If you enjoy this piece, you would absolutely love Ikenga Quest by Oluchi Gerald Ibe available on Amazon. This short story is a loose adaptation of his incredible work.
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See end notes for translation of Igbo words.
You have come here of your own free will, volition and consent.
What we are about to start will prepare you in the ways our forbearers taught us to prepare the guardian of Ikenga. These rites were last performed by my grandfather on Onwudi, your grandfather, who marched bravely into Biafra, and has not yet returned. The rites were not performed on your father, Umemnaeku, as he had not passed through iwa-akwa before death met him.
I know you are apprehensive as you were not trained in our ways, but in the ways of foreigners. Do not be afraid for you are our child, and in due time you will remember the things you have not witnessed. Bear in mind that so many of our forbearers passed through this unscratched so there is nothing to fear.”
Standing before me are men I know but do not recognize, or men I recognize but do not know. At this moment, they stand as men possessed. Their bodies vibrate with chaotic harmony. They move like they rehearsed this for thousands of years. These were Nri Priests. I taste the smell of their smouldering Ichie scars in my nose. I knew Maazi Oluchi Okoronkwo first as some kind of distant relative, then as the Chief surgeon of the University of Lagos Teaching hospital, now as the Eze Mmuo Nri, and he leads the ritual. He is dressed in blood red, his body marked with Nzu. The alter in which we stand is thousands of years old. These trees are born of the same seedlings that birthed the first Obowo woman who bloomed out of the ground. I reach for a rustling leaf, and a century of longing reaches back at me. This is the holy of holies, and I the piece that repairs the broken chain of protectors of Ikenga.
“I know your life has taught you to be Christian. The ritual you are about to enter will not be a struggle between Gods, but between societies. This is a struggle we all bear. We have always known people have various means of connecting with the Deity. Some meditate, pray and fast; some ingest herbs; others repeat sacred words. From the Ifa of the Yoruba, to the many ways of the Muslim peoples, God has made God known to all. What you are about to pass through is Isa Aka, one Igbo way of such connection. This will purify your body and assist you in finding that which is already yours, that which is most dear to the Igbos.”
My heart pounds louder with each spoken word. Smoke from the smoldering ichie now dances in the air and drowns everything around me away. I look for the drum pounding beside my face. I do not see it. I hear another, and another. Heartbeats playing silently beside each other. An orchestra of percussion in crescendo playing inside my chest, all eagerly awaiting the call from Ikenga! My body grows cold as breath races inside and clogs my throat! A dam breaks open and an ocean of blood drowns me from the inside.
These men watch me drown and will not help me! Should they? Shouldn’t they? Their bodies still vibrate! The ichie is burning hotter and its smell now clothes the entire forest. A low Hum emerges from deep within the forest. It crawls slowly to me, as life crawls away from me. Their words replay in my mind “There is nothing to fear!”. The Hum swims around me, sniffs me, and wraps around me like a father tucking in his child. It greets me like a long lost son, but retreats before I respond. A soft tapping of drums begins, this time from outside my body.
The priests wrap around me and join the harmonies of the drum. I feel a splash on my feet as a pot is emptied on me. “Do not be afraid, for you are our child.” Deep in my heart, I do not trust them because I do not know them. But there is now more than one heart in my body. And all my other hearts have promised me these are not strangers. These are my kin; these men are my clan. All the blood in my body believes this. My heart speaks to me like men I have known all my life, but never met. My father’s grandfather, maybe, and maybe his fathers. I feel hearts enough to fill a small village.
So I surrender to their instruction, and follow the sensation in my body like a child following his mother home. The smears continue until my whole body is covered with these ingredients in the clay pot. I open my nose, and let all of life in. And all is calm in me.
The silence returns. And it sits with me for what feels like three years, and in these years, the water from the Uzi falls through my eyes. I do not know what these tears are, maybe they are fear. But I know I am safe. I think I am safe. It is the feeling when you are overwhelmed with truth. Like a prayer in Church, when you feel you are so close to dancing with God. This is the closest feeling I have known to this since choir practice in Toronto. During worship, the spirit can move you in unexpected ways. My whole heart opened up to God, although in this moment, I am not sure what God this is. The Nri priests say to me, “All Gods say they are God.” so I surrender to all of them.
The Hum returns for its second act. It approaches me this time with more caution than curiosity. It speaks!
“Anyi bu mmandu ndu “
The silence peels away like the scab of a wound. It was as if it spoke from the top of a mountain. My ears collect fragments of sound from the echo of an echo. And the little I piece together is not language I recognize. I know Igbo. But this Igbo lived in the forest all its life, and has never been disturbed by history. My heart now pounds with the rage of a thousand warriors, and the voice still sharing its narrative .
