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.