THE CONCEPT OF PRAYER IN AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION: A CASE STUDY OF IGBO OF NIGERIA
Charles Okeke, Ph.D
Department of Christian Religious Studies
Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe
This paper on prayer of Igbo traditional religion is an analysis of the Igbo traditional concept of prayer, showing the originality of prayer in the Igbo man’s life. Many people including Christians have questioned the origin of prayers. Others have also doubted the efficacy of prayers. Better living conditions with the aid of science and technology undoubtedly have hastened these questions and doubts. Modern man is tending greatly towards the denial of the efficacy of prayers and seek solutions to all his problems in science and technological means. Consequently, man’s need for prayers is being de-emphasized in contemporary society. And because of these and other preceding questions such as, “Did our great grand parents who followed the traditional religion pray at all”? What brought about prayer? Is prayer a Christian invention? It, therefore, became necessary to make a study on this topic.
Meaning of Prayer to the Traditional Igbo
Prayer is one of the components of religious worship. Through prayer human beings interact and link themselves with the supernatural beings. Prayer is thus a connecting link between the two worlds: the natural world and the spiritual world. Gove (1976) defines prayer as “a solemn and humble approach to Divinity in word or thought usually involving beseeching, petition, confession, praise or thanksgiving” (p. 1782).
African traditional prayers generally include praise, thanksgiving, a declaration of the state of affairs in which the prayers are offered, and request. According to Mbiti (1982) “Such prayers always have concrete intentions, and people do not ‘beat about the bush’ when saying their prayers” (p. 55).
The traditional Africans have since ancient time recognized prayer as a powerful force to achieve their daily needs. They request such things as: good health, healing, protection from danger, safety in travelling or some other undertaking, security, prosperity, preservation of life, peace and various benefits for individuals. For the community at large, people may ask for rain, peace, the cessation of epidemics and dangers to the community, success in war or raids, the acceptance of sacrifices and offerings, and fertility for people, animals and crops (Mbiti, 1982).
Thus prayer forms part and parcel of the African life. It is through prayer that the people enter into communion and communication with God. In prayer, the Igbo man and woman, for instance, recognize and appeal to the supernatural beings in humility. They recognize that they are inferior before the Supernatural Being. They believe that their prayers are answered by the supernatural whether said in public, as a community or in private as individuals. They also demonstrate their belief in prayers in the names they give to children like Iheanyichukwu (nothing is impossible to God), Chibuzo or Chinedu or Chukwudubem (God leads). This appellation sums up the Igbo man’s belief in the strength of the Supernatural Being.
It is on the above notion that Gbenda (2006) says that “prayer is based on the conviction of the supplicant that there exists the transcendent or unmoved mover who is capable of influencing all the departments of life and who has a relationship with man” (p. 65). Thus in prayer man attracts the attention of the supernatural. Hence, Heiler (1958) says that “prayer is the outpouring of one’s mind and soul to God, ‘a going out of one’s self, a pilgrimage of the spirit in the presence of God” (p. 358).
Mbiti (1975) stated that “prayer is a means of renewing contact between people and God, or between people and the invisible world” (p. 57). Prayer encourages the relationship between man and the supernatural. It makes man to feel free from all anxieties, fears and worries. Mbiti (1975) says that “prayer strengthens the links between man and God” (p. 57). It makes man to feel somehow protected and secure and creates harmony between the spiritual and physical world. These prayers more than any aspect of religion contain most intensive expression of African traditional spirituality (Mbiti, 1975).
The Igbo is noted to be deeply religious. And one of the principal factors that manifest this deeply religious nature is his inclination to prayer (Obiagwu, 2000). Prayer forms an integral part of Igbo religion. Many prayers said in Igbo go with sacrifices and offerings. When praying, different positions are assumed. Some people stand up while some sit down and prayers go with oji (kola) or ofo (detarium senegalense) or nzu (white chalk). On some occasions, prayers go with the three objects. In Igboland, the breaking of oji and the use of nzu, normally accompany the traditional Morning Prayer. Oji and nzu are usually presented first before approaching God and the deities to signify the worshipper’s goodwill and friendliness between him and the invisible power. Nzu usually comes before the oji, though each compliments the other. Writing on prayer, Arinze (1970) says that, “prayer is generally accompanied by the eating of kolanut as an expression of goodwill and as a sensible manifestation of a desire for communion” (p. 28).
