By Prisca Sam-Duru
Reading Chukwudum Okeke’s “The Embers of Tradition”, evokes pure nostalgia on every Igbo person, except of course the millennials; people who were born after the tribe lost most of its traditions to westernisation and Christianity.
The reminiscences, though fascinating, are not for the purpose of unearthing and reintegrating some of the retrogressive lost heritage into their present way of life, but, to prevent the tribe from going into oblivion.
Okeke’s debut fiction, published by Atmosphere Press, which is presented in twenty-six chapters and 299 pages, accounts for activities of the colonialists and early missionaries as well as events, cultures, and traditions that defined the Igbos.
The book therefore, transcends mere work of fiction; it is a compendium of historical facts that offer the millenials and non-natives, a peek into the true Igbo Identity.
The author, a Nigerian-American Education Consultant, helps readers to understand fundamental truths about the Igbos, especially as brave and hard working people that believe in self-reliance, to become successful. For the Igbos as portrayed in the book, it is usually a thing of pride when people struggle and become successful; the reason Igbos are scattered all over the world in search of opportunities lacking in their country.
The author presents the Igbos as people rich in manifold cultures that unite communities as one family. This is an important aspect his tale emphasises. He brings back memories of the perfect community life style enjoyed before Africans became ‘modernised’. This calls to mind, the words of late Prof. Chinua Achebe, in the classic, “Things Fall Apart”- “When we gather together under the moonlit village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so…A man who calls his kinsmen to feast does not do so to redeem them from starving. They all have food in their houses”.
Through narrative on Nweke’s friendship with Akilika, as well as Ebuka, a native of Okwe who lives in Akpu with a teacher- Mr Osondu, readers experience firsthand, love and harmonious living. These days, no parent will permit his children to accept gifts like Ebuka’s classmates do, to avoid being bewitched. Everyone is unconsciously imbibing the attitude of the West- live and die alone.
The Embers of Tradition’s plot revolves around Nweke and his family and is patterned in the similitude of “Things Fall Apart”, particularly as regards the sub-themes; religion, masculinity and cultural evolution. And by chronicling the life and acts of Nweke, a respected, ill-tempered and stubborn titled chief, the novel explores the importance of tradition in checkmating people’s conducts. Nweke, who is also a traditional worshipper and member of the masquerade cult, lives a life crammed with so much turmoil. His first casualty is Anayo, Ebuka’s brother. Anayo follows his younger brother, Ebuka back to Akpu after holiday, oblivious that it is a night of the ancestral spirits which is a period people are forbidden from staying out because the masquerades come out at night especially to mourn a great ‘Ozo’ titled man. Anayo kills a sacred python- Akpu’s god but a choice meat in Okwe, and is apprehended on his way back to his village. He unites immediately with his ancestors, as he loses his head to Nweke who is among the ancestral sprits that night; an action that hunts him throughout his life.
It’s laughable that in all of his display of extremism, Nweke is angry that his god the python allowed himself to be killed by a mere mortal. He puts up a justifiable argument that a god incapable of protecting itself, cannot protect him- its worshipper. His next move is to murder his god. That’s quite ridiculous!
Nweke’s hard working nature, manifest in his expanse yam barn, further portrays the industrious nature of an average Igbo person; excellence being the yardstick for success, recognition and nobility. He is regarded as one of the most successful and wealthy farmers in Akpu community such that one of his wives believes that if he gives his family half of the attention he extends to his yams, his family will become the envy of all.
Nweke is not the only successful man in the story! The Igbos’ ability to turn anything into lucrative business which resonates in the novel, has been of old, just as expressed in the book under review. Their innovativeness is unrivalled! And this is evident in Nwaforcha’s ingenuity in turning chicken, into a big business in Burutu where he is taken to start a new life with the missionaries. He returns with some level of modernisation and becomes the envy of all in Akpu; here is a man bound and cast out to the evil forest for admiring the Christian God.
Nweke’s plan to have his son Ekigwe initiated into the masquerade cult and perhaps, take his place as a dedicated Ikenga worshiper is destined to shatter. This is because Ekigwe lacks interest in his father’s god but hides it to avoid his wrath, hence, his constant questioning about their potency. The attitude of both father and son towards each other is a reflection of the generational gap still rocking homes in the present day.
“The Embers of Tradition” makes an interesting read with corresponding proverbs which the Igbos describe as the palm oil with which words are eaten. Characters bearing ancient Igbo names derived mostly from names of market days- Eke, Orie, Afor, Nkwo and, the gods, also gives authenticity to the plot.
The novel also documents some Igbo festivals such as Opoto- “celebrated to thank the gods of all the surrounding villages for ushering them into the New Year. There is also ‘Iri ji’ or ‘Awanji’- new yam festival, designed according to the author, to thank their ancestors for sparing their lives to see another harvest. It is also “to allow the ancestors to eat first before humans ate”.
In Igboland, important visitors are welcomed not only with kola nuts, alligator pepper and palm wine, but with chickens and goats. The author also lectures readers on Igbo people’s traditional marriage, mode of greetings, salutation to gods while breaking kola nut, and mandatory offering of kola nut to visitors before the subject of any visit is made known.
He revisits sweet memories of life back in the days when moonlight nights tales, masquerade festivals, and some other festivals were held to initiate boys and girls into relevant age grade societies.
As a twin who was almost a victim of devilish culture, Chukwudum Okeke’s debut fiction vividly confronts readers with stark realities of how, many of those ancient cultures such as killing of twins impacted peoples’ lives. Great destinies were cut short in those days. Commendable therefore is the role Odera, one of the discarded twins plays in his home town as the first parish priest and, in his people’s liberation.
The book further examines the battle between tradition and early Christianity, juxtaposing the war with the crucial role Christianity played in the emancipation of the people from cultures and traditions that undermined their development.
This is apparent in the life of Umeh, Nweke’s second son who from the outset, is as fanatical as his father when it comes to Akpu traditions. Yet, that did not bring him any form of progress; he couldn’t even pay his wife’s bride price which is a shame in Igboland.
Also, if not for the missionaries, Ekigwe wouldn’t have become the governor of his state.
And at the end, Nweke accepts the truth that ‘out of the embers of Akpu tradition, had risen a new hope for him in the persons of his sons- Odera and Ekigwe.
Salute to the author for his eyes for details though slightly missing out on deftness in description. Irrespective of how unsophisticated most of the ancient tradition of Igbos captured in “The Embers of Tradition” is, Chukwudum Okeke has succeeded in weaving a glowing and detailed narrative on the peoples of the South East of Nigeria that will outlive many generations.