Explore mental illness through Igbo mythology in Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi during a recent trip to Nigeria and needed time for the story and the magnitude of the message to sink in.

The novel is narrated by a collective she/they who live inside the “the marble room” of Ada’s mind. Ada is a young Nigerian woman who was born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she belongs to the gods and is an ọgbanje.

In Igbo folklore, ọgbanje’s are “children who come and go.” They are believed to be evil spirits who constantly die and are reborn in subsequent children. Their presence will plague any family with pain and misfortune. Usually, ọgbanje’s die as children, but Ada is able to appease the gods through self-harm and goes on to attend the University of North Carolina.

We meet Asụghara, one of Ada’s multiple personalities, after a gruesome sexual assault; and later meet Saint Vincent, a male personality who is gentle and soft. Asụghara is a dominant female who believes that her role is to “move and take and save” Ada. At times this means sabotaging Ada’s medications and visits with her therapist.

As the story progresses, Ada finds it had to live with fractured selves, and eventually attempts suicide.

Ada’s journey is astonishing.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for Ada and at the same time anxious that Asụghara and Saint Vincent will overcome her.

The book is dark, mysterious, and haunting; and at the same time, it is soft, poetic, and humorous. The story explores Ada’s fragmented selves, identities that are based on the author’s experiences.

The best part about the novel is that the author tracked Ada’s life from birth to adulthood and merged Igbo folklore, Christianity, and Western medicine to tell a moving story about mental illness.

While reading this book, I had to take occasional breaks because I felt like I was in Ada’s world. In this novel, Akwaeke Emezi takes us into her world and raises important questions:

  1. Why are Western schemas about mental illness how we define who is mentally ill?
  2. What role did colonialism play in ensuring that Western science supersedes Igbo mythology and tradition?

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi crosses the boundaries of worlds and countries, both physical and spiritual, and challenges readers to explore their “other selves.”

This was a brilliant and beautifully written novel.

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Igbo Mythology, Fate, and Free Will in Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

Igbo Mythology

In Igbo mythology, Chukwu is the creator of all things and the chi is the guardian spirit. The chi lives in the body of their host and serves as a witness. When their host dies, the chi gives an account (to Chukwu) of how the host lived their life.

The chi has limited power because they cannot see the future and therefore cannot influence free will or interfere with the natural course of events. However, the chi can present helpful images and thoughts in their host’s mind and dreams. Most importantly, the chi can plead to Chukwu on their host’s behalf “to grant the soul safe passage into Alandiichie, the habitation of the ancestors.” They can help to explain why the host made particular decisions.

I continued to flash the thought in his mind many times that day, but the voice of his head would counter each time and tell him that it was too late.

Chinonso’s chi

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma opens with Chinonso’s chi pleading for leniency before Chukwu. This is unusual because Chinonso is still alive. This tells the reader that Chinonso has done something unthinkable to warrant his chi’s early intercession with Chukwu. 

Chinonso’s chi narrates the story through flashbacks and describes the events that lead to the book’s opening chapter. The chi recounts how Chinonso met Ndali, how they fell in love and dreamed of getting married. We learn that Ndali is from a wealthy family and she is in school to become a pharmacist. Chinonso is uneducated and a poultry farmer. Although Ndali’s family tries to keep them apart, Chinonso is eager to do anything to ensure they can be together. Jamike, Chinonso’s friend lures him to Cyprus under the guise of an opportunity to attend a university. This, they agree, would allow Chinonso to become educated so that he can then marry Ndali. 

Chinonso arrives in Northern Cyprus instead and finds that he has fallen victim to a scam. From there, things go downhill and eventually lead to his grief and disappointment. These circumstances instigate the events that lead to Chinonso’s chi pleading on his behalf, way before his death. 

No matter the weight of grief, nothing can compel the eyes to shed tears of blood. No matter how long a man weeps, only tears continue to fall.

Fate or Free Will 

Some may read An Orchestra of Minorities as a tragic love story, and others may read it as the demise of a man. Chigozie Obioma may have intended for Chinonso to be a complex character, but I did not find that to be the case. Everything that happens to Chinonso shape and define him; just as the events that transpire transform Ndali and Jamike. Chinonso’s circumstances are not extraordinary. 

In the end, Chinonso’s chi is pleading with Chukwu—and in some ways with the reader—to forgive him for what he has unknowingly done. To forgive Chinonso, the reader will have to decide whether his experiences were orchestrated by fate or free will. 


It is possible that I did not give this book a chance because I kept comparing it to the author’s debut novel, The Fisherman; a story that I’ve written about here. This follow up, to me, was unnecessarily wordy and did not live up to the hype. 

I am fascinated by Igbo mythology and enjoyed that aspect of the book. Chigozie Obioma’s attention to detail and the images he provides in the beginning will be helpful to readers.

Overall, I was disappointed not to have liked this book as much as I did, The Fishermen. This love story—despite the authors attempts to make it sound like a new tale—just was not for me. 

Who are the minorities? According to Obioma, “No matter how privileged you think you are, on a spiritual level, we are all minorities–small things.

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