Saturday, June 10, 2017

Igboness and the Posture of E Me Sị




by

Obododịmma ọha

Very long ago, Simon Ottenberg, an anthropologist, took interest in the nature of the Igbo person, and, in an article titled “Ibo Receptivity to change” which he first presented at the Northwest Anthropological Conference, Eugene, Oregon, held from May 11 to 12, 1956, and later published as a chapter in Continuity and Change in African Cultures edited by William R. Bascom and Melville J. Herskovits (1959), he wrote as follows:

The Ibo (sic) are probably most receptive to culture change, and most willing to accept Western ways, of any large group in Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of them have migrated to other parts of the country as a result of culture contact following the British conquest of their country between 1800 and 1915. The majority of them have moved to urban centers such as Zaria and Kano in northern Nigeria, Calabar in the southeast, and Lagos in the southwest. Cities, which were nonexistent in the Ibo area previous to European contact, in the last fifty years have developed rapidly around transportation, trade, and administrative headquarters. Many Ibo have migrated to these centers, such as Aba, Port Harcourt, Umuahia, Onitsha, and Enugu. Despite their rural background, the Ibo find urban life stimulating and rewarding. Urban Ibo sometimes speak of their rural counterpart as “bush people,” or “primitives,” in a manner reminiscent of that of some British in Nigeria in the early part of the present century. (1959: 130 – 131)

It is interesting that at the time Ottenberg was doing his research on Igbo receptivity to change, Chinua Achebe was also concerned about changes in both Igbo behaviour and community spirit in the face of Western colonization and cultural influence. Achebe, whose novel Things Fall Apart appeared in 1959, would speak through one of his fictional characters about how Western influence has put a knife in what holds the Igbo community together (and by extension, what ties the Igbo person to his or her sense of self-worth and to his or her culture) and “we have fallen apart.” Ottenberg in his article attributes Igbo receptivity to change to Igbo individualism: “The Ibo are a highly individualistic people. While a man is dependent on his family, lineage, and residential grouping for support and backing, strong emphasis is placed on his ability to make his own way in the world” (1959: 136). The Igbo elder in the colonial period, just like Chinua Achebe’s Ezeulu in Arrow of God, saw that change was inevitable, not just because of the Igbo orientation to making one’s way in life on one’s own, but because the life of the colonized had indeed become like mmanwu performance – no one sensible would want to watch it from only one spot. Thus, it was only appropriate to ask the young ones who would live and act in the unknown future to go and interact with the oyibo people, to worship the gods of the oyibo and learn the magic of the oyibo, with a clear mandate of being the “eyes” and “ears” of their Igbo ancestors and Igbo communities.

Whether the Igbo who have had close interaction with both the oyibo and other groups in Nigeria know or see themselves as cultural ambassadors is another issue altogether. Would their tendency to ask “O nwere onye na-achara m moto?”(Is anyone navigating the way in the traffic for me?), which is a clear sign of their individualistic orientation, allow them to give some serious thought to their being the eyes and ears of their people in a world where no one can still pretend that group identity does not matter? As the Igbo locate themselves here and there in the space of the ethnic or racial other in Nigeria and elsewhere, what is their attitude to their Igboness (or being Igbo), to those with whom they share this identity, and to Igbo ethnic rights? It is my intention to stimulate debate around these important questions. In what follows, I reflect on an aspect of Igbo attitude to Igboness, a negative self-rejection, denial, and self-hate, which could be termed “E Me Sị” (simply translated as, “For the other not to say X” or “For me not to be poorly rated by the other); to define and treat themselves according to the assumptions and prejudices of the other. I must quickly add that “E Me Sị” is not entirely a bad orientation to life. We live and act in the presence of the others and must necessarily present ourselves as acceptable human beings, “acceptable” in this case referring to proper conduct as expected of rational humans. Thus, even though I may have the desire to make love to another woman who is not my wife, I do not have to climb the roof top and tell my neighbours that I want to make love to so-so-and-so woman. I do not even have to announce that I want to make love to my wife. It is taken for granted that I do my sexual duty as her husband! I do not have to announce that, e me sị na isi adịghị m mma. To some extent, we have to pretend in order in order to be approved of in culture and society. Isn’t that what underlies most of the human delineation of proper conduct, refinement, and etiquette in the social drama of our lives? Yet, when our attitude to life, to people, and even ourselves is entirely shaped by pretence and indeed the fear that others might not give their approval, we could be said to live false lives. It is in this zone where “E Me Sị” becomes a kind of phobia that I explore Igbo attitude to Igboness.