Whenever an Igbo is praying, especially in the morning, certain preparations are to be made or presumed. After he must have sat down, he washes his hands; the next thing he does is to draw some parallel lines on the ground with nzu (white chalk) and passes it to others around. When this is done, then comes the prayer with the breaking of the kolanut. Whenever prayer is to be offered, ofo is a necessity. The family head offering the prayer holds ofo staff in his hand, which serves as a mediator between the spirits of this world and the underworld.
Prayers in Igbo land are usually said communally than individually. Arinze (1970) puts it thus, “Besides the traditional morning prayers, public prayer is almost invariably bound up with sacrifice. Individual prayer is not a normal thing except in the form of ejaculations to God, the spirits and the ancestors” (p. 23). While the family head “pater familia” often says the morning prayer, ejaculatory prayers are uttered by people of all ages and by both sexes at any time and at any place and as often as occasion demands them. For instance, when a child sneezes, the mother or any person around spontaneously says ndu gi! (your health). This prayer is a complete prayer asking for protection of life. There are no special prayers said by children, rather they join in the community or family prayers (Obiagwu, 2000).
Generally, after breaking of the kola nut, bits of it are thrown outside, believing to be offered to the spirits, while the people around consume the other pieces. The better part of the kolanut, that is, the obi oji (the heart of the kola) is believed to be given to the spirits and certain words are uttered such as Ani welu ihe di gi mma ka I taa obi oji (Let the earth take what is good and eat). The minor deities like udo, ogwugwu and so on, are also invoked in prayers. It is believed that the Igbo invoke these deities because none claims to know what they have in mind.
Prayer means a lot to the Igbo like other Africans. He prays because it is through prayer that he appeals for the goodwill of Chukwu (Supreme God) and other spiritual beings who guarantee his protection and guidance. And through prayer he harmonizes the relationship between him and other beings: animate and inanimate.
Origin of Prayer in Man’s Life
Okafor (2001) stated that “God desires above all things that his creatures worship him. For this reason he created them with the spirit of worship so as to satisfy the divine desire to be worshipped. As a matter of fact, there is a yawning vacuum in the heart of every man which only God can fill” (p. 1).
Man recognizes that he is not master of this world. There are superior powers, invisible spirits, the ancestors, and there are also human spirits of wicked deceased people (Arinze, 2008). For faced with the mysteries of existence, he cannot but posit the existence of forces outside himself who can give answers to those mysteries or wonders (Madu, 2004). Some of these powers are regarded as kind and reasonable, and others are regarded as severe, bad, wicked and capricious. Man, therefore, having found himself in the midst of these forces, he cannot but relate with them in order to incure their friendship and protection. Madu (2004) attested to this succinctly, “Man, finding himself in this midst of forces, both good and malevolent, and to which he must relate to maintain a cosmic equilibrium in the ontological hierarchy, he felt that it was up to him to incure their friendship with their concomitant patronage” (p. 121).
Man, therefore, felt the need to propitiate these beings through prayers and sacrifices. He felt that it was up to him to propitiate them and to treat them with courtesy and deference. That was the fundamental reason why he had such a penchant for sacrifice in all its forms (Arinze, 2008). The above statement shows why man accepts his inferior position in the ontological hierarchy and his ability to influence and manipulate these beings to his own advantage.
Secondly, man realizes how weak and limited his powers and knowledge were particularly in the face of death, calamity and the forces of nature such as thunderstorms, earthquakes, mighty rivers and great forests. This idea made it necessary for him to depend on the one who was more powerful than he is. Hence, he felt he needed help of this one in his experiences of limitation and powerlessness. This is one other possible ways that led to origin of prayer in man’s life.
Again, prayer may have been developed by man as he wonders and reflects on the origin of the universe. Mbiti (1982) is of the opinion that “African peoples believe the universe to have been created. This presupposes that there was a creator of the universe…by using their imaginations they reached the conclusion that there must have been someone who originated it and this is someone they may have considered to be God” (p. 5).
