Igbo people


Igbo / Ibo / Ala Igbo / Ani Igbo / Ibo / Ndi Igbo

The Igbo people also spelled Ibo and formerly also Iboe, Ebo, Eboe, Eboans, Heebo are a meta-ethnicity native to the present-day south-central and southeastern Nigeria and also Equatorial Guinea.

There has been much speculation about the origins of the Igbo people, as it is unknown how exactly the group came to form. Geographically, the Igbo homeland is divided into two unequal sections by the Niger River an eastern (which is the larger of the two) and a western section. The Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa.

Igbo people map


Identification. Igbo is the language spoken in Ala Igbo or Ani Igbo (Igboland) by the people who are collectively referred to as "Ndi Igbo"; their community is known as "Olu no Igbo" ("those in the lowlands and uplands"). Before European colonialism, the Igbo-speaking peoples, who shared similarities in culture, lived in localized communities and were not unified under a single cultural identity or political framework, although unifying processes were present via expansion, ritual subordination, intermarriage, trade, cultural exchange, migration, war, and conquest. Villages and village groups were generally identified by distinct names of their ancestral founders or by specific names such as Umuleri, Nri, Ogidi, Nnobi, Orlu, Ngwa, Ezza, and Ohaffia.

There are several theories concerning the etymology of the word "Igbo" (wrongly spelled "Ibo" by British colonialists). Eighteenth-century texts had the word as "Heebo" or "Eboe," which was thought to be a corruption of "Hebrew." "Igbo" is commonly presumed to mean "the people." The root -bo is judged to be of Sudanic origin; some scholars think that the word is derived from the verb gboo and therefore has connotations of "to protect," "to shelter," or "to prevent"—hence the notion of a protected people or a community of peace. According to other theorists, it may also be traced to the Igala, among whom onigbo is the word for "slave," oni meaning "people."

Igbo-speaking peoples can be divided into five geographically based subcultures: northern Igbo, southern Igbo, western Igbo, eastern Igbo, and northeastern Igbo. Each of these five can be further divided into subgroups based on specific locations and names. The northern or Onitsha Igbo are divided into the Nri-Awka of Onitsha and Awka; the Enugu of Nsukka, Udì, Awgu, and Okigwe; and those of the Onitsha town. The southern or Owerri Igbo are divided into the Isu-Ama of Okigwe, Orlu, and Owerri; the Oratta-Ikwerri of Owerri and Ahoada; the Ohuhu-Ngwa of Aba and Bende; and the Isu-Item of Bende and Okigwe. The western Igbo (Ndi Anioma, as they like to call themselves) are divided into the northern Ika of Ogwashi Uku and Agbor; the southern Ika or Kwale of Kwale; and the Riverrain of Ogwashi Uku, Onitsha, Owerri, and Ahoada. The eastern or Cross River Igbo are divided into the Ada (or Edda) of Afikpo, the Abam-Ohaffia of Bende and Okigwe, and the Aro of Aro. The northeastern Igbo include the Ogu Uku of Abakaliki and Afikpo.

Location. Today Igbo-speaking individuals live all over Nigeria and in diverse countries of the world. As a people, however, the Igbo are located on both sides of the River Niger and occupy most of southeastern Nigeria. The area, measuring over 41,000 square kilometers, includes the old provinces of Onitsha, Owerri, East Rivers, Southeast Benin, West Ogoja, and Northeast Warri. In contemporary Nigerian history, the Igbo have claimed all these areas as the protectorate of the "Niger Districts." Thus began the process of wider unification and incorporation into wider political and administrative units. Presently, they constitute the entire Enugu State, Anambra State, Abia State, Imo State, and the Ahoada area of Rivers State; Igbo-speaking people west of the Niger are inhabitants of the Asaba, Ika, and Agbo areas of Delta State.

Demography. In 1963 the Igbo numbered about 8.5 million and by 1993 had grown to more than 15 million (some even claim 30 million, although there has been no widely accepted census since 1963). They have one of the highest population densities in West Africa, ranging from 120 to more than 400 persons per square kilometer. Igbo subcultures are distributed in six ecological zones: the northern Igbo in the Scarplands, the northeastern Igbo in the Lower Niger, the eastern Igbo in the Midwest Lowlands, the western Igbo in the Niger Delta, the southeastern Igbo in the Palm Belt, and the southern Igbo in the Cross River Basin.

