Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A Folkloric Navigation around the Weaverbird’s Skilfulness in Nest-making


Obododimma Oha

Folklore continues to challenge humanity with interesting connexions and interpretations of experience. Indeed, it constantly invites us to look at life and its situations more closely to see how one aspect could be an interesting paradigm for the other. Is it what the folksongs convey in simple but profound philosophical statements or what the proverbs seem to legislate? Is it even in the silent speech of the wall mural in the shrine or the full concentration of the dibia afa the diviner while reading the signs of the seeds of insight on the divination tray? And what about new media folklore, both the tech-mediated and that which develops from the interaction among virtual lives? These open up interesting trajectories, but I am particularly interested in the present essay about how traditional Igbo folkstory offers insight on skill acquisition values in the context of training, addressing the need for patience, humility, concentration, and foresight -- this time from the mythical angle on how two birds attended a training programme on nest-making and why one produces a nest that shows amazing skilfulness, while the other produces something that is terribly disappointing.

I initially meant to write a blog article featuring only a folkstory my late father once told me about how Ahịa the weaverbird and ọkịrị the talkative bird went to Udude the spider to learn the art of weaving. I principally intended to explore the use of folkloric forms in teaching the ethics of skill acquisition in postcolonial Africa. Other things, unfortunately, took away my attention, after the initial brainstorming. But on Sunday 3rd July, 2016, my interest in Facebook folklore (I like that concept!) reconnected me with the desire to write about the story of Ahịa and ọkịrị in a more relaxed, less academic style, offering a suitable response to the discourse initiated by the Facebook update shared by Egbe Henry (as matter of fact, the photograph has been shared by thousands of people on Facebook, the last after Egbe's being a sharing by Chukwuemekalum Francis Nwosuh, which contained Egbe's assertion). The interesting update featured a photograph of my friend, Ahịa, saying “MEET THE ARCHITECT THAT DID NOT ATTEND ANY SCHOOL.” Obviously, as typical of Facebook updates, Egbe’s post would like the Facebook public, especially his friends, to reflect on Ahịa’s nest-making skills, appreciate the amazing creativity, and consider the nest-making in relation to human schooling as a means of gaining knowledge and skills to do things. For one thing, the post has timeliness as public discourse, considering the fact that there is a current global concern about the application of knowledge gained at school in accomplishing tasks in the workplace. In Nigeria, particularly, there is great worry about school graduates not possessing the skills needed for assignments in the workplace. Egbe’s statement anchoring and complementing the photograph of the bird as visual communication immediately brought back what I had heard from my father about Ahịa my friend, and fired my interest about the bird’s training and folk certification! I am, indeed, trying to issue a certificate to Ahia on behalf of Igbo folklore that collected it from Udude and has been holding it in trust!

It is important at this outset to point out that I am not necessarily trying to prove Egbe Henry wrong in respect of the update on Facebook; in fact, I owe him a debt of gratitude for re-igniting my interest on the need for the discovery and activation of mental facilities while learning something. Indeed, Egbe, by that post, emerges as a very contemplative person that looks at things and considers their ramifications and how they connect to other things; someone particularly interested in the idea that we as individuals possess a number of mental resources which we can utilise to make our existence worthwhile. Chineke the Creator has endowed each person with enormous mental ability which some people in this world are utilising positively while some others either refuse to discover and use them or discover them and use them for wrong ends. It brings up the issue of the Parable of Talents told by Jesus the Christ in his teachings. Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 25:14-30:

... it will be like a going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”
His master replied, “Well done good and faithfull servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.”
Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scatterd seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“So take the back of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (New International Version)

As it is with individuals, so it is with communities of people: each has resources, especially the mental, which could be used in creating miracles of progress. It is important to note that, even though the resources may not be the same in every case or equal in distribution among these entities (the servants received different amounts of gold), this is not a discriminatory practice, not an attempt to disadvantage or cheat an entity. That narrative says: “each according to his ability”! The money was not given to them to spend on their pleasures, to squander! It was given to them to grow the wealth! It was indeed a test of the readiness to grow resources given them! Anyone that is unwise in managing the little, cannot be wise in managing the much. It is true that meagre resources could hinder projects, but the attitude to the resources matters. Should the entity not begin by designing projects that could be executed with the available resources?

So, Egbe Henry was (indirectly) right. What we need in accomplishing great things could come from what we hardly consider. It is important for us to read the Ahịa narrative beyond what Egbe’s statement suggests. If anything, as I try to show, Egbe’s statement challenges us to find out if Ahịa indeed had some training and what kind of training that was. Of course, a close observation of the life of Ahịa shows that the bird, once it hatches from the egg, begins to learn many things – from the communication codes through feeding to the flying lessons. (Ah, the flying lessons! I used to enjoy watching the baby weaverbird fly and fall, encouraged by the mother Ahịa. And within few days they had become experts avaitors!) From the flying lessons to navigation and mastering of the trees and other creatures’ ways, and to nest making. Essentially, like all animals, it learns by observing (others of its kind), especially the mother bird. It is from the mother that it learns to encode and decode signals, feed, fly, etc. Yes, there are also the innate knowledge and physiological adaptations that facilitate the nest making.