In the same way, people reflected on the enormity and continuity of the earth and the heavens. It seemed to them that the universe must have someone who looks after it, keeps it and sustains it. They concluded that the creator of the universe must be the one who keeps and sustains it. Without him there could have been no universe. It therefore, became imperative on man to formulate a belief on the creator and placate him through sacrifices and prayers.
It is also very likely that man came to develop his relationship with God through the link between heaven and earth. Man is at the centre of the universe; he stands on the earth but looks up to the heavens as well. In looking towards the sky, he forms his beliefs in God, which began to make sense and consequently fit into his continued attempts to understand and explain the visible and the invisible world of which he is at the centre.
Perspectives of Igbo Prayer
Ekwunife (2007) describes prayer as “a spiritual means through which the religious man interiorly and externally communicates with God and all supra-sensible beings of his invisible world” (p. 6). He further says, “It is a religious spiritual outreach of the temporal religious man to the transcendent Being and his agents” (p. 6). Man is naturally homo religious and an intelligent being; he is, of necessity, bound not only to think of his ontological source, God, but also to encounter him in dialogue. Ifesieh (1988) says that, “prayer brings out the most interior life of religion to action. For in it, next to sacrifice, are the fundamental acts of adoration, worship, reverence and veneration of God through which Christians as well as practitioners of Igbo traditional religion manifest their strong belief in God” (p. 73).
Arinze (1986) describes prayer as “an important exercise of the virtue of religion. It is a practical recognition of our dependence on God. It is an acknowledgement that our existence and ability to do good comes from God, and cut off from God we can achieve nothing” (p. 73).
The above definitions show that man depends on God for virtually everything. Man is aware that his existence comes from God; therefore, it is imperative on him to recognize the one from whom his existence comes. Man shows this recognition through prayer, sacrifices and worships.
To the religious man, without prayer, life is useless. It is on this line that scholars like Ifesieh (1989) outlined sixteen ways through which the traditional Igbo perceive prayer. For the traditional Igbo, prayer means Aririo (begging or petition); Inye-ekele (giving thanks); Ekpere (praying or conversing, talking with God); Igwa-Chukwu-okwu (telling God something or telling God a word); Ikpa-Nkata (conversation); Ikpesara-Chukwu (narrating or reporting what has happened to God); Itogheru-Chukwu-obi (unveiling one’s heart to God); Itoghesi-obi (opening one’s heart to God); Igba-Chukwu-Izu (consulting with God in one’s private capacity); Ikpoku-Chukwu (invoking God); Ibeku-Chukwu (crying onto God); Ikpo/Ikpoku elu (calling on the above); Ikpoku ihe ahughi anya (calling on the real unseen believed reality); Isara-Elu-Aka (spreading one’s hand to God as One who understands all human problems); Ita-Chukwu-Aru na Nti (biting the ears of God or persistent worry on God); Tukoru-Chi-aka (to cross one’s hands in surrender before God) (pp. 103-107). The above detailed Igbo traditional perspectives of prayer by Ifesieh are meant to show how deep the traditional Igbo man’s attachment to his spiritual exercise was.
Writing about prayer, Collins (2001) suggested that there are three intimacies involved in every prayer, “intimacy with one’s deepest self; intimacy with others especially with close friends and intimacy with God” (p. 51). He went on to reflect on how these various intimacies are associated with several disclosures. Collins (2001) enumerates those disclosures as, “self-awareness; acknowledging spiritual desires; acknowledging feelings; understanding desires and feelings; love of friendship; friendship with God; self-disclosure to God; disclosing anger; and disclosing fear” (p. 52).
The above suggests why Rahner (1958) describes prayer simply as “opening of the heart to God” (p. 10). In prayer, a new awareness of God is created. With this new awareness, Rahner (1958) says, “comes deep and lasting peace – a calm which is not deceptive, a confidence without fear, a security that needs no reassurance, a power that lives in powerless, a life that springs up in the shadow of death” (p. 17). Further more, Rahner (1958) echoes:
We find our happiness, our strength, our power to face all sorrow, in the thought that God is with us and that we are his. In this peace, our heart learns to commune silently with God in a living union with him. The dry formulas of prayer on dry lips, are replaced by that silent communion of heart with heart which comes with the sense of God’s nearness to us and our utter, loving dependence on him. (p. 17).
