Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

The episode of the “bleating heart”

While I have discussed this subject elsewhere, the scope, range, and sociocultural importance of such “traditional” activities during the early 1960s is nowhere better limned than a fictional event described in a remarkably vivid novel of that time, “Wand of noble wood“, written by Onuora Nzekwu (an eminent Nigerian journalist and an Onitsha man), whose tale about Ndi-Onicha (those who trace their origins to what he calls “Ado“) is set in the Nigeria of 1959. Call it The episode of the “bleating heart”.


Peter, the first-person protagonist of the novel, is (like Nzekwu himself at the time) a journalist working for a national magazine and living in Lagos. A “real Onitsha man” (that is an indigene, native of the Inland Town), Peter listens frequently to his internalized voice of a deceased respected elder who repeatedly reminds him of appropriate traditional perspectives and behavior.

Inquiring from associates about the recent ill health of another Onitsha man named Mr. Agbata, “a kind, elderly gentleman with whom I had made friends”, he learns that the old man has now become seriously ill and is calling his children to come to his room in the hospital. Peter joins Mr. Agbata’s son and daughter to go there, arriving to find five Onitsha men, all old friends of the invalid, including Mr. Odinfe who is a hospital nurse working at that location.

As they enter Mr. Agbata’s room, an attendant blurts out, “I can’t make him stop, Mr. Odinfe. The number of people this man claims he has killed! It’s horrible…”

The room is filled with the overpowering stench of imminent death, and the nurse says, “He should have been dead these eighteen hours. As you see, he is beginning to decompose, even though he is still alive.” Mr. Agbata, now only a skin covered skeleton, is muttering to himself. Soon his words become clear.

“‘Ha ha ha!’ He made these sounds in an attempt to laugh. ‘Didn’t Emena say he was strong and wise? Did he not say he was powerful? … Yet he could not survive the simple test to which I put him…. He could neither stop my magic arrow from entering his side nor wrestle with it for long…. Or is it Ikebundu, that man who was so proud after taking the ozo title? … He only breathed the air, which I set in motion with my leathern fan … and that sent him to his death two days later…. Where is Oduanu?’ he asked, and stared at Miriam (his daughter) long, without blinking. ‘Yes, it was you, Miriam… it was you he beat. In revenge I touched him with my fan and that alone sent him to his grave.’ His powerful voice sank again into a mutter.”

Attendants want to stop the old man from continuing this monologue, but Mr. Odinfe deters them: Mr. Agbata cannot die until he completes his confession, “‘enumerating the names of all he killed both those who offended him and those he used as guinea pigs for newly acquired magic powers.'”

Mr. Agbata speaks again:

”‘Ben,’ he said, addressing his son. ‘You want to kill me, eh? You are too young; besides, you have no weapons.’ He paused to breathe. ‘You know that goat that always refuses to leave the kitchen? It has no heart. If you can discover its heart then you’ll know why you can’t kill me.’ He paused. ‘I am very strong. Did I not kill doctors and witches by pointing a finger at them? That’s how Nwachukwu, Odum and Ananka died.'”

As they convey the old man by ambulance back to his long-time home in Lagos, Mr. Odinfe wonders aloud if “he has one of these magic threads that chain life to a dying body.” At home, apparently having finished his confession, Mr. Agbata still cannot die. Mr. Odinfe directs his children to “Search the house from top to bottom. Turn everything inside out. Look for anything unusual and report to me.”

They search every room in the house, to the rooftops, finding nothing. Then, near midnight, the dying man calls out: “I am tired, I want to go home.” When his relatives are assembled, he directs a word of benevolently paternalistic advice to each person present, and asks that his corpse be taken home to “Ado” (an esoteric name for Onitsha) for burial. Meanwhile, Peter observes that the bed on which Mr. Agbata lies has been boarded up on all of its lower sides. “None of his children knew when this was done… (but) it was strictly understood that only he must make his bed.” Now Mr. Agbutu asks his son to remove the board on one side. Though it is dark underneath, someone brings a portable lamp which reveals what lies below:

”  …its light shone on a black cloth which hung down, cutting off the space beyond and whatever was there. Ben raised the cloth and then we saw it… The space was empty, but at a point underneath his pillow, hanging from the spring of the bed, was a string of black, red and yellow threads. At the other end of it was the fresh bleeding heart of a goat. Surprisingly the heart was contracting and expanding. It was suspended over a hole dug in the floor.”

After making allusion to his great powers, Mr. Agbata orders them to cut the thread. One of the men who has come from the hospital finally complies, and

 “As the heart fell into the hole, two things happened: the dying man breathed his last. The old goat bleated urgently, ‘Kpaa! Kpaa!’ and became silent.”


