Monday, July 10, 2023
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Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)

ur concern in this short write-up is to articulate, briefly, the true meaning and significance of the concept, "CHI" among the Igbo in the context of the concept of the "Person" in African thought and culture as articulated in Igbo, African scholarship in recent years.

The Problem:

The pre-theoretical concern about the concept of the person in philosophical and theological discourse challenges us to give a unique and coherent response to the following questions: What is the person? What does it mean for a person to be the same persistent entity through time (or in a moment of time)? How many distinct ontological entities constitute a person? What relationship, if there is, exists between the subjective experiences of an individual first-person and our perspective third-person? What is the influence of our culture and society on our system of thought and interpretation of reality and 'non-regular causation' of things in the universe? What kind of relationship exists between the thinker and his cultural and religious context? What is the influence of this cultural context on our philosophical and theological thoughts?

The African scholars, especially, philosophers and theologians, including the Igbo scholars, take seriously the challenge of giving an adequate response to these questions in the African, Igbo context and perspective. This is why in the African, Igbo context, unlike that of the West, plausible answers to an application, are usually informed by plausible answers to other questions.

Therefore, to appreciate the rich meaning and significance of Igbo concept of "Chi" in the context of the concept of person in African thought and culture, I would like to explore the way in which the Igbo, African theory of the universe and of the ontological reality has provided us with the integrated responses to the question under consideration. And how we must build these answers on it. My approach, partly descriptive and partly imaginative, should be familiar; I adopted it by the tradition of the first African scholars, from their reaction as well as their appreciation of the pioneering work of Placide Tempels, La Philosophie Bantoue, published in 1945.

The foundation of the problem that we are treating derives from the famous proposition of Aristotle, "man is a rational animal." This definition of man as a rational animal did not apply, then to the (African) man or woman. The expression of Descartes "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore, I exist), was inspired and built on Aristotelian tradition. Therefore, Descartes, like so many other authors of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, did not see the African people as having the ability to think on the ontological level. The authors such as Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and so forth, never assigned the ability to think at the philosophical and metaphysical level to the African man (or woman) mind.

Therefore, the Igbo, African philosophy today is responding to this historical legacy of the so-called classical philosophy and of the Enlightenment-Era in their comparison with Africa. African authors, including Igbo scholars, have already made good progress in this regard. Thanks to them, today no one has any more doubts about the capacity of Africans to think at philosophical-metaphysical level. In many countries, African philosophy and African Christian theology are studied today at university level.

"Chi" and Igbo (African) Concept of Person

In the first place, the person is a fundamental entity of reality. Therefore, its concept or meaning does not only belong to a people, because other peoples have their concepts of the person. So, what does the African (Igbo) originality of person consist of? To borrow from the words of Charles Nyamiti (a Tanzania theologian), the African (Igbo) originality of a concept such as the "person", goes beyond the normal accentuation of the term to assume a cultural coloring. In Africa, and in Igbo society, in particular, the person as such, is a concrete reality defined in its ontological humanity, existentiality and community. Therefore, the African Igbo philosophy speaks of three constituents of the person.

For example, among the Igbo people, the person as such is a being resulting from the union of his aru (body), mmuo/obi (mind/Soul), and chi (a personal genius - the spirit that accompanies the person, destiny of being [selfhood], who one is). Aru (body), mmuo/obi (mind/Soul/spirit) and chi (a personal genius/spirit) are integrated constituents and co-relational of the person as a unique person. The three constituents of the person are co-relational; therefore, we should be careful not to create dualism between them. Without them, the person no longer has his/her true meaning. (Cf. S.N. EZEANYA, "God, spirits and Spirit World", in K.A. DICKSON & P. ELLINGWORTH (eds.), Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1969, p. 35.)

Taken together, the way in which the Igbo conceive the ultimate reality cum the human person that we have described here is based on categories of beings and compounds, and on the way of understanding the relationships with a view to the completion of the destiny of the human person. These traditional concepts intend to explain at the same time the "ultimate mystery" and the origin and purpose of life and of human existence. This type of problems and perceptions about the ontology and the concept of the person is widespread in traditional African societies.