Thus the colloquy of the heart with God in prayer cannot be expressed in words, because it is a silent reaching out towards God with reverential fear and sublime trust. It is a complete silence oblation of self, and an entire surrender to God. On this note, Mbiti (1975) rightly observed that “prayers help to remove personal and communal anxieties, fears, frustrations and worries. They also help to cultivate man’s dependence on God and increase his spiritual outreach” (p. 50).
Prayer as Thanksgiving
There is a general belief in Igbo that when one’s good deeds are recognized he is encouraged to do more. Hence, the saying, etoo onye na nke o melu o meekwa ozo (when a person is praised for what he did, he does more). The idea of thanksgiving in prayers portrays the recognition of God’s goodness to man and the subsequent expression of man’s gratitude to God for the goodness shown. Onah (2008) and Ugwu (2008) were of the same opinion when they said that “Thanksgiving is a prayer of appreciation and it enables us appreciate God for his mercies unto us. It is a heart-felt gratitude to God in appreciation of his favours and it is all about thanking him for his blessings to us. It is a prayer offered to God in recognition of his love for and protection over us” (p. 68).
As man always invokes God and the spirits at different times especially in times of need and frustration, so he thanks them when the going is well or when a request is granted. Arinze (1970) puts it succinctly, “When the Ibo pagan has obtained his heart’s requests, he often makes a sacrifice of thanksgiving which is always mixed up with hope for future protection” (p. 42).
The above also depicts Igbo man’s attitude to prayer. In Igbo, thanksgiving is ekele or inye-ekele. The two words similarly mean the same thing. That is, thanksgiving. It is a heart-felt gratitude of the whole person in recognition of the favour granted to him, primarily from God and secondarily through contingent beings, hence, the desire to reciprocate (Ifesieh, 1989).
The Igbo man does not say his prayers without expressing gratitude to God for his favours to him. This is most strongly manifested in his invocations where he calls on the ancestors and other spirits to come and partake of the kola which he is sharing with other people around. That is a pure sign of gratitude and recognition of the role of these spiritual beings in the affairs of men.
Prayer as Sacrifice
It is necessary that clarifications and explanation of sacrifice is made, that way, we will understand the concept of various sacrifices offered by traditional Igbo. Madu (2004) distinguishes two senses of sacrifice: the popular or personal sense and the ritual sense. According to him, ”In the popular sense, sacrifice means a renunciation for a motive; for instance, a widow sacrificing all she has for the training of her only son. Ritual sacrifice has its strict and proper sense only in public religious worship” (p. 123).
Sacrifice in ritual sense, is “the act of the virtue of religion which is in the genus of oblation” (Madu, 2004). The generic term in Igbo is “aja”. Hence, the proverb “ichu aja n’elu ini – offering sacrifice on top of the grave (i.e. when it is too late)” (Madu, 2004). The term itself seems to refer to the consecrated offering to the spirits. However, used with the verb “ichu” (drive away), it refers to the exorcist sacrifice to drive away evil spirits. In fact, in most cases, it is the verb that determines the type of sacrifice as is evident in these four terms which refer to the different sacrifices offered by the Igbo: Igo Mmuo, Imegha Mmuo, Ichu aja and Ikpu alu. Igo Mmuo (literally, consecrating spirits) refers to consecratory sacrifice, Imegha or Ilo Mmuo (placating or appeasing the spirits) are the expiatory sacrifices. The deities are appeased either when they are feasted or when an expiation is made for offences against them. Ichu aja (driving away offering) refers to the exorcist sacrificial rites designed to drive away (Ichu) the evil spirits. Arinze (1970) calls this “the joyless sacrifice to evil spirits” (p. 56). While Ikpu alu/aru (dragging abomination) is purificatory sacrifices. Alu/aru literary means “pollution”. The Igbo believe that breaches of ‘Nso ala’ (prohibition of the Earth-Mother) brings about a state of pollution which may only be removed by purification rites (ikpu alu/aru) (Metuh, 1985).
