The Igbo Network
A MATTER OF IDENTITY
PROFESSOR MICHAEL J.C. ECHERUO,
PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE AND DEAN
Ọha na Eze,
My task, as I understand it, is quite a simple one, I am to share with you such thoughts and reflections as I have concerning the history, culture and civilization of our people, the Igbo people. I am also to relate what I say, wherever possible, to the wider movements of world history and human civilization. I have entitled my lecture "A Matter of Identity", in our language, I would call it Aha m efula.
moment ago I described my task as simple, I did not intend to suggest that it
was an easy one. It is perhaps not too large an over statement to say the Igbo
people are the most important people in the world today, and (unknown to
themselves) have probably always been! We have a language which is so efficient
in its structure that some say it was first spoken in
Therein precisely also lies the unique privilege of this occasion. There must certainly be older, abler and more influential people than myself to assume this honour. If I had it in me - and I still do not know why not - I would have started this lecture the proper way by admitting how immensely honoured I feel to be asked to give this first lecture in the Ahịajọkụ series. If I also had it in me, I would have wanted to commend the Imo State Government, especially the Culture Division of the Ministry of Information, Culture, Youth and Sports for its foresightedness in inaugurating this series of annual harvest lectures. If I however proceed directly to the subject of my lecture, I would not want to be misunderstood. I am, of course, not ungrateful for the honour which has been done me; and certainly the Government of Imo State deserves to be congratulated on its initiative. I refrain from saying more than this only in order to avoid being under stood to be setting myself up as any kind of judge of the quality of vision here at Owerri; or it being thought that the glory of this occasion has, as we say in Igbo, "eaten my head", that is overwhelmed me.
No, this honour cannot
overwhelm not now. There is an
Ceremony is something our people are a little impatient of; a decorative detail which they regard as cosmetic and so almost valueless. But ceremony, as Shakespeare put it, is the sauce to the meat. It is ceremony that adds grace and dignity (ugwu) to an occasion like this one. We celebrate Ahịajọkụ, not because it would be impossible to acknowledge the new yam without the festival but because we become a little more aware of the larger significance of that event for our lives by celebrating it. Ceremony takes the rough edges out of communal il1teraction, and allows practical minded people such as the Igbo people are, a little respectable frivolity. For many other peoples, ceremony is at the very heart of culture. For them true culture is represented in those details of communal behaviour which are added to pure function. The presentation of the kola nut is a functional event in our society; but ịgọ ọji is ceremony; and it is not uncommon to find commentators who assume that a people who devote some of their time to ceremony have a more genuine interest in culture than those who do not. There are absurdities in such conclusions, but it is probably true to say that it is to these details of ceremony that we have to go for concrete evidence of the life styles and values of any given society. The Igbo people, because they do not always cultivate ceremony, and are instinctively suspicious of mere decorativeness, are more liable than most other people to the charge of lacking culture and civilization. Today, as we celebrate Ahịajọkụ, we are doing at least two things: giving formal recognition to a festival which we were almost in danger of losing, and taking the opportunity for serious reflection on ways of understanding the deepest cultural values of the Igbo people.
There are about ac. many accounts as there are old men of t he (1rigins of both the yam and the New Yam Festival in Igbo land. According to one account, the yam was the reincarnation of the first son of an Afikpo woman sacrificed on the orders of the oracle, Ibu Ụkpabi.
The woman first sacrificed a slave and the community quite appropriately got a bastard yam, ji abana; when however she sacrificed her own son, an amadi ji a man's yam, sprouted up, a gift of the god to his starving people. There are variations on this story, and they all remind us of similar stories told about staple crops in other civilizations. Wheat, among the Romans, was an incarnation of Ceres herself, the goddess of agriculture. Perhaps the most familiar of the stories about the origin of the rituals surrounding the eating of the new yam is the one that tells how, when it was first brought into our communities, yams were an untested food item. In fear of the entire community dying from food poisoning, domestic animals, slaves and bonded men (in that order) were forced to eat the yam first. Not until it was thus established as a safe food item, did the leaders of the community allow the generality of the public to partake of it. Even then, according to some accounts, the new yam was eaten in a fixed sequence, beginning with the youngest of the most junior line ages.
These stories must be regarded as re-constructions, pure and simple. For one thing, they presuppose a more recent date for the introduction of yams into our region than the available scientific evidence would support.
introduction of iron in
Nor must we forget the place
It is worth our bearing
it in mind because the New Yam Festival which we are celebrating today is not
an exclusively Igbo phenomenon. There is, as many of us may know, what has been
called the West African Yam Belt which stretches all the wav from the
To this we must add the fact which we are becoming increasingly aware of, that the yam is a most un economical crop to cultivate. For one thing, there is only one harvest a year. For another, cultivating yams is truly a man's job: ọrụ okorobia: only the able bodied and persevering can successfully do it. Moreover, unlike the cassava, the yam depends on its own tubers for propagation. This means that a substantial part of each harvest is earmarked for the next year's planting - a rather heavy literal wastage of both capital and profit. In consequence, the yam has become a very precious plant, indeed; and if, for any reason, its harvest failed, the community was doomed, as it were, to starvation.
