Understanding the subconscious: The importance of Chi in Igboland

The Dictionary defines the subconscious as “existing or operating in the mind beneath or beyond consciousness”. The subconscious can evoke perceptions of the unknown as well as the feeling that it is a difficult thing to understand or engage with, particularly in moments where we feel consumed by negative energy and unsure of how we ended up feeling like this in the first place. How can we establish a connection with a concept that plays such an important part in shaping our lives; from the decisions that we make or the way in which we react to moments? The history of Igbo society draws attention to the importance of establishing and maintaining a close connection between the conscious and subconscious in an individual’s life, this plays a key role in understanding ourselves better and navigating through life in a healthier way.


The Igbo people are said to have inhabited the south east of present day Nigeria since the 10th century. With regards to the setup of Igbo society, the connection between the conscious and subconscious realm manifested through the presence of ‘chi’, “it is one’s guardian spirit bestowed on him at birth by Chukwu (God). You excel or fail only with the consent of your chi.” The importance of chi in Igbo tradition is highlighted through its inclusion in a wide range of names given to Igbo people. As noted by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe “if you want to know how life has treated an Igbo man, a good place to look is the name his children bear”. Examples of names include:

  • Chinwuba (chi has increase)

  • Nebechi (look to chi)

  • Chibuzo (chi is in front)

  • Chiebonam (may chi not accuse me)

The presence of chi draws attention to a strong sense of duality in Igbo culture; the actions that we carry out in our conscious realm impact the responses that are registered in the sub-conscious. Through the connection to one’s chi this establishes a sense of fluidity within ourselves and allows us to remain open, which in turn, creates more opportunities for growth and understanding of our emotions.

Chinua Achebe cited a proverb in relation to chi in his book Things Fall Apart that ‘when a man says yes, his chi concurs’. From this quote one can gauge the importance of staying true to yourself, in moments where we find ourselves saying yes when in fact we feel like saying no, the subconscious registers our reactions, which in turn can create a sense of conflict within. It is a person’s chi that has the power to alter one’s direction in life based on our actions. This emphasises the importance of establishing a close connection between conscious and subconscious. The fluidity of the subconscious in adapting and registering our emotions and encounters within the conscious realm also shows that it is something that we can influence. Proactively taking the steps to feel more in sync with your chi by creating space to recognise and understand emotions, but to not be consumed by them, offers a chance to direct the subconscious.

It is through working together with your subconscious one can create space to know oneself and have a positive impact in life.  In her book Living Between Two Worlds: Intrapersonal Conflicts among Igbo Seminarians – An Enquiry Chika, Justin Uzor notes that part of the role of chi includes assisting in “the realization of one’s destiny and of a harmonious interaction with the natural and cosmic order”. Here, one can see the importance of cultivating a strong spirit within to know who you are and believe in your ability. By believing in your ability and having faith in the divine order, the presence of chi helps an individual realise their potential and activate their purpose in life.

Feeling lost within yourself can be a very overwhelming and disheartening experience, particularly in spaces that do no equip you with the tools to connect with yourself. The presence of chi in Igbo customs provides us with an example which we can apply to our own lives to address the sense of loss within that can be felt. Part of knowing ourselves means knowing our emotions and why we feel them in the various situations that we encounter in our lives. Cultivating a space to engage in a dialogue with our subconscious serves as a key step in understanding our response to situations as well as equipping ourselves to change such responses.


Man and his “chi”: The Igbo of West Africa – Chigachi Eke

Chi in Igbo Cosmology – Chinua Achebe

Chi, and healing words from an ancient language – Uzoma Nwosu

Living Between Two Worlds: Intrapersonal Conflicts among Igbo Seminarians – An EnquiryChika Justin Uzor (2003)

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (1958)

*Image taken from Pinterest

(I do not own the rights of the picture in the post)

Oro Anike