Odozi Obodo, Madam (1909–1995)
Odozi Obodo, Madam (1909–1995)
Igbo woman who founded one of the leading indigenous independent churches in Igboland, the Christ Holy Church of Nigeria. Name variations: Ngozi Okoh; Madam Okoh; Prophetess Odozi Obodo. Born Ngozi Ozoemena in 1909 in Onitsha, Igboland, Nigeria; died in Ndoni, Rivers state, Nigeria, in November 1995; only child of parents who were petty traders from Onitsha; married D.C. Okoh (a civil servant), in 1925; children: D.C. Okoh, Sr. (1935–1980, who ran the affairs of the church with his mother until his death); grandchildren: D.C. Okoh, Jr. (who took over the affairs of the church after his father's and grandmother's deaths).
Was an illiterate housewife and petty trader; believed she was called by God to carry out God's ministerial work (1948); became a church minister, a preacher, a prophet, a spiritual healer, and head of a famous church in Nigeria; recognized for her spiritual powers by many, including the government of Rivers state of Nigeria which honored her twice (1988, 1992).
Women in Nigeria, especially in Igboland, have long played significant roles in both traditional religions, in which some serve as priestesses and diviners, and in Christian religions. Christianity first was brought to Igboland, in eastern Nigeria, by Simon Jonas, who visited Aboh in 1841. In 1957, a mission was established at Onitsha by Reverend John C. Taylor of the Church Missionary Society, who was followed to the area on December 8, 1885, by two Roman Catholic missionaries. Finally, the Presbyterian Church established its first mission in Igboland at Uwana in 1888. From these centers, various denominations of Christianity spread throughout Igboland. Common to each branch were activities of Christian missionaries which tended to perpetuate the status of Igbo (Ibo) women as second-class citizens. As they did throughout the world, the churches emphasized women's wifely duties and attempted to lessen their roles outside the home. N. Mbanefo writes:
The place of women within Christianity throughout its history has important similarities to Islam in its stress on the domestic role of women and their public subordination. Christianity provided women with a large but a subordinate public role in religion but stressed their domestic duties as against the independent occupations which they had been expected to pursue in many pre-colonial Nigerian societies.
Women were rarely allowed to take part in the decision-making of the various churches, and even those who had acquired a Western education were denied administrative positions. They were not made priests or clerics, and the most active role they were permitted (which many took advantage of) was participation in women's associations. Possibly in response to this exclusion, women played a major role in the establishment of indigenous independent churches in Igboland. Among these churches or religious sects founded by women, there is none as widespread and famous as the Christ Holy Church of Nigeria founded by Madam Odozi Obodo.
She was born Ngozi Ozoemena in 1909 in Onitsha, Igboland, Nigeria, and married D.C. Okoh, a civil servant, in 1925. In 1943 at Enugu, she heard a "divine call," a voice repeatedly referring her to "Matthew, 10." Because she was newly converted and illiterate, it was only through a friend that she learned that the phrase referred to a passage in the Bible. In the King James version, Matthew 10:1 reads:
And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirit, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.
Believing this to be her mission, Ngozi Okoh became Madam Odozi Obodo—Odozi Obodo means reconstructor of community—and began a prayer ministry that would grow to become the Christ Holy Church of Nigeria.
Odozi Obodo's ministry initially had no name. During the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70), it became known as the Odozi Obodo Church. After the war, prevailing hardship caused many people to seek solace in Aladura or spiritual churches (in which prophetesses and prophets, through visions, offer solutions for people's earthly problems). Odozi Obodo's church expanded to embrace non-Igbo-speakers, and in recognition of these new members its name was changed to Christ Holy Church of Nigeria. Madam Odozi Obodo, who became known as Prophetess, was believed by her followers to be endowed with great spiritual power and the ability to bring to the people messages from God and angels. Through prayers, fasting, and intercession, she is said to have solved problems afflicting followers ranging from disease to poverty to barrenness to troubled relationships, and these results won further converts to her ministry. Church members credited her with the power of prophecy and with having prophesied about individuals, the church community, and even national issues. Her preaching was usually conducted in the Igbo language, and her ability, as an illiterate, to read the Igbo-language Bible baffled her followers, and thus was interpreted as a miracle. Her essential message was that with "faith in God" all things are possible.
There are seven levels in the hierarchy of Christ Holy Church. At the apex of the pyramid is Odozi Obodo as the church founder, followed by the Most Reverend (a position which has been occupied only by her son and grandson). Beneath these, in descending order, are General Superintendent, Superintendent, Missionaries (Reverends, Evangelists and Elders), Prophetesses, and members. Despite the fact that the church was founded by a woman, the only rank above member available to women is that of prophetess, which they occupy by virtue of being endowed with spiritual and prophetic powers. Male members ascend the hierarchy either through spiritual membership (which begins with the position of Evangelist-Catechist and culminates in Most Reverend) or regular membership, the highest rank of which is Elder of the church. Membership is obtained either through conversion or by birth; in both cases it is authenticated by the sacrament of baptism, which is usually administered only when the follower has reached adulthood.
Odozi Obodo retired from active ministerial work in 1976, although she reportedly continued to perform miracles, healing sick people who visited her at Ndoni. It is said that in 1988 she helped a man who had been blind since childhood regain his sight. That same year, and again in 1992, she was honored by the Rivers state government of Nigeria. She also has been credited for uplifting the religious, educational, and economic status of a number of Igbo and Nigerians. By 1995, the year Madam Odozi Obodo died, the church could claim a following in the hundreds of thousands; it is headquartered at Onitsha, and some 300 branches are scattered throughout Nigeria, in cities including Lagos, Ibadan, Benin, Calabar, Enugu, Aba, Owerri, and Port-Harcourt, and even in the Muslim-dominated cities of Jos, Kano, and Kaduna, Kano. Odozi Obodo's grandson, the Most Reverend D.C. Okoh, Jr., who became head of Christ Holy Church after her death, once explained the church's rapid expansion thus:
People have seen what God is using mama [Odozi Obodo] to do, performing all sorts of miracles, ranging from child delivery, barrenness, marriage problems, illnesses, diseases to hardship. And, therefore, they are attracted to the church for they have seen and believed that mama is worshiping a Living God. They know that their benefit from their membership of the church does not end with solving their worldly problems, but also includes having salvation and eternal life. Even now that mama has retired, God is still using the ministers to do the same work.
Chuku, G.I. "Sex Roles in an Indigenous African Church: A Historical Sketch of Christ Holy Church of Nigeria," paper presented at the 3rd Annual Conference of the Center for Igbo Studies, on "Religion and Development in Igboland," at Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria, July 7–9, 1994.
Crumbley, D.H., "Even a woman: Sex Roles and Mobility in an Aladura Hierarchy," in West African Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 15. 1985, pp. 130–137.
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Mbanefo, N. "Colonialism and Urban Participation in the Labour Force," paper presented at the conference on the "Impact of Colonialism on Nigerian Women," Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, October 16–19, 1989.
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Ekechi, F.K. Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland, 1857–1914. London: Frank Cass, 1971.
Osinulu, C. "Religion and the status of Nigerian women," in F.A. Ogunsheye et al., eds., Nigerian Women and Development. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1988, pp. 423–432.
Gloria Ifeoma Chuku Ph.D., Lecturer in History, School of Humanities, Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria