By Obi Nwakanma
Agunze Chibeze Nnaemeka Ikokwu writes with the depth and panache of a man exposed to the finest tradition of the letters. His book, Learning about Ndi Igbo is very simply titled, but the directness of this title belies its range, and only helps to amplify the rich, thoughtful and delightful depth of its offering which has many surprising layers.
Of course, it threads where angels fear: grappling with the history of the Igbo – a neck-wringing venture if ever there was one. Ikokwu prefaces his book by providing a description of the symbolism of the iconography that captures the mission of the Agunze Chib Ikokwu Foundation (ACIF) whose mission is to propagate Igbo life and teach Igbo values.
The source of Igbo values lies in Igbo cosmology which clearly impels the modus vivendi of the Igbo which this book highlights: Igbo adaptability – that very incorrigible democracy of spirit which permits the Igbo to adjust to any environment, and even borrow and incorporate admirable aspects of the cultures of communities outside their natal space, into which they move and thrive: they borrow and domesticate the food culture; the music; the art; the fashion; the laws and even the language of the societies in which they find themselves and incorporate these into their own very expansive, extremely malleable culture.
This is the key secret of the Igbo. Igbo culture is alive and vital because it feeds on new cultures to stay new and vital, “whilst retaining most of their own unique cultural attributes.” The Igbo sacred order is based on justice and fairness. It is founded on equity. It is extremely tolerant and respectful of difference, and because of their sacred relationship with the earth goddess, Ala, the Igbo would not covet land, or take by force or conquest or dare, the land of their hosts.
The Igbo, Ikokwu writes very pointedly, “believe in hardwork and industriousness and crave therefore, for daily blessings of strength, guidance and god fortune; they cherish good family and family relationships ad would sacrifice unconditionally to ensure that they raise a useful set of children or any other ward that is entrusted to them such that, they all will be the pride of society.” What Ikokwu here describes is the very basis of the Igbo communal spirit, the republican ethos, and the extensive network of family linkages that work as some kind of fractal principle in Igbo social organization.
Ikokwu in fact avers that if only the Igbo neighbors and the “culturally different societies” to which the Igbo are compelled sometimes to migrate and to live in, would only just study the Igbo a bit, they would see that the fear of the Igbo is misplaced, because the Igbo as people, have allays practiced a very ancient code of peace – Udo – on which their fundamental worldview and ancestral practices inhere.
But in these days of politicking, and this is the real value of the appearance of Ikowku’s book at this crucial moment, many partisan, politically induced ethnic bashing is promoted by bigots and political opportunists, who see the Igbo as a threat to be crushed. They retail false and unfounded stories about the Igbo and they ginger reactionary narratives that stoke revanchist fires.
Ikokwu assures the majority of reasonable folks that those who just make a little effort to understand the Igbo and their culture would find themselves cherishing these Igbo, who embody an ethos of liberty and justice and peace and toleration. To begin his excursion of this subject, Agunze Chib Ikowku assumes the guise of the interpreter.
First, the logo of ACIF: the human figure depicts man supplicating the divine creator, Chukwu Okike – God the creator. Ringed above this human figure are four red circles which represent the four market divinities of the Igbo market system – Eke, Oye, Afor, Nkwo, which incidentally also represents the normal four lobes of the Igbo kola – which the Igbo call “Oji Igbo.” This specific kolanut is what the Igbo use for the highest ritual of both communion, supplication and divination.
The ivory tusks represents title, while the red halo signifies the red cap of the “Nze na Ozo.” These logocentric representations is at the core of the meaning of the book: it aims to excavate the significant aspects of the Igbo symbolic system hidden inside its acts of language. To put it even more simply, it is to show the signifying elements of an Igbo cosmology that is now lost to a new generation who probably exist at the very surface of Igbo sacred life and philosophy.
It is appropriate that Agunze Ikokwu began from there, and clearly established the reason of his book unambiguously. It is equally apt that he began this description of the Igbo from the very archeology of the Igbo in Part 1 of the book. The chapter details very expertly, some of the key sites of Igbo antiquity, starting with the first modern digs by Thurstan Shaw at Igboukwu.
“These sites” writes Agunze Ikokwu, “tell the story of the past and present of the Igbo people as well as their relationship with the environment,” from the Ugwuele-Okigwe complex of “metal working sites,” to the Umundu iron smelting sites in Nsukka, to Igboukwu, and to the Afikpo archeological sites.
What these archeological sites prove is not only Igbo antiquity, but the ancient technological culture and organized systems of production which still underscores, and possibly stirs or feeds, even if as part of some episodic memory, contemporary Igbo culture of craftmanship, innovation, and production. The Igbo possibly entered its modern era – which Ikokwu traces from 1900-1960 (although I would suggest an earlier period) – fully formed.
The imposition of British colonial authority over Igbo land, established through the five military campaigns or expeditions did not come without fierce resistance by the Igbo. Here, I should have expected greater detail of Igbo resistance and its short and long term implications for the Igbo in the colonial and postcolonial period. Ikokwu just brushstroked this story, not with elaborate detail, but it enough to contextualize the history of the modern Igbo in an age of European expansionism.
The colonial intrusion disrupted Igbo systems of organization. The Igbo did not have centrally organized system of power. It had an egalitarian, republican federation of small containable political units built on the achievement impetus. All men were born free and equal and were subject only to their “Chi.”
Nonetheless, Ikokwu notes “although people were assumed to be born equal, in reality they died unequal through hard work or indolence.” This is a very extreme interpretation of the Igbo situation, but it gives the grounds on which Ikokwu places Igbo individualism and industry and the achievement impetus, which European theorists like Max Weber described in a specific context, as the “protestant ethic.”
But one might tend to think that Igbo social theory could be a bit more complex, given the binary between extreme individualism and the balance of powerful communalism inherent in the Umunna system, which should have been given more elaborate analysis in this book. This balance in Igbo life modulates and mediates Igbo dialectical relationships and self-assertions. Notably, Agunze Ikokwu covers a massive range of Igbo affairs.
From the political structures and divisions of Igbo land in modern Nigeria, which now politically confines the Igbo, one dares to say, falsely into five states of the South-East region of Nigeria, to a complicated relationship with the land, by a new generation of the Igbo who have created a powerful diaspora of migrants outside the traditional Igbo space or homeland, forming the true spine and fabric of the modern nation, and a growing transnational diaspora.
Ikokwu says with a sense of despair, “although the Igbo have contributed immensely to Nigeria’s political, economic and social development, much still needs to be done by the Igbo in Igbo land, especially in the provisionof infrastructure.” The Igbo should practice, and not abandon the ancient Igbo dictum of “Aku ruo ulo” based also on a very ancient code of migration and travel: “Eje-Alo.”
Clear evidence of the increasing loss of the Igbo language portends danger to the culture. Although this loss, by Ikokwu’s analysis, has not yet entered the stage of exhaustion, it has nonetheless entered the red zone. The Igbo language is “critically endangered.” This decline only mirrors the decline of a very beautiful value system, on which a very ancient culture and civilization has long thrived.
This book is not about interpretations – far indeed from the hermeneutical claims that Ikokwu makes – because it leaves much of its descriptions open-ended. But it is a powerful excursus – an exploration of Igbo in all the dimensions of its reality. There is not yet, any other more powerful, thoughtfully organized source book on the Igbo. This book, simply put, is a major achievement. Ikokwu writes like a spirit. He is well informed, broadly read, and his sources are wide ranging and intimidating. Anyone who wants to understand the Igbo must read this book.