On the 1st of November 2019, at the Enugu Sports Club, the Centre for Memories — an organisation working to serve as the repository of the history and culture of Ndigbo — hosted Chika Unigwe, Nigeria’s multiple award winning author of On Black Sisters’ Street and a Professor at Brown University in the United States, for their monthly distinguished speaker series, Nkata Umuibe.
Chika gave a resounding speech on the need for Igbos around the world to unite and take control of their narrative. With the permission of Chika Unigwe, The Village Square Journal has published the entire speech here for your reading pleasure. We hope that this will help re-engineer discourse on what it means to be Igbo, to speak Igbo and to promote Igbo cultures and identity.
Ndi be anyi, ekene m unu. Igbo no na uno na Igbo pulu ije, unu ga-adi. Umunnem, mmamma nu! My Igbo brothers and sisters, my non-Igbo brothers and sisters, greetings. Thank you for having me here today. It’s a great honor to be a guest of Nzuko Umuibe series, following in the steps of other speakers, many of whom I’ve admired for years, and others whose works I have only recently discovered through nzuko umuibe. Umunnem you’re doing great work. Jisie nu ike. Tulu nu ugo.
I am particularly pleased to be back in Enugu. I was born and raised here, and no matter how long I’ve been away, every time I return, I feel the air shift especially for me. I have wonderful memories of growing up in this city. Sadly, some of the places I knew and loved as a child have given way to residential estates, shopping malls or have fallen into regrettable disuse.
Family has always been very important to my parents and growing up, we would drive with my mother to her village, Lokpanta, in Abia State every Sunday afternoon to visit my grandparents, stay long enough to have an early dinner and drive back to Enugu. And twice a year (Christmas and Afia-olu), like many others, we would make the longer drive down – which my father did every weekend – to our ancestral home, Osumenyi, Nnewi South. I remember the guava-infused scent of those days, the sounds of women greeting each other on their way to Eke Osu, the dust we raised as we ran from masquerades. Most of all, I remember the freedom we took for granted in the way people do when there is little to fear: trekking the length of the village with my sister, Blessing, and our co- ‘returnee’ friends and cousins; riding my chopper or racing my cousin, Chukwuma on his; and when we became older and able to drive, Blessing and I would pile into a car with my brother or with my cousin driving and head out to nearby Ukpor or Amichi or Nnewi for some isiewu or nchi. Our parents didn’t know about these outings. Often my uncle or my dad would have tasked my cousin or my brother with fueling the car and the four of us would just disappear for many delightful hours, returning to parents upset that an errand of a few minutes had somehow morphed into us being away for far longer. They were upset, but they were never worried. They did not think that we had been kidnapped by some ransom-demanding thugs or attacked by herdsmen. This wasn’t that terribly long ago, relatively speaking. This was in the early 90’s and even then, our parents complained that Nigeria was on a downward spiral, that ‘things’ were bad, blissfully unaware of the shape of the horrors yet to come.
The horrors that are here with us today. Our nation is in a crisis. AlaIgbo, especially, is in a crisis and we cannot ostrich our heads-in-the-sand out of it. We cannot pretend that the crisis is not urgent when we are confronted with it almost on a daily basis. Three months ago, the US authorities indicted 80 people for wire fraud and for swindling millions of dollars from U.S. businesses and individuals, 77 are Nigerian, and 74 of the 77, bu Ndigbo. According to Abike Dabiri, of the 21 Nigerians on death row for drug crimes in Indonesia, 20 are from Anambra State. 5 of 5 men arrested for stealing the equivalent of over N220 million from a bureau de Change in Dubai are young Igbo men. We all remember the 2017 drug-related shooting in an Ozubulu church. In a 2017 interview with the Nigerian Punch, the then president of Nigerian Union South Africa, Mr. Ikechukwu Anyene, conceded to the journalist interviewing him that Ndigbo made up the bulk of Nigerians arrested in South Africa on drug-related charges. These men (and sometimes women), the Igbo 419ers, the drug pushers, the robbers are not invisible. The are not shy about showing off their wealth. And because they crave the attention and adulation that affluence brings, right about this time of the year- almost December- they are getting ready to swarm our villages and towns. They’ll return from China and Malaysia and South Africa and wherever else with ridiculous nicknames and other crass displays of their ‘arrival.’ Videos will go viral of them in churches thanking ‘Baba God’ for blessing them. We will see videos of them at parties, christening each other with expensive champagne, spraying money- foreign currency- like confetti and we will witness our youth retweet the videos and ask on social media, “God, when?” Not “how?” but “when,” which in itself is illustrative.