Chinua Achebe tells us in his Things Fall Apart of Unọka who went to consult Agbala over his perennially poor yam harvest.
Every year, he said sadly (to the priestess), ‘before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Anị, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejiọkụ, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear. I weed...'
Many readers of that novel will remember the reply he got: 'Hold your peace!' screamed the priestess, her voice terrible as it echoed through the dark void. 'You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm. You, Ụnọka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your machete and your hoe. When neighbours go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man.
Our harvests, then, can only be as good as our labour. Only when we have worked like men can we hope for a proper harvest and for a stock of yams with which to celebrate Ahịajọkụ. Annual celebrations and propitiations make sense only against the background of all full and thorough season's labour of both hand and brain.
But, as we also realize from Achebe's novel, even the hardworking can be unlucky, Okonkwọ, trying to redeem the bad name his lazy father Ụnọka had made for the family, borrowed 800 seed yams from a family friend to add to his planting stock. He planted the: first set of yams immediately after the first rains. That was a disaster. “The rains lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot corals and roasted all the yams that had been sown." Later when the rains came back, Okonkwọ planted the other 800 seed yams he got from Nwakibie.
But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but the farmers knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.
That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.
There can be little doubt that a crop as precious and as demanding as the yam would in time acquire this "status of a god of life.
Times, however, change. Probably fewer people commit suicide today because of the failure of the yam harvest than because they lost a lucrative government contract. In the past, no one dared eat the new yam before the proper rituals have been performed. The exigencies of life are beginning to dictate new approaches to the rituals of the New Yam Festival. Families desperate for food will quietly harvest and eat the yams planted in their backyards (or their mgbala o mbubo); but these yams will only be eaten, they say, by women and children. It is just an easy step from women to not so prosperous men who have exhausted their stock of the previous years' yams and have large families to feed. There is a lot of common sense in the story told about Ogidi people that they buy and eat the early yams from their Atani and their Anambra neighbours before the New Yam Festival. And they do £0 on the very elegant conviction that the taboo only applies to yams harvested from one's own farm. This foreign yam the Ogidi people call O bu m kolu.
I spoke earlier of a
West African Yam Belt. Let us not forget that in very important respects, we
that is, the Igbo people - differ from many of the communities of the West
African coastlines which celebrate the New Yam Festival. We are unlike the
Yoruba or the Bini of Nigeria, or the
We are now beginning to understand the nature and value of this political organisation as developed and practiced by our people. Professor Isichei has argued that we must look to other spheres than a centralized government for unifying institutions among the Igbo - to language, social institutions and customs, and to philosophical and religious values. Whatever we do, we will still come face to face with a certain radical independence of mind, a certain basic sense of individual sovereign-ness which co-exists with the communal sovereignty of ikwu na ibe obodo, and mba. Oluidah Fquiano, an Igbo man who was sold into slavery in the eighteenth century wrote a book about his recollections of Igbo society, and in that book, which was published in 1789, he remarked that "everyone contributes something to the common stock; and as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars." A French traveler of the nineteenth century, quoted by Professor Isichei, saw in Igbo society the embodiment of true liberty, "although its name was not inscribed on any monument."
Contrast this picture with another. Archbishop Crowther, for example, war disturbed by the nature of Igbo independence. He saw this independence as a "great drawback." "It is not too much to say that the moral conduct of the Ibos generally is characterised by a something approaching lawlessness.
The people as a rule are impatient of control. "Crowther specifically contrasted this characteristic with patterns among the Yorubas, his own people. "It is no tribal partiality" he wrote, which induces me to say that in this respect (the Igbo) form a striking contrast to the Yorubas, whose respect for lawfully constituted authority is often shown by a loyalty which maybe equaled, but can never be surpassed, by the most loyal civilized nations." This picture is repeated in a way by a report of 1890 by the Agent General of the Royal Niger Company which spoke of the Obosi people as a "wild and savage race of cannibals and apt to be troublesome."
There is no doubt in my mind that Igbo society, at least in the nineteenth century, was a harsh and even brutal one to live in. Traditionally hard-working, the Igbo man found the chaos of the changing world around him both seductive and disorienting. Labour is inseparable from strength. "We are all habituated to labour from our earliest years," Equiano wrote. That habit was given expression in the lean infertile years in a certain basic communal indiscipline founded on raw: strength. A man was a man only if he could both cater for his family and defend that family. In the changing environment generated by the slave, trade, a man could also boast openly of his own individual prowess, not now in the farm, but in the oil or the slave trade. Arising directly from this, each man (and each community) assumed sole responsibility for his own (or its own) defense. Violence was inevitably involved in this expression of power and provision of defense.
Igbo independence, therefore, was both natural and circumstantial. In Sierra Leone where many re-captives were settled in the nineteenth century, the Igbo segment of the community continued to express their independent character without the associated violence reported by Crowther.
Fyfe describes the Igbo people in Sierra Leone as "less clannish" than the Aku or the Yoruba who he said were "particularly noted for their solidarity." But even in Sierra Leone the Igbo would not compromise their independence. In 1839, an Igbo clerk who was alleged to have shot his white manager was burnt to death. The Igbo community could not accept the processes involved in this brutal execution. They threatened revenge on the Freetown maroons who were responsible for the crime and would have carried out their threat but for the intervention of British soldiers.