Igbo folklore supplies the following myth (which, of course, indirectly asks us to learn from the fictional weaverbird). Ahịa the weaverbird once went with its friend, ọkịrị the talkative bird, to Udude the Master creative artist, to learn the art of weaving. Ahịa paid full attention as Udude explained in great detail the priniciples and techniques of weaving. ọkịrị, on the other hand, demonstrated the most annoying form of attention disorder; it was restless and impatient. Midway into the training programme, it announced that it had grasped the art fully and could figure out how the rest of the teaching would go. Ignoring all entreaties to stay on (even from Udude), it flew off to celebrate noisily its mastery of the art of weaving, while Ahịa stayed on, gaining from udude the full system of knowledge on design and fortification. When ahịa had learnt the art satisfactorily, Udude the Master certified it ready, and gave it leave to go and weave wisdoms in order to survive in a world of terrors. And so Ahịa left, rejoicing and richer in the head.

The joy of a training is in the practical display of skills. No training is worthwhile if the so-called trained person cannot practicalise the knowledge. So, Ahịa set to work and produced a wonderful architectural form that protected it and its young ones in rainy and hot weathers. The beautiful nest also provided adequate security in its location in the trees. Indeed, the technology of Ahịa’s making of its home became a source of admiration to other flying birds. Even the hunter and the farmer saw it and were greatly inspired on how to make their thatch houses better. (Humans learn from animals all the times!). Ahịa simply became a mode in building technology.

Ahịa the Master Nest Maker (Photo credit: Egbe Henry, Facebook Update)
Now, what about ọkịrị? When it flew off from the learning centre bragging, it did not even bother to start building, to see if what it boasted that it knew was what it actually knew. It said that it was all in its head and would be dsiplayed when necessary. And soon it became necessary when the rains came with the merciless windstorm. ọkịrị hastilty got some twigs and sticks and tried to build a nest. It dawned on the bird that it had forgotten even the little it knew, which it had magnified! So, it arranged the twigs and sticks and squatted on it. The windstorm came shortly and scattered both twigs and the squatters. ọkịrị just narraowly missed being killed! It looked with envy as Ahịa’s home withstood the storm. The Ahịa family did not even get wet or catch cold. Then, after the rain it went to Ahịa to beg to be given a make-up tutorial, but Ahịa said it was too busy with things, that it should go back to Udude and relearn the art. But ọkịrị did have the courage to go and beg Udude, after all its annoying bragging and premature exit from training.

The story ends by saying that till date, ọkịrị follows the Ahịa community around, trying to convince them to teach it the art of nest making. So, from the angle of Igbo mythology (indeed, the story is a myth, because it tries to explain why something is as it is – why ọkịrị follows the Ahịa community around), Ahia had sound architectural education (on nest making), which, as expected, it has continued to pass on to other Ahịa through peer education. They do not have to return to Udude; they are busy teaching other Ahịa!

There is something about the trainer in the story, too. Udude the Master artist (also called Ududo or Udide in some other Igbo dialects) is featured as a model mentor and trainer: it is really interested in getting its pupils to know the art, really interested in having them know every bit of it and more. Udude’s joy as a trainer was that it had succeeded in getting someone to know the art. Its pupils were its success as a trainer. It would continue to reign as a Master in the success story of its pupils in the future! One is not surprised then that Udude features prominently in Igbo folklore in discourses on skilfulness as the symbol of the highest values in creativity. The Igbo would identity someone’s skilfulness analogically as Nka Udude or Ikpa Nka Udude (demonstrating the creativity of the spider). Although literally referring to the spider that is known for making the intricate web (which, again, is analogised in the term “Web” referring to the complex World Wide Web), Udude is further imagined in Igbo folklore as a creative spirit that designs and animates the mmonwu (masked spirit). Udude, in a sense, rises to the rank of a divinity associated creativity, and could be seen as a mystical manifestation of the awesome nature of Chineke the creator in weaving diverse forms of living and non-living entities. That power to create is therefore transmitted by Udude through the mentoring of another creature, the Ahịa, that is patient to learn, ready to deploy its mental resources to continue the work of creating amazing and useful things.

ọkịrị emerges in the story as a symbol of the bad pupil that tries to make training a frustrating experience, that tries to make the transmission and continuation of knowledge in others difficult. Like the lazy servant in the Parable of Talents, ọkịrị has not used its mental resources well but has buried it in sands of pride. What has stood between it and the mastery of nest making is not only pride but mental laziness. Yes, mental laziness could manifest as impatience and an unwillingness to think critically or even to question one’s assumptions about one’s abilities or what one asumes to know. Pride prevents one from questioning one’s abilities – not necessarily doubting that one could do great things but honestly examining how well one could do it.

Chineke the Creator has endowed all human groups with adequate mental and natural resources, to make the world more livable and advance humanity further. In a sense, we, as humans, are participants in the work of creation through our efforts in civilization. Lazy individuals and societies bury their gold or misuse it and turn around to accuse their creator of selfishness and wickedness. They probably do not understand that the master’s business is their business, that they are they ones to inherit and enjoy the gains they make, not their master. To their shame, they would continue to follow others around to provide them with guidance or put the blame on another. I pity ọkịrị the noisemaker. It tries to borrow technology but forgets that it boasted that it had it captured magically and stored in its head. Yes, creative skill is in the head and being properly guided, with humility, helps to bring it out. It is when it is brought out of the head and made part of life that it thrives well and lasts, not when it is a borrowed technology.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Wrestling with Chukwu


Obododimma Oha

And Chukwu the Most High presents a stone to Tortoise His visitor, saying: “This is kolanut. Break it for us to eat.” Tortoise ponders over this and, realising Chukwu’s game, decides to play it. He goes outside, rolls a pad and puts it on his head. Approaching Chukwu-abịa-amụma his host, he says: “Help me to lift the earth and place it on my head.” “How can you carry the earth on your head? Is it a piece of luggage?” Chukwu queries. So, Tortoise looks Him in the eye and asks in return: “How could you present a stone to me your visitor and ask me to treat it as a kolanut? Is a stone a kolanut?”