In African traditional religion, a distinction is always made between the practice of making sacrifices and offerings. Sacrifices involve the shedding of blood of human beings, animals or birds. Offerings do not involve blood but concern the giving of all other things, such as foodstuff, water, milk, honey or money (Mbiti, 1975). In ATR, when blood shed is involved in making sacrifice, it means that human or animal life is being given back to God, who in fact, is the ultimate source of all life. However, not in all cases that human being is killed in sacrifice. Metuh (1985) attested to this as he says,
The Igbo had the practice of consecrating some animals or human beings as sacrifices to a deity, without killing them. Such victims after the sacrificial ritual are allowed to live or wander around the neighbourhood of the premises of the god, as its property. The immolation or ritual killing of the victim is symbolically expressed by either making a deep cut on the animal to let some of its blood to drip on the altar, or slicing off a tiny bit of its body as token offering to the deity; if the victim is a human being, he becomes an Osu (slave of a god). (p. 62).
Generally, sacrifice is primarily a ritual prayer. It allows man to achieve communion with God through the mediation of the offering. God is the giver of absolute life which paradoxically involves also death. Creatures of God are bearers of divine life and death. Through consecration and immolation, they allow man to pass from the human to the divine realm to achieve communion with God who is the source and plenitude of life (Metuh, 1985).
God created man and conserves him. He is the final end of man. By sacrifice, man acknowledges God’s power and his supreme dominion and excellence and offers him adoration and worships him in humility. But man also receives innumerable gifts from God and wishes to thank him. He alone is the creator of man and the last end of man. The Igbo offer sacrifice to him and the lesser divinities, spirits and ancestors. Nevertheless, the Igbo believe that God is the recipient of all sacrifices. Arinze (2008) sees sacrifice as “an act of external and public worship, made up of oblation and immolation that signify the interior disposition with which the individual or community acknowledges God’s infinite excellence and avows his subjection to God” (p. 63).
In fact, sacrifice is an act of humility and absolute dependence by man on the higher powers. In offering sacrifice, human being expresses his dependence and loyalty to the supernatural being, human being entrusts his very self and existence to his creator and enters into communion and relationship with God. This way, he is assured of protection, patronage and guidance. And all fears, anxieties, worries, and so on are removed from him.
Prayer as Offering
The word “offering” can be understood in two senses: popular and religious senses. In popular sense, offering designates letting something go for the sake of another, which is a value. For instance, someone letting something and accepting another either for a higher or for a lesser value. Or, paying a homage to a person. In religious sense, offering involves a kind of worship or sacrifice to the invisible spirits. In this sense, it is a means of expressing sacrifice, which is prayer. In other words, it is sacrifice, which is translated into a gift to the God or gods. The primary religious meaning of offering according to Metuh (1985) is that offering is “a confession of faith, a participation and cooperation in divine life” (p. 68).
Generally, offerings do not involve blood; rather it concerns the giving of all other tangible things. In other words, in offerings, blood is not shed as in sacrifice. Offerings are prayers made in faith in order to alleviate sufferings or to obtain something from the gods. In Igbo religion like in other African religion, an individual or a community may decide to offer something to the gods in order to appease them and attract their friendship. Okodo (2008) gave a good picture of offering in Igbo religion. According to him,
A village or a community or a family may suffer one problem or another, which if divined might necessitate the offering of a goat or a cow to the gods. The problem, which can be frequent deaths or any other thing, might have been caused by kidnapping of people, burying people alive or any other abomination against the land. The gods that were angered by the abomination are besought to stop visiting the people with wrath. They will beseech with the offering. In some cases the gods take the offering and get appeased. (p. 123).
Offering is one good way by which the Igbo man prays. The word nru in Igbo is always taken in the religious sense. It is a homage, which materializes in an offering. But it is not enough by itself to denote sacrifice, for it can end up at pure oblation without any species of immolation, and according to the common definition of sacrifice, immolation must be added to oblation (Arinze, 2008). Metuh (1985) attested to this fact as he says, “The Igbo ‘Living sacrifices’ demonstrate that immolation is an essential element in sacrifices” (p. 69). This remark by Metuh suggests that offerings accompanied with blood, a ritual killing or offering demonstrate that immolation of the victim is very important element in African traditional religious sacrifices. As per what happens to the offering, Metuh (1985) says that “something must be done to the offering to show that it has been removed from human use and given to God” (p. 69).