In 1859, another Igbo in Sierra Leone signed a strongly worded petition to the British Government on behalf of "National Society of the Liberated Africans and their Descendants." But curiously enough, the Igbo community would not define itself exclusively as Igbo. I was thoroughly dismayed to find that in 19th century Sierra Leone., the name Ibo, spelt variously as "Eboe" or "Heebo" was used (again according to Fyfe) as "a group name for peoples who in their homeland lacked the coherent nationhood their name implied.
"Here again we are dealing with a characteristic paradox. Most of those African slaves who wrote on behalf of their fellow slaves were themselves Igbo, though they never made much of this fact. Equiano's story was a major tribute to Igbo culture. Another Igbo slave, known to us as Aneaso, (Ani ASO] who became an assistant to the Jamaica Mission at New Carmel recorded his impressions of Igbo life in 1853; so, nearer home, did David Cekparabietoa Pepple from Isuama who was sold into slavery at Bonny about 1869. One recalls with pride the fact that in 1848, Mr. William Henry Pratt, a former Igbo slave was called to Britain to give evidence before the Parliamentary Committee investigating the slave trade. "His answers," according to one account, "displayed the easy self confidence of the successful businessman." With equal pride one should mention that the first African to take a B.A. at Oxford's University College in 1876 was Christian Cole, the grandson of an Igbo ex-slave. The point, really is that though the Igbo presence was felt as early as the 18th century, no particular honour was bestowed on the Igbo people generally. It all seemed as if there was really no coherence to the world from which these men came, that they had no identity.
The explanation – or part of the explanation for this may lie in our own refusal to acknowledge a common ancestor, in our centripetal search for origins. It does not really matter where we begin. From Onitsha and across the Niger, the claim is of Benin ancestry - which allows us to share in the glory of that well-known empire, But the Bini in turn claim an Ife ancestry. Or is it the other way round? To complicate matters further, the original Oba of Lagos is said to have been a Bini prince. Because we do not know how seriously to take these claims, we find a recent writer wondering whether the Ofala might not have "descended from or been modeled on the Igue festival at Benin. When it is remembered that for many years 'the Onitsha people were living in the realm of the Oba of Benin', the possibility is not far fetched."
Flattering as this association with Benin may be, there are others in Onitsha who reject it and claim affinity with the Igala people farther north. Indeed, many well known families in Onitsha assert with pride that they are the descendants of Igala princes. If we did not know of the frequent wars between Onitsha and Igala, we could dismiss these claims outright. As late as the 1870's the Igala's were still raiding Onitsha; so that it is almost in keeping with our search for origins from outside the Igbo heartland that a theory of Igala origins has its strong attractions. Further north in the Nsukka area, the Igala influence is obviously much stronger to the extent that, as some now claim, the Nsukka people are the warrior descendants of the Atta of Igala's noblemen. Here, the chief priest is atta-ama and a noble man is not simply an ogbu efi as in Onitsha, but an ogbu inyinya in the tradition of the Igala people. The Onitsha and Nsukka traditions of origin came to a head in the Nri tradition of Kingship and priesthood which some people insist is not '"originally" Igbo and exhibits features brought it to the area by Igala princes and their priests!
To the northeast of
Igboland and immediately below it we have another set of traditions tracing
Igbo origins to the Ogoja and Ekoi people. Nowhere is this search for origins
more dramatic than in the case of the Aros
who, according to Humphrey Eni of Ujari (in his book The Ujari People of
Awka District) "might have associated with, but not descended from, Jews expelled from
Professor Afigbo's exasperation arises from a curious fact of Aro history namely, that “nearly all the names involved in the legendary drama that led to the foundation of Aro Chukwu are Ibo names”, with the exception of Ndem, Loessien, Kakapu and Uruk which can however be explained by the fact of the Aro system of naming. “An Aro man usually names his first son after his own father, his first daughter after his mother. His second son he names either after his uncle or after his wife's father or after a friend who was useful to him during his occupational wandering beyond Aro Chukwu and whose memory he wanted to commemorate.” Whence it is that among the founding fathers of Aro Chukwu were people like Ezeke whose son was Ndem; Ndem's first son was Okpo who seduced Nachi's wife and had a son called Oke. We must, of course, add such classic names as Toti Nwa Toti, Ijeoma nta Ijeoma Ebulu and the most classic of them all, Uruk Nta, son of Uruk and father of Nachi.
To the south and southeast are the Ikwere people who say they are neither Igbo nor Ijo, but a totally new species of blackmen tracing their ancestry over the heads of their immediate neighbours to, perhaps, Egypt Or Israel. The issue clearly goes beyond the puny political compromises and calculations of this year or last. Indeed, the very circumstances which make the ancestry of the Aro a matter for controversy apply with greater vividness to the Ikwere and indeed to the Ijo people of the Eastern Delta. Because there is so much else to talk about today we will not go into any details. Suffice it to say that none of the neighbours of the Igbo people has been known to gladly assume names or claim Igbo ancestry. On the contrary, it is the Igbo who are indifferent to what names they are called or to what nationality they are attached. Consequently nothing is less likely to be true than a people, immediate to the south of Igboland and occupying territory immediately to the north of Bonny, itself a settlement of not later than the 15th century presumably first by Western Ijo migrants and subsequently by an influx of Igbo settlers - nothing, I say, is less likely to be true than that such a people bearing names like Amadi and Wali etc. and having a language so differentiated from both Ijo and Efik/Ibibio could be of other than solid Igbo stock. And this is putting things mildly.
