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A view from the Igbo Studies conference in Washington DC

By Obi Nwakanma
Last week, the International Igbo Studies Association held its annual conference at the Howard University Law School in Washington DC. Igbo Studies has indeed come a long way.

The quest for a comprehensive understanding and preservation of the arts, culture, scholarship and other forms of knowledge production by and around the Igbo world has engaged scholars, particularly since the early 20th century with the Igbo encounter or contact with the west.

The remarkable ways by which that contact has shaped the Igbo continues to be the basis of reflections by scholars – and increasingly by Igbo scholars who feel the powerful “urgency of now” to call attention to the intricate as well as intriguing situation of the contemporary Igbo of modern Nigeria, in its current relationship with nation and with the emergent world.

The question of a “transnational Igbo” with a growing Diaspora was at the roots of the first convention of the International Igbo Studies Conference convened by the now late Igbo historian, Dr. Don Ohadike, former Director of African Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca in 2005.

I was at that inaugural conference of Igbo studies but I’m afraid I have been absent from its proceedings until this year. The Igbo Studies Association conference has nevertheless held consistently since that first outing at Cornell now at Howard University, Washington DC since 2006 through the commitments of Dr. Udo Mbanaso and the authorities at Howard University.

The Howard University Law School has offered the grounds for this annual meeting of the Igbo Studies Association and it is imperative to underscore the importance of this historical relationship with Howard University.

It is particularly important to note that, that distinguished Igbo and African statesman, Nigeria’s first president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had attended Howard University late in the 1920s where he came under the tutelage of some of the most distinguished African-American scholars of the 20th century:

Alain Locke in Philosophy, Ralph Bunche in Political Theory and Leon Hansberry for whom he named the Institute of African Studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka when he established it. Indeed this famous scholar of the African world was the first Director of that institute at Nsukka from 1963 with Dr. Chukwuemeka Blyden, Edward Blyden’s grandson as deputy Director.

It was the beginning – and as it has now proved – a mostly unrealized dream of making the University of Nigeria the gathering ground – the new Timbuktu – for scholars from Africa and its diaspora, to form what I have described as the “third zone” of African modernist thought. Because Azikiwe was critical in the formation of Igbo modernist ideas, his education and encounters with Howard which now hosts Igbo Studies rings with symbolic significance.

But beyond the symbolism are some very basic questions of what Igbo Studies seeks to accomplish and whether, as some Igbo scholars themselves have seen it, Igbo Studies is different or should be constructed autonomously from Nigerian Studies or framed within the entire dialectic of an African Studies program.

Those who argue for an Igbo studies argue for an autonomy that makes Igbo studies assume the same philosophical and historical purpose of say Jewish Studies or Irish Studies or Slavic Studies, and so on all within the aegis of European Studies.

I think that the central issue for me is to understand the link between Igbo Studies and the preservation of Igbo ideas, but also the creation of these ideas in the context of Igbo visions of itself in a new world in rapid transition. It is also to understand that Igbo Studies cannot be conducted on the mere whim of “self preservation” but on the greater problematic of what we preserve and for whom. In other words, why Igbo

Studies? What is its greater purpose beyond the annual ritual of gathering some Igbo scholars of various fields to examine Igbo life – mostly in a very agonistic way? What shall we do- meaning, how should we instrumentalize some of these ideas that emerge from the fecund and occasionally quixotic minds of those engaged with interpreting the Igbo and their current circumstance?

It does seem to me that these questions should be at the core of the future of Igbo Studies. Many years ago, the Center for Igbo Studies was endowed and inaugurated by Dim Chukuwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu at the Abia State University, Uturu. That center has apparently gone into abeyance. Governments in Igbo land have sought no productive links or connections with this important center as a way of providing the shaping ideas that might help transform the Igbo world. Igbo Studies therefore exists in some abstract away outside of its own genetic source – in a tabula rasa. It is rather urgent to re-examine this situation.

Indeed, it is crucial to link the Hansberry Institute at Nsukka with the Center for Igbo Studies at Uturu with the proposed International Center for Igbo Studies at Howard University for which the trustees of the Igbo Studies Association are proposing an endowment.

The emergence of the International Center for Igbo Studies at Howard will be a very important development given the reality of a large and growing Igbo Diaspora in the Americas. Many discussions took place at Washington in the two days of the conference – starting with the Poetry Reading session featuring the poets Chimalum Nwankwo, Dubem Okafor and Akachi Ezeigbo who read from their new works. I was also featured to read.

There were also glaring absences like the distinguished scholar-poet MJC Echeruo who retires this year from Syracuse after 50 years of university teaching, the historian Godfrey Uzoigwe of the University of Mississippi, Ernest Emeyonu of Michigan State University, the artist and Art historian Nkiru Nzegwu of Binghampton University, New York, among many.

In sum, the Igbo Studies Association conference this year remarkably consolidates on the work of the last five years and signals something of the slow but steady discussion of the Igbo situation in the current era. That this self-reflexive and critical discussion is taking place is the crucial and most important news.

It means that a climate of opinion may soon emerge on the solutions to issues of identity, the crisis of Igbo education, the question of insecurity, and the dilemma of under-investment and slow economic growth in the East, the result of what the distinguished Sociologist, Dr. Christian Chikwendu Ukaegbu of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois describes as incipient “fatalism” in the Igbo public imagination.

Another important question was raised: when would the International Conference on Igbo Studies hold in a university in the homeland? This is a matter of critical consideration.


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