Okigbo was born on 16 August 1930, in the town of Ojoto, about ten miles from the city of Onitsha in Anambra State. His father was a teacher in Catholic missionary schools during the heyday of British colonial rule in Nigeria, and Okigbo spent his early years moving from station to station. Despite his father's devout Christianity, Okigbo had an affinity and came to believe later in his life, that in him was reincarnated the soul of his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto, an Igbo deity. Idoto is personified in the river of the same name that flows through Okigbo's village, and the "water goddess" figures prominently in his work. Heavensgate (1962) opens with the lines:
Before you, mother Idoto,
- naked I stand,
while in "Distances" (1964) he celebrates his final aesthetic and psychic return to his indigenous religious roots:
- I am the sole witness to my homecoming.
Another influential figure in Okigbo's early years was his older brother Pius Okigbo, who would later become the renowned economist and first Nigerian Ambassador to the European Economic Commission (EU).