We are concerned today with the matter of Igbo identity, and even if for no other reason, we should dwell a little longer on our connection with our Ijo neighbours of the Eastern Delta. The Ijo people are (or were) a matrilineal people. One consequence of this was that children reverted to the maternal grandparents rather than to the patrilineal line. Such a system, with all its many peculiar advantages, came under very severe pressure during the three hundred years or so of close contract with the Igbo people. First this matrilineal system was almost completely disorganized from the 16th century as a result of the intense commercial rivalry which developed between the various Ijo clans and families, or "houses", as they were called. Both as a result of manpower of the oil trade with the hinterland and of the equally taxing trade in slaves the Ijo "houses", which had virtually became a combination or the family and the 1imitedJiability company found that it was bad business to allow one's sons to marry the daughters of one's trading rivals since a man with several sons and grandsons would in practice be helping build up the manpower of his rivals. The result, as even our Ijo neighbours fully acknowledge, was a massive search not only for able-bodied Igbo youths to serve as porters and trade assistants, and slaves, but also for marriage age Igbo girls who would become wives to their sons. The children born thereby would remain within those houses or clans. Quite as conveniently, many of the so-called Igbo slaves married the daughters of the Ijo house lords and bore children who also remained within the clan. A very convenient cross matching of bloods!
No people on earth
including the Igbo, can lay claim to racial purity, and the comments I have
just made must not be misinterpreted. The crucial point to bear in mind is that
in spite of this massive infusion of Igbo blood into the Ijo system, a process
that is still going on no Igbo scholar has made any serious case for regarding
the Ijo people as essentially Igbo. Quite as important, too, no strong
traditions of Igbo origins have been cultivated among the Ijo people who were
products of this major historical event. True to their Igbo upbringing, our
women remained faithful to their Ijo husbands and named their children after
their Ijo traditions. The Igbo man, too, named their children, not after
themselves, but, after their hosts, in conformity with the requirements of the
Ijo house tradition. They just simply gave up their identity. Nevertheless a
survey of all the
Hence it is that if the question were really asked, who are the Igbo? Most so-called Igbo communities would point to the community next door. We appear to lack the cohesiveness which a common theory of origins provides for a people. I am not of course, thinking here of the detailed patterns of migration which historians and archaeologists are now establishing for this region. I am rather interested in the folk sense of common origins; the notion that though over centuries there may have been some parting of ways arising from contact with other peoples who are now officially recognized as Igbo and those others who for the time being find it inconvenient to claim to be Igbo.
A crisis of origins
inevitably leads to a crisis of institutions and ultimately to a crisis of
identity. Professor E.A. Alagoa who has studied Ijo history quite extensively,
was very much struck by some of the cultural characteristics of the Apoi people
of Okitipupa Division of Ondo State. These people are apparently' the
"most westerly group separated from the main body of Ijo" in Bendel
Among the Igbo, the situation is different. Discontinuity, rather than identity, would seem to be the norm. In place of the unifying phenomenon of the Ahịajọkụ or Fejiọkụ festival, our main harvest festival, we now have in several communities in Anambra and even in Imo State, the phenomenon of the Ofala of which Marius Nkwo, in a moment of deserved confusion, said that "it does not appear to be an Ibo name, though it sounds like an Ibo word." The Ofala is fast becoming an institution distinct from and even actually replacing the Ahịajọkụ or harvest institution; and the Igbo people, quite characteristically, are indifferent to this development.
But if Ofala does not appear to be an Igbo word, what of ji itself? Igbo names usually do not begin
with consonants. In fact, if we allow for such words beginning with the nasals m and n there are just three exceptions to this rule, namely, di ji and chi,
and such derivatives from
them as dike (di ike), and chukwu (chi
ukwu). It is a simple phonological
rule of Igbo that words like fada
and foto and monki are clearly borrowings. Exceptions prove the rule, but they
raise problems. We either assume that these exceptions are later phenomena in the history of the language, or in the alternative propose a pattern of phonological change (that is, of sound change) which will explain their emergence and survival. We will leave di and chi out of consideration for the moment. Ji; for its part, would appear to simply refer to most tubers. What the English call the
common yam (discorea) is our ji; of course. But in the perversity
of linguistic logic what the English call
cocoyam we call
Whatever we think, the point stands out clearly
that neither Ahịajọkụ nor Fejiọkụ provides
that linguistics link with ji
that would suggest that the god
and the tuber were generated in
the same linguistic
environment. If either name
referred to the new yam, the affix would be ọhụụ, ọfụụ rather than ji ọkụ. A
possible explanation may lie in the original
Igbo way of roasting rather than of
pounding yams. If so, we are
dealing not simply with the new yam
but with a hot (roasted) yam: ji
oku. In fact, in every tradition I have come across, it is the
usual routine for the
authorized official to roast and eat one new yam very new moon till he
exhausts the stock of sacred yams on the eve of the new moon which accompanies
the Yam Festival. There is a humorous but relevant support for this conjecture
in the story which Mr. J:E.N. Nwanguru tells in his book
By the time the yams were ready to be eaten, the river had risen too high for them to cross, according to Nwanguru, these Ngwa people are regarded as the ohuhuu those who still roast their yams!
