A Dibia with His Tools, 1921

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A Dibia with his tools, 1921. Source: Basden, G. T. Among the Ibos of Nigeria. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1921, pg. 160.
A Dibia with his tools, 1921. Source: Basden, G. T. Among the Ibos of Nigeria. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1921, pg. 160

This 1921 photograph from G.T. Basden’s “Among the Ibos of Nigeria” presents an Igbo dibia in action, surrounded by his tools. The dibia, a respected figure in Igbo society, is known for his extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and his role as a spiritual intermediary between the physical and spirit worlds.

The Dibia’s Enduring Legacy

The dibia, often misunderstood and misrepresented, holds a vital place in the cultural and spiritual fabric of the Igbo people. These healers are more than herbalists; they are spiritual guides, diviners, and custodians of ancient wisdom passed down through generations. The dibia’s multifaceted role includes healing physical ailments, providing spiritual guidance, and maintaining social and spiritual harmony within the community.

Historical Context and Misconceptions

For centuries, dibia have been essential to Igbo society, providing medical and spiritual services. Their deep knowledge of plants and herbs allowed them to treat a wide range of illnesses long before modern medicine arrived. Additionally, dibia act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms, performing rituals and divination to connect with the spirit world and appease deities.

Modern portrayals, particularly in Nollywood films, often depict dibia negatively, associating them with dark magic and sorcery. This inaccurate representation distorts the true nature of the dibia’s work and their positive contributions to the community. It’s crucial to understand that the dibia’s primary function is to heal and guide, not to harm.

The Diverse Roles of the Dibia

The dibia’s expertise varies, and they can be categorized based on their specific skills:

  • Dibia Afa (Diviners): Specialists in divination, they interpret signs and symbols, to provide insights into personal and communal matters, offering counsel and remedies.
  • Dibia Ogwu (Herbalists): Proficient in the medicinal properties of plants, these healers treat physical conditions, mend fractures, and craft protective amulets and antidotes for toxins.
  • Dibia Aja (Ritual Specialists): They conduct rituals and sacrifices to appease the deities and ancestral spirits, ensuring the spiritual equilibrium and well-being of the community.

Tools and Symbols of the Dibia

The tools of a dibia are not just practical instruments; they hold significant spiritual and cultural meaning. Here are some essential items a dibia might carry:

  • Oji (Kola Nut): Central to rituals and divination, the breaking of kola nuts signifies hospitality and communion with the spirit world.
  • Nzu (White Chalk): Employed to draw sacred symbols  on the body or objects, used in protection and purification rituals.
  • Afa Divination Instruments: Implements such as cowrie shells and seeds are utilized by Dibia Afa for spiritual communication.
  • Herbs and Plants: Dibia Ogwu harness a wide variety of medicinal herbs sourced from the forest, prepared using traditional methods to heal various ailments.
  • Ofọ: A sacred staff that symbolizes truth, authority, and ancestral connection, often wielded by the dibia during significant rituals.

Dibia and Modern Medicine

Despite the advancements in modern medicine, many Igbo people still consult dibia for health and spiritual concerns. The integration of traditional and modern practices highlights the enduring relevance and effectiveness of the dibia’s knowledge. Their holistic approach to health, encompassing mental, spiritual, and physical well-being, is increasingly recognized as valuable even in contemporary times. This integration can create a more comprehensive healthcare system that addresses the multifaceted needs of the community.

Cultural Significance and Revitalization

The role of the dibia in Igbo culture is invaluable, but it is at risk of being overshadowed by modern medical practices and cultural erosion. Here are some strategies to revitalize and preserve this crucial aspect of Igbo heritage:

Educational Programs

Integrating traditional Igbo medicine and spirituality into educational curricula can foster a deeper understanding and respect for these practices. Schools and universities can offer courses on Igbo traditional medicine, spirituality, and culture.

Community Workshops and Seminars

Organizing community workshops and seminars led by experienced dibia can help educate the younger generation and the broader community about the importance of traditional practices. These events can include practical demonstrations, storytelling, and interactive sessions.

Documentation and Digital Archiving

Creating comprehensive documentation and digital archives of dibia knowledge, tools, and practices is crucial. This can involve recording oral histories, photographing and cataloging tools, and compiling written descriptions and explanations. Digital platforms and social media can be used to disseminate this information widely.

Support from Cultural Organizations

Cultural organizations and NGOs can play a pivotal role in preserving Igbo traditional practices. Providing funding for research, supporting apprenticeships, and advocating for the recognition of dibia practices at national and international levels can ensure these traditions are maintained.