And Chukwu smiles and gives Tortoise a warm handshake. “You are really welcome, my friend,” he says.

There is something in the narrative above that excites me: Tortoise (a trickster figure in Igbo folklore) engages his Maker in a game of wits and succeeds in proving to the Supreme Being (who is supposed to have an upper hand as the source of wisdom itself) that he could match wisdom with wisdom. Thus levelled, both shift from the cultural tenor of superior-versus-inferior to a situational equality (friend-visiting-friend, buddies with mutual respect for each other), indeed a marvellous shift in power difference. An interesting part of the narrative is that it is Chukwu the Most High that initiates this game of wits, apparently to test Tortoise and not necessarily to humiliate him (as a visitor). Of course, Chukwu knows that he is superior in intelligence, having created Tortoise himself. Perhaps testing Tortoise is like testing an object one has invented to see if it works well enough. One cannot push a poorly functioning product into the market. Such a product would speak badly about its producer!

Chukwu must be happy to have a visitor to play with, the kind of visitor that inspires him, not a dumb and depressing type. I believe that this is the kind of visitor he would want to have again and again, across time and space, a kind of visitor he would want to listen to. Igbo folklore partly humanises Chukwu, the Most High God, providing anthropomorphic representations that indicate the tendency to draw closer and understand Him, instead of distancing acts of a terrifying and indescribable being that speaks through earthquakes, pillars of fire, and thunder. The Igbo folk imagination presents our human affinity with Chukwu and, in fact, celebrates our contact with Him, especially when we are shown as mobilizing the wisdom that the Maker installed in us. This folklore often draws attention to human courage to accept the test of wrestling over wisdom with Chukwu. The fact that one Igbo proverb says that one does not challenge one’s chi to a wrestling bout (Mmadụ anaghị echere chi ya aka mgba) does not mean that one cannot accept to wrestle with one’s chi, if this chi wants to find out whether a weakling says it is associated with it. To refuse to accept because one is afraid could even constitute a disgrace (for the chi before other chi). Imagine what it means for a spirit to be laughed at by other spirits because his human copy has proved to be spineless!

Igbo folklore is ambivalent in its attitude to Tortoise as an archetypal trickster. Although in many cases, the deeds of the trickster are presented as bad, indeed as ịrụ arụrụ ala (being inclined to mischievous and scandalous acts), the trickster’s cleverness is nevertheless admired. One is discouraged therefore from using this gift of cleverness as arụrụ ala and pursuing selfishness, but one is subtly advised to be clever enough to escaping falling victim to others in the politics of daily living. Tortoise therefore represents those dark and bright sides of humanity that people have to be aware of in themselves and others, and to manage these attributes effectively. Tortoise is featured as a common criminal in cheating other animals, ensnaring others and even feeding on them. But he is also featured as one whose wisdom and cleverness could destroy another larger creature like the lion who terrorises the kingdom, the Obodo Iduu na ọba. Isn’t he a wonderful invention of Chukwu, an invention that suggests that even the bad guy still has his usefulness in the community?

To return to our narrative: Chukwu himself displays the attributes of a trickster in offering a stone to Tortoise as kolanut! Does He take Tortoise to be a dumb fool? Ordinarily, this gesture would be considered by Tortoise as Chukwu’s visitor to be insulting and annoying. Framed from the Igbo context of visitor-host relationship, Chukwu has violated the cultural value of signifying welcome to a visitor by offering the wrong thing as kolanut. We know He does not really mean it to be an offence, but a shared or common ground requires Him to offer real kolanuts (or their acceptable substitute) and not a stone. Onye wetara ọjị, wetara ndụ (The person that presents kolanut to the other has presented life). The interesting cultural semiotic in that gesture is that the presenter of the kolanut (who is normally the host) is signifying goodwill to the other, and is inviting the other to a mutual prayer for life to be preserved. How could a stone in that context therefore suggest goodwill, if not merely to taunt the other about the desire for goodwill? In the framework of H.P. Grice’s theorising of conversational maxims, Chukwu has violated the maxim of Truth (a stone as kolanut!). But Tortoise appears to manage his emotional intelligence well but suppressing his anger and approaching Chukwu with a request that countervails and ruptures the other’s position of superior wisdom. If Tortoise responds in outbursts of verbal rage, Chukwu would have won the game. It is Chukwu in His query (about the possibility of carrying the earth on the head) that rather exposes himself to ridicule, opens the space of the chessboard for a devastating move from the other, for Tortoise’s question-as-response suggests that if Chukwu is wise enough to know that one cannot carry the earth upon which one stands on one’s head, He should have known that one cannot offer a guest a stone as kolanut or break and eat a stone as kolanut. Tortoise through this question threatens Chukwu’s competence face, that desire that His ability to reason well be acknowledged. Tortoise is asking Chukwu to come clean and ready if He is suggesting Himself as belonging to the realm of reason. So, one could say that Tortoise is actually the winner in this game of wits. But in Tortoise winning, Chukwu his creator and host also wins, for He has not made a brainless Tortoise. Tortoise’s wisdom is not Chukwu’s lack of wisdom; it is its affirmation. Tortoise, therefore, is warmly acknowledged as His friend.

