Small group of Igbo wood-masked dancers in various raffia and leaf costumes, Ugwuoba village, Nigeria.’ Simon Ottenberg, 1959. Smithsonian.
Trees are important in Igbo spirituality as symbols of life and channels to the earth force. Trees are symbols of life and channels to the earth force and are often at the centre of shrines.
In Igbo tradition, a child’s umbilical cord is buried with a newly planted fruit tree (ili alo); this becomes the child’s tree of life (nkwu alo) which secures lands, confirms the child’s blood relation to the patrilineage, and forms a bond between the child and the Earth Mother, Ala. Many settlements were named after plants and trees, such as achara (bamboo), uga (Anacystrophyllum opacum), and ahiara (giant leaf grass), many of these settlements started at the base of large trees or with some of these plants as their main natural feature. There are so many trees which ritual symbolism in the Igbo area, the ogirisi often used for the deceased, the abosi, the ngwu tree which is a symbol of wisdom (where the term okongwu comes from) and from which okpesi ancestor statues are sometimes carved, the agba tree, the ogbu (fig tree) often used for the living, and so on.
Akpu is a sacred silk-cotton tree which is a way to the unseen world of ancestors and spirits, it is where spirits of children stay and sitting under this tree is said to increase the chances of pregnancy. This is different from cassava which was introduced by Europeans from the Americas in the last 500 years, the akpu’s leaves resemble cassava leaves, so it’s possible the name was loaned to cassava when it was imported.
Oji, most commonly known by the Yoruba name Iroko, is a very large tree considered to have mystical powers like many trees. The oji was planted near shrines to give the same impression as a cathedral. Oji also stands as a metaphor for strength, nobility, and resilience. Its wood is used for titled men’s stools, compound doors/gates, and large ikoro slit drums, as well as other important ritual items.
The achi is noted for its size and the amount of shade it provides, it has similar symbolism to the oji (iroko) tree in terms of spirituality and ritual, but it is mostly prized for its fruit. Like many large trees, it houses spirits and is a portal for the ancestors. It is a symbol of resilience, strength and virility.
Uburu, or ubulu, is a totemic tree which was central to many Igbo settlements and has lent its name to several such as Ubulu-Uku (Igbo: ’the big ubulu’) in p.d. Delta State where the tree is revered and the original one which the town is named after still stands in the middle of this town from where the first families spread out from hundreds of years ago.
The ofo is the tree from which the staff of justice of the same name is hewn from, it is generally forbidden to cut or place a knife against a living ofo tree or use its branches for firewood, so the ofo branches had to naturally fall off in order to be used as a staff of justice, such sticks would have to be consecrated through a ritual known as isa ofo. The ofo serves as a connection between the living and the ancestors and the spirit world. A family’s ofo staff is entrusted in the care of a first son of the family whose father has transitioned, additionally there are ofo for organisations and deities. These trees also serve as shrines.
Other crops and trees that were introduced in the last 500 years in addition to cassava (yuca) are maize (corn), plantains, potatoes, pineapples, tobacco, papaya (pawpaw), most of these from the Americas.