The Igbo people of modern day Nigeria conceptualized the idea and act of suicide much the same way as the Luo people of modern day Kenya. The Igbo have a concept known as Nso ani – a religious offence of a kind abhorred by everyone. Nso ani is a sin so grave that it is not only abhorrent to anyone, but it is a sin against the earth itself. Suicide is one of these sins. If we can borrow Chinua Achebe’s exploration of this concept through Things Fall Apart, we learn that a person who commits suicide has committed an evil act, has accepted a bad death, and bad deaths disrupt the normal cycles of life.
As a result, there were harsh consequences for those who committed suicide. First, the very land on which they did this was considered polluted. Such a land could only be cleansed through elaborate rituals. If one hanged themselves on a tree, the tree would be cut down. If one hanged themselves inside the house, say on a rafter, the house would be burned down to prevent another person from committing suicide in the same house. If it was carried in the yam barn, the yams would be burnt down together with the barn. The bodies of those who committed suicide, just like among the Luo, did not receive a decent burial. They were buried in the evil forest. If a person hanged themselves on a farmland, a grave would be dug directly under the hanging body so that when the rope is cut the corpse would fall directly into the grave and be buried. If a person drowned themselves in a well, such a well would be condemned, declared unusable, and it would be destroyed.
In a paper by Norbert Oparaji “A Theological Evaluation of Suicide in Igbo Traditional Culture”, the author notes that the ethno-theological phenomenon of suicide in the Igbo traditional culture pertained to principles such as the character of sin, the common good, the Imago Dei, sanctity of life and atonement. Imago Dei is the theological conception of the “Image of God” and within Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2281) suicide is forbidden by the fifth commandment (“thou shall not kill”) and is considered “gravely contrary to the love of self”. In a sense, traditional Igbo philosophical view of suicide was to a large extent similar to the Christian view, which would be forced onto the people later by the colonialists.
According to Igbo philosophy, the life of a person is circumscribed within Uwa (the world), which is composed of the physical and spiritual, the abode of humans and spirits. The human is composed of ahu(body), mkpuruobi(heart) and nmuo(spirit), and the basic unity of these is mmadu(person). This is different from Greek philosophy, in which Plato held that the spirit of a person is assumed as a separate living entity inhabiting a body, or Aristotle, in which spirit is a form of the body. In Igbo, ahu, nmuo, and mmadu are inseperable, and is expressed as one entity, nmuo, the person.
This inseparability informs the ontological goodness of the human person which is held as immensely significant among the Igbo. Therefore, in pursuit of the ultimate good (summum bonun), the person is guided by the desire for ndu life and its preservation, and that despite the nsogu (difficulties and frustrations), this pursuit should not transgress the moral order. It is not uncommon, therefore, among the Igbo, for prominence given to concepts such as ndubisi (meaning, life is of prime value and should be preserved), ndukaku (life is greater than wealth, hence wealth must not be pursued at the expense of life), or nduamaka (life is good).
The prominence given to ontological goodness of the person in Igbo philosophy informs the harsh view of suicide. Suicide is onwu ojoo (a bad death) and dreaded or regarded as nso ani (taboo or grave sin against natural order). A “good death” will cause the deceased to reincarnate; but “bad deaths” disrupt this cycle – they are unable to join their ancestors or reincarnate.