Whenever I think of my relationship with Chukwu who has authored me, one thing that dominates my mind is what I share with this Great Source. Is it my physical appearance? Is it in my wisdom or in my foolishness, or both? Indigenous Igbo thought (at least, from the way my late father rendered it), tells me that: “Oyiyi anyị yiri onye kere mmadụ bụ n’uche anyị” (Our resemblance with the creator of human beings is in our minds or our ability to think). And I have been wondering: What is there in thinking that makes it a special divine attribute? Perhaps it is in the fact that it searches for ways of making things possible; it makes things possible or creates possibilities. In opening up possibilities, it ensures continuity. A thinking being has a future. A thinking creature is also a creator. Creation, as an act or process, is based on thinking. In fact, it is about thinking, both in terms of thinking as tool and as thinking-about-thinking. In thinking, the creator and the created abolish polarity and are reunited.

The life of the creature begins to have meaning when this creature begins to recuperate the powers of thought mobilised by the creator – something like what the replicator does in science fiction narratives. The replicator learns to reproduce itself, no longer dependent on the creator but becoming like the creator. Science fiction narratives present frightening consequences of this independent and reproductive life of the replicator, often indicating that it might turn around to kill its human creator (a typical fear associated with the Frankenstein Monster). But this is only one side of the imagination. The human being may be afraid of pursuing goals similar to those of the replicator, especially with their representation that suggests the latter as a “mistake” or a “virus” that is so powerful enough that it kills or substitutes its maker with itself. However, it seems to be that the primal source – which various cultural narratives and languages have come to represent in various onomastic forms – is really the scientist whose experiments (call it “creative acts”) have produced beings that share attributes of creativity and thinking with Him. It is good that this Almighty Creator has shown tremendous wisdom in locating some essential elements of his creative essence in various forms of his creation. I call it superior wisdom because I see that singular act as part of the very life of the endlessness of the Maker and his abilities. Of course, one could imagine that not all the powers of the Maker are located in certain things created. I assume that at various levels, in many universes, in many worlds or realms of existence, the powers of the Maker may be manifested in higher and lower degrees. But in all, the Maker is in contact, friendly contact, with what that supreme intelligence put into motion, revising, recycling, extending, reinvigorating, remodelling, et cetera. Intelligence continues to birth intelligence; universe continues to birth universe; thought continues to extend the powers of thought.

I like the idea of resembling my Maker, even if it is in an insignificant degree. In the little that I resemble the Maker, I celebrate with pride His joy that He shares with me, His joy in befriending me, in welcoming me to share more with me, to converse with me, to argue with me, to wrestle with me. When the Maker identifies with me, or shows me that in Him I live and move and have my being, it is foolish for me to reject this good news and shrink away in fear. Of course, the fact that I am part of the Whole is enough to inspire awe and fear. But this fear is not to be understood as a denial of presence – the fact that I am an important part of that thing that is in action and is also deserving of awe and fear.

It is good that the Maker allows me to play some hide-and-seek with him (in good faith), as bosom friends would. In playing such games with me in my life, he reveals himself to me; also reveals myself to me. It is reassuring to know that my chi is pleased with me when I accept to wrestle with Him, as He teaches me how to wrestle with the challenges of life and succeed.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinualumogu nwa Achebe: A Tribute


Obododimma Oha

Onwu egbula okaelo: our wish, our prayer, our message. Yes, for if Death takes okaelo the sage away from our age, his people are in danger of walking an endless night from which no agbala can deliver them. But Death has his eyes on your choicest fruit. Ripe or unripe, he must harvest it. Does that not also grow some amamihe in the land? For the cow never fully appreciates the value of its tail until it is cut off. We hear that the okeosisi has fallen in Ogidi. It is news, shocking news, dreadful news, crippling news. News too heavy to be carried on the lips. Listen and you would hear the entire egwugwu of this trembling land gnashing their teeth and looking for an appropriate language to tell it to the world.... 

Ogbuefi Chinualumogu nwa Achebe has taken hold of his regal oji and now walks majestically into the Sacred Light of the Ancestral Circle at Eke mmuo! 

Onwu melu dike alu. We fear that even if we send a letter to him, he would not hasten and return. Onwu melu dike alu. Yes, Death has dealt a terrible blow to the gallant one. And Death has dealt a devastating blow to the community. And death has told the people of the ilo that ukwa the breadfruit must fall when its time is due. And Death tells the living: "You the termite, keep flying but you'll surely fall for the waiting, hungry toad!" 

Whether there was a country or there wasn't, the undying eziokwu is that all bicycles must visit the repairman. The trouble with many in this uncomfortable gathering of the tribes is that they cannot listen, and even when they listen, they cannot hear the lament of the ants. 

No, it wasn't the past of a people that fell apart; it is its future. 
No, it isn't the strong-willed priest-king that has become the arrow of a god; it is the people's unwillingness to die trying. 
No, it isn't the land that is no longer at ease; it is its pen-wielding ambassadors who no longer understand what it means to be the "eyes" and "ears" of their disturbed communities. 

