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Ofo -Functional Role in Igbo Land

The Functional Role of Ofo in Igbo Land



There is always in man a religious instinct, which inspires him always to seek the divine. These religious instincts are also noticed among the Igbo, since they are also human beings. They desire like others to communicate directly with God, ancestors, and other divinities

However, the fact that the above-mentioned beings are immaterial, and he, being a material being, there is always a communication gap between them. Then, in order to mediate and satisfy his desires, he creates some visible religious objects to serve as medium of communication with the gods, spirits, ancestors and divinities. Among these sacred objects, ofo is the most popular and most effective medium.

1.1     Purpose Of The Study

The major purpose of this work is to expose the meaning and the functional role of ofo ritual symbol among the traditional Igbo political, social, ethical and religious setting. The traditional Igbo religion is rooted on the ofo. Over and above all, it influences their religious experience and the Igbo conception of the world.

However, its critics, especially the early European missionaries gave it other interpretations. It is in the light of this misunderstanding that this study aims at understanding the meaning and the functional role of ofo among the Igbo.

1.2 Statement Of Problem

 This work is set to satisfy the project topic “the functional role of ofo among the Igboofo is a sacred symbol among the traditional Igbo.

 However, the difficulty in understanding the true nature and meaning of ofo is a problem in itself. This difficulty in understanding also leads to problem of misinterpretation of the sacred object. In the midst of these problems, the true meaning and the functional role of ofo remain concealed and hidden. Therefore, this study examines these problems and provides answers to them.

1.3 Scope Of Research

 This work is set to have a critical look on the nature, meaning and the functional role of ofo among the traditional Igbo. Ofo is studied from a critical point of view as sacred object of cult and ritual services. It is therefore limited to the critical meaning, the functional role of this object, and to answering pertinent questions concerning this sacred symbol.

1.4 Methodology

This write up is expository, descriptive and critical. It is expository in the sense that it unravels and brings to bare the mysteries surrounding the object of our studies .It exposes vividly and critically the meaning and the roles which ofo plays in the life of the traditional Igbo.

1.5 Literature Review

Scholarly interest on ofo symbol started from the early stages of writing on Igbo traditional religious culture. These pioneers of such literary venture are Arthur G. Leonard, Percy. A. Talbot, Charles. K. Meck, M.D.W Jeffreys etc. From the above, it seems that the desire to carry out inquiry on ofo began first among the western writers. This desire to inquire about ofo later grew among some writers of Igbo extraction. Among these scholars whose writings touched on ofo are: V. C Uchendu, C. I Ejizu, F. A. Arinze J. E. Ekei, F. U. Okafor, E.N. Njaka and many others. A. G Leonard in his book titled the lower Niger and Its Tribes observed that:

 “Ofo is one of the trees available in every Ibo community (which) naturally is held in very great reverence… ofo, the god of justice and truth on the Niger, also resides in a tree of the same name, and is appealed to by those, who, having a grievance, consider that right is on their side”1

He pointed out that ofo is a symbol of truth and justice. However, he committed a serious flaw by saying that ofo is a god.

Ojike Mbonu in his book My Africa commenting on ofo noted that ofo is a sacred symbol of truth, justice, law and authority among the Igbo. The use of ofo among Africans parallels the Christian use of the Bible. He pointed out further that while ofo is more commonly used by men, married women possess and make some limited used of ofo stick. He cited his mother and some other wives of his father as an example.

Ojike contributed a lot, but he was led to over- generalization when he said that women possess and make limited use of ofo stick. This seems incorrect because in most Igbo communities, women neither possess nor make use of ofo.

E.N. Njaka in his Igbo political culture sees ofo as the link between Chukwu and man, the dead and the living, the living and the unborn. He pointed out that “ofo is the central symbol and the embodiment of Igbo religion. Hence, “Ofoism”  is the name for Igbo religion.

Osita Agwuna III of Enugwu-ukwu in his Omenani Igbo part II, ofo, obu ofo Nri royal Documents gave a general description of ofo tree, and the two commonly used types of ofo in his home town as: Ofo Amanwulu and ofo Nmako. He qualified the drop off of a mature and dry shoot of ofo from the parent trunk as a natural disintegrating mechanism. He pointed out that “ofo was set aside by Chineke as an instrument for making important statements for judgment in a civil or criminal case”2.

It seems clear that he limited his studies on his own hometown. He did not border much to study ofo from a general point of view

Another erudite scholar whose work touched on ofo is F. U. Okafor. In his Igbo philosophy of law said:

Ofo is the most important symbol in the Igbo religion. Its religious value lies not in its material form but in its symbolic representation. Materially, it is a piece of wood… carved from the wood of Detarium elastica, or Detarium senegalensis.3

He vividly pointed out the central position of ofo in all social, religious and political activities. However, he did not border much to inquire seriously why and how a piece of stick not mucks different from others should have so many meanings associated with it.