Nru, therefore, is a sacrificial homage or offering which the offerer pays to the gods. It is another way in which the traditional Igbo pray. Paying homage or worship in Igbo is called iru mmuo (to do homage to the spirits) ife mmuo, imeya mmuo, imegha alusi or imeya okposi (to worship the spirits). All these denote sacrificial offerings to the spirits, though they should not be understood to mean sacrifice in the strict sense. They are a sort of devotion which a person gives to the spirit in order to attract their attention.
Prayer as Communion with God
Ekwunife (2007) says that prayer is “a spiritual faith search-light and communication with the source of human existence” (p. 7). This statement by Ekwunife is a clear indication that prayer is a means of communion with God. By communicating with God man comes closer to the source of all things. Thus prayer is a means of renewing contact between people and God or between people and the invisible world. Mbiti (1982) was right when he says, “People turn to God generally when trouble comes. They need at such times to restore their peace, happiness and sense of security. If nothing is done, they fear that things will get worse” (p. 54).
Through prayer, man cultivates a spiritual outlook on life. He reminds himself that he is both body and spirit, and that he needs to look after both of these in order to have full integrity. Without this spiritual direction or orientation, man would feel lost in the universe, and life would seem to have no meaning. Prayer, therefore, is a means of linking the spiritual and physical worlds, putting the invisible into touch with the visible. Prayer helps people to feel that there is still a relationship between God and man, and that communication between them is still possible. In praying, people are addressing themselves to the invisible world. They do not see God, but they believe that he is present with them. This underscores why Mbiti (1982) describes prayer as “an act of pouring out the soul of the individual or community” (p. 57). Corroborating this idea, Green (1978) says, “The feelings with all their mystery and ambiguity, become central to prayer. This presents the pray-er with a whole host of problems, not only because our feelings are ambivalent but because the object of our love is, in the case of prayer, One whom we cannot see or hear or touch in the ordinary way. He is the transcendent, the all-holy One, totally beyond our sensible grasp” (p. 26).
The above suggests why the traditional Igbo man does not shy to invoke the Supreme Being, the ancestors, the divinities and certain cosmic powers in prayer. There is no doubt that in prayer the Igbo man seeks some degree of personal relationship with these spiritual beings. He indulges in anthropomorphism and allows himself good measure of liberty in the spontaneous expression of his trust, dependence and loyalty.
Igbo traditional prayers further reveal the Igbo perception of themselves and the cosmic order. The idea of prayer itself is an acknowledgement of Igbo man’s contingent nature and of his limitation in time and space. Through his individual prayer which often has a communitarian link, the Igbo affirms his personal identity as well as his group solidarity. But above all he opens up himself with all his life desires and his cosmos in humility to the higher world of spiritual being. He constantly invokes his ancestors in prayer in an effort to bring together the living and the dead in order to make a united outreach towards the spiritual realm (Metuh, 1985), to communicate with the spiritual thereby bringing together the physical and the spiritual (Anyanwu, 1999).
Also, the Igbo man is very much aware of the fleeing nature of his existence. He is concerned with both his physical and spiritual welfare. He wants to be in harmony with the world in which he is living, therefore, it is imperative on him to commune with the powers higher than himself in order to attain both his physical and spiritual goal.
From the above backdrop, we can deduce that in praying, man gets as close as he can to God, since he speaks to him directly. As a matter of fact, prayer is not only a communication but also a communion with God. In praying, man unites himself with the transcendent. Prayer is a necessity for a religious man. It is an aspect of religious inclination that brings man in communion with the invisible power.
The Spirituality of Igbo Prayers
Spirituality is a great value of Igbo religiosity. Spirituality comes out especially through prayers, invocations, rituals, offerings and sacrifices and generally, the people’s beliefs. Metuh (1985) was correct when he says, “Prayer as a living communion of the religious man with God, contains not only people’s religious beliefs but also their spirituality” (p. 148). These spiritual exercises are the outpouring of a person’s or community’s soul and spirit in the direction of the divine, the spiritual realm and its values. These values work to cultivate the area of persons that communicate with or strives towards the spiritual realm, and satisfy spiritual hunger or thirst. And so, man has to be in constant communion with the spiritual.