Drug peddlers. 419ers. Swindlers. People without a kobo to their names suddenly catapulting out of nowhere with massive wealth, soiling the nation’s reputation. These are the dominant narratives. Ndi be anyi si na mmadu ada egbu ozu o ga-eso kwa but we are causing our own pain by contributing to and enabling these narratives to move from the margins to the centre. Ndi Igbo as drug peddlers, 419ers, swindlers.
These stories are not lies but they are not representative of our people and they are certainly not narratives that we should allow to define us as Ndigbo. The significant thing about narratives is that they have the power to shape our notions of who we are, and not just what others think of us. The African-American historian and panAfricanist, JH Clarke said famously that “to control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.” Our ideas of beauty, of race, of civilization and so on are based on the narratives that were told of us by those with the power to shape and share those narratives, and they in turn have become the narratives that we tell ourselves of ourselves. Why would an Igbo child tell another that eating akpu is bush? Or that eating with your fingers is bush? Or that speaking Igbo is bush? Why would an Igbo man come on Twitter – as someone did recently- and say what a pity it is that one of our Igbo leaders has an Igbo accent. Why have we accepted that calling someone – calling an Igbo man – an Okoro is one of the most terrible insults to hurl at him? It is because over the years, we have allowed – not always willingly, I must add- we have allowed others to calibrate what is ‘bush’ and what is not, what is desirable and what is not. For years, even though our traditional wrapper looks better on full bodied women, we swallowed the myth that a certain body shape was preferable. Now, with the body positivism movement being championed by full bodied women in the west, the body shape meant for ima akwa is again being touted as beautiful. The narratives that we have allowed to dominate, tell us to look elsewhere- outside of us- for what we (ought to) find desirable. We do not see the irony in overzealous pastors and their acolytes destroying what should be our world heritage sites and preaching a total eradication of our traditional festivals in some cases, going as far , sometimes, as to abandon/change their names for being ‘heathenish,’ but who then live happily in a world where days of the week are named after European pagan gods. Like Achebe would say, Ofogoli aburo ife ofuu.
James Baldwin, the African-American writer sums up the danger of allowing someone else control your narrative when he said that “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble”. This is why we need to tell our own stories, to begin to reclaim our own narrative, to reassert our values as markers of our Igbo identity and to push those narratives out. But what are those values?
It is said that wisdom is the beginning of knowledge, but I think that’s wrong. knowledge, self-knowledge is where wisdom starts. What is Igbo identity? As a storyteller and as one both interested and invested in words, I look for answers in language. To discover what a people hold dear, their worldview, we look for clues in their language: what words they deploy to say the things they do. For instance, my mother-in-law still doesn’t understand why I say ‘sorry’ for things that are not my fault. When she stubs her toe or spills her coffee, for example, and I say sorry, she always looks stunned and she always asks me, “why are you saying sorry? It’s not your fault.” I have tried to explain to her that the ‘sorry’ isn’t me accepting personal responsibility for whatever happened, but rather me acknowledging our shared humanity. ‘Sorry’ is the very inadequate translation we use for ‘ndo’ which encompasses an entire world view that says I suffer because you suffer, I empathize with you; No one needs to explain ‘sorry’ to an Igbo person, or to a Nigerian even because our cultures are collectivist. The English, whose worldview is more individualistic, and who claim a man’s home is his castle- a proverb which underscores privacy in a way that is alien to our Igbo culture- could not be expected to have a competent translation of ‘ndo,’ a word that emphasizes interconnectedness in a way that westerners find difficult to grasp. Naturally.
Using language as our clue, what does it mean to be Igbo? We’ll begin with the most important, the essence of what we are called to be: mmadu. In Abriba dialect, the word for man is onye ife: a person of light. In Fr. Emmanuel Edeh’s Towards an Igbo Metaphysics, he splits the word into its two components, mma du/ mma di (the good that is or let goodness be). We can therefore infer that goodness and light, both of which mean the same thing really are at the core of being an (Igbo) human. Since these imply morality, we can also say that morality is an integral part of being Igbo. We say mmadu bu chi ibe ya, with the understanding that chi is intrinsically good. When we are overwhelmed with someone’s goodness, we say o buka mmadu: they are very human. When people deviate from the norm, we begin to use the qualifier, ajo mmadu. We use ezigbo mmadu to make the distinction from ajo mmadu. None of the two other languages I speak has the intrinsic goodness of man embedded in their word for ‘man’ so as to make ‘good’ redundant. In English, we would never say, he’s so human in the same way we’d say in Igbo that onye a abuka mmadu.