Collaboration with Modern Medical Practitioners

Encouraging collaboration between traditional dibia and modern medical practitioners can lead to a more holistic healthcare approach. This can involve cross-disciplinary research, joint health initiatives, and the integration of effective traditional remedies into modern medical practices.

Cultural Festivals and Exhibitions

Hosting cultural festivals and exhibitions that celebrate and showcase Igbo traditional medicine and spirituality can raise awareness and appreciation among both the Igbo community and the wider public. These events can feature displays of dibia tools, demonstrations of rituals, and performances of traditional music and dance.

A Future for the Dibia?

The Igbo dibia are more than just healers; they are cultural icons who embody the wisdom and traditions of their people. By recognizing their multifaceted roles and preserving their knowledge, we ensure a richer understanding of Igbo culture and its enduring legacy. The future of the dibia may lie in finding ways to integrate their practices with modern medicine. Collaborative research efforts that explore the effectiveness of traditional Igbo medicine alongside modern medical practices can lead to a more comprehensive healthcare system that serves the community’s needs.

Join the Conversation

We encourage you to share your thoughts! Here are some questions to get the conversation started in the comments below:

  • Have you had any experiences consulting with a dibia?
  • How can we best support the preservation of Igbo traditional medicine and spiritual practices?
  • Do you see a role for dibia in the future of healthcare within Igbo communities?


  1. G.T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria
    Among the Ibos of Nigeria: 1912 1st Edition by G.T. Basden

    This book offers a description of the life, customs and animistic beliefs of the Ibo people of Nigeria by one who, for thirty-five years, enjoyed the privilege of their intimate confidence and friendship. It includes 70 Illustrations and a Sketch Map and a new Bibliographical Note by John Ralph Willis.

    We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
  2. Solomon Joe, The Dibia
    "THE DIBIA: Guardians of Ancient Wisdom and Healing in Igbo Culture" by Solomon Joe

    Overview: "THE DIBIA: Guardians of Ancient Wisdom and Healing in Igbo Culture" by Solomon Joe is a concise yet insightful exploration into the role and significance of the Dibia within Igbo society. This Kindle edition, published on June 9, 2023, delves into the rich cultural heritage of the Igbo people through the lens of the Dibia, who are known as native doctors or traditional healers.

    Key Themes:

    • Cultural Heritage: The book highlights the importance of Dibia in preserving Igbo traditions and cultural practices. Despite the advent of modern medicine, the Dibia's role in the community remains integral.
    • Spirituality and Healing: Dibia are depicted as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical realms, using their knowledge to heal, protect, and guide their communities. They employ a holistic approach to healing, incorporating herbal medicine, divination, and spiritual practices.
    • Respect and Recognition: Solomon Joe emphasizes the need for greater appreciation and respect for the Dibia. Their contributions to Igbo society go beyond mere healing; they are custodians of ancient wisdom and cultural heritage.

    Author's Perspective: Solomon Joe offers a respectful and appreciative perspective on the Dibia, advocating for their positive contributions to be recognized in the broader context of Igbo cultural traditions. The book serves as a call to honor and preserve these ancient practices in the face of modernity.

    Publication Details:

    • Format: Kindle Edition
    • Print Length: 4 pages
    • Language: English
    • File Size: 597 KB
    • Publication Date: June 9, 2023
    • ASIN: B0C7N1ZBM9

    Audience: This book is particularly relevant for readers interested in African history, indigenous healing practices, and the cultural heritage of the Igbo people. It is also suitable for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of traditional African spirituality and its role in contemporary society.

    Conclusion: "THE DIBIA: Guardians of Ancient Wisdom and Healing in Igbo Culture" provides a succinct yet profound look into the enduring legacy of the Dibia. Solomon Joe's work is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand and appreciate the rich tapestry of Igbo cultural traditions and the pivotal role of the Dibia in maintaining the spiritual and physical well-being of their communities.

    We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
  3. Oma’s Garden: “Different Types of Dibia in the 21st Century (and Their Functions)”
  4. Igbotic: “Dibia is Not Native Doctor: The Roles of Dibia in Igbo Land”

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Onyeka Nwokike
Onyeka Nwokike

Onyeka Nwokike, a graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a writer at Igbo Archives, is working to challenge common misconceptions and broaden understanding. He has curated a collection of historical photographs and artifacts for Igbo Archives, which helps to fill the educational gaps left by mainstream media and school curricula. His commitment to the celebration and conservation of Igbo heritage has made Igbo Archives an essential resource, cultivating a strong sense of pride and cultural identity within the Igbo community.

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