Igbo People

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LOCATION: Southern Nigeria (Igboland)

POPULATION: 5.5 million

LANGUAGE: Igbo (Kwa subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family)

RELIGION: Tribal religion


The Igbo are the second largest group of people living in southern Nigeria. They are socially and culturally diverse, consisting of many subgroups. Although they live in scattered groups of villages, they all speak one language.

The Igbo have no common traditional story of their origins. Historians have proposed two major theories of Igbo origins. One claims the existence of a core area, or “nuclear Igboland.” The other claims that the Igbo are descended from waves of immigrants from the north and the west who arrived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Three of these are the Nri, Nzam, and Anam.

European contact with the Igbo began with the arrival of the Portuguese in the mid-fifteenth century. At first the Europeans confined themselves to slave trade on the Niger Coast. At this point, the main item of commerce provided by the Igbo was slaves, many of whom were sent to the New World. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, British companies pushed beyond the coastal areas and aggressively pursued control of the interior. The Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, created in 1900, included Igboland. Until 1960, Nigeria remained a British colony, and the Igbo were British subjects. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent nation structured as a federation of states.


Igboland is located in southeastern Nigeria, with a total land area of about 15,800 square miles (about 41,000 square kilometers). The Igbo country has four distinct areas. The low-lying deltas and riberbank areas are heavily inundated during the rainy season, and are very fertile. The central belt is a rather high plain. The Udi highlands are the only coal-mining area in West Africa.

It is difficult to obtain accurate census figures for either the Igbo or for Nigeria as a whole. The Igbo population is estimated to be between 5 and 6 million.


The Igbo language belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. It is part of the Kwa subfamily. A complicated system of high and low tones indicates differences in meaning and grammatical relationships. There are a wide range of dialects.

English Igbo
Hello, how are you? Kedu ka imelu? or Kedu ka idi? or Olee etu imere?
What is your name? Kedu aha gi?
Thank you Ndewo, or Deeme


The Igbo have a system of folk beliefs that explains how everything in the world came into being. It explains what functions the heavenly and earthly bodies have and offers guidance on how to behave toward gods, spirits, and one’s ancestors.

The Igbo believe the world is peopled by invisible and visible forces: by the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. Reincarnation is seen as a bridge between the living and the dead.


The major beliefs of the Igbo religion are shared by all Igbo-speaking people. However, many of its practices are locally organized, with the most effective unit of religious worship being the extended family. Periodic rituals and ceremonies may activate the lineage (larger kinship unit) or the village, which is the widest political community.

The Igbo believe in a supreme god who keeps watch over his creatures from a distance. He seldom interferes in the affairs of human beings. No sacrifices are made directly to him. However, he is seen as the ultimate receiver of sacrifices made to the minor gods. To distinguish him from the minor gods he is called Chukwu—the great or the high god. As the creator of everything, he is called Chukwu Abiama.

There are also minor gods, who are generally subject to human passions and weaknesses. They may be kind, hospitable, and industrious; at other times they are treacherous, unmerciful, and envious. These minor gods include Ala, the earth goddess. She is associated with fertility, both of human beings and of the land. Anyanwu is the sun god who makes crops and trees grow. Igwe is the sky god, the source of rain.

In addition to their gods, the Igbo believe in a variety of spirits whose good will depends on treating them well. Forests and rivers at the edge of cultivated land are said to be occupied by these spirits. Mbataku and Agwo are spirits of wealth. Others include Aha njoku (the yam spirit) and Ikoro (the drum spirit).

The Igbo attitude toward their deities and spirits is not one of fear but one of friendship.


The Igbo celebrate the major national holidays of Nigeria, including New Year’s Day (January 1), Easter (March or April), Nigerian Independence Day (October 1), and Christmas (December 24 to 26).

In addition, each town has its own local festivals. Those in the spring or summer are held to welcome the new agricultural cycle. In the fall, harvest festivals are held to mark the end of the cycle.


Circumcision takes place about eight days after the birth of a boy. At this time the umbilical cord is buried at the foot of a tree selected by the child’s mother.

The name-giving ceremony is a formal occasion celebrated by feasting and drinking. A wide variety of names may be chosen. The name may be based on anything from the child’s birthmarks to the opinion of the diviner, or seer. The name Nwanyimeole —”What can a woman do?”—means that a father desires a male child. Onwubiko —”May death forgive”—expresses the fact that parents have lost many of their children and pray that this child may survive.

The process of marrying a young Igbo woman is a long, elaborate one. It is rarely accomplished in less than a year and often takes several years. The process falls into four stages: asking the young woman’s consent, negotiating through a middleman, testing the bride’s character, and paying the bride wealth, a kind of dowry.

Death in old age is accepted as a blessing. After death, the body is clothed in the person’s finest garments. The corpse is placed on a stool in a sitting posture. Old friends and relatives visit and pay their last respects. Young men wrap the corpse in grass mats, carry it out to the burial ground, and bury it. When the head of a family dies, he is buried beneath the floor of his house. Burial generally follows within twenty-four hours of death.


Two criteria shape interpersonal relations: age and gender. Respect is given to males, and to older persons. Children are always required to offer the first greeting to their elders.

Social status is based on wealth, regardless of occupation. The Igbo distinguish between obgenye or mbi (the poor), dinkpa (the moderately prosperous), and nnukwu madu or ogaranya (the rich).


