Igbo Traditional Practices: Igbu Ichi

By Uche Nworah

Igbu ichi is an ancient tradition performed by Ndi Igbo in South East Nigeria. Unlike what people think, Igbu ichi is not just a tribal mark but a mark of honour and prestige. Initiation into the Ichi Society stands one out as a man of valour. It is not everybody that is considered worthy to be initiated into the Ichi Society. In the olden days, it was only brave men who could ‘bear pain’ and protect their communities, warriors if you like, that were initiated into the Ichi Society.

Outwardly, you can distinguish an initiated member by what many may regard as ‘tribal marks’ on the person’s cheeks. In the old days, these were actual incisions made with ‘aguba’ or knife on the person’s cheeks. These stood him out in society and attracted to the person reverence and admiration. Once initiated, the person became one of the trusted few that would always stand up to fight for, or defend the community against external aggression.

Ichi Society complements the Ọzọ society in Igbo land, especially in Igbo communities where they are still observed. Whereas the ancient Ọzọ Society still remains the most prestigious in Igbo land, members of Ichi Society command their own respect as they are regarded as clan warriors, ndi ọzọ being the wealthy ‘bourgeois’.

In Igbo communities where the Ozọ Society does not exist, the Ichi Society suffices as the most revered and prestigious.

Nedu E.C., a native of Umudioka, Dunukofia Local Government Area of Anambra State in a social media commentary argues that “One cannot talk about Igbu Ichi without mentioning Umudioka Town. Igbu Ichi is an ancient craft for which the people of Umudioka were known.

The Nwadiokas plied the trade across Igbo land in the olden days and indeed left a legacy of it. Hence, today we hear of places bearing the name “Umu dioka.” Examples, Umudioka-Awka, Umudioka-Neni, Umudioka-Orlu and so on. These are communities founded by itinerant ichi craftsmen of Umudioka origin who settled in those lands and practiced the art”.

Things have however changed as modernity has set in, just like in other aspects of Igbo culture. In most Igbo societies, the act of ‘Igbu Ichi’ is now symbolic. The facial incisions are no longer strictly observed as actual marks are no longer made on the person’s cheeks. However, the initiation ceremony is still performed to the admiration of other members of the society, invited family members and friends at a public function where feasting and merry making take place.

Sir Fred Chukwuelobe, a native of Amolu Clan, Adazi Nnukwu in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State, performed his ‘Igbu Ichi’ ceremony on Saturday, 22nd February, 2020. According to him, “This is one of the ways we sustain the Igbo culture and tradition”.

On the day he was initiated, his wife stood or rather sat with him, while a senior member of the Ichi Society performed the symbolic igbu ịchị rituals.

Just like it was done in the olden days, before the ceremony began, the leader of the society performing the initiation, clutching a piece of traditional knife (agụba) which looked like it had performed many Igbu Ịchị in its life span, announced to those present the reason for the gathering, and asked members of the society if the ceremony should go ahead. It is at this stage that anybody opposed to the initiation is expected to speak up. No one raised any objection in this case, meaning that Fred had been considered and found worthy. Having received a positive response by way of ‘O yes’ chorus, the ceremony commenced.

The traditional breaking of kola nut by the Adama Adazi Nnukwu had taken place earlier. Each titled man in the gathering, adorning their white clothes, red caps, akupe (traditional fan) and traditional staff (ngwu agiriga) sat in a semi-circle and received a kola nut each to take home as a mark of respect. They each also received a hen and a tuber of yam which were their entitlements before they could eat or drink at the event.

To the ceremony proper, three able bodied and trusted family members or associates were called out to stand behind Fred. Their job was to hold him firmly and ensure that he did not run away midway as a result of the ‘pains’ arising from the ‘incisions’ being made on his cheeks. In the old days, these were performed without any local anesthesia. Before Fred were set on a table pieces of charcoal which would be applied onto the resultant ‘facial marks’ to stop the bleeding, some coils of dry fish and native sauce. The job of his wife was to feed him the fish broken into tiny pieces and native sauce to soothe his ‘pain’.

In Fred’s case, he survived and withstood the ‘pain’, and did not run away. Afterwards, a red cap was placed on his head, likewise, aka (beads) which were placed on his neck and wrist thus signifying his full initiation. He then went round saluting other members of the society in the traditional Igbo three back-hand salute. He danced round the arena with his wife to the admiration of family and friends who sprayed him money and hailed him by his new name ‘Ichie Obiekunie’.

Fred’s Igbu Ichi ceremony was quite colourful and attracted lots of personalities, including Mr. C. Don Adinuba, Anambra State Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment; and Dr. Chris Nwabueze Ngige, former Governor of Anambra State and current Minister of Labour in the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Fred had served his government as a senior media aide.

Igbu Ichi, like other Igbo traditional practices should be sustained.

Omenani Igbo ga adi.

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