The Challenge of Igbo Renascence

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The annual Odenigbo Lecture took place in Owerri on Sept. 6, 2008, a few days after the controversial convention and rancorous election of the World Igbo Congress (WIC) that was held in Tampa, Florida. Ndigbo (as people of Igbo extraction are called) had another opportunity to give serious thought to the problems of Ndigbo – especially, the dilemma of Igbo language and culture. Igbo language is classified as endangered and it occupies an unflattering place among the languages that may become extinct in the next fifty years.

The uniqueness of Odenigbo is that the lecture is written and delivered in Igbo in an age that Igbo language writing and reading is dwindling in geometric progression. Apart from illiterate members of the Igbo population, it is doubtful if there are still any Igbo persons in any part of the world that think or speak in unadulterated Igbo. At best, most think and speak in the mishmash which late highlife crooner, Oliver De Coque, described as “Engligbo” (a cross between English and Igbo).

Clearly, speaking the Igbo language has become a problem for most Igbo families. And I am not just referring to Ndigbo in Diaspora. Many middle class Igbo children in Owerri, Enugu, Aba, Umuahia, PH, Asaba or other major cities can hardly comprehend much more speak Igbo. I have even met university students in Nigeria who bear Igbo names but cannot speak Igbo. And they were not born abroad but grew up in cosmopolitan cities like Lagos or Kano!

To say that Igbo culture is moribund is to put it nicely. It is more like a relic of the past. An Igbo man who dares to wear the woolen cap, with a flannel or isi agu shirt on top of a george or Nigerian wax cloth to a ceremony would consider himself lucky to find anyone else sharing his sentiment. The last time I wore this regalia to portray my Igboness was three years ago at a function at the Hilton Hotel in Abuja. Only one other person was dressed like me! But he wore a resource control hat and when I tried to make his acquaintance, I found that he was from Bayelsa State.

Igbo culture has become so bastardized that some people wonder if Ndigbo ever had any culture in the first place. At traditional weddings, the fad these days is for the couple to cut a cake – often baked in the shape of a calabash; they wear any outfit however ludicrous – Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Bini, Itsekiri – anything but Igbo outfits; and they dance hipop, makossa, or any other music but Igbo folk music. The couple’s friends compete to display their asebi, gele, kente or other foreign cultural elements. In short, Ndigbo feel at home in other peoples’ outfits, other peoples’ languages and other peoples’ culinary specialties. But do other ethnic groups imitate Igbo traditions? Rarely!

But that is not all. Of all the ethnic groups in Nigeria, Igbo culture, or what remains of it, is peculiar. Among the Igbo, a man whose father has built a mansion, however imposing or magnificent it may be, is still expected to build his own house. What this means is that even when a young man has the good fortune of inheriting a sprawling house built by his father in the village, he must build his own. Otherwise, he will become the butt of sarcastic remarks by his compatriots. So, “achievement” for most Igbo men boils down to a competition to build big houses in the village and in the city, to drive flashy automobiles, and to acquire the highest sounding titles – however vain or empty they may be.

When other Nigerians emigrate to other cities or even other countries, they regard themselves as birds of passage who must return to their nests or like lions that must return at eventide to their lair. What about Ndigbo? Igbo men and women emigrate forever. They are content with buying, selling and menial jobs. And they take pride in developing other people’s homes. Ndigbo are the only group that builds expansive houses anywhere they reside – houses that are often abandoned in the event of a crisis. Igbo men engage in economic development of their towns of settlement while their homeland lies in ruins. And when they show interest in power, it is often for ostentation and vainglory than for altruism.

Odenigbo was initiated in 1996 to address these problems and to design an evangelization framework for reversing the trend. The initiator and host of the intellectual harvest, Most Rev. Dr. Anthony J. V. Obinna, the Archbishop of Owerri Catholic Archdiocese assailed participants with the stark realities of the Igbo condition at Obiri Odenigbo, the special pavilion constructed for the event at Assumpta Cathedral before the guest lecturer, Dr. Iheanacho Emeruwa, took the floor. The topic for the 2008 Odenigbo Lecture was Oke Chinyere Ndigbo: Kedu Ebe Anyi Nozi? (God’s Gifts to the Igbo: How Well Have We Used Them?). Over the years, Odenigbo has spawned publications in Igbo which have given fresh impetus to Igbo studies.

But can Ndigbo be pulled back from the path of cultural suicide which they have chosen to thread? Since the coming of the whiteman, Ndigbo have sought to become more English than the queen. Among the ethnic groups in Nigeria Ndigbo lost most to colonialism and the vagaries of early evangelization. Out of the ignorance of early missionaries and the overzealousness of early Igbo converts, traditional herbal remedies, artworks, and customary heritages were jettisoned. Today Chinese herbal mixtures repackaged as food supplements are overtaking the world while Igbo herbalists are still objects of derision – even when historical evidence shows that pre-colonial Ndigbo did not use western medicine to resolve healthcare problems but lived longer and healthier than the present generation.

There are many other reasons to worry about the Igbo condition. Age–old Igbo virtues and values have been desecrated. In the Nigerian economic ladder, Ndigbo have become the proverbial hewers of wood and drawers of water. Where their erstwhile competitors, the Hausa – Fulani and the Yoruba are digging in into their strongholds, Ndigbo are wallowing in discordance even in diaspora. Today, the Hausa Fulani are deftly repositioning themselves as the ultimate power incubus. The Yoruba are in control of the commanding heights of the economy – the stock market, the financial institutions, the IT industry, the professional bodies, the multi – nationals – even when Ndigbo provide the regulatory brainboxes like the Ndii Okereke – Onyiukes, the Charles Soludos, the Ernest Ndukwes and the Dora Akunyilis that secure the system.

Thirty eight years after the civil war, Ndigbo carry on as if they have learnt nothing and forgotten everything. Contemporary Igbo lifestyle can be described in two words: materialism and ostentation. Reports have it that the Centre for Igbo Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies was shut down not too long ago because of lack of students. About six months later, the Centre for Igbo Studies at Howard University in Washington DC was scrapped. In Imo State University, the Dept. of Igbo/Linguistics is virtually dead because of declining enrolment. What has been done about these distress signals? Ndigbo are in danger of loosing their essence which is what happens to any group that allows it’s language and culture to dissipate. Igbo leaders need to support programmes like Odenigbo to stem the slide.; 0805 1090 050
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