“Nnukwu chi mere anyị obere chi !”
But my ears do not know how to collect them. And all the years began to collapse into seconds. The voice not finding a way into my ears, now looks through every hole in my body. It enters through my eyes, until I cannot see and through my nose until I cannot breathe, and the earth stands still. I know now that it is me who is to be sacrificed.
With the final resolve I can muster before what surely is death, my vision now set, my breathing clogged and my hearing faded, I muscle energy to flee. The bloods in me boil with the fury of a miscarriage. I am now at war with all the people in my blood. Both the living and the dead, the born and the unborn; my spirit rages and I rage with it. This is my body! And they are not welcome here. I no longer give them permission to be here! I rise to my feet, resolved that this ritual which has been prepared for hundreds of years will not overwhelm me. I will run. Find my way out of this forest. I will listen for an engine roaring from a generator, or from a car. I will look up to the sky for a plane flying and follow its path to an airport. I will call out for help against these men who conspire to kill me! All this after I remove this Hum from my eyes, and my ears, and my nose. And I will pick up a sharp stick and cut open my palms and drain myself from all this blood that is inside me, and the people in my body will come pouring out. With this affirmation I prepare to run. the Ogene quakes, and the Drum bellows as I seek my escape through the Nri priests who now surround me. Their arms form a circle around me as their ichie burns and they vibrate. I brace myself to break their grip when the wind’s rush from the Udu greets me with softness.
A voice calls out from in between my ears. She greets me with a soft song. She is the women in my blood. I remember. She says, “Do not listen with your ears, do not see with your eyes, do not breathe with your nose, but with the mind of your mind. “ The instruction comes to me like a mother telling me to tidy the house on a Sunday morning. It is not a suggestion, neither is it a command. It is just a truth. She is simply naming what I am about to do. It’s like She peers into the future, and my next action is simply an affirmation of this truth. And so I do; I listen with my mind’s mind.
And the space between me and the Hum collapses. It steps down from the mountain, or I step up to it. I enter this forest that is untouched by history and language is clear as the Uzi stream.
Anyị bụ ihe okike nke onye okike kere.
Chi ukwu mere anyị obere chi dị icheiche
Ịhụ ihe anaghị ahụ,
Ịlụso mmụọ ọgụ nakwa ịdụ ihe ọjọọ aka n’ọnụ,
Mmekọrịta mmadụ na Chukwu na-ebute mmekọrịta mmadụ na ndụ
Ị ma akaraka gị?
Ka e were ya na ndọgbu n’ọrụ gị niile lara n’iyi?
Mmadụ gbachaa mbọ,
Chi ya sị na oge erubeghị
Mmadụ ọbụla atala ya ụta.
Mana anyị ga-ata onwe anyị ụta maka na Chi kwụsịrị mbọ anyị na-agba na ndụ?
Ihe mberede ọ ga-emetụta gị mgbe Ikéngà chebere gị?
Ikéngà, ezigbo ikike nke eziokwu na ịrụsi ọrụ ike. Ikenga anaghị akwado mmụọ ọjọọ.
Nke ahụ na-eme ka nsi e tinyeere gị na nri gbaa onwe ya ama
Ikike nke na-aghọta, hụ echi nakwa ọdịnihu.
I am awakened from this trance by a kiss on my chest. A sharp knife sinks its teeth into my flesh, and sucks my blood like a mosquito breaking its fast. All the people in my blood agree, and the scream we share sends all the birds flying away from the forest. The priests pin me down, one by my hand, and another by my leg. I am now ready to die. It is now too late. I should have fled when I had the chance. It did not matter if I could not hear or see, or smell. Surely that is a life, and death, well is death. I prepare my spirit and repent how I have fornicated with another god.
I imagine death does not have a clock hanging on its walls.
But surely it has ears.
The Udu greets me again, and She emerges again and She calls out to me again and this time, I refuse to follow. She is partly to blame for my death. I walk towards a great darkness, and I see it is not me She calls, but someone behind me. A village of children chase after She. They run through me like I was in them, or they were in me, or they were me, or I was them, or we were all the same. What does this matter in death. They form around She, all sitting on the floor, or the sky, I do not know where this or, what this is. Out of the darkness emerged the Progenitor. I know because I remember. And She sits beside him, and they are joined by the wives, Adaure, Adaugo, Ekene, and Chinwendu. But She was the first. As they take their seats beside the Progenitor, their names arrive on my lips like the first taste of salt to a babe.