With the clarification about how I use the term “E Me Sị” in this talk thus clarified, let me return to the issue of Igbo readiness to embrace change and to take their adaptability into the space of the other. The late Igbo highlife musician, Oliver de Coque, expressed a great liking for his Igboness in one of his songs, “Igbo na-edozi obodo,” asserting that the Igbo build and repair community, even communities in which they are strangers, and proclaimed, “M bịakwa ụwa ọzọ, a ga m abụ onye Igbo” (If I come to this world again, I would still want to be Igbo). More than being mere expression of ethnocentrism or ethnic chauvinism, Oliver de coque’s proclamation of his preference for Igboness raises a whole question about the nature of Igboness, the maintenance and use of Igboness in a plural postcolonial environment and in a changing world. These are large and controversial issues which some Igbo thinkers have dwelt upon and are still debating. Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria and J. Obi Oguejiofor’s The Influence of Igbo Traditional Religion on the Socio-Political Character of the Igbo, for instance, discuss some of the common stereotypes of Igboness such as the Igbo being boisterous, stubborn, clannish, arrogant, and domineering. These are negative stereotypes that other Nigerian groups have about the Igbo. But there are also positive stereotypes that the Igbo have about themselves. They believe and assert, for instance, that they are wise (even wiser than some other Nigerian groups), resourceful, industrious, resilient, and dependable. They also believe, as noted by Oguejiofor, that they are receptive to change, democratic, and community-conscious. As an Igbo person myself, I should like these positive stereotypes, at least as means of encouraging them or working towards achieving them myself, if I find that I really do not possess them. My worry rather is that stereotypes that the Igbo construct about themselves and feel that they possess them innately may become sources of failure for their Igboness. In other words, the Igbo view of their excellence may have suffered defeat in the lives of the Igbo themselves particularly in their attempt at trying to escape from the negative stereotypes other groups have about them, as well as their pursuit of attributes they think would present them to other groups as individuals that could be approved of. I refer to this tendency to escape from an endangered Igbo image as E Me Sị, roughly translated as “So that X may not complain.”

E me sị features in the lives of the Igbo in contemporary Nigeria in the following ways:
• Pretending not to speak Igbo, or not being fluent in Igbo
• Being reluctant or even unwilling to explore and utilize indigenous Igbo ideas in contemporary academic or public discourses (One must acknowledge the efforts of some Igbo Catholic priests and reverend brothers who have been exploring Igbo ideas as part of their vocation on African spirituality).
• Being ashamed or afraid to be identified as Igbo outside the Igbo cultural environment, for instance through mode of dressing.
• Not wanting to associate with other Igbo.
• Being unwilling to hire other Igbo or to allow other Igbo be part of an activity one is involved in, especially as one of the key figures; in short, not wanting to bring another Igbo in.
• Keeping silent when issues concerning the Igbo are being discussed by non-Igbo persons.
• Teaming up with persons from other Igbo groups to humiliate or destroy another Igbo.
• (Directly or indirectly) endorsing the narration of the Igbo cultural world as an uninhabitable world.
• Championing or supporting the decivilization of indigenous Igbo ways of life and Igbo world-view.
• Accepting the status of “the stranger from nowhere” and submitting to cultural assimilation.

The Igbo desire to rewrite the narrative of iniquity which other Nigerian groups have created about them has led them to begin to distance themselves from their Igboness. They want to be accepted by other ethnic groups, in the belief that when they deny their Igboness and/or disappear in the cultural world of the other, then their problems are over. Unfortunately, other groups can always create new negative stereotypes of the Igbo, which would re-member the “disappearing Igbo” in their midst. Denial of Igboness is simply not enough in the conflictive context of Nigerian ethnic politics.

It is interesting too that some of the stereotypes the Igbo consider positive turn out to be means through which E Me Si is vigorously enacted.

