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Introduction to Igbo Medicine and Culture in Nigeria
Thursday, April 08, 2010  10:58:00 AM

by Patrick E IROEGBU

This new book is a collection of challenging essays around what is Igbo medicine? It provides insight into the beliefs, practices, history, endogenous skills, philosophy, patients and practitioners in view of what can be done when illness and healing are at the horizon of culture and development. The book calls for investing research and time to develop this frame of knowledge to the level it should command identity and heritage in a changing African and Igbo Societies. This book is a leading contribution to African, and particularly, Igbo studies.


“By offering insightful essays on Igbo endogenous medical resources and approaches, this book explores the meaning, system, knowledge, development and conflict around what is Igbo medicine to life and social science in the first place. This book is a leading effort for original contribution to African and Igbo studies in this field.”

Daringly, the book calls out that Igbo medicine (ogwu Igbo) has not been studied and written as it should be. And that the field of this knowledge system is as virgin as it is rich with the potential to stimulate endogenous knowledge re-production and cultural theory of healing bodily and social problems in society. The essays in this book therefore are attempts to open the discussion for research and use of ethnographic insights in the area of Igbo medicine to initiate and foster development of integral health care in the contemporary world. To talk about Igbo medicine meaningfully and pragmatically, the author takes account of the existing ecological, political, economic, cultural and social realities of the Igbo in Nigeria. As the essays show, the Igbo depend on the network of their traditional kinship population world for adaptation and survival, as they are concerned with farming and trading as well as with medical therapeutics associated with their everyday cosmological sense of their world and seasonal challenges. Rituals, herbal resources, plant and animal medicinal therapies make the difference in healing of their illnesses and misfortunes, in addition to fashioning ways to advance their competitive, hard working and resilient spirit for which the ethnic group category is known throughout Africa and beyond.

The Igbo enjoy the resort to and candour with which her field forces of the land, water and forests are explored to know and to heal successfully. In comparison with biological approach or orthodox medicine and curing, Igbo medicine remains cheaper and satisfactory to its consumers based on the kin-related network. Igbo medicine promises a strong signal for inclusion and complementarity with other alternative sources of general and specific health care responses to needs for the benefit of the ill person and his or family and community at large. Medical health care whether modern, indigenous or traditional – is a trend that needs to follow the course of knowledge skills, compelling factors of existence, continuity and applications in the global society.

Going through the fascinating essays in this volume, the reader will discover the importance of research in this field of endogenous knowledge skill and why Igbo medicine requires an expanded theory for introductory literature such as this contribution aims to initiate. We invite scholars and researchers to pay attention to, and help in excavating the richness and applications of Igbo medicine to advance holistic care in our times.

We can even go a little further to consider what traditional medical systems in other societies entail. Leslie and others have delved into exploring the Asian medical systems and discovered the relevance as we shall be doing with the Igbo. In particular, Leslie insists that all bodies of medical knowledge are dynamic, and change as a result of political and social factors. Invariably, the diffusion of knowledge and technological innovations, rather than remaining unconnected, are intertwined and reinforce one another. For that very reason, medical traditions are not “inherently conservative.” It is important, also, to note that Leslie challenged the use of the word “scientific” to describe biomedicine alone. Specifically, he argued for acknowledgement of the scientific and rational present in the various forms of Asian medicine (Ayurvedic, Unani, and Chinese) and, by extension, African systems. Leslie (1995) also facilitated the argument on comparative medical systems that called for recognition of the power of aesthetics associated with medical systems. To him, it appeared unwise to discount those aspects of medical systems that are not so easily assessed by scientific tools as having any value. He suggests, instead, that we consider “not only symbolic and performative dimensions of healing alongside with aesthetic lines too.” Lending support to this position, a number of anthropologists and related social scientists have expressed their favour – such as Csordas (1996), Briggs (1994), Devisch (1993), and Roseman (1991). Explaining the idea of medical systems is complex and often controversial, and Leslie and others were confronted with this dilemma in intellectual theoretical arguments concerning historical continuities and discontinuities through time. Yet, in all, revivalism remained central in providing indigenous literate medical traditions a much-needed boost.