Linguistic Affiliation. Igbo is classified in the Kwa Subgroup of the Niger-Congo Language Family, which is spoken in West Africa. It is thought that between five and six thousand years ago, Igbo began to diverge from its linguistic related neighbors such as the Igala, Idoma, Edo, and Yoruba languages. There are many dialects, two of which have been widely recognized and are used in standard texts: Owerri Igbo and Onitsha Igbo. Of the two, Owerri Igbo appears to be the more extensively spoken.

Igbo People

History and Cultural Relations

Contemporary views in Igbo scholarship dismiss completely earlier claims of Jewish or Egyptian origin—that is, "the Hamitic hypothesis"—as "the oriental mirage." Instead, there are two current opinions as a result of evidence derived from several sources that take into account oral history, archaeology, linguistics, and art history. One suggests the Awka-Orlu uplands as the center of Igbo origin, from which dispersal took place. The second and more recent opinion suggests the region of the Niger-Benue confluence as the area of descent some five thousand years ago, and the plateau region, that is, the Nsukka-Okigwe Cuesta, as the area of Igbo settlement. This first area of settlement would include Nsukka-Okigwe and Awka-Orlu uplands. The southern Igbo would constitute areas of later southward migration.

Until about 1500, major economic, social, and political transformations led to continuous outward migrations from overpopulated and less fertile Igbo core areas to more fertile lands, particularly east of the lower Niger River. The Igbo had cultural relations with their various neighbors, the Igala, Ijaw (Ijo), Urhobo, Edo, and Yoruba. From 1434 to 1807, the Niger coast was a contact point between European and African traders. This was also the period of trade in slaves; this activity resulted in the development of many centralized states owing to greater economic accumulation and the development of more destructive weapons of war. The Portuguese came to Nigerian coastal towns between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they were the first Europeans to make contact with the Igbo. The Dutch followed in the seventeenth century, and the British came in the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, mission Christianity and colonialist interest worked together for the colonization of Igboland. The Church Missionary Society and the Catholic Mission opened their missions in Onitsha in 1857 and 1885, respectively.

Igbo People


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence farming characterizes agriculture among traditional Igbo people. The chief agricultural products include yams, cassava, and taro. Other important subsidiary crops include cocoyams, plantains, maize, melons, okra, pumpkins, peppers, gourds, and beans. Palm products are the main cash crops. The principal exports include palm oil and, to a lesser extent, palm kernels. Trading, local crafts, and wage labor are also important in the Igbo economy. High literacy rates among the Igbo have helped them obtain jobs as civil servants and business entrepreneurs since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.

Industrial Arts. The Igbo blacksmiths of Awka are renowned for their ironsmithing. Men's wood carving and women's pottery and patterned woven cloth are of very high quality, and Igbo carpenters can be found all over Nigeria. The stylized character of Igbo masks consists of figures with beak noses, slit eyes, and thin lips.

Trade. The Ikwo and Ezza in the Abakaliki Division of Ogoja produce a substantial surplus of yams for trade. Women dominate rural retail-market trade. Trading is a major social and economic function of women in traditional Igbo society. Women engage in all sorts of economic activities to make money to purchase the essentials they need. They make mats and pottery and weave cloth. Women do most of the petty trade, which is very active. The manufacture and trade of pottery are almost exclusively the domain of women. Igbo also process palm oil and palm kernels, which they market with the surplus crops from their farm stock, and generally monopolize the sale of cooked foods. They mine and sell salt.

Division of Labor. There is a sexual division of labor in the traditional setting. Men are mainly responsible for yam cultivation, and women for other crops. Usually, the men clear and prepare the land, plant their own yams, cut stakes and train the yam vines, build the yam barns, and tie the harvest. The women plant their own varieties of yam and "women's crops," which include cassava, cocoyams, pumpkins, and peppers. They also weed and harvest the yams from the farm. With regard to palm products, the men usually cut the palm fruit and tap and then sell the palm wine. They also sell palm oil, which the women prepare. In general, women reserve and sell the kernels.

Land Tenure. Most farmland is controlled by kinship groups. The groups cooperatively cultivate farmland and make subsequent allocations according to seniority. To this end, rights over the use of land for food cultivation or for building a house depend primarily on agnatic descent, and secondarily on local residence. It is Igbo custom that a wife must be allocated a piece of land to cultivate for feeding her household.