In this graphic tale can be heard one of the most insistently audible voices of power in Onitsha internal politics: a voice of death and killing, a perspective apparently suspicious of everyone and inclined to spare no one. Mr. Agbutu, while not a chief, was an Ozo- titled man, and as such had been authoritatively engaged in the politics of the traditional community . From one point of view such politics involves generosity, redistribution of wealth, from another the tactics of peace making, from a third the procedures of respected authoritative judgment. But a fourth dimension, not ordinarily verbalized in first-person expressions but ubiquitous in the shape of narratives about ritual process, affirms that even internal politics is a battle to the death. This is why the functional interpretation of death rituals I offer elsewhere in this work has been somewhat one sided: death is a matter of intense concern among tradition-oriented Onitsha people not only because of the intrinsic social value of the deceased person to the survivors, but also because in Onitsha religion the incidence of death is prominently defined as an outcome of political struggle. Since an ultimate value of Onitsha people is abundant life, and since increasing one’s own power means (in cases of significant competition) taking more life into oneself by extracting it from others, any serious conflict implies a resort to killing, even between the closest relatives. Therefore social conflicts intensify anticipations of death, and specific deaths indicate outcomes of specific conflicts. The emphasis on “suspicion” about what agency has caused someone’s death (various social others, nameable spiritual forces, perhaps even oneself) reflects the fact that the very act of defining the meaning of a person’s death may constitute a powerfully political process (and a potential tool in political struggle), which may alter the distribution of power to the strong advantage of some and the great disadvantage of others. Therefore anger, fear and anxiety are implied in virtually every funerary process.

In this kind of sociopolitical context, sorcery or “hitting with poison” serves as an indispensable instrument both for self protection and self advancement. While in the story from “Wand of Noble Wood” this operates in the context of ordinary priesthood (Ozo title), the symbolism is elaborated even further at the level of chieftaincy (Ndichie) and culminates in that summation and transcendence of the warrior chief, the Onitsha Obi. In the traditional system, Chiefs and king collect powerful medicines and command the services of magicians to enhance their powers: if Mr. Agbutu can construct his own paths of symbolic human destruction, the injurious creativity of these greater figures can build virtual highways. And since proverbially spoken “When two great pots collide, the smaller one must break”, all power, even that embedded in legitimate authority, entails a potentially killing game, a societally internal arms race lacking well defined limits for deploying these invisible agencies of death. The suspicions and secrecy hovering about the funerals of powerful men become more understandable to an outsider taking into account not only the fact that their deaths are likely to be regarded as embodying their own political defeat, but also the fact that, if a party is authoritatively convicted of having caused another’s death, substantial political transformations of dominance relations among the living may be one outcome of the funeral. The symmetrical contest of taking life away (however metaphorical its source activity) tends to escalate in many directions.

In light of these dimensions of conflict, the religious ritual dimension of human sacrifice at the death of great leaders comes more sharply into focus (as also the status of what elders may say, concerning issues of “truth”). If the dimensions of internecine politics as just outlined characterize the roles of living chiefs and kings, then they are surely expectible in communications involving transfers of even greater powers across the gap between this world and the other world of the dead. Ancestral ghostly chiefs and kings (and to lesser degree, ancestors in general) are viewed as “blood-thirsty”, likely to demand acts of killing from the living, and to back their demands with threats (and sometimes actions) of deadly force. In such exchanges, the lives of some become means for furthering the aims of others.

As Helen and I accumulated experience during our two year residence within Onitsha Inland Town, we found it typical that the death of an important person would typically initiate heated discussion of who might have caused the person’s demise (unless that individual was extremely aged). Obi Okosi was a man of 70 years, definitely an elder in Onitsha eyes, but men of this age were not yet expected to die by what Westerners would label as “natural causes”. Retrospectively I wondered why in February of 1961 we heard relatively little expression of concern about who might be responsible for his collapse, compared with the commotions we experienced regarding less prestigeful men of comparable age. However, such discourse would have been concentrated within the Obi‘s family, with whom at the time I lacked relations of close confidence, and much of such talk is retained within limited social circles. So there was probably considerably more discussion along such lines than we as marginal observers became aware.

Still, despite my generally marginal social position in Onitsha I often heard such issues of culpability bluntly discussed. Deaths of some Obiship candidates following the previous Interregnum of 1931-5 were attributed to specific agencies (for example, “Fly was sent to him!” was said of one contestant in that Interregnum who died of a communicable disease soon after his failure in the contest). In one memorable instance that occurred many months later when the 1961-2 interregnum conflict was far advanced, a chief whom I had visited for the first time in 1960, in the company of a man perceived as a strong threat to their interests, (and whose fellow villagers had first encountered me in that context as well, subsequently becoming much less receptive to my work than were most other Onitsha villagers) now observed pointedly to me that it was “interesting” how, not too long after I had come to live in Onitsha, their Obi had suddenly died. In the silence he allowed to accumulate following this remark, I sat dumfounded, too stunned to muster any response. Where imputations of death agency guilt were raised in relation to the king’s demise, they had a clearly political implication of this kind.

Of course, we have to remember in this context that directly countering this “hidden”, extreme social-darwinist approximation to war of all against all, there is the powerful opposing value system that emphasizes deep mutual commitments and loyalties among people sharing the common fate of linkage to each other, to the land and its bounties. That people should die good deaths and predecease their children, rather than than steal life from their own offspring (in the extreme case), therein lies deep paradox: the Mighty Tree that should shelter its dependants may instead kill them. But these deeply interwoven communities and sub-communities endure,and continue to thrive.

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