…there are certain special people who in many life cycles, move seamlessly between the world of the spirits and of the living, and are believed to have a pact with the deities who guard the boundary between the world of the living (uwa) and the land of the spirits (Benmuo)…they are called Ogbanje.
By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera speaks to two ogbanjes, Precious Amarachi Ugo, and Obumneme Osuchukwu (real names). In these interviews which took place virtually from the 11th to 12th of November, 2021, Chukwudera unearths some first-hand truths on the ogbanje phenomenon in Igbo land.
In Igbo cosmology, life exists in three cycles: the world of the unborn, of the living, and of the dead. It is believed that a typical life cycle moves between the three of them, and in most cases, when the transition from one cycle to the other has happened (from the world of the living to the dead, for instance), it is very difficult to come back.
But there are certain special people who in many life cycles, move seamlessly between the world of the spirits and of the living, and are believed to have a pact with the deities who guard the boundary between the world of the living (uwa) and the land of the spirits (Benmuo) — and so, they are able maintain a connection with the land of the spirits while in the land of the living.
“Ogbanje” as these special people are called, have fascinated the Igbo people since time immemorial. Over centuries, various stories, fables and superstitions were built around the legend of the ogbanje. With the coming of western education, many novels by Igbo authors have had ogbanjes as major characters. One of the most topical issues about ogbanjes is their affinity for death, and how they die at very crucial stages of their lives.
When Obumneme Osuchukwu, a young dibia and ogbanje who was born into Christianity, transitioned to the omenaala religion, one of the things he was required to do was unbury his iyi uwa or amulet. Returning to the religion of his forefathers had required him to perform certain rituals which had brought him closer to his siblings in benmuo. It was necessary to severe this connection so he could be allowed to live a normal life.
The iyi uwa is a black, solid substance signatory to the agreement made by ogbanjes in previous lives, and through which they maintain a connection with their siblings in the spirit realm, and can easily transition, and return to the world. Unearthing the iyi uwa was, then, a way of severing Obumneme’s connection to the world of the spirit.
According to Obumneme, “Before the amulet of an ogbanje is severed, a divination process is needed. Through divination, it is sometimes revealed the appropriate medicine man to unearth the amulet. Sometimes, it has to be an old and powerful medicine man. If it is done by an inexperienced dibia, he could die afterwards, because severing the connection of an ogbanje with their mates in the land of the spirits is like reordering the essence of their existence—it is no small affair.”
He told the story of a girlfriend, Chidimma, whose amulet was unearthed by a woman who died afterwards. During divination, the old woman from the land of the spirits requested that Chidimma sacrifices a chicken to her because it was as though the woman had sacrificed herself for Chidimma to live.”
Unearthing the amulet of an ogbanje is not just about preventing them from dying suddenly. It is to give them a clean slate upon which to live a life with a destiny which they can control. In Guardian life, Chinelo Eze writes about the Ogbanje, that they come to the earth “…as disturbed individuals not having an iota of control.…they live a life of doom cursed to appear and disappear without having a say in their destiny not like we do either.” And so, the ceremony of unearthing their amulets is to ensure that they live a life they choose for themselves, and can have a say in their destinies.
Though Ogbanjes are likely to die young, they have no specified timeframe of life. Some die at birth and others in childhood before they are noticed and tied to the word of the living. Some die during teenage or even young adult years. They do not die until they have accomplished the purpose for which they came to life; a fact which varies from one ogbanje to another.
Precious Amarachi Ugo explains that ogbanjes come to the world with a purpose—usually a quick and urgent one. “This purpose is already clearly defined for them, or sometimes, they just have their targets. They don’t die easily except when they have accomplished that goal.” Amarachi’s insight as to the ogbanje phenomenon is a pointer, that perhaps, in paying too much attention to the tendency of some ogbanje to die quickly, some things are neglected about what makes this group of people special.
As children, ogbanjes have strange and odd personalities; they also have extraordinary abilities—often superior intellect or insight into human conditions—that make them outstanding. They are often sociable yet reclusive. And when they withdraw to their shell, it is with an intensity that is often impenetrable.
According to Sunday T.C Ilechukwu in the abstract of his article, Ogbanje/abiku and cultural conceptualizations of psychopathology, “Surviving Ogbanjes manifest abnormalities of psychological life with vivid fantasy life or dreams characterized by the presence of water, orgiastic play with unfamiliar children, and frightening contact with a water goddess—mammy water.” They are also able to foretell events, especially unfortunate ones, ahead of time.
“Once when I was younger,” Amarachi Ugo says, “an aunt of mine who lived in Lagos was sick. In the family, they were talking about it in hushed tones. So, one day, her son travelled to our house in Asaba. At the time, nothing had been said of my aunt’s condition. But when I saw him, I went over to him and said, ‘Shay Aunty has died?’ And everybody was stunned.”
Ogbanje children often carry these traits throughout their lifetime. Amarachi tells another story of a man whom she had dated who referred to her as a witch. “We could just be together and I would tell him that if he wanted to go home today, he better does so immediately because it was going to rain. But because the weather was clear, he would take it for granted. Then all of a sudden, it would begin to rain,” she disclosed.
Because of the odd characteristics of ogbanje children, they are sometimes viewed by Christians as “possessed” children. Because of their tendency to sometimes die early, they have been likened to sickle cell-diseased children. However, in the Igbo system of medicine and divination, the ogbanje is not characterised among children of ailing health. The Igbo people had children who died of ill health and were not regarded as ogbanje. There are marked differences between symptoms of sickle cell-affected children and the ogbanje. The latter are sometimes very healthy and able-bodied persons.
The legend of ogbanje children is built based on what the Igbo understand about the world of the living and the world of the spirit. The Ogbanje bridges the world of the living and the spirits. In the world of the living, time moves in a linear form. There is the present, past and future. But in the land of the spirit, time is an illusion; there is no present, past, or future as everything occurs simultaneously.
The ogbanje has the ability to sometimes experience the world of the living as though it were the world of the spirits, which accounts for their ability to foretell the future and have insights into intergenerational disputes in family matters from previous lives. Some of them have frighteningly accurate knowledge of land boundaries, and distant relationships in the family.
There are different understandings of the Ogbanje children in recent times. On one hand, families who are deeply steeped in Christianity are likely to regard them as possessed by demons or evil spirits. On the other hand, families whose thoughts are largely influenced by western science are likely to disbelieve the phenomenon altogether. Children who have been earmarked as ogbanje are likely to be coy or open about their identity, depending on how their family background treated the topic.
Recently among young Igbo people, the identity has become fashionable due to the cultural renaissance among Igbo people, and the rise of pop culture where cultural niches of marginalised groups are being promoted. One of the most popular young Igbo novelists, Akwaeke Emezi is a professed ogbanje who espouses a unique point of view of what it means to be an ogbanje through her books.
They project queerness, not just in behaviour, but in sexuality and a gender identity that is neither male nor female. Her debut novel “Freshwater” depicts the psychological orientation of ogbanje as it involves the indulgence of vivid fantasies and contact with a river goddess and strange children of the spiritual world.
The understanding of the ogbanje phenomenon differs to different Igbo people, according to religious or scientific orientation. Ugo understands the ogbanje as superchildren: “…the way there is the American Batman or superman characters; they are special children that the universe or their ancestors are trying to reincarnate, to bring about a big change in their families. That is how I try to understand the ogbanje phenomenon.”
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a freelance writer and editor. You can reach him at Chukwuderamichael@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @ChukwuderaEdozi.