Tuesday, January 08, 2019

ịdụ mmadụ olu


Obododịmma ha

The politics of otherness is conceived in Igbo thought as deploying secret strategies to make the other unknowingly reveal a plan that is hidden. One of these secret strategies is understood as  ịdụ mmadụ olu (or literally, “prodding one’s voice)! Why is a plan seen as “ voice”? Is it a culture that looks at things from the angle of sound or sense as an interface with the object of the sound linked to it. ịdụ mmadụ olu thus suggests an awareness that it is not everything that is openly stated something and one must dig deeper to find out more. Finding out more may be done with inferences made from what a subject says or through direct revelation through confession or exposure. We can see immediately that it is very relevant to indigenous intelligence gathering and that local Africans have always had interesting techniques of intelligence work that should not be ignored in fishing for Western ideas.
ịdụ mmadụ olu reminds one of a risky coil you only prod and it unwinds and comes careering out or an inducement to give out information. Whatever may be case, ịdụ mmadụ olu is a form of spying on the other's plans in order to know the most effective way to act. In other words, it feeds on discourse, on performed interaction, to  break through a barrier.

But it is also a skill and people scheming and making sure a subject does not suspect this prodding till the action forestalling it is taken. That is to say that some people are gifted with this researching with the other and fact-finding. It is like making one bear witness against oneself. Yes; the one doing the prodding is a sneaky researcher watching out for suggestives.

 I called it a skill, in fact, a life skill and manifestation of cleverness, because everyone is supposed to know when and how to carry it out or when someone else is prodding one’s voice to find something out. We are supposed, as rational humans, to have the intelligence to know when this prodding is being carried out and how to handle it. Indeed, it is an important training on discourse engagement one should get from one’s parents in the home. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that there is no training for certain areas of life like sexual life, discourse and discourse participation in the culture, etc. No! There is. The  training may be dispensed in the home, age-group meeting, the ụmụnna meeting (meeting of the kinsmen), farming practices, communal handling of mishap affecting a kinsperson (as when the roof of the house is blown off by the windstorm and must be immediately and collectively repaired), other communal tasks (like weeding and sweeping road networks and village square, etc. In that case, one who exempts self from such, maybe because of church activities or elite snobbishness, one is denying self a very vital form of cultural education not available in formal schooling!

It is an art of cleverness which ancient Igbo thinkers used in clandestine knowing. Implicitly, the prodders derive the information from inferences and not always from direct expression. In that case, the prodder must arm self with techniques of indirect investigation and not expect an easy catch. It gets even more risky and problematic if the person whose voice is being prodded is suspicious or on guard. In other words, both the prodder and the prodded have matching skills on prodding; you know what I know or as it said in Igbo: “Ihe nne gị gwara gị, nne nke m gwakwara a ya” (That thing your mother told you, my own mother also told me that); so, there is a dilemma. Both prodder and the prodded have had sound cultural education and share knowledge on prodding. So, relax! You are playing with a big boy!

Perhaps one should also comment on prodding and individual disposition and its implications for a wider societal experience. First, disposition. Prodders select their targets carefully as students of human behaviour. Any person who is given to voluptuousness when given a glass of wine is a sure specimen.That means prodding when the person is not on guard or has relaxed guard. What makes us relax our guard like tipsiness? Anyone that is tipsy has lost control of self, including the mouth. Just as the drunkard may vomit the excess wine, the drunkard can also vomit a plan through unguarded talk. So, prodders may want to work on their targets through the frothing cup.

Some people may however drink to excess and behave as if they have lost control. But, No! It is even that time that they are dangerous with their own prodding! Believe that they are drunk at your own risk. In other words, such people are merely acting, and which acting is more successful than the one that convinces us that it is natural or real? In other words, it fools us into thinking that fiction is reality!

Apart from drunkards who may be vulnerable, people who naturally talk a lot, or who are fond of praising their efforts, rua big risk of falling to prodders. When one talks a lot, one may not be monitoring what one has said or may not know when one has taken a dangerous plunge!There is always a precipice waiting for us in when we open our mouths, and what does a prodder want badly than for us to open our mouths? Prodders can even prod through close friends who would make us soften and open our mouths eventually. So; every close friend is actually a necessary risk!

People who boast or are angry are already given to unnecessary opening of the mouth. When they boast about themselves or want others to see what they possess, they are making themselves vulnerable. Angry people, too, lose control of their emotions and even say what they would later regret! Generally, it is dangerous to confide in people who talk or boast a lot. Just as taciturn people may also become targets, because the idea is their their closed mouths are hiding or shielding something. Let’s get that thing!

But as the Igbo say, A mara nwoke, amaghị uche ya (One may know a man, but may not know his thoughts). Indeed, one basic training on ultra-manhood in ancient Igbo culture is the keeping of secrets. That was why Igbo ancestors joined secret societies. Joining the mmanwụ society when one was of age  was an important training for every male child on the keeping of the sacred secret signification of the mmanwụ. In fact, ịma mmanwụ,  the initiation into the mmanwu, literally meant “knowing the mmanwụ”. And knowing the mmanwụ meant knowing the sacred secret signification of the mmanwụ. The knowledge of this clandestine semiotics of the mmanwụ is a means of discriminating between the initiate and the non-initiate, as I have observed in another blog article. Manhood and secrecy are therefore placed side-by-side in the culture. This explains one problem manhood touched by Western elitism is experiencing. Modern Western elitism makes a man live out his oneness with his wife and tells her everything for her to Delilah him when she wants. Using him as we use the remote controller is just a small thing. A man locked in embrace with his dear wife and who has lost his head in kissing her cannot wake up early and attend a village meeting or reach out for his egwugwu when bad people come in the night. By the way, why should he wake up? Are angels not on guard?

Obviously, prodding somebody to give it out has always had wider implications for society. From mask dancing to soldiery and defence of community, careless talker are a great risk. When the fate of society hangs on them or they are given leadership roles, the society is in big trouble. It is doubtful if the gains scored by Boko Haram terrorists are not started by insiders who are prodders about counter-plans. The mole may be an insider, but more dangerously a prodded. Further, if the prodded is susceptible, there is also a big problem. A clever prodder needs a vulnerable to succeed. 

 Indeed, as the Igbo say, “E meghee ọnụ, a hụ uche” (When the mouth is opened, we see what one is thinking). As I reflect on ịdụ mmadụ olu in my office, it dawns on me that , as we theorize discourse in today’s classroom, fascinated with Western theorists whose works we have read, we should try a little bit to localize discourse and explore trajectories that our students need to know as people growing up in African societies.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Onomastics of Christmas in Igbo Public Discourse.


Obododimma Oha

The celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth comes every year with its interesting lexical shapes and colours, just like the ancestor, Father Christmas himself. It would be particularly interesting to pay attention to the names that Christmas is given in the Igbo society and the kind of emotion each comes with. Names are important discourses in themselves and could help us to understand the kind of feelings and attitudes attached to their bearing. In this case, it is the names given to a religious festival. We know how emotional and illogical people could get when it comes to religion. Added to that is the emotion attached to the names of the feast they are celebrating. Moreover, the feast and the religion are clearly foreign; they are not African. The celebrants were colonized and have used it to replace their indigenous festivals they regarded as “pagan” and retrogressive. The festival is, therefore, in many ways, not just a sign of their faith, but one of the signs of the instruments of their colonization. This is a fact, that cannot be suppressed! Igbo people may therefore be said to be celebrating Christmas as part of what they have received from the outside, historically, and some may try to localize it, as part of the necessary inculturation in their hybridity.

This article assumes that the celebration of Christmas it itself a signifier of affiliation to Christianity, even if some of the celebrants are not aware of it, or do not care about it. Also, the names they give to what they are celebrating might be a clue to their attitudes to the religion and its meaning.

With this as background I proceed (cautiously) to analyze  and discuss the names that feature in Igbo public discourses. One that readily comes to mind is “Kresimeesi” or “Ekresimeesi”. This just a domestication of “Christmas” and the process of this word formation happens when an equivalent cannot be found in the local language to translate the term. Christmas is not equivalent to either New Yam Festival or ọkwụ (in some Igbo parts). A sensible thing to do is to render the term as if it is a term in the indigenous language; to dress it up locally. It is another way of localizing Christ or Christianity itself. This reminds one of the album, “Jesus in Africa” by Chuks Ofojebe in which he sang that if he eats gari or “akpu,” Jesus has eaten them. Similarly, making Jesus speak Nigerian pidgin is one interesting way making him an indigene through expression. Along that line, why won’t a celebration of his birth be also localized or given a local expression? Indeed, in “Kresimeesi”, Jesus the Christ is in Igboland speaking Igbo.

Another interesting nomenclature that is popular among Igbo business people mainly is Onwa Disemba  (a deictic reference, using the month of the celebration as a synecdoche for Christmas). Such comes with the hustle and bustle of the month in which this feast takes place, with people buying lavishly and in large quantities (with some to give away), travels and holidaying, meetings, etc. Indeed, the celebration is not just the birth of Christ for them, but a month when so many important things happen. Incidentally, this season (it is really a season!) falls at the end of the year and so runs into New Year celebrations, too!

Thus, celebrating “Onwa Disemba” (which is also the title of a Nollywood film that focuses on the misdeeds of people who want to celebrate the season in vanity) is already an alert for business people who must sell to make gains as if they would die after that! Even in the Western world where we have “sales” during the season, it is not just a commercial practice of being liberal, but pushing out the remnants of goods to tempt buyers to rush for them. As a gbanjo trader (auction trader) once, I can tell you that you make more gain and do not delay your merchandise when you reduce the price to a tempting level!

Close on the heels of this is “ịgba Disemba”  (still a deictic reference in which the month is synecdocically used). The word “ịgba” in Igbo means to celebrate (or as a nominal, celebration). Every other feast goes with it, whether indigenous or otherwise. The infinitive carries with it emotions of happiness and noise. This happiness may have been abused, but there is lavishness in the Igbo idea of celebration, what more a feast. Maybe there is something cultural about it and so Igbo Christians are still Igbo and cannot afford to be sad as deep Christians! For them, deed down, a celebration is a celebration.

One also hears Igbo elite talk about “ịgba Xmas”, a corruption of “Christmas” itself, in which it it assumed that the letter “X” is an analogy of Christ or Christianity, or the cross. Early Christians identified themselves in their clandestine communication with the sign of the fish and not the cross. But neither Jesus nor Christianity has anything to do with the lettter “X.” It seems to me that those that introduced (it may have been introduced by one beer-drinking fellow wanting to be hippy) were celebrants a bit intoxicated with excitement and wanted to push the semiotics of Christmas further without knowing it!

In a sense, they coined another word, putting together “mas” in "Christmas" (as it were a bound/post-morpheme) and the letter “X” in the front. Now, for those of us in symbolic logic or mathematical logic, you know that you can use “X” to replace a site where an option may land. “X” could be any number or anything. So, the coiners of the term were using signification  in mathematical logic without knowing it.

These terms show how Christmas is travelling round in people’s heads. As they travel round, they gather cultural and attitudinal emotions. I am celebrating at the site of these signs and drinking dark rum and making noise because Jesus has been born in this galaxy. If you doubt it, ask the wise men from the East!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Tortoise Now Drives a Jeep


Obododịmma Oha

One of the figures in African folklores that has great relevance to contemporary struggles on the continent is the trickster. It is an interesting situation where cultural and fictional characters resemble entities we find in real life, or reality mimicks fiction. Is it the scammer  hiding in one hovel and deceiving innocent people to part with their millions? Or is it politicians deceiving the electorate with their funny and grossly illogical bandwagon appeals? Or, is it the pastor in three-piece suit deceiving his congregation with promises of deliverance from their travails and making them part with their life savings? Even at places of work, clever folks have made a resounding contribution to the practice of office politics by deceiving fellow workers that they are righteous and religious people, in order to make their targets submit easily to their wishes! Everywhere in contemporary life in the postcolony you see the trickster at work and morphing also in order to be able to deceive vulnerable targets.

In Igbo culture, the trickster is mbe or mbekwu, the tortoise. In Yoruba, we  have ịjapa or ajapa (the tortoise, too) featuring in secular tales and the deity, esu elegba, featuring in sacred or formal contexts. Even other deities are afraid of this trickster deity, who might just play a fast one on them and enact destruction. And so, esu has great relevance as a trickster in serious social contexts involving the big-time players or leaders. One of them might just play esu and foul the waters for others. That means that these victims must have to be on their guard at the top where great things happen to society! Also, in Ghana, the trickster is the anansi or spider.

All the choices of the animals have important issues about them. The tortoise carries a shell around, a shell that is made up of parts and linkages. It is also slow and clumsy in walking around and hides  inside its shell when it senses a danger. It is, therefore, a vulnerable and weak creature practically. It is then understandable that such a vulnerable creature is imagined to be strong in mind, exercising the power of cleverness to survive than just retreating into its shell, which is itself a natural burden and handicap! The spider, too, is an interesting choice in the folk imagination. The spider has compound eyes and scan see things. It has multiple limbs, too, and  so its multitasking and access  to targets, as well as to craft, are enhanced. Moreover, it a silent creature (even though greatly vulnerable) and is an ideal choice when it comes to watching and studying targets. Yet, this creature is selected in the culture, to exercise the power of cleverness and deceive (even though the physical spider can do useful things for us, like killing other offensive insects by trapping them in its webs!) In each case, the figure is a paradox, which suggests that there is greater power to watch in those places and things we tend to overlook as innocuous. It says loudly: there could be strength in apparent weakness!

Anyway, that point is important as we reflect on the figure of the trickster and modern African life, especially its morphing nature in the creative performance of trickster tales by children. That tendency  to morph, to alter its form, is already part of tricksterhood. Through morphing, it further deceives and holds hostage! One would like to focus on the one that one is a bit familiar with its folklore, the Igbo mbe. Tales about mbe’s tricksterhood (which ironically also inspires both admiration and condemnation) have been collected in one interesting Igbo text, Mbediogo, which is studied at schools. Thanks to modern print culture: those tales are preserved in print, instead of being stored only in our unreliable heads of humans, heads that are affected by so many modern things! But one cannot overlook what one enjoyed in those days when after supper we as children of the homestead gathered around the raconteur, mostly our mothers, and listened to tales about mbe. Surely, that was a special dessert for th mind! Formal primary education also helped as our primary school teachers sought to connect home education with the one they dispensed and made us tell folktales in turns. They know how to create involvement in their teaching and how to ignite our interest in schooling. We clearly saw, in the use of folktales in getting us to be involved in our learning, that the education in local life had its great relevance. In that case, when next that woman or uncle was going to tell a folktale, no one would preach to any child to wash the pot quickly and be there to listen attentively.

Now, with attention to Africa Magic, hip-hop tunes, etc, who bothers about mbe and learning of cleverness again? These products of modern technology should have enhanced our transmission and use of these tales, but that is the case. With individualism and desire for ykprivacy creeping closer, the performance of tales after supper in African homes suffers a great setback. One can have an interesting folktale for the family, to entertain and relax nerves, but how do you get members of the audience who may be watching European  soccer league matc or playing computer game, together? One has to be an old-fashioned dictator to be able to do that!

The few moments that one made efforts to get one’s children to like the mbe tales and asked for volunteers to play the role of raconteur, to switch roles in order to encourage training and transmission through these young ones, ones got a shock, a great shock! It is true that mbe tale has variants and that each performer or teller my add salt and pepper here and there, or a personal stamp, to enhance the performance, but though asking for volunteers, I got to know that my mbe and their own mbe were no longer the same. The mbe in my old tradition could speak human language and do wonderful exploits like getting a beautiful wife with just a grain of corn, but their own mbe has become more scientific in its exploits. Their mbe is not that distant and slow creature that has to survive through cleverness. Their own mbe has grown with time, is smarter in playing with his smart phones, driving big SUVs, and becoming really superhuman. Yes, the trickster tales in original Igbo tradition has traces of being into science fiction and could do amazing things like being an aviator (by cleverness and association) and a surgeon (breaking the ant into two and joining the bits with a broomstick).

It was clear that their own creativity is quite different from mine; the freedom of the raconteur to add salt and pepper greatly intensified. Perhaps what they have done is to recontextualise the performance of the tales and I was the one really backward as a practitioner. It is still the trickster, even if that mbe now drives a jeep and speaks English (and not Igbo) with more authority as somebody who does not go to toilet! Must mbe be saddled with its natural shell? A shell is a shell, even if modernized and it is a jeep shell! Indeed, that person that does smart things from his SUV and is able to deceive some folks and make millions of dollars must also vie with my own mbe in tricksterhood.

With this situation, one wonders what people who wish to study the trickster folktale in my ancient tradition have to do, whether they have they have to cross timeline and recover the past that is not a bigger fiction. Or they have to study the new orality that involves the trickster deceiving targets with messages on the “smart” phone ans cruising in a jeep and not wobbling around in shells. Researchers of Igbo folklore that hope to recuperate the past of performances may be wasting their time, or at most writing another fiction, that is a metafiction involving their own fabrication. The trickster tales presented by my young ones drives a jeep! Is that not creativity of the performance? Do not be surprised if another variant says that the tortoise has an earache and so cannot participate in a political debate in his country and will go to London for a surgery, or that a previous  surgery on the tongue of mbe made him lose his competence in his mothertongue he used to speak! And so mbekwu now speaks only English, which is the next level and a fitting thing for jeeping.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Oyibo in Igbo Thought


Obododimma Oha

Oyibo (called oyinbo in Yoruba) is a label that refers to the White person and sometimes to Europeans. As humans they have moved around and have had contact with Igbo people. How are they perceived by Igbo people or what does this signification suggest to Igbo people? Given that this is mainly a case of semiotics of complexion and understanding of cultural behaviour, oyibo in Igbo thought is worth looking at. People who bear some complexional similarity to the White people, like the albinos, are also referred to as oyibo, even though the differences are clear and White people also have albinos among them. This is a comparative idea in the expression; in the generalization of the term to albinos and other fair complexioned people.

The language mostly spoken by Europeans and other White people, particularly English, is also referred to as oyibo. O na-asuru m oyibo in Igbo is often an identification of the subject’s language as English. But, indeed, Igbo people did not historically have contact first with European speakers of English. They rather had contact with Portuguese explorers, whom they referred to as Potokiri, a corruption of “Portuguese” obviously. The Portuguese explorers must have used gesticulations and vocal signs to identify themselves to the Igbo people as “Portuguese,” and this sounded like Potokiri to the ears of the addressees.

In our village in those days, this oyibo reference was further generalized out of ignorance. Those of us who didn’t have much formal education referred to even Igbo language spoken in the big cities like Onitsha and Aba as oyibo. Onitsha and Aba dialects spoken to those of us in the local areas was “oyibo” and somebody who said: “O na-asuru m oyibo” might be referring to the city Igbo that was considered superior or was used in showing off!

Now, you can see how “oyibo” as a concept has started applying to many things and to resemblances. That obviously speaks about the need for enlightenment (which eventually came to the local Igbo areas) and the tendency to call city Igbo oyibo has started dying gradually.

With these clarifications, I then come to the way some (if not many) Igbo view “oyibo,” based on ways of life associated with them. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the mystification of oyibo, based on the scientific or technological objects associated with the White person, or general admiration secretly or openly expressed about the White people and their ways. Along this line, the oyibo is sometimes represented in Igbo discourse as follows:

(1)  Oyibo bu agbara.  (The White person is a deity)
Or, Oyibo bu mmuo. (The White person is a spirit)

As a matter of fact, oyibo is not a deity but a mortal that can think. That oyibo has made an airplane and can fly better than birds, and is looking for ways of exploring deep space, or is doing other amazing scientific or technological wonders, is because of this interest in thinking. Black people and Igbo people think, too, and can point to other amazing things they have brought into human experience. Africans, for instance, can explore and exploit spiritual powers to harm others, something often called ogwu or juju. One also expects them to use this ogwu to chase away dictatorial governments, deal with crooks,  foster development, etc. Must juju be in the service of the negative or will such a power be there and evil will be on the increase?

Igbo people that look at a technological equipment and exclaim, “Oyibo bu agbara” are overwhelmed obviously, but ought to know that such a statement requires them to find out how oyibo is agbara and whether they too can be agbara, or are already agbara. Indeed, we are all agbara and when people discover that scientific thinking is superior to magic, they would give the honour to science to whom it is due.

The Oyibo bu agbara promotes an inferiority complexity because it implicitly places the White above the Black or the Green! This complex needs to be dealt with as an undesirable in Igbo discourse, especially among local people who have not had much formal education as shown above. Indeed, one problem this brings up is the fact that the highly educated or enlightened person in Africa is still separated from local life. Formal school education and enlightenment ought to touch lives in local areas in Africa and become a useful complement to local knowledge. It should not keep a distance from local knowledge. When last did the highly educated persons attend their cultural shows or meetings or demonstrate their closeness to the African life they often theorize? The truth is that many highly educated Igbo are not even members of their town union meetings. They say they cannot withstand the business people and their ways! Then, why pontificate about your African community as a knower when you are that distant? Indeed, many Africans who present African life to the world do not know much about it, or they base their ideas on what they can only remember, on unreliable memory. Remembrance of things and places distant to us is considered sufficiently fictional to impress the outside and keep us on our jobs!

With this vexation off my chest, I need to address the second representation of oyibo in Igbo discourse. The oyibo is perceived as delicate and highly demanding of other humans. This is evident in the expression:

(2)  O bu ozu oyibo (Ozu nwa onyeocha); e bulie ya elu, “No! No! No!”; e budaa ya ala, “No! No! No!” (The person is a corpse of the White person. If lifted, it complains and says flatly, “No! No! No!; if put down, it still complains and says, “No! No! No!”

The impression is that oyibo is delicate; thinks too highly of themselves and hard to please. One has to keep adoring or worshiping them for them to be pleased! But the entity, oyibo, making such a difficult demand (They cannot be kept in the air, even they want to punish the carrier) is only corpses, dead bodies (maybe due their own wrong assumptions!). In other words, they are already on the way to depreciation and would be a waste.

 Further, the voice of the oyibo is inside our reporting (colonized’s) voice, which is a very good signification of inevitable hybridity. We are not the same, even in expression, since encountering oyibo. In fact, part of us is already oyibo! We are also oyibo! The voice of oyibo (in English, the language of superiority and power) complains: “No! No! No!” We are only reporters of our affliction, and have to retain oyiboness in expression: “No! No! No!”

I suspect that the origin of this expression is the practice of Black servants being made to carry White colonialists seated in chairs, especially District Commissioners. The District Commissioners (Nwa DC) in their bonnets and white tunics, were considered lords and had to be carried to their destinations. In that way, superiority is even visualized and impressed upon the senses of the colonized people. The Nwa DC was considered special, a celebrity, and his visit was God himself visiting. The local Africans were happy in their ignorance. Oh, how often ignorance makes us happy and to keep our places? Interestingly, even the carriers considered themselves superior to other Africans who did not have that “wonderful” opportunity. To be nearer the oppressor and to eat his shit was and has always been seen as a privilege and a training in the business of oppression!

Perhaps deriving from the understanding of the oyibo as the superior is the  metaphorization of the term when it is used in referring to a fellow Black person who is understood as very clean or  whose ways are straightforward. I suspect that this derives from the regard of the real oyibo as the ideal and the superior. The Black oyibo may be an African American or a highly educated African whose ways are positively different. In this case, the person is, ironically, also understood as a cultural outsider.

In-between the extreme deification of the White persons due to technological wonders associated with them and the perception of White people as a burden one cannot put down or somebody who is hard to please and continues to ask to be worshiped are series of satires showing understandings and misunderstandings in the Black-White relationship. The oyibo maybe caricatured, as in women’s satirical performances during the funerals of elderly people, as a simpleton or as a weakling. The oyibo complexion maybe mimicked through a whitened mask or way of walking in which the hidden toes are their handicap. Further, because oyibo people are understood simpletons and Blacks are considered wiser – even outwitting oyibo as tricksters like mbe the tortoise – their reasoning may be very shallow and they could easily be cheated. Generally, the oyibo is one of the mumu (Nigerian pidgin expression for an incurable simpleton or fool) around. Since the oyibo is a fool, what stops the oyibo actor from displaying laughable, stupid acts in the performance? Also, that cultural performance has been chosen to ridicule the force that claims superiority tells us that the behavior of oyibo is considered better when we stand aside and laugh at their expense.

Oyibo, in fact, is one of the ambivalent figures in Igbo thought. The oyibo baffle us with the art of their science, their own juju, but are also our cultural victims in our acts of laughing at the other. Who deserves to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, as a way of fighting back, than the arrogant and the dominant?

Friday, December 14, 2018

Fighting a War through Her Praise Name


Obododimma Oha

Many people think of the Igbo society as being predominantly patriarchal, but not many people stop to think of the simple things that women in that society do as a way of talking back, challenging and even trying to upturn the system to their favour. Indeed, when a system is polarized and to the disadvantage of one group, it has already laid the foundation for subversion. Where else would such subversion be easily staged than in the names we bear, personal names that say things? Women’s praise names are even more appropriate candidates for this because: (1) they have been suggested by their bearers as preferred names, (2) they are used regularly in hailing them, (3) they make the bearers feel good (i.e. they cognitively serve the bearers as well as what they truly represent by massaging their egos in public hearing).

Was it not the Russian radical thinker, Volosinov, who once pointed out that the sign is a site, a location, an environment, a setting, for struggle? Which will do this better than names, praise names through which our interactions and/or what we stand for wrestle with one another? Women’s praise names in Igbo culture carry on this struggle by trying to accomplish any or all of the following:

(1)  Responding to other praise names that their fellow women or men bear;
(2)  Interrogating the actions or status of men that could be to their disfavor;
(3)  Telling the philosophies or goals they pursue in life;
(4)  Narrating aspects of their heroism in culture, especially marriage; and
(5)  Networking with fellow women, maybe in the same age group, by taking on names (a way of boasting about presence).

Praise names that women bear may also be given by other people who are just friends or observers and with time, they stick to the addressee or get adopted. Such mainly has to do with what the women are good in, their trade, like Osu ogiri (Producer of the soup sweetner, ogiri), Aka mebere akara uto (The hands that made the sweet beans snack, akara), etc. Given or chosen by self, the woman’s praise name elevates her, instead of diminishing her. It helps her to achieve at least one of the following:

(1)  It gives her the impression that other people appreciate her efforts or her inclination;
(2)  It makes her want to bring out her best, to perform exceptionally well;
(3)  It makes her feel accomplished that she can contribute something indeed; that she is not worthless; and
(4)  She understands herself, represented by the ideal of the praise name, as being able to compete with her peers (ideologically).

The notion that only men massage their egos through the bearing of praise names, especially when they have taken titles, is wrong. That women bear praise names, even if they have not taken titles, should make an observer of social life pause and think about what they might really be doing through those names not given to them by their parents. Yes, they are the very authors of these names. It is good and heartening when one is responsible for the name one bears! Further, praising women through the names (ideals) they endorse could be one important way of including them as people who have not merely accompanied the male into life on earth.

Another thing is that, even though I suggested above that givenness may constitute a headache, these praise names may be discarded and other ones taken somewhere along the line. A bearer may discard the name when she discovers a disadvantage or other dark side in it. It may be what porous side others may perceive in it and criticize it. It may connect to true parentage. It may even be a “corruption” through the activities of another bearer! If you also bear a similar praise name and you have been known to do a bad thing, I could, out of personal worry, discard my own! Maybe you have been caught in an extra-marital sex! Who knows, people might think I am the one being referred to since I bear the same praise (condemnatory!) name! The wisest thing is to steer clear of you and your labels!

But what is even more crucial is that women talk back to patriarchal culture and male domination through these names. Let me start from a nearer note, and perhaps suggest where one started studying this phenomenon. As a child, I used to hear people hail my maternal grandmother, who was a well-known griot in our town, as Agbirigba Tugburu Ebule (The small stickling to the hair on the body of the ram which eventually overpowered and destroyed the ram). Oh, it is a big task to get translation equivalents for non-Igbo people to appreciate the original expression!). The name is even longish, which suggests the reach of amplification.

My grandmother used to be greatly excited, ready to do her best in whatever she laid hands on, whenever she was addressed in such a way. The addresser knew her “real” name, which was also adulatory, but it was given by her parents! Grandmother (I am not praising her because I am her fruit) was an exceptionally gifted and a no-nonsense woman. She was industrious and other women only came to borrow from her (in which she had to counsel them on how to get or keep their own). Grandmother would even go to the extent of uprooting a pepper seeding from her own obubo (homestead garden) and going to transplant it in the obubo of another woman who has come the second time to borrow pepper from her! She even had to be hired by other families to prepare dishes for them, even though she was not a caterer. There was even this obvious hyperbole that she could boil only water and it would be sweet! Now, you understand the kind of big shoes that one stepped into!

What gave grandmother the name (other people addressed her as such, until it became her praise name) was that she was very industrious and could outshine any male in a society where it was thought that having a daughter is a great disadvantage, and a male child an advantage. Her husband died in an accident (fell from a tree where he went to tap palm wine), but this tragedy did not weaken the family as such. It was as if her husband was still alive! Simply this: the widow was tough and still held the family together and firmly. She did not remarry or ask for any male to help in the so-called “masculine tasks”.

We have seen an example of a praise label by other people and its being a strong weapon in the hands of a woman who would not want to be denigrated as a weakling. The second example is a clear case of a woman (also a no-nonsense widow) taking a praise name to register her unwillingness to give in to male control from outside the home or to lose her late husband’s property to  any man who pretended to help her. She took the name, Onye mara Ihe O Ga-emeli (If one knows what one can wrestle with, or If one realizes one’s true ability), but her friends addressed her also in another praise name, A luwu Aku (No one destroys or kills an Aku woman in marriage). Obviously, the former is a homage to her origin from a tough society). Onye Mara Ihe O Ga-emeli indeed conjures fear: it seems to warn, “Do not mess with this woman! Or, try this woman at your own risk!

Indeed, men kept off, as her praise name warns. People sometimes try to take advantage of disadvantaged women, like widows. But Onye Mara Ihe O Ga-emeli clearly warns such people (men) to think twice before trying their antics. The praise name for me stages this struggle against male domination and opportunism, through a praise name which advertises feminine disposition. Indeed, it it not just the name, but what the bearer truly does and can do.

Onye Mara Ihe O Ga-emeli is for me a clear staging of feminine struggle at the site of the sign. The sign is vocalized: it is not a writing culture. This vocalization makes it prominent and very powerful. When the bearer is hailed at the stream or market place and the name resounds, go back and think about it. Take it into consideration as you plan to deal with the bearer.

As someone interested in the linguistic side of this business, I am attracted too to the structure of the name, Onye Mara Iha O Ga-emeli. Unlike Agbirigba Tugburu Ebule that is a nominal, it is an If-clause, a conditional used as a complex word made up of other words. You are required by this clause to complete the expression, based on your shared knowledge as a member of the culture and somebody familiar with the ways of the bearer. Was it not Fela who taught us how to deal with such incomplete complete expressions in the classroom of his shrine when he said: “Who killed Dele Giwa?” Felastic answer: “Baba (if you put “Ngida, na you putam!”? So, we have inevitably come to share in the structuring and restructuring of the name, bearer and hearer. The toughness of the bearer also coincides with the complexity of the praise name. You chew it in expression and have a foretaste of her toughness. I am aware that traditional Igbo names are that sentential and longish but there is an interesting coincidence here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Journey of Life and the Snake Movement


Obododimma Oha

I had, in a previous blog article, “Uwa Bu Ahia,” reflected on the Igbo representation of life as a type of going to the market for shopping. Igbo people are among those groups that try to explain or understand complex/bewildering experiences by seeing one thing (the unfamiliar) in terms of another (the familiar). In other words, they make use of analogy a great deal. Why would humans not make such comparisons in order to deal with difficult experiences?

Another analogical thinking of life in Igbo folklore is expressed in the highlife music of Muddy Ibe and his Nkwa Brothers System “83” as follows:

Ije uwa na—aga ka agwo,
O na-aga ka agwo;
O si akanri aga,
O si akaekpe aga,
Ije uwa na-aga ka agwo!