It is as if the Igbo have to be sorry that they are Igbo and repent of their Igboness. They seem to want to show others how sorry they are for being Igbo, and how willing they are to give up their culture, language, and other expressions of their Igbo identity. These days, when one attends a traditional marriage ceremony in Ibadan, Abeokuta, or Oshogbo, with the Igbo as bride and the groom as Yoruba, one does not find any Igbo tradition being observed neither does one hear the events directors addressing the audience in English, not to talk about Igbo language. No, the audience is addressed in Yoruba, sometimes with a little compensation and humorous “Igbo kwenụ”! One would have thought that it is the tradition of the Igbo family whose daughter is being given away in marriage that should have been followed. Listen to the songs too: they are all Yoruba! The anchors of the ceremony do not render any apology to guests for their use of Yoruba or non-use of English (even though many understand English). In one so-called traditional marriage of one of my kinsmen’s daughters in Ibadan, the announcer had the shameless temerity to tell the audience that the reason for the use of Yoruba was that if Igbo was being used, no one in the audience would understand a word of what was being said. And many nodded their consent! He didn’t even consider the fact that the man who was giving away his daughter was an Igbo person and that some of his kinsfolk were present. And come to think of it: did everyone present understand what was being said in Yoruba? As one of those who could not comprehend what was being said in Yoruba and who desired hopelessly for an English translation, I felt terribly offended and had to take my leave. That was not until I had walked up to my kinsman giving his daughter in marriage and had told him, “I reela obi gi!” (You have sold your obi). I wonder how my Yoruba brothers and sisters would have taken it if in the traditional marriage of their daughter, Igbo language and customs had been imposed, with or without any apology. Definitely, no marriage would have taken place!

The same story about selling one’s obi has been re-enacted at reception ceremonies in Christian weddings with Igbo men as grooms and Yoruba as wives. As usual, the Igbo language suffers. And the Igbo hosts accept it, E Me Si! The Igbo are those who have to search for and maintain peace, otherwise they would be reminded about the negative stereotypes they have been working hard to escape from. Add the Christian doctrine of submission to the will of God to it and the picture is complete.

Consider even what the Igbo wear as their “traditional” attires to those traditional marriage ceremonies. It is either babariga or agbada. They are afraid to dress like the Igbo, when their Nigerian neighbours like the Yoruba, the Urhobo, the Bini, etc would dress proudly in their own traditional attires and try as much as possible to observe their traditional marriage customs. Indeed, the efforts made by these Nigerian groups to preserve their cultures are highly admirable. They don’t have to help the Igbo to preserve or respect Igbo culture. As far as culture wars in multicultural environment are concerned, if the other does not complain about an infringement on their own cultural rights, why blame the other that wants to make own culture visible, even dominant? The fault certainly is that of the Igbo who want to show the world that they are so very wise and adaptable to change that they can afford to destroy everything Igbo.

Indeed, “Igbo na-edozi obodo ndi ọzọ” as Oliver de Coque sang! They have accepted that their villages are terrible environments for human survival and that they owe their local communities neither some re-education nor initiatives in physical development. Their hosts in other Nigerian cities encourage them to buy parcels of land and build mansions where they could retire to and live in peace. Some even go into the remotest parts of the towns (indeed villages) where they live in other parts of Nigeria to build mansions, the very mansions that they think their own villages in Igboland do not deserve. They have to build other places in Nigeria so that no one would accuse them of being interested only in Igboland, or accuse them of trying to resuscitate the Republic of Biafra. Why should they rebuild and reinvigorate an environment of defeat? Isn’t that part of the desire to deny their Nigerianness? To reassure other Nigerians that they have repented as secessionists, they have to turn their backs on their local Igbo communities and values and try to show how terribly detribalized they are.
There is nothing wrong with an odozi obodo ideology, but there is everything wrong with an ideology that promotes thatching other people’s huts while the roof of one’s own hut is leaking like a sieve! Let the Igbo build anywhere they like, but let it not be the same narrative of E Me Sị through which they try to escape from themselves.