What has survived in an undisputed manner is the fact that men devoted or dedicated to the Igbo yam god have a name all to themselves: Ajọkụ, Njọkụ, Fejiọkụ, etc. We must take this as rather strong circumstantial evidence for insisting that the ji sequence in Ahiajiọkụ has a necessary linguistic connection with the Igbo word for yam. In fact, we are dealing with a deity whose name, as is so often the case, ordinary mortals can take, gladly or perforce.
What we are dealing
with therefore, is .the familiar difficulty of being unable to explain an
institution because we cannot explain its origins. One of the early colonial
logists said the Edda were not Igbo because they "adopted the prohibition
of eating new yams before the feast day" only after “the arrived at their'
present habitat from the Igbo
Divinities are often
the most ancient and most cherished of the institutions of society.
One divinity, however,
was beyond the capriciousness of Igbo men: that divinity is neither Igwe, nor even Chukwu, but
anthropologists, believing that we all owe our civilization to some ancient spark from
However, as many of us know, at Umunneọha there did develop a religious cult that went by the name Igwe ka ala. Both Umunneọha and Igwe ka ala would have been household names throughout Igboland if we had taken ourselves seriously as a people. In Achebe's Arrow of God, Ezeulu says of Nwodika's son that he is "not a poisoner although he comes from Umunneora." The comment is full of insinuations, and Ezeulu's companion, Akuebue is quick to draw out one of them. "Every lizard", he advises, "lies on its belly, so we cannot tell which has a belly-ache." The point, of course, is that Umunneoha, the home of Igwe ka ala had quite a reputation throughout Igboland. When Ezeulu refused to call the new yam festival and a delegation of ten of the most distinguished elders went to see him over it, Nwaka of Umunneora who otherwise was eligible to attend, stayed away. His absence, Achebe comments in the novel, "showed how desperate they all were to appease Ezeulu."
Igwe ka ala was
quite simply not only a devilish sect but a heretical one. Its very name was a daring - a
consciously daring - challenge to the
supreme deity of the Igbo
people. This cult placed Igwe above
ka ala failed,
another system succeeded. That system was the Chukwu cult of Arochukwu.
Historians and ethnologists some of them tell us that on the
I will not have time to
go into details here. I will however want to assert that unless I am mistaken,
there is no capital letter god among the Igbo outside
I don't have a child of my own
But don't blame me;
Don't ask me why not
Blame my chi, ask my chi.
The woman's relationship with her chi is a very complex one. Her chi, on the other hand, has questions to answer. Her chi may have been lazy and irresponsible. If so, the woman's ill luck is really profound, though nut necessarily absolute since her chi can be taunted and harassed into activity on the woman's behalf. A bad chi does not necessarily come with sin. An otherwise good woman can have a bad chi and the world will easily recognize this and pity her tragedy. In the same way, a person may have a very active and enterprising chi. Chi ya na edu ya: His chi leads him; smoothens his way for his. chi ya di ike: His chi is strong.
A woman with a bad chi prays for a better chi the next time round when, after death, she will return to the world, have a second life on earth, lọ ụwa ọzọ. In fact many Igbo people do not despair about their chi even in the present life, and have no intention whatever of waiting for change the next time round. Their prayer is to their chi for help in this present season. Chimokpolaom ugwo: May my Chi never come to hate me. Hence, also the malediction Chi gi kpọọ gị oku: May your chi set you on fire and burn you up in ashes. Prayer is therefore not an attempt to win back God's goodwill through confession and repentance, but to exhort chi to action. Sacrifice is to appease those spirit forces interfering with this fulfillment.
What the Aro cult of Chukwu did was to build on this thoroughly Igbo foundation and to propose a universal chi
parallel to (though more powerful
I than) the individual chi.
That idea blended beautifully
into the Igbo world view. Chi
was separated from chi ukwu
which then became the standard Igbo name for The Almighty. And yet,
If the picture I have just painted is essentially true, then We can understand why priests and kings have such a fragile tenure in Igboland. Theirs was a double-handed responsibility to serve god and man, both of them impulsive, temperamental and often ungrateful. The early missionaries who wrote about the dibia, as they called all priests, were dimly conscious of this situation. Crowther believed that the dibia were very highly respected. It was through them, he wrote, that the gods Speak and their word had to be accepted and could not be denied, They were, "in fact, the chief .ruling power among many superstitious tribes." This combination of spiritual and temporal power was neither as absolute nor as secure as many thought. The tragedy of a man like Ezeulu in Achebe's Arrow of God is to be found in his crisis of realization that his people and his god could both abandon him. At the end of the novel, the demented Ezeulu had to learn the bitter lesson which the people called the "wisdom of their ancestors", "that no man however great was greater than his people; that no man ever won judgment against his clan." In fact, as Ezeulu's own people saw things, "their god had taken sides with them against his headstrong and ambitious priest."