When a man becomes a man, he begins to live as an idea. Ogbuefi Achebe, you now live as an idea, having refused to be made in the image of the alu that reigns in the storyland. Onye kwe, chi ya e kwelu! And Ogbuefi, in asking your chi to fight for you, to fight for your people, you became the affirmation. For those that fight for themselves without submitting to alu, fight for their chi, and their chi readily answers YES to the submissions of their hearts. They hold the ofo and the ogu as they approach the umunnadi of the storied land.

Onwu egbula okaelo! Indeed, you live on, storyteller and sage. You are here and there in the Chinua Achebe idea, forever. How can death actually kill you when it has lifted you to the glory of one of the finest nwoke that the land knows or will ever produce? Death only kills the okaelo when we search the hearts of his people and cannot find the idea, his idea! And Death that kills a people is the one that takes away their memory of the idea. 

Ochie dike Achebe! What ekwe calls you is what uhie calls you:
Nwoke teghete! 
Nwoke mgbe gboo! 

Chinualumogu nwa Achebe, naa gboo, for you will return to live in the hearts of your people forever!

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Semiotics of the Sacred Space in Indigenous Igbo Thought


Obododimma Oha

Exploring the signs and processes of signification associated with sacredness in the indigenous Igbo society is particularly urgent at a time that Christian Pentecostalism has almost succeeded in its campaign against indigenous igbo religious systems. Radical Christian Pentecostalism encourages Christian converts to destroy cultural objects, especially those that are associated with traditional religion, or those that are held sacred in Igbo culture. These converts are told that these objects are abodes of evil forces, and that keeping them means habouring Satan and allowing him to operate in their lives. In the name of breaking ancient covenants with Satan, Igbo Christians are asked to destroy their Ofo (that ancient symbol of authority and presence of the ancestors), burn their Ikenga, wipe out shrines with all the objects in them, kill animals regarded as totems of the supernatural in their local communities. With this, shrines have been raided and sacked, prolonged conflicts have erupted in families and communities over the keeping of objects traditionally considered sacred; in fact, the destruction has become so extensive that scholars working on Igbo culture and religion would now find it difficult to access cultural objects and sites in Igbo communities that are related to their investigations. The present essay is intended to provoke serious reflection on the idea of the sacred space in Igbo thought, particularly the signifying practices that go with it.

The allocation, preservation, representation, and reading of spaces are very significant cultural practices. These various dimensions, in many cases, are interwoven, As spaces are allocated or claimed, they are also represented and preserved. One could, indeed, argue that it is the very act of representation that ensures the differentiation of spaces, as well as facilitates their preservation. Thus, a semiotic function is already involved in the creation and preservation of a space. Further, one finds that there is an ideological basis for the creation, representation, and preservation of spaces. The representation of a space as sacred, which, working with a given set of values, presupposes the non-sacredness of other spaces outside that particular space, invites a cognitive use of signs. And the signs, in this case, may not be universal in outlook; they may be just typical of the particular context of culture, which means that outsiders are in danger of violating a sacred space if they lack knowledge of the local cultural interpretations of those signs.

A sign that marks a space as sacred could be read as:
(1) A warning – against intrusion and violation,
(2) A reminder – about the existence of that space in that location
A signification of the sacredness of space is always an interpellation that calls the viewer to order. There is no need for a written signpost announcing, “Beware, you are approaching a sacred space!” In fact, written (or even spoken) language is grossly inappropriate in conveying the awe required in representing the sacred space. Silent visual communication such as the marking of the given space carries enormous impact, in spite of the fact that the meaning of the sign may be elusive to outsiders of the culture, or may be different in their own culture.

The Igbo equivalent of the English word "sacred" is "nso," which also refers means "holy." Well, one could say that this convergence in the Igbo semiotic space is not really very problematic because, conceptually, what is represented as sacred is also considered holy, even though both words do not mean exactly the same thing in English. Objects considered sacred in Igbo thought entail restrictions such as who could handle them, how they could be handled, and when they could be handled. They don't have to be holy or unholy.

There is however a meeting point between holiness and sacredness in Igbo thought. The custodians of sacred objects and spaces have to be holy people in the culture, and for them to remain holy, they must abstain from certain things. An unholy person is not allowed handle or keep sacred things, for such handling would amount to imeru ihe or violating the sacredness of something. It is along this line of thinking that custodians of powerful charms, sacred objects like the Ofo and Ikenga, aa well as shrines are expected to continually purify themselves before touching those sacred objects, or for them to remain worthy of keeping them. It is believed that touching them in a state of uncleanliness or unholiness would not just amount to violating their sacredness but also incurring supernatural wrath. 

Sacred space in Igbo thought is referred to as ebe di nso in some Igbo communities and is usually symbolized with the omu nkwu, tender palm fronds, tied around to demarcate such space. There is an assumption that every member of the culture understands the language of the omu nkwu and would therefore respect the space as sacred. In other words, its use recalls a cultural semiotic competence which members of the culture are required to possess. Cultural outsiders may be excused for their ignorance of what the omu nkwu signifies, but not insiders. 