E Me Sị annoyingly features in the life of the Igbo as a system of self-hate, as a form of tribalism turned against self. The Igbo practitioner of E Me Sị in a position of authority would not want to hire another Igbo person because that amounts to reproducing the undesirable self. We should not have those like unto us, lest the other should notice and complain! One undesirable Igbo is more than enough! And who should ensure that this doctrine is observed? Certainly the E Me Sị Igbo, who is truly Igbo in spite of self.
There is no question of the E Me Si practitioner intervening to save an Igbo person that is being persecuted. It is rather better to become an instrument of such ethnic cleansing. Gbuo onye Igbo ibe gị, e me sị!

Let us attempt to summarize the fears that underlie the posture of E Me Sị:
E me sị na onye Igbo ibe m ka m ka hụ n’anya.
(So that it would not be said that I have greater love for my fellow Igbo)
E me sị na m bụ onye Igbo.
(So that I would not be identified as an Igbo person)
E me sị na onye Igbo m bụ na-atọ m obi ụtọ.
(So that it would not be said that I am happy for being Igbo)
E me sị na onye Igbo m bụ na-emebi m isi.
(So that it would not be said that I am intoxicated with being Igbo)
E me sị na m chọrọ ka ndi Igbo nọchisie n’ọkwa niile.
(So that it would not be said that I want Igbo persons to occupy all positions)
E me sị na m ….
(So that it would not be said that I....)

The posture of E Me Sị seeks the approval of the non-Igbo and the Igbo hater and promotes an anti-Igbo ideology:
Deny your Igboness in order to be welcome to the non-Igbo group.
Deny your Igboness in order to be the acceptable Igbo person.
Work against the interest of the other Igbo person in order to be approved of as a detribalized and progressive Igbo.
Don’t associate with other Igbo people so that you would have friends among those who complain about the Igbo or those that ridicule Igboness.

The posture of E Me Si that seems to have taken hold of the Igbo mind in recent times is a sign that Igbo identity, more than ever before, is greatly endangered. When a group that is highly disliked turns round to display its own discomforts about itself, it is on its way out. One does not need to be a prophet to see clearly that if the Igbo themselves buy into the prejudice that Igboness means everything undesirable, they themselves have become the instruments of their own erasure as a group. Don’t we already have a growing population of Igbo people who cannot speak Igbo? Don’t we already have a large population of Igbo people who cannot remember Igbo cultural practices? Don’t we have a staggering number of Igbo people who tell you that what you call Igbo culture is a set of backward-looking, pagan and devilish ways which took their ancestors to hellfire? The Igbo themselves will keep Igboness and remain usu the bat which is neither a bird of the air nor the beast that walks the earth.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Onwu Egbu Akuko (Death Does not Kill the Story)

A goodwill Message

Sent to

The Department of English, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia,

Hosting


A One-Day Seminar on "Discourses and Representations: Chinua Achebe and the Aftermath,"

on 23rd April, 2014.



*****
I am greatly pleased to know that you are holding a special seminar in India in honour of the late African novelist, Chinua Achebe. I wish I had the opportunity of being physically present at your seminar, to listen to the presentations and draw inspiration from the insights. I would, if I were in attendance, have tried to entertain you with some Igbo folktales and joke lore – the type that Achebe loved so much and used very masterfully in his writings and public presentations. Not just out of fascination with the narrative practices of the late writer, but, as a matter of fact, because I, too, happen to be an Igbo person and someone with a strong attachment to indigenous Igbo performance traditions.

Achebe’s town, Ogidi, is not very far from Uli, my hometown, and both towns are in Anambra State, Nigeria. Uli, which some of you must have read about, featured as an important town in Biafra during the Nigeria-Biafra war that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Thus it inevitably featured in Chinua Achebe’s lifewriting, There Was a Country. But that is not the only place you would encounter Uli in Achebe’s writings: it is also mentioned in his novel, Things Fall Apart, where the novelist narrates the congregation of egwugwu, masked spirits, from various towns, following the alu (abomination) committed by the Christian convert, Enoch. The alu was so terrible that the Mother of Spirits – the night spirit—walked the length and breadth of the land lamenting for her “murdered” son. The spirit wailed in a way never heard by humans before. One of the terrible egwugwu that arrived to confront the Christian iconoclasts was Ekwensu, and Achebe said it came from Uli. When I read about this in my high school days, I went to my hometown and inquired from the elders whether there was a masked spirit in Uli called “Ekwensu.” They confirmed that there was indeed such a masked spirit in the past and that it was the most terrible that ever existed but was no longer featured in their cultural performances. Hmmmm. Maybe the Enoch syndrome in postcolonial Igbo life had caused Ekwensu to really become fiction!