I will return briefly to these two adjectives "headstrong" and ambitious" in another minute. For now, let me draw attention to the immense responsibility and utter helplessness of Ezeulu's position. It was his responsibility and privilege as the Chief Priest of Ulu to announce the date of the New Yam Festival. He knew the immensity of the power which this involved; but he often wondered "if it was real."
It was true he named the day for the feast of the Pumpkin Leaves and for the New Yam feast; but he did not choose the day. He was merely the watchman. His power was no more than the power of a child over a goat that was said to be his.
Nothing reveals the predicament of power in Igbo society than this priest's own internal conflicts. Whereas no man in all Umuaro could stand up to say Ezeulu dared not refuse to name the day of the festival, he himself knew he could not actually refuse. Man, god and priest-king were thus locked in a firmly wrought chamber of self-correcting contradictious. Two of the elders, in discussing Ezeulu's refusal to announce the New Yam Feast, saw the potential for mutual destruction.
'Let me tell you one thing. A priest like Ezeulu leads a god to ruin himself. It has happened before.'
“Oh perhaps a god like Ulu leads a priest to ruin himself.”
At the very end the god, the priest and the people lose out and the New Yam (Ahịajọkụ) festival is held not on Ezeulu's orders but in the yard of St. Mark's Church under the superintendence of the cathechist, Mr. John Jaja Goodcountry.
I now, as I move to a conclusion, wish to return to those two words "headstrong" and "ambitious." No two words can better define that quality in Igbo character which has been its primary source of strength and of disaster. We are a headstrong people -sensible but headstrong. When people shook hands with Ezeulu, "he tensed his arm and put all his power into the grip, being unprepared for it, they winced and recoiled with pain." In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwọ did what a headstrong Igbo man would want to do He took his machete off its sheath, chopped off the court messenger's head, and walked home, proud that he had acted like a man but disillusioned to know that his people had allowed the other messengers to escape.
Every phase of our past history has confirmed this cult of individual daring. A certain stubbornness seems to be built into our psyche; an instinctive preference to break when perhaps it is possible only to bend. There is strength, of course, in that resoluteness; and I acknowledge in all humility, a poem I wrote in honour of one of our headstrong and valiant youngmen who fought and died in the last great war.
Who? He who was,
where blades, sharp,
of grass grew two years secure
from foot of man
cropping for tubers
and hoppers that nourish.
He, now mean, was
wielding blades, sunlike,
with fierce thrusts
that made them meat
for hoppers and maggots
in fields of war.
He, he man
bold blade of palm,
thunder-maker man of mine,
whose feet stood the sacred
ground of fatherland
and flung revenge
to west and south and north
till woods, marsh and men
learnt his footfall who
awed both beast and man
He, who was Man,
now rots on fatherland
where watch! these blades,
glad, of grass
how green they shoot
God and his good men
in the mad tumult of our loss.
They, all fatherland's men,
will here crop tubers,
harvests on harvests.
And to who there asks, Who?
will all men, everlasting, say,
It is not this valour that I fear. It is the cult of individual ambition for power, that refusal to allow one's mind reflect that awkward assurance which was Ezeulu's doom. "No man in all Umuaro can stand up and say that I dare not. The woman who will bear the man who will say it has not yet been born." Unhappily, not only the Ezeulu but every Igbo man says the same thing of himself and exercises himself as if the nature of authority is not proverbially ambivalent in Igbo society. Our history strongly suggests that we need to moderate strength and power with discretion and diplomacy, not only among our leaders but also among the generality of our people. It is not weakness to recognize the value of discretion. It is foolhardiness to choose death (or something close to it) in place of life. Here, again, permit me to refer to Achebe's Arrow of God and to the advice given to Ezeulu concerning his son Obika who, everybody said, was a disgrace to his family. '... You are blessed with a great compound. But in all great compounds there must be people of all minds - some good, some bad, and some fearless ane some cowardly; those who bring wealth and those who scatter it, those who give advice and those who only speak the words of palm wine. That is why we say that whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man there is always someone to dance to it. I salute you.'
The challenge that we all face today is that of re-establishing our identity. As is perhaps evident from my rather oblique presentation of my subject, no simple prescription is being proposed, only an understanding of our predicament and a willingness to pay the real high price dictated by our circumstances. For centuries we have been slaves to our own people, unable to shake off tyranny except by radical and costly action. No subtler, more gently modes of redress seem applicable in an environment which has apparently no room for gentleness. For centuries we have been slaves to other cultures, or have been seen as being such slaves. In the various countries to which our brothers and sisters were carried, we laboured as other people's slaves. Today, we still labour as if we were slaves to a larger community of peoples. Let us learn from the lessons of this history and resolve to be ourselves again. We have begun well with the Ahịajọkụ lecture.
Now that I have spoken before this distinguished gathering of elders, protected by the goodwill of our Governor, and his army of his special assistants and commissioners, I must admit to change my mind.
