Rev. Fr Jude Thaddeus Osondu (2023 Corpus Christi)
I think the most profound symbol of communion in Igboland is the kola nut. It is the hard fruit of a local tree, the kola tree. It is the first thing presented in every social gathering or personal visit to any Igbo home. It is presented by the host and its symbolism is a deep sign of welcome. It is not rejected when offered even if one does not feel like chewing the nut. Rather, it is presented, blessed, broken and distributed. Ideally, only one piece is shared by those gathered if they are few. For larger gatherings, more nuts are brought to give each person a share if possible. It is not usually given as a whole piece to the guest but blessed, broken and shared among those present. When whole pieces are given to individuals, it is also symbolic of some function or message. Often, that whole piece is given to an august visitor or emissary to take back to where they came from or to give to those who sent them, as evidence of their mission. But even when whole pieces are given to individuals to take back home eventually, they also partake in the pieces broken and shared by all, even if each person receives only a bite. The kola nut is not just brought out and broken, even in an informal encounter such as two siblings or neighbors visiting. It is always visibly presented on a saucer, blessed by a religious leader, or a traditionally titled man, or the oldest man present (in that order of preference), then broken by the youngest and served to all. No matter how brief the visit or meeting was intended, the ritual takes place religiously.
The kola nut ritual is like the Eucharist. The blessing is first thanksgiving to God for life and for the blessing of interaction, and then intercession corresponding with the purpose of the meeting or the good of the visitor. It is also sent to those not present, like the Eucharistic Ite missa est. It is indeed the Igbo Eucharist: we take it, give thanks, bless it, remember the living and the dead, break it, distribute it, consume and reserve for those not present. The kola nut symbolizes life primarily. It also symbolizes acceptance, peace and invitation to dialogue. Hence, the kola nut ritual takes place before the agenda of a meeting or visit is announced. Its relational importance is that it has several lobes joined together which are broken along those lines and distributed, indicating plurality in our togetherness. It is the ultimate symbol of hospitality and solidarity.
Another symbol of communion for the Igbos is wine. In addition to the normal use of wine for entertainment, the Igbos symbolize serious discussions with wine. If someone knocks at your door with wine, it is not for fun. If you are going to see a lady’s family officially to declare your marriage intentions, you go with wine. Wine is also used to give a special invitation to someone you value or to notify them of important intentions. It is a symbol of intended rapprochement. Wine in this sense of communion can also be understood from the communion of the kola nut and also of the Eucharist. It is not for entertainment but a symbol of invitation or intention towards communion. An individual, family or entire community could send wine to another body (individual, family or recipient community as may be the case) in this regard.
The Eucharist perfects the liturgical gathering; kola nut perfects the Igbo traditional gathering. The kola nut is the knot of communion; so is the Eucharist. They are broken to unite all partakers, because one principle of Igbo communion is the community of beings.
Ikechukwu Kanu sums up the idea of communion as an Igbo eschatological reality with the concept of Igwebuike. The word is actually a complete sentence with deep metaphysical import. It comprises three Igbo words written as igwe bu ike. The first component – igwe – means a large number, unity, unanimity, collectivity, togetherness, community, assembly, solidarity, complementarity, and other connotations of plurality and overwhelming majority, as against individuality, paucity or even simple majority. The other element – bu – is the copula ‘to be’ which is the linking verb in the construct, taking the form ‘is’ in this case. Ike translates as strength, power, authority. Igwebuike, therefore, connotes ‘number is power’, ‘unity is strength’, ‘togetherness is power’, or any similar inference. Propounding the theory of Igwebuike as the driving force of African religion as well as metaphysics, Kanu asserts that:
“This provides an ontological horizon that presents being as that which possesses a relational character or mutual relations. As an ideology, Igwebuike rests on the African principle of solidarity and complementarity. It argues that ‘to be’ is to live in solidarity and complementarity, and to live outside the parameters of solidarity and complementarity is to suffer alienation. ‘To be’ is ‘to live with the other’, in a community of beings. This is based on the African philosophy of community, which is the underlying principle and unity of African traditional religious and philosophical experience.”
Mbiti also highlights this deep sense of communion when he wrote, “I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am.” The African notion of existence is all about our interrelatedness and interdependence. Communion is the perfection of personhood. “To find fulfillment, the individual person’s life has need of something that only others, the human community can provide.” This is the point Achebe makes in his widely translated classic, Things Fall Apart, about the Igbo culture:
“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to prevent them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”
Nyamity advances this notion of relationality and communality in Africa to mean that:
“A person is fundamentally open to the outside: the community of the living and the dead, the Supernaturals, and the cosmos when he derives his life, power and sacrality. Indeed it is through the community that the individual obtains his life and its fulfillment (personality). It is the community that is the ultimate source of his life and personality: he is named and educated by it, and he is brought to adulthood and fecundity through it. Nor can he exercise the fullness of his sacred vital forces outside the community.”
The individual’s relation to the community is so intimate that he belongs to it more than the community belongs to him. His individuality, personal responsibilities and rights are acknowledged, but they are dominated by the community idea. Community is the greatest African cultural heritage. This community encompasses women, men, the elderly, children, sick, healthy, poor, rich, living, unborn, dead, and even nature and the ecosystem. It is a “community of creation,” in the words of Elizabeth Johnson. It is a community where all are accorded a fair space to thrive in.