Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Visit to the Dibia, Part I

This is from chapter 21 of my memoir, coming out soon. It starts when we were in London near the end of the summer of 1979. Trnity houseOur house in Hampstead was the middle of three townhouses converted from a de-commissioned Anglican church – our door is behind the car in the photo, to the right of the tree. I write about buying that house in my memoir.

Clem’s cousin called late one evening to tell us that Clem’s father had died suddenly. We had to return to Nigeria right away and go to the village to make funeral preparations.

“Our trips to Clem’s hometown were usually happy occasions, but this time I couldn’t forget we were on our way to the place where Papa had died and where Mama was in her first days of bereavement. Still, I tried to lighten the atmosphere as Clem drove from Lagos to the eastern part of Nigeria. “Do you remember when Papa was so frightened about Mama’s going to Aguleri to buy fish during the Biafran War?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, coming out of his misery for a moment. “And do you remember how Papa said the name ‘Chinakueze’ when he held our first son? He was so proud to have a grandson.” I looked around to see if Chinaku had heard. He was smiling broadly.

“I remember how he shook his stick at us when we skidded along the veranda in the rain,” Beth said. Chinaku and Sam laughed and imitated Papa’s threatening gesture.

The rain let up when we reached Nanka around five in the afternoon. As we drove the two miles down the muddy road to our house, I wondered how Mama was feeling. What would she be doing? I knew there were traditions to be followed, but I wasn’t sure what they were, and Clem was in no mood to provide explanations. When we pulled into the compound, he was caught up in grief.

Clem’s mother was seated on a mat on the veranda at the front of the house. She was surrounded by women from Agulu, her home town. She wore only a dark paisley wrapper tied over her breasts. I bent down to her and said in Igbo, “Mama, I’m so sorry. We came as soon as we could.” Clem leaned over and wiped her tears, but couldn’t keep his own back. They held each other sobbing softly. The women around her started wailing as I had seen at other condolence visits. I felt like I was watching a Greek chorus.

Papa’s three remaining brothers, Clem’s uncles, were seated in Ejike’s hut next door. They welcomed us with subdued greetings and offered us palm wine. I could see that they were in shock. They’d lost their sibling, the next to youngest, so suddenly and unexpectedly. All three of them had regarded Papa with some admiration and even deference because he’d left the village life. He’d gone to school briefly and had become a Christian. He’d run away when the other young men his age were undergoing scarification of their faces. He’d become successful enough in his work and business to pay for the education of his own children and even some of theirs.

We sat with them briefly, but declined the palm wine Ejike offered, and went back to sit with Mama until someone called us for supper. I had looked in the kitchen earlier and realized that it had been taken over by Mama’s relatives. I wouldn’t have to cook.

The next morning Obi, the youngest uncle, paused to greet me as he was heading out of the gate.

“Where are you going ?” I said in Igbo, more as a polite greeting than an actual question.

“They are sending me to the Dibia to ask him to prevent rain during the wake and funeral.”

I was intrigued. I’d heard of such a person, a traditional healer or medicine man and also an intermediary with the ancestors and spiritual world. I knew the Dibia couldn’t prevent rain. And especially in this, the rainy season, wouldn’t he be discredited if he said he could? So what would he tell Obi when he heard the request?

“Can I go with you?” I said.

“You can come,” he said, “but I will do the talking.” That seemed reasonable to me. Clem was at Ejike’s, and the children were off with their cousins, so I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I would only be gone for an hour or so.

Obi led me out of the compound and across the road. We walked for about fifteen minutes, entering a part of the village I’d never seen before. It was densely populated, similar to the area around our compound, with mud brick walls separating one family

Compound walls and gate

Compound walls and gate

property from the next. Within each compound, I could see thatched huts and a few more modern, one-story buildings with tin or zinc roofs.

Obi turned into one of the compounds. “It’s here,” he said as he led me across an open area toward the hut in the center. I approached it with a little trepidation, wondering how the Dibia would receive me, a foreigner.

I’d never met a Dibia before. Although I was sure he could not influence the weather, I did believe that he had power. I knew that many people believed that he was in contact with the spirits and the ancestors and could influence their behavior. That’s why Obi had been sent, after all, to ask the Dibia to convince the spirits to prevent rain.”

Next installment in post of June 2.

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