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. To be initiated 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 is only brave men who can ‘bear pain’ and protect their communities, warriors if you like, that are 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 are actual incisions made with ‘aguba’ or knife on the person’s cheeks. These stand him out in the society and attract to the person reverence and admiration. Once initiated, the person becomes one of the trusted few that will 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 ọzọ society does not exist, the Ichi society suffices as the most revered and prestigious.
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 takes 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 is done in the olden days, before the ceremony begins, the leader of the society performing the initiation, clutching a piece of traditional knife (agụba) which looks like it had performed many Igbu Ịchị in its life span announces to those present the reason for the gathering, and asks members of the society if the ceremony should go ahead. It is at this stage that anybody opposed to the initiation speaks up. No one raised any objection in this case meaning that Fred has been considered and found worthy. Having received a positive response by way of ‘O yes’ chorus, the ceremony commences.
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 receive a kola nut each to take home as a mark of respect. They each also receive a hen and a tuber of yam which is their entitlement before they can 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 is to hold him firmly and ensure that ‘he doesn’t run away’ midway as a result of the ‘pains’ arising from the ‘incisions’ being made on his cheeks. In the old days, these are performed without any local anesthesia. Before Fred are set on a table pieces of charcoal which will be applied onto the resultant ‘facial marks’ to stop the bleeding, some coils of dry fish and native source. The job of his wife is to feed him the fish broken into tiny pieces and native source to soothe his ‘pain’.
In Fred’s case, he survived and withstood the ‘pain’, and did not run away. Afterwards, a red cap is placed on his head, likewise, aka (beads) are placed on his neck and wrist thus signifying his full initiation. He then goes round saluting other members of the society in the traditional Igbo 3 back-hand salute. He dances round the arena with his wife to the admiration of family and friends who spray him money and call 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, 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.
Chief Nworah is an Igbo culture aficionado. His passion is to introduce Igbo culture to young Ndigbo and non-Igbo.([email protected])