(The journey of life moves like a snake,
It moves like a snake;
It moves towards the right,
It moves towards the left,
The journey of life moves like a snake)

As one can easily see, we are invited to the kinesthetic of snake movement and asked to see the complexities of the journey of life as such a movement. Ordinarily, the snake movement conjures fear in us: the snake slithers and when we find ourselves within the dangerous space of being attacked, we are uncomfortable. The movement of the snake is not understood in Igbo culture as a “beautiful” thing. Even Igbo visual artists hardly deploy the snake motif in their drawing, except to speak about danger or to warn about it, as in mmanwu wall murals.   It is rather in the Indian culture that a snake or its movement is described as “beautiful.”  Another exception is the mamiwota (mermaid) wall mural, which obviously reveals the Indian influence. In fact, the Indian deity sporting her snakes as the mamiwota is hardly visualized as a Black African entity but an Aryan. Granted that there is something near to snake esthetics in Igbo discourse in visual art, as when they describe something as O turu agwa ka eke (It is spotted like eke the sacred python), but I suspect that this expression of the snake’s beauty has something to do with its being seen as a totem of a god or goddess; in other words, its cultural veneration. It just ends there. There is hardly any visual art in Igbo culture that deploys the python esthetics. Maybe in emerging intertextual and counter-discursive ones that it would be interesting to encounter!

It is not just a comparison. Igbo philosophy of life is at work there. The journey of life has “bends,” and if one is here on its adventure, one should expect such bends! Rightward bends and leftward bends. Ije uwa na-aga ka agwo. The snake moves cautiously in these bends imposed on it by nature. Maybe its legs are inside, somewhere not visible and it has to be propelled by representative muscles. So, the wriggle provided by these rightward and leftward movements ensures that it has balance in the difficult trip. Let any creature try to make it more difficult or interfere with the movement and the snake would use its fangs. Ije uwa na-aga ka agwo and these bends are not all sweet narratives!

That brings me to other senses we could make out of the snake movement. One is here in the journey by chance, not by one’s own making. Perhaps it is part of something big happening or about to happen. But the choices we make on that journey are important variables too. They can shape the rightward and leftward movements. The bend into Calabar, into Ibadan, then the US, then Senegal and back to Ibadan; then Lagos, then Namibia and back to Ibadan have all inserted choice into the scheme of chance. Or is it Cameroon and Ghana and India, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, etc? How our whereabouts in the snake movement colour the narrative! Maybe if one had the courage to disappear in this snake movement, one would not have been bothered like the tortoise whether the shithole smells badly! How the rightward and leftward movements create sub-texts in the narrative!

Ije uwa na-aga ka agwo! And that’s why we have to be cautious like the agwo, for we do not know where it would end and when it would end.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Uwa Bu Ahia


Obododimma Oha.

The metaphorization of earthly life or of the earth itself, as a marketplace or as going to market to make some purchases, is very strong in Igbo thought. To go to the marketplace, one has to make a journey. That means that coming to the world involves a journey, from somewhere to somewhere. That is based on the assumption that we do not just come into existence through biological means, through sexual reproduction, growing in the womb up to the moment of delivery. Where was the person prior to that conception in the womb? The assumption was that there was something that did not have form, which was given a human form to manifest, and will discard that human form one day and move on. This taking on and throwing off of the human form are a journey, the journey of earthly life.
An Igbo highlife musician sang:

Uwa bu ahia
Uwa bu ahia
Eluuwa bu ahia
Onye zuchaa nke ya, o laa …

(The earth is a marketplace
The earth is a marketplace
The surface of the earth is a marketplace
When anyone finishes their transactions, they go home …)

That is a very effective image: the configuration of coming to this life as going to market for some transactions and going home unfailingly when they are over. That means: the journey to the market has a purpose or is dependent on the purpose of going; the person who has gone to market needs to go home or must go home when the transactions are over; and the transactions cannot last forever: they  must be over at a point. The conclusion of service encounters in the market is to be anticipated. Normally, the conclusion is the fixing of the price which one party has to pay, in cash or other recognized legal means. If that is the case, the termination of mortal life, the discarding of earthly form called “death” is inevitable; it is to be expected. What cannot be predicted is HOW that exit is to be made, what would lead to that discarding, whether a gunshot or a knife slash.

Uwa bu ahia, indeed, and everyone has to go for the transactions and return home. There is no question of ordering the domestic servants to go to the market and make the transactions, and then return at the appointed hour. Igwe niile ga-eje n’uzu (All bicycles will eventually visit the welder), the Igbo say. The blind and the sighted; the lean and the obese; the beautiful and the ugly; the king and the servant, all must visit the market stall and haggle.

Nigerian public discourse has a way of humoring this journey to the market. It says that if somebody goes to the market for the transaction and refuses to return home at the end, that person is “government pickin,” a euphemism for insane, homeless people who make the marketplace their home. There are two entities that I know make the marketplace their home. One is the mad fellow already mentioned. The second is the vulture. Both are united by the idea of being the rejected that cannot reject themselves; both are free as the rejected. Above all, both are considered already dead to societal membership, even though we know it is a lie because they enter or are part of society. Don’t we have proverbs, wise sayings, attributed to mad people in many cultures and to vultures? Don’t male ritualists and those with uncontrollable sexual urge go and have sex with mad women and get them pregnant? Are mad people sometimes not robbed of their little monetary possessions by petty thieves? And so on.