Igbo People


Kin Groups and Descent. Igbo society places strong emphasis on lineage kinship systems, particularly the patrilineage, although some Igbo groups, such as the Ohaffia, have a matrilineal descent system, whereas groups like the Afipko Igbo have a double descent system. In all the Igbo groups, one's mother's people remain important throughout one's life.

Kinship Terminology. The umunna, children of one father or a localized patrilineage, is made up of specific compound families, which consist of even more basic matricentric household units of each mother and siblings. The umunna is made up of both male and female cognates of an Igbo man's father's lineage. All blood-related kinship groups are bound in the morality or ethics of umunne, the ritualized spirit of a common mother. Ndi-Umune, or ikwunne, is the term used to describe the mother's agnates.

Igbo People

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is not a matter for the man and woman alone; it concerns the close kin of both. Marriage arrangements are negotiated between the families of the prospective bride and groom. With regard to the paternity of the wife's children, they belong to the lineage of the husband. When a woman has children out of wedlock, however, they belong to her natal lineage, and not to that of the children's father. Igbo have also institutionalized marriage options permitting "female husbands" in woman-to-woman marriages, in special circumstances. Some daughters with a male status (i.e., "male daughters") do not even have to marry to procreate.

Although females are brought up looking forward to this dual role, it would be misleading to think that the major roles of women in Igbo society are as wife and mother, since Igbo women are prominent in public life as an organized force in both economics and politics. A significant part of a young girl's or a young man's childhood training is geared toward their future roles in the family and as useful and responsible citizens. Women are fully involved in matchmaking and usually participate directly or indirectly in the actual negotiations of marital arrangements for their sons or their daughters, in cooperation with the male members of the families concerned. Women have powerful and active behind-the-scene roles in seeking out the girls they would like their sons to marry. The approval of the mother is vital because the young bride is generally expected to live with her mother-in-law and to serve her for the first few months of marriage, until the new couple can set up an independent household and farmland.

Domestic Unit. Most Igbo lived in villages made up of dispersed compounds. A compound was typically a cluster of huts belonging to individual household units. The typical Igbo village consisted of loose clusters of homesteads scattered along cleared paths that radiated from a central meeting place. The village meeting place usually contained the shrines or temples and groves of the local earth goddess and also served as the market. Large communities often had two such units. Most local communities contained anywhere between 40 and 8,000 residents. Homesteads were generally comprised of the houses of a man, his wives, his children, and sometimes his patrilineal cousins. They were often surrounded by mud walls and were nearly always separated from neighboring homesteads by undergrowth or women's gardens. Northern Igbo women normally decorated the mud walls of their houses with artwork. In the south, houses were made of mud on a stick framework; usually either circular or rectangular, the houses were thatched with either palm leaves or grass and were floored with beaten mud. Co-wives had their own rooms, kitchens, and storerooms. Young children and daughters usually stayed with their mothers, whereas the males lived in separate houses. Population pressure and European architecture has forced significant changes in these old settlement ideals, introducing (cement) brick houses lacking aesthetic appeal.

Inheritance. The bulk of inheritance allotments are granted to the eldest son, who, at the time of the inheritance, becomes responsible for the welfare of his younger siblings. If the eldest son is a minor at the time of his father's death, a paternal uncle will take charge of the property and provide for the deceased brother's family. There is also marriage by inheritance, or levirate—a widow may become the wife of her brother-in-law. In some localities, widows may become the wives of the deceased father's sons by another wife.

Igbo People

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Igbo social life is based on membership in kinship groups and parallel but complementary dual-sex associations, which are of great importance to the integration of society. The associations take several forms, including age grades, men's societies, women's societies, and prestige-title societies such as the Nze or Ozo for men and the Omu, Ekwe, or Lolo for women. The interlocking nature of these groups prevents the concentration of authority in any one association. Age sets are informally established during childhood. Respect and recognition among the Igbo are accorded not only on the basis of age, but also through the acquisition of traditional titles. In Igbo society, an individual may progress through at least five levels of titles. One could liken the acquisition of titles to the acquisition of academic degrees. Titles are expensive to obtain, and each additional title costs more than the preceding one; they are, therefore, considered a sure means to upward mobility.

