Igbo Traditional healer (Dibia)

Dibia are the mystic mediators between the human world and the spirit world and act as healers, scribes, teachers, diviners and advisors of people in the community. They are usually consulted at the shrine of a communities major deity. Dibia is a compound of the words di (‘professional, master, husband’) + ọ́bị̀à (‘doctoring, sciences’). The dibia are believed to be destined for spiritual work. The dibia sees the spiritual world at any time and interprets what messages being sent and sees the spiritual problems of living people. They are given the power by the spirit world to identify any alusi by name and the possible ways of placating and negotiating with the deity. Dibia are thought to be revealed to possess the power over one of three elements namely water (and large bodies of water), fire and vegetation. Dibia whose elements are vegetation can go on to become herbalists by their supposed instinctual knowledge of the health benefits of certain plants they are instinctually drawn to, fire element dibia can handle fire unscathed during their initiation, and water element dibia do not drown. Dibia can partially enter the spirit world and communicate this by rubbing chalk on one half of their face. Dibia and obia practices were transported to the British Caribbean during the slave trade and became known as obeah. However a dibia is concurrently referred to as a native doctor, witch doctor, pagan priest, and other nuances over time to reflect deeper things in Igbo life and culture. Isiguzo captures one characterization of a dibia as eze nmuo due to colour and attire put on at rituals while discussing African culture and symbolism. Drawing from fieldwork in Igboland and by adopting a descriptive and semantic approach, the paper shows the form of endogenous power and resources Igbo healers offer to critical healing needed in the pragmatics of illness interventions. I start with the etymology of dibia, followed by the clarification of transformational Igbo sage valourizing – dibia bu agbara to bekee bu agbara – that has become a colonial signature in the Nigerian technological development psyche and imagination.

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The collective association of healers are called Ndi Oha Dibia.

Dibia is formed by two words: di and bia. The prefix di refers to a master, holder of authority and power like in di bi ulo (household head), di nta (master hunter), and di mgba (master wrestler). Forming words of mastery and expertise by using the prefix di is common in Igbo logic of naming and characterizing activities of mastery and competence. Yet joining di to bia does not immediately bring out the connotation of someone to be a healer. I sought to know why bia is joined to di in the case of healing. Further explanation held that di~bia is a shortened form of dibiala (master of things of the land, community, cosmological forces, fortune, misfortune, illness and remedy).

It is sensible to say that a dibia is one who has a deep knowledge and skills of holding a land and its people for peace and growth. As di, a healer is ascribed with the power and authority of a master to welcome and direct the things of the land through rites of kinship cohesion, fecundity and progress. The suffix bia from di means ability to welcome and direct events, life courses and order of a society. Culturally, I point out that a dibia (dibiala) is a designer of fortune and cleanser of wrongs of the land. The dibia stands out as a cultural ethical ritual logician who welcomes, directs and provides endogenous means of interactive embodiments and cosmology of life forces as a whole. A dibia is therefore a master of the land ethos – offering ancestral wisdom, customs and traditions of being and becoming. Ala, land as pointed out by Uwazie forms the central core of Igbo consciousness. Isichei noted it as the totality of Igbo life – for that reason culture and customs revolve around it at the watch of the elders and ritual experts, namely the dibia. Essentially the moral universe of the Igbo, their food and water, gods, destinies, opportunities, misfortunes, illnesses and remedial ways are from the land. Nonetheless a dibia for the Igbo is a cosmological engineer – a relational order builder of this world and that world, health and society, descent and blood, kin-people and neighbours, fortune and misfortune, fecundity and expansion. Csorda’s recognition of embodiment as a paradigm for knowledge system reflects the dibia as a body that heals. The argument is that the body that we heal is not an object to be studied in relation to culture, but is to be considered as the subject of culture. In other words, a dibia is to be seen as the existential ground of culture, knowledge system, of the land and all else

Of dibia, agbara, bekee and colonial signature 

In Igbo oracle of life and culture, dibia bu agbara, it is said. That is, a dibia is often rightly or wrongly viewed as a transformed spirit god or agent of spiritual care. Before colonialism the common cultural expression associated with people who performed or achieved amazing feats is dibia bu agbara. It is believe that usually a dibia shares a ritual relationship with a powerful deity – hence dibia bu agbra to heal wrongs. But today Igbo sage is transformed and being eulogized as bekee bu agbara. The white man is spirit. That is, amazing. There are many things yet to be researched, debated and agreed or disagreed upon towards understanding the Igbo of Nigeria as an authentic and autochthonous seminal society. The concept of dibia is a virgin area for scholarship and intellection attention. Like culture which is not a fixed concept, changing with people and society, a dibia adapts in response to needs and circumstances of individuals and society served.

A dibia embodies a layer of forces – ecological and awe-inspiring, in other words transcendental and transformational – illness to health, misfortune to fortune, weakness to strength, lack of power to empowerment, inability to ability and capacity, invisible to visible reality. But one can only give what one has – spiritually, materially and culturally. A dibia is empowered to be all that is – and is consequently represented. Deities or minor spirits are found everywhere in Igbo localities but only a few can be classed as agbara, in other words, dibia di ire (effective and meaningful healer). Like agbara, a dibia is an institution and status quo ante to be grown into. Being agbara is reckoned with being the iroko, osisi or icheku chere mba. A dibia is transformed to shade a community. A dibia resonates with a cultural metaphor applied to the theory of health and life people live with. Dibia bu agbara rather than bekee bu agbara (a medicine man is spirit, magical, wonderful, a trail blazer) is a constructed reference to imply achieving feats to resolve problems.

A sense of being agbara can relate to a metonym of being exceedingly a utility, enigmatic and belligerent. In understood dibia pari passu with agbara, it elevates one’s cultural intelligence to correspond with problem solving. Phenomenally, supernatural beings exist. There are known sites for agbara – and ritual experts do make known the reality of the powers and attributes of the deity.

The Igbo and Dibia, Healer 

An Igbo dibia is meant to be knowledgeable – in Igbo ancient and modern history, the dibia’s community and neighbours. Dibia will be able to tell what symbols are associated with religion, social, economic and political ideas and practices in comparison with other societies. Secrets of the Igbo society related to the dibia’s shrine in which the reality in the pristine and present symbolic archive of the society is entangled equally concerns the dibia for knowledge making. That is, genuine dibia will embody a deep Igbo medical history as a part of their training repertoires. In essence, the burden of proof of being a healer lies deeply in one’s relationship to the medicine deity called agwu. A serious healer possesses a burden of proof of his or her realism. Examples of burden of proof of a dibia are part of the representations and it is important for ethnographic capturing. Instances where some dibia will proudly show their symbols of power and authenticity, hence their autogenic markers of election and identity in the field of dibia and medicine can be found.

A dibia is essentially referred to by his or her object of power. Such objects are obtained in various ways such as from or through an unknown person serving as a messenger, placement on a healer’s head or shrine or bed. Revelation prior to reception consists in the narrative of how the objects are obtained. Those who did not receive such artefacts of power and identity end up becoming honoured with ritualized ofo dibia or a related ritual symbol of a dibia. Wading through the complexity of suffering and bringing remedy to affected persons and society fashions what a dibia does as a fixer of broken boundaries of life in view of how a dibia is labelled, stereotyped and categorized.

Dibia and Agwu Deity


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