In spite of the fact that discarding the adorable or lovely flesh and carrying on is inevitable and will happen one day, some people are filled with fear concerning the experience and mainly because they do not know what is waiting for them over there. Just as they opened their eyes and found themselves in one miserable country and not another they would wish, they do not know what and where it would be next. They do not know whether they would die here and only to be born there – in which case their families would be wailing hereonearth and another “family” would be rejoicing that another journey has started in another world.

Ancient Egyptians even took it further. Their kings had their tombs stocked with valuables, which they would need in the afterlife. They had gold vessels and even food items inside the grave. But even if the man were buried along with his mansion, or as is rumoured today, he as a rich man is buried with his customized Benz car, he may not know the whereabouts of these material things. He might not even know that they are in the tomb, not to talk of driving the car to the spiritworld. 

Given this uncertainty and the fear it occasions, some faiths try to provide a little consolation, not only by helping to install an idea of a definite place where the journey might end, but also by euphemizing the exit after the market transaction here. No, don’t get scared: he is not dead but asleep. The idea of being dead implies that it is finished. Asleep implies that there is still hope: the person asleep will eventually wake up. He will not wake up! He is stone dead! Use his flesh as barbecue, if you like. Whether you send the body to evil forest or to a shrine to assuage a god, or to an incensed church, he is gone for good. All the prayers and songs and vigils will not help him or define where he is going.

The euphemization is to raise the hope of survivors and cater for their fears, to give the impression, from a human perspective, that that earthly familial relationship will one day be reconstituted. There could be not family over there. And where is there? There could be a different family over there!

The idea of earthly life as a journey is rich in spiritual reflections. Any person on a journey, a trip, surely has to have a destination. (Sorry for that person if the luggage is excess and if the luggage is an undue interference with another person's market transactions!) But we do not know that destination. So many things are hidden from us humans. We cannot fully understand that configuration of going to the market for transactions unless we are allowed to remember even that we once went the marketplace, which I doubt. Once out of the market, memory may be erased so that another phase of the journey can begin and go on uninterrupted. 

The Igwe Versus the Akpi in Igbo Cultural Critique of Generational Philosophy


Obododimma Oha

Umuaka ugbu a
Unu bu akpi
Akpi tulaa elu
Akpi atudolo ala

Okenye ugbu a
Unu bu igwe
Igwe tunye oji
Igwe atunye ocha

(Children of these days
You are ticks
Ticks shoot upwards
Ticks shoot downwards

Adults of these days
You are the sky
The sky black-spotted
The sky white spotted)

The folk song/poem presented above is featured among children and is among the renditions they use in bringing a day to a close with seemingly insignificant performances. But the rendition contains an important discourse, a plural response to and critique of generational philosophies. The Igbo understand that age or time might be an important variable in the ways we look at life and do take this into consideration in addressing the weaknesses and strengths of an individual in reasoning. Not that they insist that the older we are the righter we become in our reasoning, even though we have proverbs like Nwaanyi buru ibe ya uzo luo di n-aka enwe mkpomkpo aria (literally, “A woman who is the first to get married accumulates more broken pots in the homestead”). Yes; experience also teaches us and the more experiences we have, the more enlightened about an issue we should be! More broken pots are more challenges from which a person should learn and should know. But the Igbo also modify this in saying that Agakariam ije kaara onye isiawo mara ihe (The person who has travelled more knows more than the hoary-haired that is sitting at home). Of course, the Agakariam Ije has had more experiences, more encounters in life, and is still a champion made by experience!

Is it not interesting that the children’s rendition is double-voiced? One is the voice of the aged, the elderly, the other the voice of the child. The adult voice alleges that children of these days are difficult to control; that they are, metaphorically speaking, like the small tick, shooting up and down. The voice of the child counters this, replying that the adults of today are unreliable like the sky: here they appear to be white, but there they are black! Very slippery, too. I guess this nature of the adult is backed up by its portrayal in other folk discourses, for instance, in the story of the chicken thief who stole and was caught by children playing nearby. The thief says to a fellow adult who comes to the scene, “Please, look into my bag with the eyes of an adult.” And the man looked inside the bag (with the eyes of an adult) and saw instead a dead okwa, wild quail, thus exonerating the thief! The eyes of an adult, indeed! The eyes of an adult that see what we do not see, or that see something else!

What are the eyes of an adult, or what are in the eyes of an adult, such that the adult is black here and white there? You would agree with me that the voice of the child in the reply has a very powerful missile. Yes; it is akpi and is difficult to grab, but adults are igwe, white-that-is-black, that change to other patterns and create problems for those around. To say “mislead” others may be to be euphemistic. The generational conflict remains unresolved; while adults who have seen a different reality are subjected to another that is strange, young ones also find adult perception unbearable. In Igbo discourse, the ancient ones who lived in a different reality not acceptable to us are sometimes referred to as “ndi nduhie” (those misled, or those whose ways can mislead). We know how their ways could be misleading and how, for instance, they continue to cause problems through various forms of ancient imagination (in religion, in culture, etc.) that they have transmitted to us or have brainwashed us to accept.

Yes; children of these days could be worse than akpi. It is very difficult to hold them down to something, especially if one has many broken pots as ndi nduhie! You could see these generational views of life at conflict in various fronts. It has even become more pronounced as the current Igbo wrestle with knowledge in various domains, with the lenses from yesterday and today.

One is not safer or happier by choosing out of the two conflicting camps. It only adds to the reality that Ihe kwuru, ihe akwuso ya (When something stands, another stands beside it). Being a child means that one would become an adult or join ndi nduhie! Same for being an adult: one easily returns to childhood (in ways of reasoning, eating, etc.); one may even begin to crawl and maybe assisted to walk like a child! One becomes a child again!