To fully embody this goodness and light, to fully become Igbo, we must therefore begin to reclaim the cultural values that Ndigbo have always espoused as markers of Igbo identity. These values condensed in and referred to in a Facebook post by an Igbo group, Odenigbo, as ‘The 7 pillars of Igbo Republicanism’:
Igbo bu otu (unity)
Onye ewela ihe onye ozo (thou shalt not steal)
Igba mbo (industry)
Onye aghala nwanne ya (brotherhood)
Ofo na ogu (moral authority and righteousness)
Igbo enwe eze (communal leadership based on meritocratic gerontocracy).
All these values encourage communality and collective responsibility. I am because you are. What affects one affects all. They were the catalysts for the Improvement Unions which sprouted all over Igboland in the 30’s and 40s. And which by 1964, had established 38 secondary schools all over Alaigbo
I am because you are. How have we veered so far from our traditional Igbo values that we have allowed greed and fraud and corruption and conspicuous consumption to identify us. Where did the rain begin to fall on us? Onye na amaro ebe mmli bido maba ya, ama ama ebe ono kwusi. I say let us search for the beginning of this rain in colonization. And it is impossible for me to trace it to colonization without referencing Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the canonical text of how the clouds for the rains began to gather. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo has no respect for his father, Unoka, not even in death, because Unoka was a lazy man. While other men worked, Okonkwo complains, his father stayed home and drank and played the flute. Unoka’s reputation as a lazy man haunts Okonkwo through the novel and is the single most important motivation for Okonkwo to sometimes take unpopular decisions. A man who sat home and twirled his thumb, who could not grow his aku na uba because he would not work, was not a man worthy of respect. A man’s wealth was often commensurate to how hard he was prepared to work (and how blessed he was). The political system in Alaigbo was communal and collective, at odds- when the British came- with the British indirect rule system, and so the colonial authorities usurped the system and created kotumas and warrant chiefs. Arguably, corruption started with the kotumas who took bribes to influence cases (and the quality of their translations) and with the warrant chiefs who did not have traditional authority to rule but possessed power through the British who had both the yam and the knife. These warrant chiefs – not immune to the corruption of power- became the new ruling class. The court messengers and the warrant chiefs did not have to work hard on the farm, did not have to toil to become wealthy. For the first time, the wealthiest men did not necessarily have to be the ones who had the bountiest harvests. The currency of respect, naturally, began to change around this time too.
Perhaps, some might say that I am reaching, that we had years of relative integrity, when hard work- and not necessarily manual labor- and integrity were respected. Years when criminals were not rewarded in Alaigbo with chieftaincy titles, and they were not given front row pews in churches. Maybe they are right. Maybe I should seek for the genesis of the rot in the SAP years from the mid 1980’s. An old friend of mine writes eloquently in the UK Guardian, of his father, a civil servant physician, who bought a new Volkswagen in 1983. The next time his father bought a car – we assume the next time he could afford to buy one- was about 17 years later– a secondhand 1992-model Honda Accord imported from Europe. My friend’s story would be familiar to anyone of us who lived through the fiasco that was SAP. The government’s policies completely eroded the middle class and enshrined corruption as a way of life. People who had worked all their lives, could no longer count on getting good pensions, and civil servants, people who earned money honestly, could no longer afford the lifestyles that they had been used to. Universities became desolate. Scholarship and intellectualism were discouraged. Politicians and their cronies who had direct access to the government became the new wealthy class. And in Alaigbo, it helped to create the mess we are dealing with now. Ndigbo say that mmuo onye na-efe na-egbu ya. A culture that has always respected wealth (because it was taken for granted that a man became wealthy by doing honest work), in this new dispensation, seems to be struggling to find ways to accept the wealth but not the bearer of it.
However, there is no need crying over spilled palmwine. It behooves us to mop up the mess and start again. How do we do this? How do we begin to redefine and reclaim Igbo values so that mpu – corruption- and celebration of illicit wealth are things that are no longer allowed to define us again? How do we put the ‘mma’ back into mmadu? The ‘ife’ back in onye ife? How do we seize back the narrative of Igbo identity to centre our core values?