For the Igbo, every human being possesses a Genius or spiritual duplication, called Chi, that is associated with him/her from the moment of conception, to which can be attributed good or bad luck that accompanies it, and to whose care the man/woman is entrusted to accomplish the fate that Chukwu (Supreme God and Creator) has provided for him or her. Sometimes the Word Chi is used to refer to the Supreme Being, sometimes instead to this spirit companion, which is of more common use. It is also important to note that for the Igbo the Word Chi does not mean "soul" (or the human spirit). Some have translated the word to mean "destiny", "individuality". (Cf. SYNOD OF BISHOPS, Special Assembly for Africa Instrumentum Laboris no. 105: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 1993, 82.)

"Chi" and Igbo Concept of Life

Another theme on the African Igbo concept of the person is their concept of life. The African belief in the chains of the existing relationships between beings (divine and human) is essential for their way to appreciate the values relate to the life of the person. Life has a central value for the African who is in search of the ultimate reality and its meaning.

According to Elochukwu Uzukwu, for the Igbo, Ndu (life), is a noun which means: life, existence, being. The word "di" or "du" in igbo language means to be, exist (be alive). Uzukwu noted that in speech and in action, both in the environment ritual which profane, for the Igbo, "life" assumes a central value from which all other values derive their meaning. Therefore, the Igbo would say Ndubuisi (life is first), Ndukaku (life is greater than wealth). This is the proper names dense with meaning. In other words, the term ndu seems to relate with the term bantu ntu (being), even if the Igbo do not fall under the linguistic group Bantu. (Cf. E.E. UZUKWU, Igbo World and Ultimate Reality and Meaning, in "Lucerne" (Bigard Theological Studies) 4(1983)1, 9-24.)

When the Igbo say ndubuisi (life is first), they do not refer to life in a generic sense but in the life of the human person (mmadu), and to be more precise, they refer to a life of the members of their own family, the village or clan. Mmadu (person) is the term used to refer to the human being. Since Igbo language is Tonal, two different tonal variations lead to two different meanings - MMA (beauty), du or is (or be): "The knife is" or "the knife is". However, it is a common opinion that is the first variation to give mmadu its meaning.

In addition, when the Igbo say mmadu, they bring it into conflict not with non-living things but with the spirits (mmuo). This is because in the Igbo world spirits are a real concern. Mmuo (Spirit) is a generic term that refers to the Beings Who dwell in the world of the spirits (ancestors, divinity, etc.). There are mainly two different worlds in the Igbo universe: Uwa (the earth) and ala mmuo (spirit world). The Spirits, while living in the world of the spirits, are at home in the world of man (uwa). There is an incessant traffic between the two worlds. But beyond man, and above the world of his dead (ancestors), there is the Lord of life, Chukwu, which assigns a Chi (destiny) particular to every person who comes into the world of man.

This means that the identity of this personal Chi and its relationship with Chukwu are fundamental for understanding the concept Igbo of the person and the meaning which it assumes among the Igbo. Linked to this is the concept that mmadu (human) is located in the center of this universe (uwa) created by Chukwu. Therefore, the term NDU is the key to understanding the way in which Igbo man intends this universe and its multiple relationships. It is at the center of all his hopes and all his fears while trying to reach, to pursue, and to shape his own destiny that is ndu (life). The Igbo is every new day trying to preserve, increase and fully realize his ndu. But what about the concept of future life among the Igbo?

The presence of "Inyo uwa" (often translated as "reincarnation - return in the world) in the vision of the Igbo world has led some authors to argue that the Igbo do not have clear ideas about the future life. Instead, the Igbo have very clear ideas about life after death, which should not be confused with the reincarnation (inyo uwa). Since the world of the spirits is the abode of the deceased from whom come all the souls that are in the world of man, the reincarnation occurs when the Spirit penetrates the body of a child to his birth, becoming the seed of the heart (nkpulu-obi). This spirit assumes the role of a motivating force that will subtend the life of the child. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the soul (mmuo) or (nkpulu-obi) or the spirit (mmuo) of the child is the reincarnation of the soul of the ancestor. In this case it is more reasonable to see this term "uwa inyo" (reincarnation) as a way of expressing the relationship between the individual and the ancestors who were well-liked [welcome] by the Community. Because they have lived an entire life in the world of man, become the protectors and the patrons of the newborn, which in turn will look to their (ancestors) as a model of life. Indeed, when the agu (the person who is returned) is a living human being or a spirit local non-body, is the elderly living, is his agu, that protects the newborn. He assumes full responsibility for the act to become an ancestor.