Ọha na eze, me me nu.
THE AHịAJỌKỤ LECTURE MEDALLION
Part of the historical gap in our
tradition is the loss of a substantial chunk of our mythology which would have
given a universal reference to our modem concepts. This loss in mythology is
characterized by inarticulate or even complete absence of experiential forms to
our cosmic thoughts. For instance, some Igbo
people associate thunder god Amadiọha with white ram; in what form do they
see or describe
This is part of the problem of
symbolizing Ahịajọkụ. What has been expedient in the task
is to choose a symbol with an embracing reference and certainly wider universal
conceptualization in the Igbo speaking areas. Ikenga amply answers the need and hence its
figure on the Ahịajọkụ Lecture medallion. The relationship
between the two concepts is of success. Ahịajọkụ relates to success of harvest especially of yam while Ikenga in. all references, points to
determined, purposeful, honest drive towards over-all success in life. The
In the symbolization of Ikenga, three forms are predominant: they are the twin trust into space, the humanity and the fundamental base known as ebe. The base is ancestral offshoot; the humanity shown by mortal face is the transitory but necessary channel of action; and the twin up- thrusting forms show the self will, the push and the ego involvement in quest of honest success. Two palms facing the sky is an Igbo paralinguistic declaration of honesty. If the palms are indeterminate as usually they are, a useful ambiguity of palm and horns emerges. In fact, it is a deliberate dual symbolization prevalent in African motifs.
The dual or even multiple symbolization holds true of the Ahịajọkụ Lecture Series. As an intellectual harvest it is a show of drive towards full cultural excellence and utilization, it is also an agape,: Like the Ikenga motif the past runs through the present to the future- traditionally based present yielding a successful future. The Ahịajọkụ Lecture series as embodied in the Ikenga motif, of the medallion, articulates the past in terms of the present in order to plan for the future.
The medallion this year is wrought in pure ivory and ivory is for, nwa afo, nwa
amuru n'ute, nwa amuru n’obi ogaranya. Ivory is extremely significant in Igbo culture and so the first medallion deserved to be in ivory. It would be rewarding if the medallion is cherished and eventually willed to one's heir as an epistle of appreciation from the Imo State Government and all who would benefit from the lecture.
1. G.M.K. Anoka - Chairman
2. Hon. Justice M. O. Eziri
3. Professor Agu U. Ogan
4. I.D. Nwoga
5. Chris Duru
6. Rev. Canon (Dr) A.O. Iwuagwu
7. Dr. E.N. Emenyeonu
8. Dr. G.C. Ukaga
9. Uchegbulam Okorie
10. G.I. Odua - Secretaty
Professor Echeruo's starting of the Ahịajọkụ series has reassured the Imo State Government and all others concerned that the venture is well worth our while. We are grateful to Professor Echeruo and shall bring such lectures that will keep the high standard of erudition and delivery which he has set.
Mazi Dr. Ray Ofoegbu
Honourable Commissioner for
Information, Culture, Youth & Sports
CITATION ON THE AHịAJỌKỤ LECTURES
A civilization is an evolution from tributary cultures. It is marked by distinct attributes of the people in that culture and results in what is generally regarded as progress and well being which ought to be identified.
One of the primary hypotheses
underlying the Imo State Annual Lecture series is that several identifiable
Examples of this assertion abound
in history. For instance scholars and a few other people know how indebted
humanity is to the Arabs for their numerals, to the Egyptians for geometry and
irrigation, to the Greeks for athletics and politics and to the Romans for
their law, only to mention but a few from the European classical times. Even
today, each country and each culture tries consciously or unconsciously to
articulate some worthy strands of its culture. The thought and material
It is the primary duty of each people to articulate their thoughts and illustrate their material contribution to humanity. In this vein, therefore, the Imo State Government happily takes up the organization of this annual series which will make a deliberate effort to articulate and project Igbo culture.
Simply put, the objectives of the series are:
(a) to define aspects of Igbo culture and relate them to the main corpus of Nigerian cultures as well as to African and World civilization;
(b) to create a challenging situation for scholars to undertake relevant research on Igbo culture, especially the more basic and fundamental ones;
(c) to relate the research findings to Igbo world view and total human development;
(d) to establish a diachronic relationship in each discipline as regards Igbo human development.
The series of annual lectures, however, is asking for a broad view of the subject of culture a holistic approach, a statement distilled from learning and experience. It is the synthesis of researches and not analysis or prescriptions, that would bring the series nearer its set goal.
In other words, the annual lecture series is instituted as an intellectual harvest, hence its title, AHịAJỌKỤ LECTURES. This title is an Igbo conceptual reference to cultivation, fertility and harvest. Yam being the prestige and culturally important crop of the Igbo people that it is, its cultivation and harvesting are traditionally linked with Ahịajọkụ which is also variously called in Igbo land, Ufiejoku, Ifejiọkụ, Njọkụji, Ihinjọkụ, Ahịajọkụ, Ahajọkụ, Fejiọkụ, Ajọkụ, Aja Njọkụ, or Ajaamaja.
