Among the Igbo people of southern Nigeria, the Great Chi is Chukwu, the one Creator God. In fact, the entire culture of the Igbo people may be said to revolve around the idea of “Chi.” Taken from the concept of Almighty Chukwu, the idea of Chi is one of an omnipotent and omnipresent entity with numerous signs, symbols, activities, and sanctuaries to attest to the energizing power of Chi. Although one might find different names for the sanctuaries in various region of the Ibo nation, clearly the idea that Chi can be personalized is characteristic of every region and is therefore an idea that is shared by the community. In many everyday expressions, one hears the word chi as in the name Chika or in the expression by a male, “Aha m bu Chike,” that is, “My name is Chike.” This entry explores the role of the Chi in Igbo life.
A Complex Concept
Igbo culture is quite complex, and the concept of Chi stands in the middle of that complexity. In fact, the person, according to the Igbo, is composed of three parts: the Chi, the reincarnated ancestor, and the personal will. The chi is considered the core element in the person because it is the energizing aspect of the person. In many senses, it may be like the idea of nyama in the Mande culture because, like nyama, it is pervasive and therefore is found in every living thing. The physical form of a person has three separate parts: ist, afo, and ukwu la aka. Each of these parts has a counterpart in masculinity, femininity, and Chi, respectively.
One of the abiding philosophical questions in Igbo epistemology is where is the Chi in a material sense? Of course, this issue has been dealt with by the ancient philosophers of the culture, who have argued that Chi is in the extremities of the physical body and has no materiality. You cannot see it; you can only see its evidence. Indeed, the Chi is the nonmaterial aspect of the person, which is different from the material aspects that a person inherits from the mother and father. One can say that it is invisible or hidden, yet the evidence of its existence is real.
Of course, this means that one is able to have a specific identity because of this material inheritance, which marks one as distinctive. The Chi gives people features and forces, however, over which they have no control whatsoever. The Igbo believe that what makes one person different from another is choice. Alongside choice is behavior; therefore, a person must go through the process of reasoning, decision making, and behaving to be a complete human being distinctive from another human being. Thus, the idea of choice is at the center of distinguishing features between one human and another.
Chi and the Individual
However, in the reincarnated ancestor, the complete cycle is more completely revealed. One has to follow the Igbo philosophical reasoning to see how this concept figures in the person. In the first place, the idea of reincarnation in the Western sense is called properly in Igbo, ilo uwa, meaning “returning again to the world.” Among the Igbo, it is believed that this process occurs when a new baby comes into the world. This infant is not a duplicate of a deceased person, nor is this child the deceased coming back in material form. Rather, the Igbo say that the child is unique. It is through the umbilical cord that the ancestral traits are transmitted, and consequently the umbilical cord must be ritually buried within the boundaries of family land.
It is impossible to overstate the relationship of the child to those who have gone before. In fact, the very existence of the child is dependent on the ancestors, and the Chi is the energy, the force, the feature, the “soul” of the person in the sense that the person is a direct link to the past. One cannot escape his or her Chi. It is what creates difference, but it is also what people have in common with each other. Among the Igbo, the idea of this aspect of the great Chukwu is understood as being a part of what makes people human.
The Igbo also believe that the Chi has a definite role in one's life chances and possibilities. Each person receives a personal providential Chi from Chukwu that governs the overall life of a person until death. Upon the death of the person, this Chi returns to the Almighty Chukwu from whence it had come. This personal Chi may be energy for good or evil. Inasmuch as one's ancestors constantly watch over Earthly matters, the idea is to demonstrate appreciation and reverence for the ancestors by praying to them for future happiness. You cannot speak badly of your Chi, nor can you say evil about your ancestors. This is a large taboo that requires much sacrifice.
Those ancestors whose lives are models of decency, reverence, and respect for their ancestors, and whose deaths are socially approved, live among the world of the dead, which is a mirror of the world of the living. In some senses, this harks back to the ancient African concept in the Nile Valley, where the idea of the land of the deceased mirroring the land of the living was an authentic piece of the common philosophy of the day. It is the same with the Igbo people. Those ancestors, who lived so well and died so well, are periodically reincarnated and given the title “ndicbie” meaning the “returners.” In this way, Chi continues forever and is never completed; the Chi is like Chukwu, its ultimate source, always present.
- umbilical cord
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Oranekwu, G. (2000). The Significant Role of Initiation in the Traditional Igbo Culture and Religion Toyin Falola, Culture and Customs of Nigeria. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.