Sacred spaces in Igbo communities may be specifically designated with the term "ihu," as in ihummuo (shrine, or more appropriately "the presence of the spirits"), ihuarusi (the presence or shrine of a god/goddess), ihu aro (the space for igu aro ritual feast), ihu Atamiri (the presence or shrine of Atamiri), ihu Asaa (the space or presence for mask performance).

In a very special sense, some Igbo market days, which are associated with some spiritual powers, occupy a sacred space, not only in terms of the physical locations where some rituals are performed (for instance, ihu Eke), but in terms of the period or time in the Igbo market calendar. Eke Nta (literally, "Small Eke") and Orie Nta ("Small Orie") are sacred days in my own Uli community. Farm work is forbidden in the community on those days, which are referred to as ubochi nso oru ("sacred/holy days on which work is forbidden"). In other words, a "location" in time is considered a sacred space, an interesting coalescence and Time and Space, i.e. Time as also Space.

An individual or group can also mark off a place that is in dispute as sacred by tying the omu nkwu around it or on some trees in that environment, an symbolic act referred to as ituchi oru or ituchi ala ("closing or cordoning off a piece of land"). By tying the omu nkwu, the individual or group is signifying that the space in dispute has been handed over to the supernatural -- specifically to the gods, goddesses, and ancestors, for custody, and until the dispute is resolved, nobody is allowed to enter that space. It is considered an abomination in the Igbo culture to cut or remove the omu nkwu that is tied around the disputed space or object. In removing the omu nkwu prior to the resolution of the dispute, one is challenging the supernatural custodians to a bout, as well as insulting the tradition of the community. Usually, such an account attracts a heavy punishment, to assuage the anger of the supernatural and restore harmony between the human and the spiritual. Until the offender does what is required for the restoration of this harmony, he or she symbolically remains outside community.

Violating the sacred space amounts to committing an abomination, an alu, which calls for severe penalties. But the main issue however is the performance of certain rituals to restore the sacredness. 

I observed earlier that sacred spaces are maintained by individuals who are considered holy, or who are required to maintain holiness. The ezemmuo or high priest oversees the sacred space of the shrine; the ukwu mmuo or okpa dugbedugbe (the guide of the masked spirit) oversees the ukpo mmanwu to make sure that only masked spirits and initiates of the masquerade cult come near it; a sacred space may also be created by an ezemmuo or a dibia outside the location of the shrine, to attend to some spiritual matters. 

A sacred space need not be fixed or permanent. It could be temporary or mobile, as for instance when the fireplace where food is being prepared for an ozo-titled man is cordoned off with omu nkwu in ancient Igbo tradition and women who still menstruate are not allowed to go near. Only women in menopause could enter that sacred space and cook the food. This type of cooking in a sacred space is referred to as nri ntubido (ntubido in this case pointing to the act of using omu nkwu to cordon off the fireplace). After preparing the food, the omu nkwu is removed and the fireplace restored to a normal environment where holy and unholy individuals can go. 

Nri ntubido brings up gender politics as an important aspect of the semiotics of the sacred space in the Igbo context. The question is: why are menstruating women considered unholy and therefore unqualified to go near the sacred space demarcated for the preparation of food for ozo-titled men? Why are men also not so restrained? The prohibition of menstruating women from going into the sacred space is based on the ancient misconception of menstruation as illness. In this case, "illness" implies some uncleanliness.

The sacred space in the case of nri ntubido is somewhat gendered; it is a space dominated and controlled by the male. The woman, through her biology, is considered a threat to that space, which raises the whole issue about the need for us not to ignore the politics that defines what and who defines a space as sacred. Are sacred spaces neutral to the politics of otherness? Or are such spaces means through the politics of otherness is continued? Quite clearly, gender-based restrictions in nri ntubido are located in the binary logic of differentiation which surfaces in other aspects of culture. Some of those binaries characterize men as rational, courageous, dependable, holy, good, etc and women as irrational, cowardly, unreliable, unholy, evil, etc.

The ukpo mmanwu, the platform where masked spirits stand in the asaa or masquerade square, and the shrine are examples of permanent spaces in Igbo tradition. They are usually adorned with omu nkwu, to denote their difference from other spaces, a feature that makers of Nollywood movies that focus on indigenous Igbo culture have noted and captured in many of their movies. 

Edward T. Hall tells us in The Silent Language that “space speaks.” One might then ask, “what does the sacred space speak or try to say?” Jane Hope tries to answer that question in The Secret Language of the Soul. In a section on “sacred space,” Hope argues that “A sacred place requires a clear spiritual focus and separation from its physical surroundings” and as such, “The architecture of sacred buildings must attempt to capture the divine presence and reveal it to the worshipper, together with the recognition that a transcendent deity is infinitely greater than any physical site” (1997:54). The function of signs in the sacred space thus is not just about marking off such a space and helping to preserve respect for its sacredness. It also extends to creating a sense of awe and feeling about a spiritual presence. Symbolic items placed around or within that physical space are, in line with Jane Hope’s argument media for connecting the worshipper with another a divine force. That is to say then that the physical space designated sacred is merely a signifier of the ideal sacred space of the supernatural existing both at a higher realm and in the inner being of the worshiper. Connecting with these spaces of divine order is fundamental in the ideal communication with the supernatural entity being worshiped, and with the divine space (Heaven, Paradise,Alammuo/Ekemmuo, etc) from which such supernatural force operates.

