The Fifth Element

Drawing from Igbo cosmology, Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie discusses proverbs as timekeeping. Instead of telling what time it is, a proverb will suggest what the time is for. In Igbo ontology of time, time is place, time can be shifted, and time exists in more than one sphere.

Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie — Nov 30, 2022

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know;
if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.
—Saint Augustine of Hippo1

To contemplate time is to be seized by a type of madness. It feels just like the type of endeavor to get Adam and Eve banished all over again. As I sit (or stand or squat), and encounter heaps of text on the nature of time, every word flies off the surface of my screen like another leaf falling off the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. There’s something seemingly sinful about trying to bring the subject to book. I once attended a sermon where the priest pronounced relativism the greatest sin of our time. Relativism, a belief that the contextual truth may contest the rigidity of the objective one, has never sounded so dirty.

From the great gurus and spiritual teachers, I learn that Time itself is never bad
or good on its own. It is in fact, always up to my shaping. Time lets me say whatever I want to say about her. And yet, I am always aware that even though I can name a time »good« or »bad,« I cannot control it. I merely categorize it. I arrange it. I organize it, and organize myself around it. Myself being the space of »my self« as mass. Mass, though different from Time, is sourced from it. At the end of the day, Time is like the first fabric from which all cloth is cut.

»Time, like language, is the cross upon which we crucify our hopes or manifest our fears.«

We may not see it dressed, but we must know that everybody is dressed because of it. It is extremely mind-boggling. And maybe that’s why we try; because just as it is human to err, it is human to wonder what is going on with Time. Time is one of those immaterial elements of a material consciousness that is as omniscient and omnipresent as the figure we call God. As the Abrahamic God pronounces Himself »I am that I am,«2 Time responds with »It is what it is.«

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

»Time is the counting of change.«3

Time is as fragile as glass (once you let it slip, you can’t get it back), and still, Time is as durable as forever, she is the quality that becomes mysterious once you try to understand it. Water in the space of a closed fist. On a normal day, Time should be the easiest thing to explain especially since Time is so prevalent in our language. »Day to day,« »once upon a time,« »24/7,« »see you tomorrow,« »here and now,« the list goes on and on and on. However, like Saint Augustine, I just do not know how to explain it once I’m asked to … water in the space of a closed fist. In the elusive world of tarot, Time is known to be the fifth element for casting spells. Time, like language, is the cross upon which we crucify our hopes or manifest our fears. Missing a deadline, winning a race, catching a flight are all phrases that come with an emotional string attached to our recognition, because each of us has felt both the pain and the joy of winning in the nick of time, or losing a few steps behind it.

However, what is extremely interesting about the concept of Time is that it is inseparable from the idea of language. Without language, how can we tell Time?

In Chinua Achebe’s book Arrow of God, there’s a European character called Captain Winterbottom. In conversation with his friend, Tony Clerk, he complains about the Igbo people in his company. »They’ve no idea of time,« says Captain Winterbottom. But actually, perhaps it is him who has no idea of our Time, because he has no access to the cosmology of timekeeping among the Igbos. He expects that Time lives precisely in a clock, as a number that’s mentioned (1pm or 2am).

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Meanwhile, for the Igbos, Time lives in proverbs: concise statements that illustrate how the daily motions of human life will always be attached to the survival of the nonhuman cosmogram. Six in the morning would be nothing without the cock that crows the town awake. June is incomplete without the rain that ushers in the new yam season.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Proverbs are timekeeping technology in Igboland. As technology, Nwadike Uzo-ma describes proverbs to be »the philosophical and moral expositions of the people shrunk to a few words, [forming] a mnemonic device in societies where everything worth knowing and relevant to day-to-day life has to be committed to memory. They make the ideas and values they encapsulate available in these memorable and easily reproduced forms.«4 Where a clock can point to what Time it is, a proverb will show what Time is for. For example, if the time has come for the people to change the way they live, an elder may encourage self-belief by saying »when a man says yes, his Chi says yes.« Here, an elder reminds the collective consciousness to be brave: it’s assured that when a person makes a decision to move forward, it is time for the cosmos to align and agree. In Igboland, Time isn’t something that simply passes. Every second is a moment made manifest through dialogue with cosmic entities – alive, observant, and responsive to the rhythm of change.

According to Igbo cosmology, Time can be shifted if the environment does not behave as it is supposed to. She is not a figure that moves against nature. However, if nature stalls, it is a sign that Time wants to take charge of our counting, for she knows something we do not. Listen to this: »In Obollo, when the sixth moon (sixth month) appears and kola nut has not matured for plucking, that particular moon is not counted as the sixth month. In this situation, that moon is referred to as OyiyaOnwa, meaning the moon/month postponed. When this happens, the following moon which is supposed to be the seventh moon (seventh month) would be calculated as the sixth moon (sixth month) which automatically adds one month to the year and therefore makes that particular year thirteen months.«5

For Time to be fertile, space must provide the conditions upon which Time’s children – events, happening and relationships – are born. It means that a place is a time. The market, for instance, is place and time. Since it is a place to encounter spirits, it is also the time to do so – one expansive moment of spirits and humans intermingling in the realm of the tangible.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

As soon as the messenger and his escort left Ezeulu’s hut to return to Okperi the chief priest sent words to the old man who beat the giant ikolo to summon the elders and ndichie to an urgent meeting at sunset … The meeting began as fowls went to roost and continued into the night.6
—Chinua Achebe

