Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe

dedicated to Nenne m & Enyidiya

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Language shapes understanding because we can often only conceptualize what we can linguistically express. One of the reasons I enjoy learning languages is that I feel it expands my capacity for thought and ideas. Colonialism, it’s linguistic arm in particular, has irreversibly changed perception in that it limits the understanding of indigenous concepts to what can be expressed in foreign language. In my personal case, I refer to the unfortunate reality that most of the little I know of Igbo cosmology and the spiritual beliefs of my ancestors I have learned and consistently analyzed through the lens of the English language. The irony of me writing this very reflection in English is annoyingly epitomic. 

For this reason (and surely others) I’ve found a great comfort in reading novels steeped in Igbo-ness. If not in the language itself, in the people, the culture, the beliefs, and the linguistic mannerisms. I was utterly delighted by the intricacy with which Igbo-ness is woven into An Orchestra of Minorities: the frequent invocations of Chukwu (Almighty God) by his various titles, the effortless allegorical dialogue, the referencing of Jesus as the “alụsị [idol] of the White Man,” I could go on and on. Over and over again this book demanded that I shift my perspective, switch lenses, and steep myself in all things Igbo. I felt I was afforded a glimpse into an alternate universe in which I learned through, rather than learned of, Igbo culture. 

And that’s not even to talk of the story itself! An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by a chi (guardian spirit) testifying before Chukwu on behalf of his human host Chinonso. The book is a heartbreaking love story of a man, the woman he loves, and his chi who loves him. As the chi recounts the tragic yet endearing story of Chinonso and his love Ndali, and all that befalls Chinonso in his pursuit of her, we bear witness to the unparalleled love and devotion of the chi toward his host. The care with which Chinonso’s chi advocates for him is nothing short of mesmerizing. 

Chinonso’s story in An Orchestra of Minorities is a shining example of the common Igbo saying: Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe. Before I get to what this means, a (not so) quick side note.

I am someone who lives by the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say.” I always make the distinction between a definition and a meaning, especially in writing. Annoyingly so, I can admit. I am the person who understands what you’re trying to say but still corrects how you said it. It can be a hindrance in casual conversation, but it has aided me tremendously throughout the course of my western education. So, in that same vein, while writing this, I wanted to first share a translation of onye kwe, chi ya ekwe before explaining its idiomatic meaning. 

The Igbo language and, in this instance, the specific phrase onye kwe, chi ya ekwe consistently teaches me that the concept of analyzing words and phrases like mathematical equations is foreign to Igbo culture and the Igbo language. Igbo is an allegorical language. In fact, my mother often points out that the language of the Old Testament makes an intrinsic sense to her because of its allegorical style. All of this to say, despite many attempts, neither I, nor my resident Igbo tutor whom I call Mom, could come up with what we felt was a truly encompassing translation of the phrase onye kwe, chi ya ekwe.

So let’s talk about what it means. Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe is a beautiful concept denoting that our chi’s always remain by our sides and will follow our lead as we take charge of our own destinies. 

Igbo cosmology teaches that chi’s go through cycles of reincarnations, but their hosts, us humans, are not equipped with the explicit knowledge of what they have experienced in previous lives. In An Orchestra of Minorities, Chinonso’s chi has lived many lives before Chinonso, and has been the chi of some of Chinonso’s ancestors. Many times he sees things Chinonso does not, sometimes he disagrees with Chinonso’s decisions, but Chinonso’s chi always supports and accompanies him. Chinonso’s chi consistently sees the truth of his intentions and relays those truths as he advocates for him before Chukwu. Through all of Chinonso’s tribulations, his chi is always championing him.

It brings me peace to know that I too have a chi who knows and recognizes my earnest intentions. A chi who knew my ancestors and carries the knowledge they had which has been lost through colonization. 

I cannot recommend An Orchestra of Minorities enough! Whether you’re Igbo or not. It is not only an incredible story of a complex and troubled man; it is also a glimpse into an entirely different world. For those, like myself, who are not intimately familiar with Igbo cosmology, An Orchestra of Minorities is a powerful exercise in shifting perspective and questioning what we consider reality.

Signed,

N.A.

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