The fact that human beings are naturally territorial, as observed in reputable works on space and spatiality such as Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension, as well as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, means that human religious systems spaces would also be reserved for supernatural presences related to such religious systems. Human beings would have to fight to protect such spaces on behalf of the supernatural, as a way of suggesting that they are subjects as well as instruments of the supernatural. For this reason, adherents of traditional Igbo religion fought to protect their shrines from invading Christian armies. Also, adherents of one religion would want to embark on an aggressive campaign to displace other deities from their assigned spaces in another religion. It is particularly amazing that Igbo Christian converts would want to desecrate the ubochi nso oru of their local communities but at the same time hold on to the belief that it is a sin to work on a Sunday, a day which they have been told is the same as the Jewish Sabbath, which Jevohah, according to the Mosaic Law, instituted as a sacred day forbidding manual labour. As I have observed in another essay titled "A Letter from the Man on the Moon", there are even myths created to consolidate the observance of Sunday as a work-free day. God gets angry with a man who has gone to split firewood on a Sunday and causes the axe the man is using to cut his foot. God's anger is not yet assuaged: the Almighty sends the man on an exile to the face of the moon. For the new Igbo Christian convert therefore, the man on the moon signifies God's warning to those who would dare to desecrate the Christian day of worship again! The Jewish Sabbath is thus reinvented and supported with folklore to function more convincingly in the context of an emergent African Christianity. One may even find in some cases that God in one group is made to fight God in another group, under a different onomastic signification.

Just as sacred objects are threatened by Christian Pentecostalism, sacred spaces are also in serious danger in many Igbo communities. Shrines of Igbo traditional religion, right from the early days of Christianity in Igboland, have been seriously threatened with extinction, same for sacred forests. The case of the crisis over Ogwugwu shrines in Okija, Anambra State, Nigeria is noteworthy. Whereas sacred spaces like the Osun Osogbo are preserved and recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, sacred spaces like those of Ogwugwu are demonized and officially violated by the law enforcement in Nigeria as sites of criminality. Whereas Osun Osogbo has grown into a vibrant tourist site and a consolidation of global visibility for the Yoruba culture, the Ogwugwu of Okija is turned into a pejorative term, which also smears both the local Igbo community and indeed the entire igbo culture as being associated with barbarism and backwardness. One doubts whether igbo people ever consider the cultural politics underlying the wave of media representation of Ogwugwu sacred space in modern times and that what is happening is indeed a culture war in which Igbo people are used in destroying their own ethnic image.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

On the Canvas of My Mother's Mbaraezi


Obododimma Oha

My mother's  Mbaraezi (or simply ezi) -- the physical space and symbol of her being entitled to the resources of the larger family, indeed a territory allocated to her to sweep and maintain on daily basis -- that provided the initial geography for my development as a child. Every child grew up in an ezi and this ezi was one major force that shaped the child's life, relationship with other people, both those of the ime ezi (the insiders of the ezi) and those of the other ezi. Ezi nne m, my mother's ezi, was the first territory I explored as a crawling baby, sometimes eating sand, sometimes mixing the sand with my urine and tasting it, before the elderly ones noticed and ran to remove me from what they considered a child's foolish thinking that everything is for the mouth. But they didn't know that by tasting the sands of the ezi, I become one with my mother's ezi, a communion only the grannies understood -- maybe because their old age placed them very close to the borders of the human and spirit worlds. And later when I advanced in childhood, I turned the Mbaraezi to a canvas of my art studio. With a stick I traced the outlines of many objects on that canvas, making sure no invader destroyed my art. Indeed, I mounted guard, or made sure I had an eye on my artwork, if I had other tasks on my hand. That way, my Mbaraezi artworks stayed for some hours, even days, except it rained and they got wiped out. But even the rain provided another cleaner canvas and desire for me to "draw." And I drew and drew and drew, until I almost covered the entire ezi with my unique art.

From the drawing of single objects, I moved on to the drawing of longer narratives -- I told stories in a set of connected diagrams. If it was not about the tortoise going to marry the King's daughter and what happened later, it was about automobiles driving on a road and how some of them collided and caused deaths, while some passengers grew wings and flew away. Sometimes it was about the Biafran anti-aircraft guns dealing with the menacing Nigerian war planes, or about Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu flogging Yakubu Gowon our enemy and the latter crying and begging for mercy. There were always stories to be told on the canvas of the Mbaraezi, stories from the mouths of the elders or stories we made up as children. The mbaraezi art seemed to call for more and more stories.

Mbaraezi art indeed symbolically narrates the cultural relevance of the ezi in the politics of a family and the village. How could a wife be a wife if she has no ezi and no obubo? What she sweeps from her fireplace and from her ezi she scatters in her obubo, her garden, to make it more and more fertile. She needs to make her obubo more and more fertile as she makes other things fertile in the household, including the fertility of the mind that scribbles and sketches on her ezi. 

As I grew older, I understood that the ezi on which I scribbled and sketched was not just the symbol of my mother's space in the household but indeed my mother's presence. She was the presence of my childhood art. She was its vitality, its becoming, its potentials that were renewed day after day as I scribbled and sketched. 

