ILOUWA: Reincarnation in Igbo Society

Ilouwa: Reincarnation in Igbo society

Ilọụwa also called inouwa means reincarnation in Igbo society. Ilouwa or reincarnation is the coming back to life with the same body after a premature death. The Igbo society believes that reincarnation or ilouwa occurs within the family circle.

At times, before a person dies, he/she will notify one or some of the family members. This person who is believed to have reincarnated is identified by some marks on the body. This could be deformation or other physical features that the predecessor of the reincarnated child had. Also, statements and behavior of the child which is similar to the predecessor help to confirm that the dead child has reincarnated.

Basic Concept of Ilouwa or Reincarnation

What is ilouwa or reincarnation?

Ilouwa or reincarnation is a belief by some traditionalists that when one dies, he/she may come back to life. This comeback may depend on circumstances surrounding their death. Some people believe that each person comes back up to seven times. Sometimes, a person may reincarnate in two or three persons within a time frame.

Why do people reincarnate? People usually reincarnate because humans are made of one spirit. In Igbo traditional cosmology, it is believed that a life cycle must be completed before one can become an ancestor.

In cases of untimely deaths, victims may come to reincarnate with memories and even scars from their previous lives. It is reported that victims of reincarnation say things, or avoid certain things that are connected to their previous deaths. Though some of the memories disappear as they grow older in their second life.

What is Ogbanje?

Ilo uwa can go wrong. In this case, the reincarnated persons become vengeful. This is the case known as Ogbanje in the Igbo society. In the Igbo language, the word ‘ọgbanje’ literally means a child who comes and goes.

In the Igbo society, Ogbanje is a name given to a vengeful reincarnated child. The ogbanje child possesses the evil spirit that makes him/her bring misfortunes to the reincarnated family. This evil spirit causes the family to undergo a series of experiences of dying and coming back to life.

Most of the ogbanje is believed to return to homes that treated them callously in their previous lives, for revenge. These ogbanje spirits bring nothing but sorrow and pains to their families. These children come and go frequently, leaving their families devastated.

It is believed that within a given time from birth, the ogbanje deliberately dies, only to come back later. And this unending cycle causes the family grief. When an ogbanje dies, he/she is mutilated or given a mark so that he or she does not come back to life. Some ogbanje children, however, were said to return, bearing the physical scars or mutilation given to them in their past life.

The Igbo World View

The worldview of a people is their perception of reality; “it refers to the complex of beings, habits, laws, customs and traditions of a people. Further, it includes the overall picture they have about reality, the universe, life and existence” (Nwala; 1985: 24). It is concerned with the people’s attitude to life, their basic beliefs about the world, how they conceive and understand the universe, reality, and the conception of the beings therein.

Three compartments of the universe

Consequent upon this, the Igbo according to Iwuagwu (1998) conceive of a three-decker compartment of the universe in relation to space.

Elu-Igwe (the sky), is the abode of the Supreme Being and major divinities excluding the earth goddess Ala.

Uwa (the earth), is where man shares with animals, vegetation, and some spirits including the earth goddess.

Ala mmuo (the underworld) is inhabited by the ancestors. The three-decker compartment notwithstanding, the Igbo makes no rigid demarcation in terms of the sphere of the interaction of beings. Igbo world is a “one fluid coherent unit in which spirits, men, plants and animals, and the elements are engaged in continuous interaction” Ekwunife (2003:18).

Thus, there is no rigid demarcation between the visible and invisible, the spiritual and the material; only the Supreme Being is placed in a separate ontological order, apart from other spiritual beings who are his subordinates.

Igbo cosmology conceives man as the being in the center and his relationship with the spirits and cosmic forces as precarious. Thus understood, man, regards himself as the being “who must through rituals maintain equilibrium and harmonious relationship with all the beings, that impinge on his life and being” (Metuh; 1985:4).

