Duality in Igbo Culture: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I wanted to share this essay I wrote a while back exploring duality in Igbo culture, one of the peoples of Southeast Nigeria whose anthropology I find fascinating. We could learn a lot from them!


As the Igbo proverb goes, “Ife kwulu, ife akwudebe ya,” or “when one thing stands, something else stands beside it” (Okafor 70). The Igbo principle of dualism is a central theme integral to and affecting every aspect of Igbo society, including social relations, religion, government, and general perspectives on life. There are two different, equally applicable interpretations of dualism in this sense: first, that the Igbo believe in coexistence; and second, that Igbo believe that where one thing stands, another always stands as well-whether to complement, oppose, or support the former. By understanding that not all things lie on extreme ends of the spectrum, the Igbo can view things in varying shades of grey rather than black and white, which can be quite desirable in a community. Regarding all facets of life as complementary allows the Igbo to be an extraordinarily egalitarian, just, democratic, and adaptive people. However, perhaps ironically, the Igbo can still fall prey to the human vice of ignorance of others’ worldviews, especially those that are particularly singular or imperialistic in essence. One would perhaps assume that a people holding a dualistic interpretation of the world’s workings would be an almost perfectly egalitarian, inclusive society-but after further contemplation, one must realize that this of course cannot possibly be the case. Rare or perhaps nonexistent is the society in which even an abiding principle is perfectly, universally followed. The Igbo principle of pluralism is thus desirable because it allows for a more democratic and just society, undesirable because it can engender ignorance of existence of the principle of singularity in other cultures, and ironic because there can still be huge disparities between members in Igbo society. Each of these ideas is explored throughout Chinua Achebe’s novels.

The precept of dualism is an Igbo universal. As Victor Uchendu says, “Existence for the Igbo… is a dual but interrelated phenomenon involving the interaction between the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the good and the bad, the living and the dead” (Uchendu 12), which mandates “‘the element of balance by virtue of which the relationship of the two terms of duality is complementary rather than contrary (Nwodo 15)’” (Ndibe, History and Memory). Achebe remarks that duality makes the Igbo world “an arena for the interplay of forces…” (Foreword, Igbo arts) which lends its people and society a “dynamism, multidimensionality, and nonlinear character” of thought (Cole 216).

To explain the concept of duality further, Achebe shares with the reader an anecdote in his essay in A Celebration: Chinua Achebe describing the appearance of a District Commissioner in an Igbo village’s midst and the peoples’ subsequent actions to include this new addition to their world in the ritual mbari art ceremony: “The Igbo insist that any presence which is ignored, denigrated, denied acknowledgement and celebration can become a focus for anxiety and disruption. To them, celebration is the acknowledgement of a presence, the courtesy of giving to everybody his due” (3). Achebe goes on to say that mbari is about expanding the definition of art to include all experiences that are significant, rather than celebrating joyous occasions and happy events. Contrasting with the western mode of thought that finds it perfectly acceptable to ignore that which is unimportant to a person or community, the Igbo people consider it a travesty to exclude even the ordinary. The implications of pluralism on Igbo society are both deep and broad. Aspects of Igbo life impacted by dualism include social relations, religion, government, and the Igbo worldview in general.

One example of Igbo dualism is demonstrated in their cosmology and religion. Within Igbo cosmology is the idea that balancing complementary opposites forms the basis for maintenance of harmony between worlds: “In his role as mediator, the priest became both man and spirit. The people perceived him as such when he performed the duties of his office (Basden: 1938, 132-133)” (Kalu 140). Duality is a central principle both in the role the priest plays (in balancing and mediating complementary or opposing forces) and in the personas he characterizes (godly and human). Uchendu explains that in Igbo society, “…neither the world of man alone nor the world of the spirits is a permanent home. The two worlds together constitute a home” (15). Further,

“The world as a natural order which inexorably goes on its ordained way according to a ‘master plan’ is foreign to Igbo conceptions. Rather, their world is a dynamic one… the Igbo believe that… social calamities and cosmic forces which disturb their world are controllable and should be ‘manipulated’ by them for their own purpose. The maintenance of social and cosmological balance in the world becomes, therefore, a dominant and pervasive theme in Igbo life” (Uchendu 12-13).