On social media, on TV, on the streets, in books, in newspapers, there is no scarcity of ways and people who will tell our story should we choose not to tell it. We must use these same spaces to center narratives that best define us. I know from personal experience how what we consume: the books we read and the films we watch affect how we feel about ourselves. Our writers, our creative artists should continue producing works that centre the Igbo world view. In recent years Chigozie Obioma’s Ochestra of Minorities and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater which center Igbo cosmology in a contemporary world have done that. Our Igbo Nollywood directors and producers and scriptwriters should tell our Igbo stories that – while not romanticizing AlaIgbo- privilege another sort of narrative to the dominant one. Genevieve Nnaji’s Lion Heart is a good example and shows what is possible when intentionality and ownership of the means of production collide. Our Igbo musicians, Phyno, Umu Obiligbo, Flavor and so many others who sing in Igbo, who therefore centre our language in parties and at airports around the world create a sense of pride in our identity and could take it further by singing lyrics that celebrate the very best of that identity. Alaigbo should invest in Igbo centred publishing. Igbo newspapers, for example. Igbo books should be available in our libraries- where these libraries exist- to boost interest in the reading of it. But we must be careful too. I read an Igbo book written by someone where the protagonist’s daughter had done well because ‘o maghi asu Igbo, nani bekee ka o na-asu’ . ‘O nata na obodo , ana ele ya anya ka nwa bekee.’ Which is why the work really begins at home. Our people say, na a’ na ebido n’uno malu mma welu puta ilo.
We need to, in our individual homes, begin to recalibrate markers of success for our children. I remember reading an interview with the Nigerian -British actor, Chiwetal Ejiofor, where he said that a journalist told his mother that she must be very proud of her actor son who was a star, the mother replied that her daughter had just graduated from a top college, and that that daughter was the star before saying that she was proud of both of them. Success shouldn’t just be about how much one is bringing in but how one maximizes their talents and gifts to live a life of fulfillment. When the only marker of success is money, people are tempted to resort to whatever means to make it. Wealth in itself is not bad, after all, we name our children Egodi.
Our Igbo culture does not shun wealth. It is the get-it-by-all-means wealth that has saturated our communities that we must begin to shun and teach our children to shun. Ezi afa ka aku.
Ezi afa ka aku or ezi afa ka ego. It seems to me that our spiritual and community elders have forgotten this too in this era of money being the be-all and the end-all. We are witnesses to how often these men of dubious characters are given titles in our villages and towns – Eze this and Ichie that, how often they are addressed as “prophets” and “pastors,” making a mockery of the positions that they hold. We are responsible for enabling them by allowing them avenues to legitimize themselves and to whitewash their wealth by building community centers and places of worship. We should be strong enough and bold enough to let them know that Alaigbo is not in the business of whitewashing money. Our community centers and churches should not be built by one person who has the money to throw around, especially if that money was not earned honestly. In the past, to the best of my knowledge, they were built through community effort. People gave as much or as little as they could and everyone felt a sense of ownership, as no one person could lay claim to it and so, no one person was above the authority of those places. You cannot scold an erring man with his food in your mouth.
We need to be intentionally minded about creating more inclusive spaces for cross-sector conversations and supporting those that already exist like Nkata Umuibe and Society of Igbo Professionals. Spaces that task us, not just to palaver but also to reflect on where we have strayed and discuss ways to get back on the right path.
We must tell our own stories, beat our own drum, magnify the achievements of Ndigbo across the globe by supporting projects like this one, Chikere Eze’s Igbo Blog, Ukpuru blogspot, Juliet Kego’s and Ify Melody’s #EkweIgbo on twitter, Yvonne Mbanefo’s and Louisa Egbunike’s Igbo Conference, Golibe Festival. And also by creating more spaces like these for centering Igbo culture, celebrating Igbo excellence, profiling alternative role models for the youth. We should work at owning the means of production so that we are better able to disseminate the narratives we choose to. Even as we join a globalizing world, we should not lose sight of our own local traditions. We should watch against diluting our Iri Ji and Afia-olu so much so that they lose their significance
Those of us in the positions to do so, should encourage our state ministries of culture, education and information, to pick up the mantle and join in the fight of reclaiming and owning our own narratives as they had in the past. Alvan Ikoku College of Education, for example, had the magazine, Igbo ga-Adi, completely written in Igbo. From 1979 to 1986, Imo State had the excellent Anu, a magazine on Igbo culture, whose main purpose, according to its editorial, was to “recover, document, analyze and give information about Igbo culture”. To our shame, of the 12 libraries who have copies of this magazine, 11 are in the United States and the 12th is at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa.
Ndi be anyi si na alu gbaa aro, obulu omenani. We have allowed these narratives to take root, mana ta bu gbo! Let us begin now to mezie ala Igbo.
I thank you all for listening.
Copyrights: The rights of Chika Unigwe as the author of this work was fully sought and obtained. No part of the speech can be published in any form either online or in physical book form, without the approval of the author.