Village life has changed considerably since the discovery of oil in Nigeria. Houses, which used to have mud walls and thatched roofs, are now constructed of cement blocks with corrugated iron roofs. Electricity has been introduced; television sets and radios are now commonplace. Villages have running water, although it is not connected to every house.


Under the practice of polygyny, many Igbo men have more than one wife. A successful man marries as many wives as he can support. This involves providing farm plots to help the women and their dependents make a living. The polygynous family is made up of a man and his wives and all their children. Beyond that unit is the extended family, consisting of all the sons in a family and their parents, wives, and unmarried daughters. The extended family may have anywhere from five to thirty members. Ideally, all of the members of the extended family live in one large compound.

The Igbo family has changed in recent years. Christian marriage and civil marriage are important innovations. Among Igbo professional people, the trend is toward the nuclear family with its own residence.


The everyday clothing in urban areas is not different from that of Westerners. Traditional clothing is still worn on important occasions in the cities and every day in rural areas. For everyday wear men wear a cotton wrap (robe), a shirt, and sandals. For formal occasions they wear a long shirt, often decorated with tucks and embroidery, over a dressy wrap, shoes, and a hat. Women wear wraps for both informal and formal occasions. The everyday wrapper is made from inexpensive cotton, dyed locally. For formal wear, the wrapper is either woven or batikdyed, and often imported.

The blouse for formal wear is made of lace or embroidered. Women also wear a head tie, a rectangular piece of cloth that can be worn a number of different ways. The Igbo traditional dress is a danshiki , a long, loose-fitting top. Formerly Igbo women added pieces of cloth to show their marital status and number of children.

12 • FOOD

The yam is the staple food of the Igbo. Traditionally, the yam was the food of choice for ceremonial occasions. Nowadays it has been replaced by rice. Other starchy foods include cassava, taro root, maize and plantains.

A typical meal includes a starch and a soup or stew, prepared with a vegetable to which pieces of fish, chicken, beef, or goat meat are added. Jollof rice of various types is popular throughout Nigeria. Among the Igbo who live near waterways it is often prepared with shrimp. The following recipe is very popular.


Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has set a priority on education. Universal primary education is the norm in southern Nigeria, where the Igbo live. Secondary education has also developed rapidly.


The Igbo have number of wind and stringed musical instruments. The ugene is a whistle made of baked clay, round in form, and about the size of a billiard ball. Probably the most interesting of the Igbo instruments is the ubaw-akwala, a sort of guitar. It has a triangular body formed by three pieces of soft wood sewn together. It is played by strolling singers in the evenings. Igbo singers improvise as the song proceeds and show great skill in fitting words to the song’s rhythm and tune.


Shrimp Jollof Rice


  • 1 pound of shrimp, cooked, shelled, and deveined
  • 2 or 3 fresh tomatoes, or 1 8-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 cup white rice cooked in chicken broth according to directions on the package


  1. Heat the peanut oil in a large kettle.
  2. Add the tomato, peppers, onion, and cook for about 3 minutes until the onions and peppers are softened.
  3. Add the tomato paste, about 2 cups of water, and the red pepper flakes and black pepper. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
  4. While this is simmering, cook the rice in another pot according to package directions.
  5. Add the shrimp and simmer about 5 minutes longer.
  6. Combine the shrimp sauce with the rice, and pour mixture into an ovenproof dish and cover.
  7. Place in an oven set at 250° F . Bake until the liquid is absorbed completely.
  8. Stir to loosen the rice grains and serve.

The flavors improve if this dish is made several hours in advance and allowed to rest in the oven with the door ajar.

Dancing is a great Igbo pastime, practiced by everybody. There are special dances for boys, girls, men, women, and mixed groups. Group dancing is associated with religious observances and festivals.


The traditional Igbo economy depends on root-crop farming. Yams, cassava and taro are the chief root crops. There is a division of labor according to gender. Men clear the bush and plant the yams with the help of the women and the children. Following the planting of yams, plots are allocated to the women individually. Each woman plants other crops in the spaces between the yams and also on the slopes of hills.

Trading is an old occupation among the Igbo. The marketplace has become an important source of livelihood. An increasing number of Igbo are now engaged in wage labor. Growing cities, expanding road construction, new industries, and oil exploration are creating many job opportunities.


Wrestling is the most popular sport among boys and young men, with great annual contests in every part of Igbo country.

The other popular sport is soccer. Traditionally played only by boys, it has been introduced to girls through the school system.


Traditional entertainment includes storytelling, rituals, dancing, and music making. Modern forms of entertainment include watching television and going to movies and discos. Most households own radios, and there are several television sets in each village. The Igbo enjoy games, including card games and checkers. Among the younger people American youth culture is popular. Most enjoy listening to rap and rock music.


The Igbo practice a number of crafts, some performed by men only and some by women. Carving is a skilled occupation practiced only by men. They produce doors and panels for houses, as well as stools, dancing masks, and boxes. Another valued craft is that of the blacksmith.

Women’s crafts include pottery making, spinning, weaving, basketry, and grass plaiting.


The Igbo have been seriously affected by national problems ranging from civil war to military coups.

The crime rate in Nigeria is high. The problem is worst in larger urban centers, but rural areas are also affected. The crime wave was aggravated by the worsening economic conditions of the 1980s. Drug-related crime emerged as a major problem. Igboland has so far escaped the worst of this, although marijuana use among young people has been reported.


Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Njoku, John E. Eberegbulam. The Igbos of Nigeria: Ancient Rites, Changes, and Survival. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1990.

Ogbaa, Kalu. Igbo . Heritage Library of African Peoples. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.


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