“The great Ikenga, taller than the tallest of men, was hewn out of the holy Akanta tree in the holy forest of Umunohu. Transporting it to its final abode at Ougotu shrine was the greatest spectate in the far flung memories of the Igbo. It happened so long ago, even before my time that I can not say when. Eze Mmuo Nri called out to the people to propitiate the Ikenga! Thousands offered themselves in sacrifice to this great honor. Eze Mmuo Nri in their great wisdom selected four who were pure of body, mind and spirit. All of Igbo rejoiced for this great sacrifice. All the clans of the Igbo made sacrifices as the Ikenga journeyed through their lands from its pilgrimage to Onugotu in Obowo. As long as the Ikenga stands at Onugotu, Igbos will never be conquered or brought to their knees, and no evil shall come near us!”
The children rejoice at the Progenitor speaks !
“Come my dear,” She beckons. “Do not be afraid. We are your family.”
Progenitor looks at me but surely, it was I who was looking at myself, or looking into the future, and the past, all at once.
“Ikenga, the strength of our right arm, the justifier of our acts, our strength in weakness, inspirer of our boldness, conqueror of fear, you lead a warrior to great deeds, you accompany him to battle. With you, the initiate challenges the unknown. In you made off the Akanta tree, most holy tree to the Igbos, the symbol of our unity and union.With you the unity is assured, without you surely anarchy prevails. You have been with us from the beginning, today and forever, the dread of our enemies…” his voice, shrill, still, and unending.
She called to me again.
“ Don’t be afraid my child. Come to me. “
Maybe I am not dead. Maybe I can trust them. I search for the heartbeats in my chest, I search for the oceans of blood that filled my body. All that is left is harmattan. This will be my choice to make.
“Don’t be afraid, you are our child” She beckons.
I am afraid!
I know that if I take the next step, the step of belief, the world as I know it will bleed out. Everything I work for, my two university degrees, my job on Bay Street, my girlfriend, my church, the peace of mind I have built to protect myself as an immigrant in the coldest country in the world. This will all bleed out. This is what I am afraid of. Why do I believe, and what is my belief even worth?
I recount this story in my head of the thousand people who believed so deeply they offered to sacrifice themselves to a piece of wood called Ikenga. This is what it is, is it not? A piece of wood from a tree that is holy. Like bread is holy. Like Jesus sacrificed himself on a tree. Holy. Sacrifice. For people. Is this not what it is? That people die so others can be free. Like armies go to war. Like mothers sacrifice their lives to bring forth another. This is it. Sacrifice. People picking and choosing what is holy and what is worthy of sacrifice.
You stare at wood long enough, it becomes God.
A story of a God who came down to die on a tree. Another of a man who sat beside a tree in sacrifice and became a God. Whether it is the bark of a tree, or the front, sacrifice is universally known. It reckons with the heart of a people. It reveals who we are, what we most revere. And for the Igbo, what is most revered is family, is Clan, is Kin. I look out at the sea of children sitting at the feet of the Progenitor. My future, my past, I wonder if my child is here. I wonder if she will remember this day when she is born. Her cowardly father.
The Progenitor’s hand is still outstretched to me. Unclenched, assured in his offer. All the men in my family have gone through this. Except my father. I only remember his death, not his life. And all the men lost in his lineage during the civil war. Again, more sacrifice for people and holy things. All our life is choosing what is worthy of sacrifice.
She calls out to me again.
“Come and take what is yours!”
This time, it is not a suggestion, neither is it a command; it is simply an affirmation of what I already know. Like my mother saying “You will clean your room.” She lives both in the future and the present. She says what will already happen, and it happens.
I am now on my knees, and the Progenitor sits in front of me. My hand stretches out to receive the Ikenga I must guard. I am expectant of this great burden, as I wait, my eyes opens wide, faced bowed in reverence. Expectant. He puts a lobe of cola in my mouth!
The children laugh like this is their best part.
“He who brings cola, brings life” he says.
I break into it with my molars. All its colors flush into my body; its greens and browns burst with life, and flood my senses with its bitterness-sweetness. Progenitor places his hands on my head; I do not see the Ikenga anywhere. Was this not meant to be where he gives me the Ikenga? He bows his head in prayer. And in the place of his steady voice, I hear the Hum again. It is now a friend. I listen with my mind’s mind.
“Ndum Ikenga, ndum Ihitte,
Ihe kwuru, ihe akwudebe ya
Ndu miri, ndu Azu,
Mmiri atala, mana azu anwula
Ebe bere, ugo bere; nke si ibe ya ebele, nku kwakwak ya,
Eke kere uwa, bia taa orji
Amadioha Nwozuzu, orji abiala
Achi na achi mba, onugotu, ala igbo duru nwaanui s a ala ndi iro, dulata, asi m gi bi taa orji
Ka, anyi nile taa orji tata ndu na ahu isi ike, Sitte na Jesu Christi one nweanyi .
And She, and everyone seated around She, and even the children, responded.