Yes, the poor standing of the family's finances and lack of full access to modernity meant that we, the children growing up, did not have the luxury of sheets of paper, pens and pencils, not to talk of real drawing boards and canvasses. The stationery we had were exclusively reserved for formal school work and could not have been squandered on what was then considered by the adults as part of the foolishness we needed to enjoy as children. As children, we were free to imagine such sketches on the ezi and other odds and ends we gathered as our property, but if we grew older, we would understand that there are other art forms, other forms of wealth that mattered, and put away our childish possessions. That was the logic. No one really took our mbaraezi art seriously. No one saw our childhood art as our science. Every adult saw what we were doing in the sands as imu umunwa, roughly translated as "learning the thrill that occupies a child's mind."

There is something about children's enjoyment of the space of the ezi in the context of their development that parents of today need to understand. Provide adequate drawing materials to children but imprison them in their rooms or in the sitting room and the urge to use a wide space would still push them to scribble and draw on the walls, the chairs, clothes, and so on. Don't keep scolding them, saying this and that psychologist told you such "defacing" is a disorder from which you have to deliver the child. You and your psychologist are joking! The child needs the ezi, not just the modern stationery, even if that ezi is a different kind of space where the child can move around and develop narrative imagination on paper and other physical objects. Is it not interesting that a child sees art in every object or thinks that every object should be a medium for artistic expression? 

Indeed, not many people take interest in observing children at work or try to understand how an intimacy develops between the space of the child's work and the exploring mind of the child. I could not have found intimacy with my mother's ezi on any drawing paper or board offered to me as a child artist. As I found an intimacy with my mother's ezi, I found an intimacy with my mother as a source and context of my creativity. Indeed, as an adult, I still have that maternal canvas on my mind and recognize its tremendous narrative powers. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


(Ed. Anny Ballardini & Obododimma Oha, in collaboration with MICHAEL ROTHENBERG)

"We will turn to the idea of the messianic in Chapter Ten of this book, but for the moment it suffices to stress that both Benjamin and Agamben employ the term in singular fashion. For them, a messianic idea of history is not one in which we wait for the Messiah to come, end history, and redeem humanity, but instead is a paradigm for historical time in which we act as though the Messiah is already here, or even has already come and gone. What is so difficult about Agamben's use of the term messianic is how radically it is to be distinguished from the apocalyptic. Agamben says that to understand "messianic time" as it is presented in Paul's letters "one must first distinguish messianic time from apocalyptic time, the time of the now from a time directed towards the future" (LAM, 51). To this he adds, "If l had to try to reduce the distinction to a formula, I would say that the messianic is not, as it is always understood, the end of time, but the time of the end" (LAM, 51). The model of time corresponding to this idea is one that no longer looks for its decisive moment in a more or less remote future, but instead finds it in every minute of every day, in this world and in this life; and it is through such expressions as "dialectics at a standstill" and "means without end" that the two thinkers aim to return our gaze from the distant future to the pressing present."
(from GIORGIO AGAMBEN: A Critical Introduction, Leland de la Durantaye, 2009, p. 120)

Set in the context of this split between "the end of time" and "the time of the end" is Michael Rothenberg's recent invitation for the global writing public to participate in "a demonstration/celebration of poetry to promote serious social and political change" titled 100 THOUSAND POETS FOR CHANGE on 24 September, 2011. As protests for political reforms sweep across North Africa, the Middle East, in some parts of Europe, in the United States, with the recent disasters in The Gulf of Mexico and in Japan, one cannot help thinking about the "Rothenberg Project” as a highly significant creative response to change as something more than an adjustment to the way social relations are constructed.

Obododimma Oha and Anny Ballardini, in collaboration with Michael Rothenberg’s event, will edit and feature outstanding poetic compositions for the 100 THOUSAND POETS FOR CHANGE on Fieralingue's Poets’ Corner. Visual artwork, poems, poetic fiction, poetic nonfiction, and photographs to be submitted for consideration should go beyond the simple and gratuitous statement that ‘a change is needed.’ Our present, our Messianic time requires a STILLSTELLUNG (Benjamin’s word) translated by Dennis Redmond in On the Concept of History (1940) with “an objective interruption of a mechanical process” into which we have been engulfed. Dennis Redmond continues in his explanation of STILLSTELLUNG: “rather like the dramatic pause at the end of an action-adventure movie, when the audience is waiting to find out if the time-bomb/missile/terrorist device was defused or not.” We feel that we are living in a similar situation, and we are in need of a Stillstellung followed by ideas to offer our politicians, to make students/friends/our communities more aware of how we can change, revise history, start over again.

Visual works and photographs for submission are to be saved in JPEG format, while texts, which should not have rigid formatting, are to be in Word. All submissions should be emailed to the editors anny.ballardini@gmail.com and obodooha@gmail.com by September 1, 2011 with "100 THOUSAND POETS FOR CHANGE" in the Subject line.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The number, the person, the space

Asaa the assertion, also silence

Asaa the countless count
Asaa of where is here

Sevens of signs:
The Asaa of community: mmuo na mmadu
The Asaa of the struggle of signs with signs: ka i ma nke a, i ma nke ozo?
The Asaa of Initiation: mu na ndee, mu na ndee!
The Asaa of Participation: juo okwa oja 
The Asaa of Submission to the Many: otu onye siere oha
The Asaa of Responsibilty: nakwa agbako
Then, the Asaa of Asaa: ezumezu!

Which lobe of kolanut speaks
On behalf of?
Which is which in each Asaa?

-- Obododimma Oha