It is in this sense that the efforts of the Igbo to clear the way to success through the assistance of deities and ancestors could be appreciated. Ancestors being closest to man enjoy intimate relationships and interactions with the living.

Igbo Attitude to Life And Death

Supremacy of life

Among the Igbo, the supremacy of life over and above other considerations cannot be compromised. It finds expressions in such sayings as ndu bu isi (life is supreme), ndu ka aku (life is more precious than wealth), aghara ndu kpa aku onye iro erie (wealth acquired at the expense of life is enjoyed by the enemy).

Hence life is jealously guarded at all costs. Life is so precious and valuable that such things as assassination and ritual killings were unknown except when the gods demanded human sacrifice to avert calamities in the land (Arinze, 1990).

The Igbo do not refute or deny the power of death to destroy life. Ugwu, (2004:56) lends credence to this view he posits that “death is the power that destroys life”. Even though it is a common knowledge/saying among the people that death is inevitable; a kind of debt that every living being must pay, it constitutes the greatest threat to life.

The power of death

Death is viewed as having the ability to dislocate relationships with this present world and transit one to the land beyond. It stands between the world of human beings and the world of the spirits, between the visible and the invincible.

However, the traditional Igbo is consoled by the thought of life beyond the grave that is predicated upon good life here on earth. It is entrenched in the people’s view that good life leads to a good death and the subsequent reward of blissful afterlife which consists in a cycle of rebirths and deaths.

And on the contrary, bad life leads to bad death and the punishment of the soul in a dark void where it wanders and would not be allowed to reincarnate. Hence the traditional Igbo strove to live a morally good life in order to enjoy eternal bliss in the world of the ancestors and to escape a life of misery in the outer darkness called “ama itire” (Iwuagwu; 1998).

In summary, life, whether in the now or the hereafter for the Igbo constitutes a single reality; it is a continuum (Mbiti; 1969:161), death being a temporary separation from this life which will be taken up again later.

Reincarnation (Ilo Uwa) In Igbo Religious Life

Reincarnation in Igbo is ilo-uwa; a compound of two Igbo words; ilo and uwa. Ilo literarily translates to come back. Uwa, is the earth, the world of living humans. Linguistically, when the Igbo say ilo ta go, it asks the question; have you returned?

Thus, the Igbo refer to Ilo-Uwa; as a return to the world from Ala- muo, the realms of the spirit world where the ancestors live. Therefore, ilo uwa, simply means to come back or to return to the land of the living from the realm of the ancestral spirits.

Apparently, the Igbo perception of reincarnation is to return to the visible world from the invisible world. This claim is in tandem with Igbo perception of the Cosmos comprising two intricate co-penetrating worlds of visible and invisible with interacting beings in their various hierarchies.

This is what Ekwunife (2000:35-36) alludes to when he argues that “the existence of the two worlds as they impinge on each other in a continuous interaction for the Africans, is not a figment of imagination which modern scientific and technological education can snuff away completely.” Unequivocally, the Igbo view of reincarnation is part of reality; a fact which proofs abound today, the contact with Western Culture and Christianity, notwithstanding.

2 models of Ilouwa

Reincarnation (Ilo Uwa) has been given different interpretations by different scholars and religionists from different historical, cultural, and ideological influences. Among the Igbo/African scholars it has been pursued from two models:

Physico-cyclic model

The traditional physico-cyclic model of interpretation presents reincarnation as a cyclic return of a dead person into a newborn child. This model was used by scholars such as Mbiti (1969), Onunwa (1990), Onwubiko (1991) though their interpretations differ.

Mysticopsychic model

Recently, Ekwunife (2000) developed a mysticopsychic model which represents reincarnation as the exercise of “a mystical influence of the spirit on the body which neither diminishes the status of the dead in the spirit world nor does it destroy or supplant the unique personality and individuality of the newborn child” (p.11).

