Saturday, June 10, 2017

Igboness and the Posture of E Me Sị


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.