In Igbo cosmology, Time is of two spheres, human and ecological. Human time exists in two spheres: The »individual time« (transitional and social moments of a human lifespan such as birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, title-taking, death, burial, and funeral) and the »collective/community time« (new yam festival, masquerade outing). And then there’s ecological time‹, which coincides a lot with communal time in the human sphere (new yam festival, period of farming etc.). In the naming of Time within an Igbo worldview, it is important to infuse what is expected to happen in nature. New yam is supposed to come with new yam. Sunset is supposed to come with sunset. And at sunrise, we expect to see the sunrise. The Igbo calendar called Igu Aro is something observed by the visible, determined by the invisible, and marked by rituals. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this concept challenges the western Christian calendar where there is little or no acknowledgment of the invisible/agricultural/relational purpose of the month to the everyday existence of those living through the months. The excerpt above where Chinua Achebe speaks of a meeting between chiefs at sunset is subtly specific to this point, because, in the traditional Igbo setting, the major work at sunset was palm tree dressing, but because the meeting is called for elders and chiefs, we know that they will have time to attend because elders and chiefs are exempted from such work as palm tree dressing. The expectations are twofold. First, once a man is a chief, it is not his time to climb palm trees and tap palm wine. Second, once a man is a chief, he should have the time to make it to impromptu meetings at sunset. This is a world where who can be where at what time, is again, extremely relative. Six o’ clock means nothing next to the precision of sunset – an event of the cosmos filled with seconds that counts differently in each household.

»The Igbo calendar called Igu Aro is something observed by the visible, determined by the invisible, and marked by rituals.«

Before we say more about Igbo cosmology, what is cosmology at all?

Cosmology is relationship, agency, direction, purpose, navigation. It is the fact around us which we cannot seem to have enough logic to meet, and so we use story to fill in the gaps. Stories in their most rudimentary form are roadmaps we refer to when asked to make meaning of the chaos we call life.

Therefore, the story about the cosmos may be as important as the cosmos itself. A person with no story about herself is like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where to dry his body because he does not know where the rain beat him.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Fifth Element

In his essay »Searching for the Planetary in Every Grain of Sand,« Likavčan writes that cosmograms bring different versions of our planetary imagination to the plane of reference. He further explains his use of planetary: Planetary as in »the dynamics in our ecosystem largely indifferent to our fate ….« But even though that description is stated as a fact, that idea that the ecosystem is largely indifferent to our fate is argued by an Igbo proverb insisting that a human is not a passive character in the theater of fate, but is rather an active determinant in the turning of the cosmos toward the final destination. »If a man says yes, his Chi says yes,« reads the proverb.

Roughly expanded, it means that if a human being comes into being on earth and chooses a path for his life, the spirit who is assigned to accompany him from heaven – his Chi – has no choice but to accept what the human has chosen. Free will is not just a slogan, it’s a contract that God has signed with us, and therefore owes us. The concept of fate as fixed and therefore, the cosmos as an invulnerable and unaffected entity, is not the case here.

Cosmograms are not so much viewed; they are more often performed. They are danced, they are listened to [they] do not come across as explicit discourses, rather they present implicit traces of different relations which might be repeatedly applied through different registers of reality.7
—Lukáš Likavčan

All Time wants to do is flow. Our concept of what makes time correct or even precise, sometimes protects us from her impulse to run free from our tame grasp. From 2017 to 2018, I traveled to eight different African countries to learn choreographies local to each of the groups I visited. Somewhere between learning Intore in Rwanda and Pantsula in South Africa, I took down these notes on rhythm which have become my three lessons on decolonizing Time:

Lesson one: Replace your counting numbers with chants and sounds that match the body percussion. Put your 5, 6, 7, 8 to rest. Try Chanchanchararachararachan.

Lesson two: Wear the movement vocabulary of other nonwestern cultures so you can have an embodied perspective on the diversity of intelligence. Also, befriend their drums.

Lesson three: In case you wonder why our moves are fluid like a wave, it’s because the smallest unit of time isn’t always a second.

In Pantsula, the smallest unit of time keeps expanding based on how much you can isolate body parts from each other and how fast you can transition between two movements and still stay on the beat. Basically, the smallest unit of time is as personal as the strength of one’s heart rate.

Time is any way of counting the change of something.8
—Carlo Rovelli

Time is a dance between memory and anticipation. The past holds memory. And the future, holds anticipation. Both are expressions of a human need for sentiments. Is it too far of me to say Time is created to feed our sentimental nature? In his book, The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli proposes that we, humans, are the time machine. In that case, does that mean that we look for who we are in the materials available to us? Where pieces of wood could have just been pieces of wood, we took it and built a tally system. Or, where sand could have just laid by itself on the beach, we took it and put it in a curved glass container and called it an hourglass. We did it to a piece of metal swinging from one end to another. And then we did it to the quartz crystal as we lodged it into these machines we now call clocks. Rather than Time telling the story of humanity, it seems like humanity is desperately trying to tell a story of Time. And what better way to tell a story than with words.

Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie is a performance artist, actor, writer, and tea maker. Her work is her way of combining memory and theory, dream and myth, rumor and fact. Born in Nigeria, her performances and installations have been shown in England, France, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, the Czech Republic, and the United States. She imagines a future where performance, physiotherapy, and technology meet at a powerful junction to upgrade the current definition of healing.

All images Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie. Courtesy of the artist.

  1. Saint Augustine, et al: The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Felling-on-Tyne, 1906.

  2. Exodus 3:14. King James Bible. Nashville, 1973.

  3. Aristotle: Aristotle’s Physics. Books 1 & 2. Oxford, 1970.

  4. Uzoma Nwadike: The Igbo Proverbs: A Wider Perspective.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Chinua Achebe: Arrow of God. New York, 1989.

  7. Lukáš Likavčan: »Searching the Planetary in Every Grain of Sand: Introduction to Digital Earth Fellowship 2020–21,« in Medium, Digital Earth, June 15, 2020.

  8. Carlo Rovelli et al.: The Order of Time. London,