Political Organization. The basic political unit among the Igbo is the village. Two types of political systems have been distinguished among the Igbo on both sides of the Niger River: the democratic village republic type, found among the Igbo living to the east of the Niger River, and the constitutional monarchy type, found among Igbo in Delta State and the riverine towns of Onitsha and Ossomali. Most of the villages or towns that have the latter type of political system have two ruling monarchs—one female and one male. The obi (male monarch) is theoretically the father of the whole community, and the omu (female monarch) is theoretically the mother of the whole community; the duties of the latter, however, center mainly around the female side of the community.

Women engage in village politics (i.e., manage their affairs, separately from the men). They do this by establishing their own political organizations, which come under an overall village or town Women's Council under the leadership of seasoned matriarchs. It was this organizational system that enabled Igbo women and Ibibio women to wage an anticolonial struggle against the British in 1929 known as the Women's War (Ogu Umunwayi).

Both types of political systems are characterized by the smallness in size of the political units, the wide dispersal of political authority between the sexes, kinship groups, lineages, age sets, title societies, diviners, and other professional groups. Colonialism has had a detrimental effect on the social, political, and economic status of traditional Igbo women, resulting in a gradual loss of autonomy and power.

Igbo People

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although many Igbo people are now Christians, traditional Igbo religious practices still abound. The traditional Igbo religion includes an uncontested general reverence for Ala or Ana, the earth goddess, and beliefs and rituals related to numerous other male and female deities, spirits, and ancestors, who protect their living descendants. Revelation of the will of certain deities is sought through oracles and divination. The claim that the Igbo acknowledge a creator God or Supreme Being, Chukwu or Chineka, is, however, contested. Some see it as historical within the context of centralized political formations, borrowings from Islam and Christianity, and the invention of sky (Igwe) gods. The primordial earth goddess and other deified spirits have shrines and temples of worship and affect the living in very real and direct ways, but there are none dedicated to Chukwu. Ala encapsulates both politics and religion in Igbo society by fusing together space, custom, and ethics ( omenala); some refer to Ala as the constitutional deity of the Igbo.

The Igbo concept of personhood and the dialectic between individual choice/freedom and destiny or fate is embodied in the notion of chi, variously interpreted as spirit double, guardian angel, personal deity, personality soul, or divine nature. Igbo have varied accounts of myths of origin because there are many gods and goddesses. According to one Igbo worldview, Chukwu created the visible universe, uwa. The universe is divided into two levels: the natural level, uwa, or human world, and the spiritual level of spirits, which include Anyanwu, the sun; Igwe, the sky; Andala (or Ana), the earth; women's water spirits/goddesses, and forest spirits. Through taboos, the Igbo forge a mediatory category of relations with nature and certain animals such as pythons, crocodiles, tigers, tortoises, and fish.

Religious Practitioners. There are two different kinds of priests: the hereditary lineage priests and priests who are chosen by particular deities for their service. Diviners and priests—those empowered with ofo, the symbol of authority, truth, and justice—interpret the wishes of the spirits, who bless and favor devotees as well as punish social offenders and those who unwittingly infringe their privileges, and placate the spirits with ceremonial sacrifices.

Death and Afterlife. The living, the dead, and the unborn form part of a continuum. Enshrined ancestors are those who lived their lives well and died in a socially acceptable manner (i.e., were given the proper burial rites). These ancestors live in one of the worlds of the dead that mirrors the world of the living. The living pay tribute to their ancestors by honoring them through sacrifices. After a death, the body of a prominent member of society is placed on a stool in a sitting posture and is clothed in the deceased's finest garments. Animal sacrifices may be offered and the dead person is well perfumed. Burial usually follows within 24 hours of death. In the 21st century, the head of a home is usually buried within the compound of his residence. Different types of deaths warrant different types of burials. This is determined by an individual's age, gender and status in society. Children are buried in hiding and out of sight; their burials usually take place in the early mornings and late nights. A simple untitled man is buried in front of his house and a simple mother is buried in her place of origin: in a garden or a farm-area that belonged to her father. In the 21st century, a majority of the Igbo bury their dead in the western way, although it is not uncommon for burials to be practiced in the traditional Igbo ways.

Igbo People

Visual art and architecture

There is such variety among Igbo groups that it is not possible to define a general Igbo art style. Igbo art is known for various types of masquerade, masks and outfits symbolising people, animals, or abstract conceptions. Bronze castings found in the town of Igbo Ukwu from the 9th century, constitute the earliest sculptures discovered in Igboland. Here, the grave of a well-established man of distinction and a ritual store, dating from the 9th century AD, contained both chased copper objects and elaborate castings of leaded bronze. Along with these bronzes were 165,000 glass beads said to have originated in Egypt, Venice and India. Some popular Igbo art styles include Uli designs. The majority of the Igbo carve and use masks, although the function of masks vary from community to community.

Mbari houses of the Owerri-Igbo are large opened-sided square planned shelters. They house many life-sized, painted figures (sculpted in mud to appease the Alusi (deity) and Ala, the earth goddess, with other deities of thunder and water). Other sculptures are of officials, craftsmen, foreigners (mainly Europeans), animals, legendary creatures and ancestors. Mbari houses take years to build in what is regarded as a sacred process. When new ones are constructed, old ones are left to decay. Everyday houses were made of mud and thatched roofs with bare earth floors with carved design doors. Some houses had elaborate designs both in the interior and exterior. These designs could include Uli art designed by Igbo women.

One of the unique structures of Igbo culture was the Nsude Pyramids, at the town of Nsude, in Abaja, northern Igboland. Ten pyramidal structures were built of clay/mud. The first base section was 60 ft. in circumference and 3 ft. in height. The next stack was 45 ft. in circumference. Circular stacks continued, till it reached the top. The structures were temples for the god Ala/Uto, who was believed to reside at the top. A stick was placed at the top to represent the god's residence. The structures were laid in groups of five parallel to each other. Because it was built of clay/mud like the Deffufa of Nubia, time has taken its toll requiring periodic reconstruction

Igbo people


Traditionally, the attire of the Igbo generally consisted of little clothing, as the purpose of clothing originally was simply to conceal private parts. Because of this purpose, children were often nude from birth until the beginning of their adolescence—the time they were considered to have something to hide. Uli body art was used to decorate both men and women in the form of lines forming patterns and shapes on the body.

Women traditionally carry their babies on their backs with a strip of clothing binding the two with a knot at her chest, a practice used by many ethnic groups across Africa. This method has been modernized in the form of the child carrier. Maidens usually wore a short wrapper with beads around their waist and other ornaments such as necklaces and beads. Both men and women wore wrappers. Men would wear loin cloths that wrapped round their waist and between their legs to be fastened at their back, the type of clothing appropriate for the intense heat as well as jobs such as farming.

As colonialism became more influential, the Igbo adapted their dress customs. Clothing worn before colonialism became "traditional" and worn on cultural occasions. Modern Igbo traditional attire, for men, is generally made up of the Isiagu top, which resembles the Dashiki worn by other African groups. Isiagu (or Ishi agu) is usually patterned with lions' heads embroidered over the clothing and can be a plain colour. It is worn with trousers and can be worn with either a ceremonial title holders hat or with the conventional striped men's hat known as Okpu Agu. For women, a puffed sleeve blouse along with two wrappers and a head tie are worn.



The sculptors carved in wood masks, statuettes, and stools. The diversity of Ibo styles, which have not yet been fully reckoned, ranging from naturalism to abstraction, can be explained by the political fragmentation of the society. A little known art, with ephemeral materials, was the art of making raw clay statuettes on bamboo frame.
It occurred to Ale to require through the voice of a diviner the construction of a house mbari (often the only one of the village); square and open on all four sides, covered with a roof of zinc. You could still see about fifteen mbari in south of Owerri in 1956. Although the house mbari was not a sanctuary, the image in clay of Ale holding his child installed in the centre; the representation was the size of a woman. On the other side of the house was Amadi-Oha, god of thunder, deputy of Ale; sometimes he was dressed like an English official, a symbol of authority. A third important personage was the goddess of water, with delicate features. A boa constrictor, a representative animal of Ale, was always in the house. The artists had every autonomy to imagine the other statuettes that filled the building. Some of them represented modern subjects: a tailor with a sewing machine, nurses carrying a sick person, a midwife in a white apron, a European woman in a car; the elephant was figured as a fabulous animal, as opposed to the realistically represented leopard. The statues were painted black, white, red, gray and ochre, with sometimes touches of laundry blue. The interior walls of the house were decorated with painted geometric patterns that matched the statues, themselves covered with drawings inspired by traditional body paintings. No worship was practiced in the mbari house which, once built, was abandoned. When after three or four years it was in ruins, a new one was built. It is for this reason that this art remained alive, and incorporated the innovations that pleased the sculptors.

Igbo people