In general, the traditional Igbo consider the universe to be in two interlocking parts: the visible and the invisible (uwa ana ahu anya and uwa anaghi ahu anya) (Madu, 1997). Human beings live on the visible level, while God and spiritual beings exist on the invisible level. There is a link between the two worlds. God and spiritual beings make their presence felt on the visible or physical level; and the human beings project themselves into the spiritual level. Spiritual beings explain the ontological space between human beings and God. In other words, there is ontological link between the created and uncreated beings. Everything is linked like a web. Man is linked to the spiritual beings and spiritual beings are linked to man and man is linked to his fellow man and all the other elements.
Prayer helps to keep alive the link between the visible and invisible worlds, between man and God, spirits and ancestors. According to Ekwunife (2007), “Prayer is a spiritual means through which the religious man interiorly and externally communicates with God and supra-sensible beings of his invisible world. It is a religious spiritual outreach of the temporal religious man to the transcendent Being and his agents” (p. 6). Hence, prayer establishes a relationship of communication between the individual and divine being.
With reference to communal prayer, Mbiti (1975) rightly observes that “communal prayer (also) helps to cement together the members of the group in one intention, for one purpose and in one act of worship” (p. 57). This is because when people come together to participate in public or community prayer and to present their common need to the Supernatural Being, the sense of community consciousness is promoted. Each person identifies himself not as individual but as a member of the community. This also brings about harmonious living among the members of the community.
In communal prayer people feel a union with one another, usually they request for harmony in their community at the end of the prayer. In the view of Arinze (1970) “Most prayers conclude with a petition for harmony and mutual love in the community, e.g. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch; whichever says that the other will not perch let its wing break off” (p. 106). Moreover, Life is very important to Igbo man and woman that is why they will do every thing to preserve and enhance it. This explains why they visit the shrines to meet the beings greater than man. They want the protection of these beings. But these beings can be reached through prayers.
The people usually offer their prayers with kolanuts. The priest leads the people in prayer. He would intercede for them while praying with the kolanuts. He would bless and break the kolanut and gives a part of it to the spirit and chews the rest. This practice will be accompanied with libation by pouring out some quantity of palm wine to the gods. Amponsah (1975) says that “the pouring of libation is necessary act because it is a process which tends to keep us closer to our ancestors and to the gods.” (p. 49).
In line with this view, Obiagwu (2000) stated that “the practice of throwing out some part of the kolanut and pouring out some quantity of the wine during prayer is a profound manifestation of the sincerity of the invitation to the spirits and ancestors to partake in the meal or drink” (p. 49).
The priest would also offer the food cooked with chicken or other animal victim to the gods before eating his share. Other participants would also join in the eating since it is a communal prayer. Common prayer binds the partakers together and makes them feel one. The more a person or a community prays the more he increases his dependence on spiritual beings and the more he brings himself higher to spiritual living and thinks less about material things. Mbiti (1975) rightly observes that “prayers help to remove personal and communal anxieties, fears, frustrations and worries. They also help to cultivate man’s dependence on God and increase his spiritual outreach” (p. 50). Thus prayer acts as a healing balm/therapy against spiritual and physical forces.
The Igbo ask for many things in prayer. The following intentions feature prominently in Igbo prayer: children, health, long life, food, wealth, protection against one’s enemies and so on. Metuh (1985) stated that “this petition is repeated in different forms of the prayers” (p. 147). However, one observes that all these petitions revolve around sustainability of life as Metuh (1985) submitted, “the theme of life runs through almost all the prayers” (p. 147). This is because Ndu bu isi (life is the primary thing). All other things stand or fall with life. Thus the Igbo pray Onye wetere oji, wetere ndu (who brings kola, brings life).
Obiagwu (2000) submitted that “For the Igbo life is the greatest and most precious gift from God. Life is not just to exist; it is the full dynamic existence” (p. 40). Metuh (1985) corroborated this view when he stated that “Life, for the Igbo, means fullness of being – long life, health, renown and a bright future, not just bare survival” (p. 148). Therefore, the Igbo cherishes life and jealously guards, enhances and preserves it. Thus he prays for long life. In his morning prayers (igo oji ututu), the family head prays for life, for good health, for recovery from sickness and against death. He also asks for other worldly things for his family. His prayers of petition are full of life and prosperity.
Igbo names also depict the great value and respect the Igbo has for life. Thus the Igbo names his son Nduka (Life is greater), Ndubia (May life come), Nwamaka (What a beauty to have a child), Ifeyinwa (There is nothing like a child). Life is also sacred and belongs to God, hence names like Chinwendu (Life belongs to God) and Chikwendu (If God agrees to life).