In regards to religious duality, the Igbo believe in numerous gods. As Achebe writes in Anthills of the Savannah, “‘Agwu (a god) does not call a meeting to choose his seers and diviners and artists… (125)” (Omiegbe 190). This perspective differs from Christianity in which the belief of one god is paramount and those who worship more than one god defy the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Furthermore, Igbo people recognize that more than one religion can exist in the world and do not believe in forcing their own religion upon others. In Home and Exile, Achebe shares a story that sheds light on the significance of this view:

“…one of Ogidi’s neighbouring towns had… made a request to Ogidi to settle there… Ogidi people welcomed the newcomers, who then [asked] to be shown how to worship the gods of Ogidi. What had they done with their own gods? Ogidi people wondered at first but finally decided that a man who asked you for your god must have a terrible story one should not pry into” (12).

The profound significance of this story, Achebe elucidates, lies in the “reluctance of an Igbo town to foist its religious beliefs and practices on a neighbor across the road, even when it was invited to do so” (Achebe, Home and Exile 12). Clearly, the Igbo principle of dualism plays a significant role in shaping the people’s perspective on religion and the coexistence of different religions.

In Igbo cosmology, balance is a crucial factor which all strive to maintain:

“Arising from the duality phenomenon is the Igbo concern for the maintenance of balance in one’s life. Because Igbo cosmology envisages the simultaneous functioning of numerous and sometimes antagonistic forces, one is counseled to thread one’s way cautiously so as not to offend any of the contending spirits. Extremism of any kind is thus perceived to be dangerous, as encapsulated in the following proverb: ife belu n’oke ka dibia n’agwo (the healer can cure only something within bounds)” (Okafor 70).

Due to his aversion to all things resembling his father, Unoka, whom Okonkwo perceives as weak, Okonkwo “strives at all times to exhibit heroic courage, which pushes him to commit excesses, like killing Ikemefuna” (Okafor 72): “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut [Ikemefuna] down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (38). His psyche is so traumatized by his father’s penury that “Okonkwo… does not see the full range of possibilities inherent in every situation…” and as Okafor further attests, “Okonkwo’s inability to recognize the duality and complexity of life situations is a major handicap, since it reveals a fundamental lack of balance in his life” (72).

Thus, when Okonkwo displays extremist views through his actions in Things Fall Apart, it is hardly surprising that he causes a great deal of alarm and bewilderment among his fellow villagers. Indeed, Achebe attests that “…all extremism is abhorrent to the Igbo sentimentality” (Foreword, Igbo Arts). Clement Okafor argues, “Okonkwo’s problems… emanate from his inability to practice [an] Igbo ideal, balance in one’s assessment of situations, since he usually takes extremist positions in life” (Okafor 72). Okonkwo is driven by the search for balance in his life, especially balancing out his father’s affect on the community, but he is unable to find it due to a deep psychic wound inflicted upon him by the shameful memory of his father’s actions.

Among the things that Okonkwo sees in black and white includes the power men and women are allocated in Igbo society. He does not understand that women have a place and a prescribed set of powers in Igbo society alongside men, and his actions betray his imbalanced notions of life. Although Igbo society seems predominately patriarchal on the surface, women do wield a considerable amount of influence:

“The idea of woman as counterpart to man is strongly emphasized. The female principle is revered. In the Igbo pantheon, the most revered and feared deity is Ala, the Earth Goddess. Shrines are built for her, and special priests, the Ezeala, are in charge of these… In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays how the Week of Peace is held to ‘honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow’ (22)” (Kalu 146-7).