The total argument is that we must look at re-authoring and reclaiming the process – the much ignored culture – as a mode of care through specific symbolic cultural analysis of illness and treatment of illnesses such as insanity. Surely, the internal logic, the local knowledge, and the boundaries of knowledge comprise the elements of an ethnomedical system (Quinlan 2004:2). As shown in this book, it is important to consider the context in which insanity, for instance, and its treatment takes place. Disregarding or illogically dismissing the value of beliefs can lead to theoretical and practical blunders. Healing and recovery, the Igbo say, is informed by a sense of the inevitability of regaining normal lives and roles (ndu na nkpa madu di).

The book is organized in fifteen chapters such that each chapter reflects the significance of each topic treated. Chapter one presents the Igbo society and its view on health and ill-health. Chapter two provides details on Igbo cosmology and the human body when faced with good or ill health. While chapter three deals with the aetiological factors determining illness; chapter four particularly discusses deeply the concept of iga n’ ajuju – going to ask or divine, diagnose, investigate all human and non-human issues involved in any illness episode. The issue of divination is further explored in chapter five to show essentially why the Igbo go to question misfortune and other social problems in their lives and society. Insightfully, chapter six offers a clear study of how Igbo healers are called up and trained to become healers. Agwu deity which is responsible for the healers’ skills and ethical issues is analyzed and related to the professionalism of healers in Igboland. Chapter seven took on Igbo healers and their expert skills and weaves this together with the theory of symbolic release as a special approach to healing forms of affliction and misfortune. In chapter eight, the article focuses on illness and Igbo culture of exposure and explores the dynamics of keeping secret and exposing the same for healing to take place. Issues immigrants face in diaspora connected with rituals of exposure bring the important aspect of exposing illness so as to secure therapeutic attention and blessing.

Chapter nine worked through the issue of knowledge of herbal resources and development of practitioners in Nigeria and deftly points out that university training curriculum for healers should ensure healers are helped to remain authentic to their cultural root to continue to play their indigenous expert roles. As chapter ten explains the dilemma faced with Igbo oracles and shrines, emphasis is laid on the traditional importance of justice and the incorruptibility of the oracle system. In addition, oracle system of divination is heavily cherished by the practitioners and users of the system for fairness, cultural and social justice. The book considers the concept of juju and juju medicine in chapter eleven and boldly attributes some hot business and political cultural affair issues are hinged on the use of juju. This fascinating chapter also discussed the episode of 419 and other related matters to juju theory and practice.

In chapter twelve, sorcery as harming is agreeably explained and related to human body and space for causing and cooling. The idea of left hand and right hand side of things, positive and negative dimensions of spiritual and material substances in formulating rituals and actions for good and bad is well explained in this chapter. As chapter thirteen provided important insight on Igbo medicine, culture, women and mami wota phenomenon, chapter fourteen presents an example of common questions readers ask in the context of endogenous medicine, development and application. Chapter fifteen gives a general conclusion and terms the whole exercise to be useful for everyone in quest for knowledge of endogenous medical resources to follow.

Apparently, medical aanthropology which explores the relationship between human behavior, social life, and health within biological, ecological and cultural context will never be ignored in development. As it provides a frame of critical analysis into how knowledge, meaning, livelihood, power, and resources are shaped and used, it further allows understanding of patterns of disease, experiences of health and illness, and the regime of treatments in a given society. My hope also is to give attention to the popular health culture as bio-cultural scientific study of illness and spread (epidemiology), and the social construction of knowledge and politics of science as scientific discovery and for testing hypothesis too. That medical anthropologists examine how the health of individuals and groups and the environment are affected by transactions between humans and other species; cultural norms and social institutions; micro and macro politics; and forces of globalization means that each of these affects both the local and global worlds.

By introducing Igbo medicine and culture to everyone through these essays, I have set out to emphasize how much anthropological and general social science approach to illness and healing can mediate knowledge and praxis on issues such as popular health culture and domestic health care practices, local interpretations of bodily processes, perceptions of risk, vulnerability and responsibility for illness and health care. Others include, the experience of illness and the social relations of sickness, medical practices in the context of modernity, colonial, and post-colonial social formations, the political economy of health care provision, the political ecology of infectious diseases, malnutrition, and violence, and moreover, the possibilities for a critically, ritually and clinically engaged relevant application of medical anthropology in development of our cultural patterned medical resources at the critical base.

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