Achebe borrowed immensely from Igbo life and culture in writing his stories, but his craft and commitment will remain exceptionally engaging. As an Igbo person, I am beginning to see greater meaning and significance in Achebe’s stories in contemporary postcolonial Igbo world. I could see Chinua Achebe’s fictional characters taking human form in recent Igbo experiences! No, do not think about Okonkwo; his case is too obvious. Think about Nwoye (whose apparent weakness as a boy makes Okonkwo very sad) and Oduche (who is sent to become Ezeulu’s “eyes” and “ears” in a present-future overrun by Western modernity and Christianity). I tell you, dear friends, that, if Achebe were still alive, he might have considered seriously a continuation of his story, writing about the descendants of Oduche and how they have moved from their father’s imprisoning of the sacred python in a box to using the sacred snake for a weekend barbecue! And who knows whether he would have written about how the new masked spirits of the Nigerian world, armed with AK-47s and general purpose machine guns, abduct village heads and elders and ask relatives of the abductees to buy back their half-dead bodies with millions of Naira!

I am inclined to think that Achebe was inviting us to see Africa’s past, present, and future through his stories. There may not be one-to-one correspondence between the stories and real life, but one realises that there is clear, intimate conversation going on between the two. What would a society that has fallen apart give birth to, especially when its citizens have not learned where the rain started beating them?
Chinua Achebe lives in his stories. Those stories will never die. Onwu egbu akuko – death does not (and cannot) kill the story.

In celebrating Achebe in faraway India, you are indeed helping to confirm the philosophical truth in onwu egbu akuko. Incidentally, India has got the enviable reputation of being a society that constantly beckons on the rest of the world to return to contemplation and creative thinking. In celebrating Achebe, you are inviting the world to see greater meaning in his stories and to peep into Africa’s future.
I send my warmest felicitations to Professor Aparajita Hazra and her team of scholars and students for holding this important seminar.
Thank you.

Obododimma Oha
Professor of Cultural Semiotics & Stylistics
University of Ibadan, Nigeria.




Photographs of the event (Courtesy of Prof. Aparajita Hazra, Chief Organiser of the seminar)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Igbo, Ndiigbo, and Ndi Gboo: Lost Identities and Speculative Loss

By


Obododimma Oha.




Chris Aniedobe, an analyst, in his exposition at World Igbo Forum on 28 February 2017, on the issue of the naming and re-naming of the Igbo, made the startling claim that Igbo people originally identified themselves as Gboo people or Ndi Gboo (which means “Ancient people) but that this name was distorted by the White explorers who found it difficult to articulate the Igbo consonant, “gb” and so articulated the name as “Ibo.” This corruption of the name has been consolidated by Igbo people by simply referring to themselves as “Igbo” or “Ndi Igbo,” instead of “Ndi Gboo.” Indeed, the Europeans who encountered the Igbo simplified the name “Igbo” to “Ibo.” But it is an interesting argument to say that “Ibo” and “Igbo” are both corruptions of “Gboo,” or that Igbo people are “Gboo” people, that the current reference, “Ndiigbo” or “Ndi Igbo” should actually be “Ndi Gboo.” This argument is interesting especially given all the speculations about Igbo Jewish origin and the speculation that “Igbo” was a reconstruction of “Hebrew” (in Olaudah Equiano’s narrative it is rendered as “Heebo.”) Aniedobe’s new perspective of course aligns with the established archaeological fact that humanity and human civilization started in Africa, and from which there was dispersal to other parts of the globe. It has long been established by archaeology that early humans lived first in Africa, precisely the country called Kenya today, and so we could agree that Ndi Gboo lived in Africa. But Aniedobe’s perspective is also partly faulty in representing “Igbo” and “Ibo” as corruptions of “Gboo.” My commitment in this short essay is to show that his perspective is faulty, both lexically and semiotically.

