were identical with large grey dreadlocks falling from their heads all the way to their waists; they wore the same type of loose maroon gowns. They looked strangely familiar, as if I had seen them somewhere before. In the inner chamber, one of them cast her ugiri strings and reminded me to align with my chi and with my water family.
Months later, in Obumneme’s house, while he watched and pointed out things, I lifted a white cockerel to the sun and called upon him to bear me witness on this day: you who cast your eternal light upon the world and nothing hides under you. Then I invoked my chi to come and be with me:
I have finally realised that I am not alone. We are legion. We are everywhere, here and beyond. Come and guide me through this long journey of life. I can deal with the surface but you deal with what is beneath. Guide me down this road littered with evil and difficulties. Repair what there is to repair and make whole again what there is to make whole, for this is the meaning of my name—Chimezie. E
Chimezie Chika is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He was a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency in Iseyin, Nigeria.