Again, we must add that the concept that the Igbo has of reincarnation does not mean that in the Igbo world there is no clear idea about the future life. First of all, the Igbo concept of life after death follows the scheme of life in the world of man.

But it is a life in which the status is now retained in a stable manner. This means that it is a life where the hopes collective and individual are totally realized. The person who dies of a death which corresponds to the will of his personal chi (onwu-chi) and of his ancestors, i.e., the one who has completed its course predestined in the world of man, is said to have returned to the house of his personal chi and of their ancestors. This is the way in which the Igbo describe the fullness of communion with the personal chi and with the ancestors. (Cf. E. IKENGA-METUH, Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religions, Imico Press, Onitsha, 1987, 266.)

In the vision of the Igbo world, life after death is a life in which all the complex relationships, typical of life in the world of man, are maintained: remains a continuing interest in the affairs of its progeny, there is collaboration with Ala (the spirit of the earth, the guardian of the land of the living and the dead) to keep the law of the land (odinani); there is collaboration with Chukwu and with the who staff in the creative process, assuming the role of Patron (agu) and guardian of the members of the newborn community. It is a life lived very hard because you now live close to the source of life, becoming a collaborator. Based on this existing dynamism in Igbo culture, Uzukwu proposes "ideology of personal chi " seeing it as a very important factor of Igbo cosmology to understand the meaning of the person of the life in the Igbo Vision of African cosmogony. The characteristics of those staff who accentuate this point include: its identity, the role in creating (birth) of his pupil and the worship which is directed. Other are attributing to the who staff the success or failure. However, the Igbo emphasize however the fundamental independence of the individual in his search for success (of meaning in life. The Igbo are not fatalists. The vision Igbo around the world proves that the population is ready to fight and to treat; everything is materialized in the concrete living in the world of man (the world is a large market where the trade. (Cf. E.E. UZUKWU, Igbo World and Ultimate Reality and Meaning, 20).

But in all these, placed at the center of his universe, the Igbo see life as an absolute value. All persons, all things, objects that surround it or passing through its way in this universe are judged according to the relationship they have with the life of man; see for example the source of life (Chukwu), etc. When these beings are directed to sacrifices, prayers or of the invocations, or when trying to enter into communion with them, it is a recognition of their role in the implementation of the life that has a meaning. It also means recognizing that without these beings his life, which he received as a gift, in participation, would break off and vanish instead of flourishing and coming to the fullness. In addition, the Igbo vision of the world proves that life ideally has a sense (ultimate meaning) only when his destiny has been guided by the source of life, from the Giver of destinies (Chukwu), by fate custom creative (chi), and when they have been intimately linked to their own family or lineage (ancestors and spirits welcomed by the lineage). It makes a perfect life (for this life and for the life after death), only when this destiny given and selected is processed in a concrete life.

There are those who maintain that this Igbo vision of the world explains in part why people believe that to achieve the ideal life one should reach the success, "live" (long life and have progeny, wellness, as well as the ancestral status (be venerated as an ancestor after death). In modern times, this passion and this dedication of the Igbo, to arrive, individually and collectively to the completion of a project of life, associated with the recognition by the Community that all ports should be left open so that this life project is made, has made the success and the accomplishment of it, a kind of a supreme good. (Cf. V.C. UCHENDU, The Igbo South-East of Nigeria, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1965, 16.)


We can therefore conclude that in their perception of "chi" as an the ultimate reality and its meaning, Igbos pose human life at the center of their universe. The reality, in their hierarchical order, are perceived as supreme mainly because of the role they play, and on the basis of the impact on the life of the Igbo man/woman. Therefore, expressed as a model of man/woman, the following reality are ultimate (choosing as example Igbo man): Chukwu (source of life), personal chi (destiny, the personality that emanates from Chukwu), ancestors (being close to the source of life, become intermediaries, employers immediate and the guardians of the life of their community), the spirits (that promote or threaten the continuity of life). This is, in a few words, the Igbo, African vision of the world and its ultimate reality.