The Ahịajọkụ Lecture series is essentially an annual harvest of thought. All Igbo people and indeed al1 Nigerians and the black world at large are invited to join in the cultivation, harvest and feast. Spirited work is called for; Scholars, men and women in all fields of endeavour should come forth and show Igbo contribution to the Nigerian, nay, world civilization.
Each lecturer is to choose his or her language of delivery bearing in mind that the audience understands both Igbo and English.
Finally, the Government and people
Director of Culture
SALUTE TO A COLLEAGUE
BEING A CITATION ON
PROFESSOR MICHAEL JOSEPH CHUKWUDALU ECHERUO,
Your Honour, The Deputy- Governor, My Lord Chief Judge, Honourable Commissioners, Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.
Our Lecturer today needs no introduction either here, or indeed any- where the English Language and its Literature are studied and appreciated. If anybody needed introducing, it is perhaps the present speaker. However, the form after which the Ahịajọkụ Lecture is modeled requires that the delivery of each lecture be preceded by the reading of a citation on the lecturer. On this occasion I suppose the idea is not so much to introduce the lecturer to his audience, but to share in the just celebration of his eminence and achievements as a scholar. And 1 am glad indeed that I was chosen to prepare and read this citation on Michael Joseph Chukwudalu Echeruo, B.A. Honours English (London) M.A., Ph.D. (Cornell), Professor of English, because I consider it a great honour to have been adjudged capable of appreciating his many contributions to his chosen field which is literature of English expression.
Michael Echeruo was born at
Umunumo in the Mbano Local Government Area,
For his education, Michael Echeruo attended some of the most deservedly famous institutions of his time: St. Charles School Ụmụnnumo, Stella Maris College, Port-Harcourt, University College, Ibadan, the University of Oxford (to participate in its Summer School), and Cornell University Ithaca, New York. In his own quiet manner Michael Echeruo has often confessed himself proud that he attended the institutions he did. What he has refused to mention, in keeping with his unboastful character, is that these institutions must now count themselves lucky that they opened their gates to a man who was subsequently to become, and that in record time, perhaps one of the few Africans so far who bear the title and dignity of Professor of English with unquestionable distinction.
Nor did these institutions need to
wait till the 1970s to realise, each of them, that in Michael Echeruo it was
producing a distinguished alumnus. At the
Michael Echeruo taught English at
the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu, at the University
of Nsukka, and now teaches English at the University of Ibadan where again he
made history, in being the first African Professor to preside over the affairs
of the premier Department of English in the Nigerian Universities' system. He
is a member of the Nigerian English Studies Association, the Modern Language
Association of America, the Shakespeare Association of America, the
International Comparative Literature Association and the Founding President,
Nigerian Association for African and Comparative Literature. He is on the
editorial boards of Conradiana as National Editor for
And the important point is that this international standing derives not just from his ability as a teacher or just from his achievements as an academic statesman concerned with running departments, founding associations of learned men and supporting those founded by others through active and devoted membership. It derives first and foremost from his productivity as
a scholar. And this productivity has been marked by happy versatility, rich variety, unfailing originality and incisiveness, as by limpidity of style and cold un-wavering logic. Michael Echeruo is the one practitioner of his craft on the African continent that I know of today who is at home in creative writing and literary criticism, in African Literature, American Literature and English Literature. He is the only one on the continent I know of who has made significant contributions to the study of some of the seminal minds in English and African Literature.
Thus he has contributed to the study of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and to our understanding of Achebe, Okigbo and Ekwensi. One of his latest books, Victorian Lagos (Macmillan 1977), is a work which touches on intellectual history, on colonial sociology and on literature - a work which, more than any other, guarantees him immortality in that field of academic endeavour concerned with the study of the evolution of modern Nigerian culture.
The population of professors in
the Nigerian Universities' system has recently experienced an explosion. On the
time honoured principle of 'the more the merrier' this surely is a merry thing.
Unfortunately academics is not a merry pursuit. What is worse the average
Nigerian is not trained to distinguish between professors and professors. For
him a professor is either old or young with the young variety being regarded as
a kind of freak. However, more subtle minds have made other classifications.
The philosopher Bertrand Russel, for instance, would divide professors into
three classes viz: those who are "figures of fun", those who are "technically
competent but uninteresting" and then those, usually a minority group,
whom inquiring minds admire "whole-heartedly and enthusiastically".
Of Bertrand Russel's third group,
we have very few indeed. And it is a matter of joy for us that in the front
rank of that small group of dedicated intellectual pioneers we have our own 50n
and friend, Professor Michael Echeruo. Indeed one can hardly thank the
organisers of this lecture sufficiently for their wise decision in picking on
Professor Echeruo to launch the series. By so doing they have offered a double
opportunity. The first, to Professor Echeruo to perform also here in our local
Professor Michael Joseph Chukwu dalu Echeruo. You have, in your chosen field, become a source that generates knowledge and enlightenment. Long after that which, to the uncultivated mind, now passes for power and eminence (whether it be the chief's crown or the soldier's bayonet or the rich man's wealth) has disappeared into the limbo of time, your writings will continue to inform, to stimulate and to delight the cultivated in mind. It is for this that we salute you worthy son of a worthy family.
(Professor of History)