The Igbo, therefore, goes at any length to preserve life. Anything that goes contrary to life is regarded as wicked and evil. To take away life in any unapproved form is a serious crime. People who happen to commit suicide for any reason are not buried or mourned and there is no funeral rites performed for them and they are thrown away into the forest as a sign of rejection by the living and the gods. It is believed that they will not reach the abode of the ancestors. Their spirits wander about and are classified as akalogeli (a group of evil spirit). The Igbo culture also forbids abortion, euthanasia, murder and all other crimes that tamper with life and dignity of human person. It is strongly believed that it is a sin against the earth’s spirit to take away life and such a crime is punishable by either ostracization or tit for tat.
In prayer, man sometimes discovers his weaknesses and inadequacies on the one hand, and God’s all-powerful and all-knowing on the other. He, therefore, takes refuge in God’s hands, where he is assured of maximum security. In Igbo prayer, purity and cleanliness of heart are cultivated before approaching God (Itu ogu). This is because the Igbo believe that God is holy, pure and clean. The Igbo pray, perform sacrifices and other rituals of worship in trust, faith and confidence, believing that God is there and the spiritual realm is there for him, therefore, he moves in word towards the spiritual realities. A spiritual element of struggle, wrestling, desperation and sorrow may express themselves in prayer, depending on the person’s relationship with God and other spiritual beings.
The Igbo believes that he is not master of the universe. He never crowns himself head of the universe. Basden (1966) confirms this when he says, “The insufficiency of man and his consequent inability to walk uprightly is recognized by the Ibo” (p. 59). God is the creator; he preserves and protects him. He recognizes God’s supreme dominion. Arinze (2008) captures the Igbo man’s belief in God’s supremacy thus “The Igbo recognizes God’s supreme dominion and knows that no spirit can do anything if Chukwu (Supreme God) decides otherwise, even if the blood of victim keeps flowing” (p. 86). He, therefore, thank him through prayers, sacrifices and offerings. The Igbo man equally placates the other spirits and ancestors so as to continue enjoying their patronage, protection and fortunes and as well maintaining cordial relationship with his fellow men.
During prayers it is the spiritual aspect of man that communicates with God and this brings about temporal withdrawal from worldly things. Prayer provides a channel through which man presents his needs and problems to the object of worship.
Prayer is not only used to alleviate anxieties but also to inculcate social integration and sense of collective responsibility. When people come together to present their common problems and needs to their object of worship, they see themselves as members of a particular community not as individuals.
Prayer also helps in promoting harmony in the society. People recognize themselves as one people with the same intention when they come together to pray as a community. Through prayer they recognize the principle of live and let live, which guides the behavior of every individual towards another within the society. This is explained in the popular Igbo saying: “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch…”
Prayer also helps to reduce anxieties, worries, frustrations and so on. The Igbo man knows that his continued existence in the universe depends on his relationship with the invisible spirits and the ancestors, he is at the centre of everything, and therefore, he needs their continued assistance. He will do everything to continue to enjoy this privilege. This explains why he will do everything to stand in equilibrium with the spirits and his neighbours.
1. It is observed that the proliferation of churches and exodus to other cultural areas, have seriously affected the Igbo traditional prayers. Therefore, effort should be made to teach people their traditional religion.
2. The Igbo should be encouraged to protect their tradition instead of shying away from it.
3. It is seriously and strongly recommended that the Igbo should be presenting and praying with kolanut at the gatherings/meetings that involve them because sharing and eating kolanut symbolizes communion between the living and the dead.
4. The Igbo should specify at least once every year when they should gather to honour their relatives who lived well and have departed this world.
5. For the Igbo life is supreme. Respect for human life, preservation and enhancement of life is at the heart of every Igbo man and woman, therefore, the Igbo should not encourage the modern illegal way of eliminating life especially abortion and euthanasia.
6. The idea of community as the milieu to grow caters for social nature of the Igbo. Africans have such an acute sense of solidarity and community life that life is meaningless without others. The Igbo should, therefore, adopt the original sense of community life where everybody is his brother’s keeper. The Igbo should not adopt or allow individualism to creep into their life-system.
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