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays that the deity of war in Igbo society is Agbala, represented by a wretched, vulnerable one-legged elderly woman and whose oracle is called Chielo, a term that can be used for an effeminate man. The fact that the term has two meanings means that “male” and “female” are not mutually exclusive; there is masculine in the feminine and feminine in the masculine. Further, the fact that the symbol of the war deity in Umuofia is the epitome of feminine vulnerability demonstrates the Igbo principle of dualism. Teresa Njoku also asserts that Achebe emphasizes the androgyny of Igbo society in his novels:

Anthills is androgynous because Achebe exposes in it, ‘a sense of waste of lost spiritual and sexual power, of equality of worth between the sexes…’ (Heilbrun, Carolyn 1982: 59)… Achebe goes to a great extent to show the potentiality in the complementarity of the sexes… Achebe has created both male and female characters that are likeable… the author prescribes androgyny for the society” (Njoku 336-7).

However, Okonkwo feels that he is above and separated from such nonsense and instead treats Chielo like a normal person when she comes to take his daughter away, pleading with her to “come back in the morning because Ezinma was now asleep.” Chielo, channeling Agbala, replies, “Beware, Okonkwo!… Does a man speak when a god speaks?” (60). Okonkwo’s disrespect for Agbala belies his inability to recognize that forces other than himself exist in the world and that women wield power in Igbo society as well as men. Other instances in which Okonkwo scornfully demeans the very definition of woman include 1) his repeated lamentations that Ezinma “should have been a boy” (Achebe, Things Fall Apart 39), 2) his assertion that “no matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (33).

Njoku explains why Okonkwo ultimately fails:

“All individuals have to be able to balance both the male and female principles in themselves to maintain their positions in the society… men like Unoka fail because they manifest only the female principle, while the Okonkwos fail because they cannot maintain the balance between the two principles” (Njoku 147).

Okonkwo believes he will achieve communal validation through upholding tradition and personal achievement, but the community’s traditional values and definition of achievement are based upon pluralism, something that does not resonate with any frequency of Okonkwo’s heartstrings. Ergo, at the center of the sense of irony that emanates from Okonkwo’s life lies the lack of dualism in Okonkwo’s worldview and actions.

The precept of dualism is desirable in Igbo society as demonstrated by its positive effects on religion, social relations, and government. Uchendu refers to social relations as “beneficial reciprocities” in Igbo society, because

“Those relationships not considered mutually beneficial tend to remain fragile. Parties to a relationship, whether they are human or spiritual, are expected to fulfill some obligation and to derive some reward… As the Igbo proverb puts it, ‘It is only proper that the left and right palms should wash each other so that both might be clean’” (14).

Similarly, when it comes to government, the same principle of balance of forces is seen at work in Igbo legal procedures, which

“Aim essentially at readjusting social relations…. The spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law… Judgment among the Igbo ideally involves a ‘hostile’ compromise in which there is neither victor nor vanquished” (Uchendu 14).

Here the principle of dualism is beneficial to society because often the most fair and just solution to a conflict does not result in a clear win or loss for either side, as is generally the case for the more singular western mode of thought. In an example elucidating the Igbo ways of governing (the Aro), Uchendu explains, “The principle of equal sharing of rights and privileges is sacred. To be effective decisions must be unanimous, since there is no sanction strong enough to coerce any dissenting member into submission” (45-6). Igbos prize an egalitarian government where “there are leaders rather than rulers, and political cohesion is achieved by rules rather than by laws and by consensus rather than by dictation” (46). Democracy reaches new heights in Igbo society due to dualism. This precept also safeguards against potential imperialists:

“Domination by a few powerful men or spirits is deeply resented. A relationship that is one-sided, either in its obligation or in its reward system, does not last long among them. Imbalance, either in the social or in the spiritual world, is considered a trouble indicator” (Uchendu 15).