I woke up on a bright hot afternoon stuck in a question. I was in a hurry to return to the Progenitors and She and all the children! I was covered with a red cloth atop a bamboo bed. I wondered if this was my blood from the scars on my chest. Every cell in my body ached, but not more than my curiosity. “Amen? “ Is this not a prayer about Ikenga?
Maazi and his friends sit around an open fire roasting Ji. These are the men I know and recognize. My uncles, my kin, my clan. They are filled with familiar spirits. But it feels different. It feels like I have known them all my lives, and over again in different lives. They invite me to sit and eat with them. These are the men who almost killed me this morning. But am I not here? They did not lie. They promised I would be safe. Their ichie marks now look like old wounds.
“A bird came to us this morning and announced the spotting of the Akanta tree in the holy forest of Umunohu ….”
“Hale, hale haleluya !
Maazi pulls out a hot plate of palm oil cooked in peppers and onions and passes it to me.
“ I thought I went to retrieve the Ikenga ?“
Laughter pushes the teeth out of my uncle’s mouth.
“The Akanta must grow before the Ikenga is carved.
“ I don’t understand !“
“ No God is summoned, all Gods are made.”
“ Then what am I to guard?”
“ This is the question. You must tell us when you learn the answer!”
More laughter ensues !
“ Maazi…I did not go through all of this to be confused!”
“Keep your English in the cupboard, come and eat ! Be here with your family. Eat.”
It is not a suggestion, nor is it a command. It is simply an affirmation of a truth that was about to occur. I take the plate from him as he passes me a pail to wash my hands. I dip the Ji in the salt and peppers, and journey it into my impatient mouth. My eyes follow Maazi as he returns to his seat, and I see all I need to, the striking resemblance of She. The bushy eyebrows, the flat nose, the protruding ears. I see the striking reflection of the Progenitor in all my family. I see the future, the past, all alive in the now.
Is this Ikenga? Is this a reason for sacrifice? We send the God to protect what we value most – each other! Our families, the principal thing. The source of all our strength. I have been asked to guard the thing that guards us. To protect a dream that all Igbos share. We dream that our families, from all over the world, find each other again. We dream that we find our past, our present, and our future. To sit down with Ji, palm oil, fried pepper and drunken laughter. The spirit of the Igbo eternal family is the spirit of my Ikenga. Yet I do not know my father. My blood knows these men, but I am not only blood. I am also Bloor street, and two degrees, and my love awaits me in Toronto. What do I make of this, and all the time we have lost, and all the history that is unforgiving? It is with this confusion, I approach the Akanta tree. And pray that it forgives me.
This is holy. This is worth every sacrifice possible and I will live and die guarding this.
Endotes / Translations
IWA- AKWA”, an adult initiation ceremony that takes place in OBOWO, IHITTE/UBOMA, EHIME MBANO and part of AHIAZU MBAISE local government areas of Imo State and perhaps in few other communities. http://uhuri.org/all-about-obowo/iwa-kwa-origin/
Nri – Most sacred priest
Ichie is someone who has taken the nze or ozo traditional titles
Eze Mmuo Nri – Leader of the Nri Priests
Nzu- Edible Clay.
Isa Aka A holy cleansing ritual
Uzi A popular waterfall in Amuzi
The Hum – We are the creator’s creatures that create.
The big gods made us small gods
to see what can’t be seen,
to wage wars with spirits and confront evil,
only harmony with chukwu brings harmony in life,
do you know your destiny ?
Suppose all your struggles end in vain?
if a man struggles but his spirit says it is not yet time,
let nobody blame him.
but should we because our chi stop the struggle with life ?
Will any accident accost you when the Ikenga protects ?
Ikenga, the positive force of truth and hard work. Ikenga that permits no evil spirits.
The one that causes the poison in your food to announce itself
the power to discern, to forsee the future.
that is what we now give to you.
In the Igbo language, ùdù means ‘vessel’. Actually being a water jug with an additional hole, it is played by Igbo women for ceremonial uses. Usually the udu is made of clay. The instrument is played by hand. The player produces a bass sound by quickly hitting the big hole.
Ndum Ikenga – Cola Ritual
Life to Ikenga
Life to Ihitte
When a thing stands
Another must stand in support
Life to water
Life to fish
Let the waters not dry
And fishes not die
May the kite perch And the egret perch
Whichever refuses the other space
Must suffer broken wings
The Almighty Creator descend
To partake in this communion
Amadioha of the thunderbolt
Kola has arrived
Achi, the spirit deity of leadership
Onugotu the Igbo earth goddess
And the Igbo world that guides a choice bird from enemy territory back home
Let us all partake in this communion of Kolanuts
And eat to life and good health
Ji – Yam