The term “Gboo” in Igbo is a temporal deixis referring to “early” or “ancient” times. Ndi Gboo refers to Early or Ancient People. It could be seen as referring to people of Early Civilization, the ancestors of the people of the present. Ndi Gboo, therefore, applies to Early People, at the universal level, not just a specific ethnic group or race. When it features in Igbo discourse, especially in comparing or contrasting our ways with those who lived in early times, it is not in reference to any ethnic or linguistic identity. Aniedobe’s identification of the Igbo as Ndi Gboo would mean that the Igbo would be located at the base of the tree or phylum from which all other groups have emerged. That is incorrect, for we know that both Igbo and other groups have emerged from a proto-parent.

Gboo has nothing to do phonologically with Igbo. Aniedobe was wrong in thinking that the “gbo” in “Igbo” is a shortening of the diphthong in “Gboo.” He asserts that: “A person from Ndigboo is onye Gboo or a Gboo person … meaning exactly what it says” and that “We are Ndigboo … ancient people … and not Ndigbo …weed smokers or forest people.” Now, that is funny. Aniedobe should have known that Ndiigbo (not “Ndigbo”) cannot mean “weed people” unless the tone on the last syllable changes from Low to High. Igbo is a tone language and tones are used in differentiating meanings of pairs that are graphetically similar. Thus we have the following differences:
1. Ndi Igbo [High tone on the last syllable](Indian Hemp smokers or Indian Hemp people)
2. Ndi Igbo [Low tone on last syllable] (Igbo people)
3. Ndi gboo [High tone on last syllable and diphthong) (Early People)
Aniedobe obviously overlooked this tonal dimension and wrongly confused the second with the third. An argument one had watched out to see him make (which, thank goodness, he did not make) is that there has been a tonal shift which involved a collapsing of High and Low!

Now, that leaves us with the question (which I suspect he would like to ask): What, then, is the meaning of “Igbo” (the name in the second example)? Fine, asking for the meaning of the name is to return us to the difficult issue of the origin of the Igbo. That origin is lost in the recesses of history, reason being that the Igbo, like many African groups, operated on oral traditions. Many things were lost because they were not written down, not even early Nsibisi could document this. Or, even if it did, the documentation is still lost in the sands of time.

Further, language changes over time. The present Igbo people do not have access to the chronolect we could call Early Igbo, the same way it is possible to access Old English and meanings of its words and expressions.

Ndi Gboo is clearly a temporal person deixis differentiating the Early Igbo people from the present Igbo. It does not mean the name for the Igbo people but the temporal description or location of the civilization. Ndi Gboo were Ndi Igbo of old; Ndi Igbo Mgbe Gboo.
From a personal interaction with elderly Igbo people who died decades ago, I gathered that Ndi Gboo are also called “Ndị Mbụ na Ndi Egede.” A brand of Ndi Gboo are called “Nde (Ndi) Nduhie” (People who misled or who followed the wrong ways). Nde nduhie are normally presentedin Igbo discourse as people who (from our current worldview) did foolish things, given that they lacked proper (scientific) knowledge of the world. Such alternative reference is sometimes used in Igbo discourse in suggesting that Early people did not have enlightenment or operated ignorantly in many ways, this lack of enlightenment contributing to their ruin. An example of their wrong ways is always cited and laughed at when Nde Nduhie is mentioned in Igbo legends.

Igbo search into their distant history needs to be cautious so as not to impose wrong interpretations. There may appear to be some advantage or pride being coveted in the construction of self as ancient or as the ancient civilization, placing the ethnic self above others. Whereas Igbo people belong to the indigenous (in fact, most African groups do), it is not an entirely positive thing when the West lauds a group as ancient, or presents the archaeological narrative that Africans are at the lower point or origin of human civilization, subtly telling us that Black Africans have remained in that state of ancientness, not making much progress in civilisation. They would encourage us to celebrate our ancientness, in line with that construction of the Gboo identity for Ndi Igbo by Aniedobe. Who celebrates ancientness? Who celebrates backwardness, even in naming? It is the unpleasant aspect of the archaeological proof we present when Ndi Igbo are constructed as part of the misled and misleading Ndi Gboo. Ndi Igbo like all human race have moved away from that Mgbe Gboo of human history. We can only talk of Ndi Gboo as comprising many groups in distant time, not just the Igbo. It was also not Igbo people’s specific name at any given time.