The Woyingi Blog

Ijaw View of the Personality by Margaret Laurence

Posted in Canadian Literature, Countries: Nigeria, Peoples: The Ijo by the woyingi blogger on July 21, 2009

Acclaimed Canadian writer Margaret Laurence’s only work of Literary Criticism is about early Nigerian Literature in English. In Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952 -1966, originally published in 1968, she studies such internationally famous Nigerian writers as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. She also studies the work of two less widely known writers of Ijaw heritage, Gabriel Okara and John Pepper Clark. In her chapter on the work of John Pepper Clark she explains the Ijaw concept of the soul.

I am half Ijaw and I find it is very difficult to find information about Ijaw religious traditions beyond descriptions of deities in the pantheon. Unlike with the Yoruba, an ethnic group I am also descended from, there has not been many Ijaw writers who have written academic level studies of Ijaw religious philosophy. If you are aware of any works of this nature I would greatly appreciate information about them.

What follows in an excerpt from Long Drums and Cannons in which Laurence describes the Ijaw concepts of teme and biomgbo:

Ijaw View of the Personality

According to traditional Ijaw belief, before a person is born, a part of his soul decides his destiny. There is also a village destiny. The ancestors and the gods continue to play a parental role, and the living, as in most tribal societies, remain in the role of children. This, obviously, creates irritations for the adults in a community, but it also provides emotional security, for a man is never utterly alone. An individual’s fate is influenced not only by his conscious efforts but also by his lineage and by his teme, that part of his spirit which decided his fate before he was born and which will continue to live after his death. But-and here is the really essential difference between the deeply tribal outlook of the Ijaw and the deeply tribal outlook of the classical Greeks-according to the Ijaw, a man’s destiny can be changed. With the proper rituals, his pre-natal wishes can be altered. Unlike Oedipus, or Antigone, or Agamemnon, his destiny is not inevitable.

The personality, in the Ijaw view, is layered, just as it is in the Freudian view. The biomgbo or personal soul, containing the individual’s desires and feelings, corresponds to the conscious mind. The teme or steersman of the soul is comparable to the unconscious, whose aims are unknown to the conscious mind and often in diametrical opposition to it. If a man’s fate is to be changed, however, it can be done only with the proper observance of rituals, not by the individual acting alone.

I have often wondered how I would fit into Ijaw religious traditions as a person of mixed ethnic heritage born far away from my father’s ancestral village. If your destiny is also connected with the destiny of your village then what if you are born far away fromt that village and never visit it?

Recommended Reading:

Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966. Edited by Nora Foster Stovel. University of Alberta Press. 2001 Review available online

African Interests: White Liberalism and Resistance in Margaret Laurence’s “Pure Diamond Man” by John C. Eustace (essay available online)


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  1. […] have written earlier about the Ijaw concept of destiny or fate. I wonder if in some way my father tried to defy his destiny by coming to Canada and so, although […]

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