Okafor further explains,

“According to Green, the Igbo ‘have no hierarchy of powers rising from a broad democratic basis through ascending levels to one central peak,’ rather, ‘Ibo democracy… works through a number of juxtaposed groups and a system of balances’ (145). This egalitarian principle is expressed in the famous statement: Igbo enwe eze (the Igbo do not have kings)” (Okafor 68).

Dualism works in their favor, then, by establishing a more democratic, egalitarian, just society.

Achebe demonstrates the strife that erupts within Igbo society when an imperialist imposes his will upon them in Arrow of God. The priest Ezeulu is obsessed with power, and toys with the idea of exploitatively wielding his religious power as a priest throughout the entire novel. As the novel nears its end, Ezeulu attempts to establish himself as a potentate by preventing the people from harvesting their plants (he declares the agricultural timeline) and potentially sentences his entire village to death by starvation. Ultimately, his ploy is unsuccessful and results in his downfall. Earlier in the novel, Achebe establishes that Ezeulu’s fatal flaw is that he “expected everyone… to think and act like himself” (93). At one point in the novel, Ezeulu even divides Umuaro into “ordinary people who had nothing but goodwill for him and those others whose ambition sought to destroy the central unity of the six villages” (187). It is due to this inability to think dualistically that contributes to Ezeulu’s imperialistic power-hungry mindset resultant downfall.

Dualism is also favorable to Igbo society because it allows for an adaptive mindset. Uchendu describes the Igbo world as one “…in which change is constantly expected. Its contractual character makes it a constantly changing world” (Uchendu 15). Okafor also point out: “As Simon Ottenberg has observed in his study, the democratic nature of Igbo society… has enabled its people to adapt rapidly to the modern, Western way of life” (Okafor 69).   In said study, Ottenberg makes the paradoxical statement that “of all Nigerian peoples, the Ibo have probably changed the least while changing the most” (142). The premise of this argument is that the Igbo, with their dualistic worldview that makes them so receptive to change, have a “tradition” of adaptation. Ergo, at their roots, they have changed their fundamental principles very little by transforming their society when adaptation becomes necessary-such as when the Europeans showed up at their front doorstep. As Ndibe says of imperialistic forces, “the external aggressor remaps and reshapes the autochthonous community,” (History and Memory) and in Igbo society, adaptation allows for reshaping without destruction.

Each set of doctrines that guides a community has its advantages and its disadvantages, and Igbo pluralism is no exception. In those villages in which a unanimous vote is required to put a proposal into action, decision-making can be a difficult, lengthy, and tedious process. More importantly, the Igbo, although extraordinarily accepting of individuality and differences amongst peoples, are still susceptible to ignorance of others’ worldviews. It can be very difficult therefore for pluralistic Igbos to comprehend and deal with extremists or unbalanced or unfair situations. For example, things that are extreme in nature itself such as natural disasters, disease, and tragedies may be explained by assigning blame to a person, especially because the Igbo believe in the ability to manipulate their world. These people may be considered aberrant and subsequently marginalized; something that one would not expect to exist within such an egalitarian society. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays how people who suffer certain illnesses and infant twins were thrown unceremoniously into the “Evil Forest,” the place where all things profane dwell and go to rot because they are too foul to bury in the earth.

Along the same lines, extremists in Igbo society are difficult to deal with, as demonstrated by Okonkwo and Ezeulu. When Okonkwo strikes down the white man’s messenger come to disassemble the village meeting, the people ask, “Why did he do it?” (116). They simply cannot understand why someone would stray from the prescribed, traditional process of decision-making that involves thinking before acting, something that Okonkwo proves time and time again to be utterly incapable of. Igbo pluralism barred the understanding of and subsequent action opposing the mumpsimus of singularity that was, and perhaps remains to be, Western thought. Achebe elucidates in Home and Exile,

“Surely such a people [who believe in the coexistence of different religions] cannot have had any notion of religious imperialism. And that innocence would have placed them at a great disadvantage later when they came to deal with European evangelism. Perhaps the sheer audacity of some stranger wandering thousands of miles from his home to tell them they were worshipping false gods may have left them open-mouthed in amazement—and actually aided their rapid conversion!” (Achebe, Home and Exile 12-13).