Ejizu C.I also shares the same view about ofo as a symbol of justice and authority with most of the indigenous writers. He sees ofo as a “vital object of Igbo consciousness and ritual life”4. As a ritual symbol, it connotes the conscious trapping of certain important ideas and meanings by the users. This may be the reason why the users do not care to speculate on the meaning and root of the term ofo. Ejizu claims to have given a comprehensive account on ofo.

However, this claim is not true because his research was restricted to certain areas and communities. Moreover, nobody can claim to have a comprehensive account about ofo.

  1. C. Ekei in his Justice in communalism sees ofo as “a symbol of justice”5 Noting that ofo is a symbol of justice levels him with other indigenous Igbo scholars who have the same nation about ofo.

He further distinguished between ofo as an object, ofo as a symbol of social justice. However, he did not point out how these trees come to deserve and these honour and respect more than every other one.



The term ofo is the name proper to two related objects in Igbo land. In an immediate sense, it stands for a particular plant species, which grows in the Igbo area and in a derived sense; it also represents the twig or branchlet from the wood of that tree. However, both the plant and its sticks are referred to as ofo. Ofo is one among the several cultic symbols, which the traditional Igbo people employ in performing functions of religious, political, ethical and social importance. It is a symbol of authority, honesty and righteousness.

The concept of ofo seems to have been wrongly interpreted and less understood in the past especially by the westerners and early European missionaries. As a result, some of the meanings given to it by the westerners were regarded as biased by the traditional Igbo.

For instance, Meek noted that the lineage Ofo is particularly useful in important meeting in which it serves “as a charm”.[2]

MacGregor shares also the same view about the personal ofo with C.k. Meek but he went further to say, as Ejizu quoted “that Ofo is solely a religious idea dependent upon ancestor worship”2. Some critics saw it as idol, which the Igbo worship.

However, Ofo is simply for   the traditional Igbo, a medium of communication through which they related to the supreme God, their personal gods, the ancestors and the spirits. According to Njaka.

Ofo is the central symbol of the Igbo religion. In addition to being a staff of authority, it is an emblem symbolizing the link between chukwu and man, the dead and the living, the living and unborn. The ofo also symbolizes justice, righteousness and truth”3

The traditional Igbo believe that ofo is neither a charm nor an idol but a sacred symbol that serves as medium of communication between the Igbo and other super beings.

 2.1. Source Of Ofo

Ofo is got from a tree that grows in the Igbo land, which Dalziel in 1937 identified as “Detarium senegalense”. However, in the opinion of Ejizu, “it is more correctly known and popularly identified as Detarium Elastica by the Nigerian forestry Department”4 the ofo tree believed to be one of the most respected and dignified trees among the Igbo. This is evident in the way the tree and its surroundings are cared for.

As this tree grows, the branchlets drops on their on, the process which Igwe Osita Agwuna identified as “a natural disintegrating mechaniusm”.5 This implies that the branchlets of ofo tree are never cut with a matchet or any tool. When any of these branchlets falls out, women are neither allowed to touch nor pick it. It is this disintegrated branchlets while still fresh that is taken to a special diviner or elder for ritualization. This act of ritualization ensures that the spirit of the ancestors introduced and abiding in it remains active and deligent. After the ritualization, ofo sticks becomes sacrosanct and ready to be used as a medium of communication between the living and the super natural world. However it has been very difficult and almost impossible for the traditional Igbo and most traditional writers to show the relationship between this piece of wood and the ideas, realities which it is said to represent.

2.2  Consecration of Ofo

The collection of an ofo branch from the parent tree trunk among the traditional Igbo is followed by its consecration. The traditional Igbo treat Ofo with a high sense of sacredness to the extent that they consider the right for transforming the ordinary twig, or any other

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Project Topic: The Functional Role of Ofo in Igbo Land

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1 A.G. Leonard, The Lower Niger And Its Tribes (London: Frankcass, 1968), p. 106

2 O. Agwuna, Omenani Igbo part II, Ofo, Obo Ofo Nri Royal Documents, vol. 2, No. 16 (Onitsha: Pioneer Press, 1977), p.10.

3 F. U Okafor, Igbo Philosophy of law (Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1992) P.g 29

4 C.I. Ejizu, Ofo: Igbo Ritual Symbol (Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1992),  p. 123.

5J. c. Ekei, Justice In Communalism: Foundation of  Ethics  in African Philosophy  (Lagos: Real
Communications, 2001),  p. 40.

1 NAE, EP.7000, Awgu Division, “Ofo and Alo, quoted from Ejizu C. I , ofo, Igbo ritual symbol (Enugu: fourth Dimension publishers, 1986), p. 20.

2 Njaka E.N, Igbo Political Culture (Evanton, Northwestern University press, 1974), p.28.

3 C. I Ejizu, ofo Igbo Ritual Symbol (Enugu: fourth Dimension Publishers 1986) p. 32


5 . O. Agwuna, Omenani Igbo part II, ofo, obu ofo Nri royal Documents, Vol.2, No. 16(Onitsha Pioneer Press 1977) p. 10


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