This shift from the traditional position argues that the phenomenon under study should be viewed from the religio-cultural context of the people involved and not from its English transliteration.

A child prodigy in Igbo society

It is to the credit of Christianity that it has made some remarkable impact on the religious outlook of the Igbo. However, the enduring conviction of the Igbo on reincarnation leaves much to be desired when examined from the evidence of the experience of prodigy, physical defects at birth noticed in the previous existence, the doctrine of seven rounds in the evolutionary cycles of man (uwam uwa esaa), names of children and existence of ogbanje (born to die or changeling).

Incidence of child prodigy which is referred to in the local parlance as ebibi uwa; whereby a young person exhibits unusual intelligence or skill for his age, is usually cited by the Igbo as one of the proofs of reincarnation (Onyewuenyi;1996).

There are indicators in the traditional society that some children exhibit certain acts that are quite incompatible with their age. Usually, people are perplexed at such an exhibition of unusual intelligence. Added to this sometimes a child could have knowledge of the event that took place years before his birth.

In the traditional society, such finds explanation in the reincarnation of a deceased relative who witnessed such events while alive and now have reincarnated in the newborn baby.

Lending credence to this, Stevenson (1985) observes that “they (Africans) try to identify the reincarnated ancestor by means of birthmarks, statements a child makes when it began to speak, and behavioral resemblances between that child and the deceased person of whom it is the presumed reincarnation.”

It is explained that such people are identified to have existed previously owing to those qualities which they now exhibit. Hence in their new life, having obtained a body through which the acquired genius can be expressed, they display these quite early in life. Such children are referred to as being older than their age.


Death in the Igbo worldview is seen as a distortion in the rhythm of life; a temporary transition from one phase of existence to another and not the end of it. It is believed that an individual engages in a cycle of births and deaths up to seven times technically referred to as reincarnation before his final rest in the ancestral world.

Though this basic belief of the people has been rejected by forces of social change as fetish and superstitious, the average Igbo is being haunted by practical life experiences which support the reality of the phenomenon.

Presently, belief in ogbanje in Igboland is no longer as strong as it used to be. Sometimes, the expression, ‘otu ogbanje’ (ogbanje group), may have led people to conclude that all the children involved in a particular group were all possessed by the same malevolent spirit. In his Popular book, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe exposed to some extent this concept, ogbanje, with the character Ezimma.

However, Christianity as one of the change agents considers the traditional doctrine of the dead a negation of its doctrine of immediate judgment after death and the subsequent life in eternity after the resurrection of the body. But, despite its efforts, Christianity has not eliminated some traditional beliefs in Igboland because in the opinion of Kalu (2003) the Igbo have woven enduring convictions before the advent of Christianity.


Achebe, C. (2008), Things fall apart. London: Pearson educational books Ltd. First published in 1958 by Heinemann educational books Ltd.

Arinze, F. A. (1970). Sacrifice in Igbo Religion. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.

Ekwunife, A. N. O. (2000) Meaning and function of Ino Uwa ( Reincarnation) in Igbo Traditional Religious Culture. Onitsha: Spiritian.

Iwuagwu, A. O. (1998). African Traditional Religion: A Student Handbook. Owerri: Ager publishers.

Kalu, O. U. (2003). The Embattled Gods. Christianization of Igboland, 1841-1991. Lagos: Minaj.

Mbiti. J. S. (1969), African religions and philosophy. London: Heinemann.

Onwubiko, O. A. (1991). African Thought, Religion, and Culture. Enugu: Snaap Press.

Onyewuenyi, I. C. (1996) African Belief in Reincarnation. A philosophical Reappraisal. Enugu: SNAAP Press.

Stevenson, I. (1985), “The Belief in Reincarnation among the Igbo of Nigeria” in Journal of Asian and African Studies. ( Ugwu, C. O. T. and Ugweye, L. E. (2004) African Traditional Religion: A Prolegomenon. Lagos: Merit International Publishers.