Thus, dualism can be undesirable in certain situations-especially those in which Igbo society is pressed to step into the shoes of a person with a singular worldview and interact with that person on a daily basis. Where the Igbo citizen is dualistic, the westerner is as adamantly singular, believing in one notion to the exclusion of all else. Ndibe aptly adds: “Renan [contends] that ‘regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races is part of the providential order of things for humanity’ (Cesaire 17)” (Ndibe, History and Memory). Apart from being supercilious and bigoted, this sentiment reflects the black and white division implicit in singular thought. Furthermore, Ndibe delineates imperialism as the opposite of duality:

“where imperialism stands, nothing else may stand beside it. Imperialism is then, first and foremost, the ‘Thing’ that stands alone. Its stance bespeaks a desire to silence other narratives and to squelch discourses that seek to ‘stand beside’” (History and Memory).

European singularity proves itself right in a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Okonkwo, an imperial force, comes up against a larger imperial force, he ultimately fulfills his own prophecy – that he and another imperial force cannot stand side by side with one another – by committing suicide. As Ndibe points out, the “‘thing that stands besides’ encodes alternatives, embodies possibilities, and offers a harvest of blueprints and departures” (History and Memory). Perhaps the Igbo can help us to recognize the things that stand beside us. It is this possibility that I cling to, because I am ashamed of and disappointed in my society when it stands next to the Igbos’.

It is significant that an Igbo – Chinua Achebe himself, in fact – was one of the first to point out:

“The new literature in Africa is aware of the possibilities available to it for celebrating humanity in our continent. It is aware also that our world interlocks more and more with the worlds of others. For, as [a] character in Ambiguous Adventure says to a Frenchman: ‘we have not had the same past you and ourselves, but we shall have strictly the same future. The era of separate destinies has run its course’ (p. 79). If we accept that, and I don’t see that we have much choice, then we had better learn to appreciate one another’s presence and to accord to every people their due of human respect.”

We have the same goal, Chinua Achebe. May we both have luck in accomplishing it. For now, let us remember, “O te aka o di njo, emesie o ga-adi mma.”


Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration.” Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Eds. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford. Oxford and Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991. 1-10. Print.

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1969. Print.

Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. New York: Anchor Books, 2001. Print.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print.

Cole, Herbert M, and Chike Cyril Aniakor, eds. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, 1984. Print.

Kalu, Anthonia C. “Achebe and Duality in Igbo Thought.” Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Eds. Ernest N. Emenyonu and Iniobong I. Uko. Vol. 2. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2004. Print.

Kane, Chiekh Hamidou. Ambiguous Adventure. Trans. Katherine Woods. London: Heinemann, 1972. Print.

Ndibe, Okey. History and memory in the fiction of Chinua Achebe, John Edgar Wideman, and Zakes Mda. Diss. Electronic Doctoral Dissertations for UMass Amherst, 2009. Electronic. October 27, 2012.

Njoku, Teresa. “Male Politics and Female Power in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.” Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Ed. Ernest N. Emenyonu. Vol.1. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2004. Print.

Okafor, Clement. “Igbo Cosmology and the Parameters of Individual Accomplishment in Things Fall Apart.” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Ed. Isidore Okpewho. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 67-81. Print.

Omiegbe, Odirin. “Chinua Achebe and Igbo (African) Traditional Religion.” Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Eds. Ernest N. Emenyonu and Iniobong I. Uko. Vol. 2. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2004. Print.

Ottenberg, Simon. “Ibo Receptivity to Change.” Continuity and Change in African Culture. Eds. William Bascom and Melville Herskovits. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970. Print.

Uchendu, Victor C. The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria. Belmont: Thomson, 2004. Print.


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