There are certain compelling traits that make some refer to the Igbo man as the black Jew. That I am sure do not include interchanging ‘R’ with ‘L’ when sounding out those letters of the English alphabet or donning a yarmulke the way of a Rabbi like some of our freedom-fighting brothers. Truth be told, I don’t even like being called anything else other than an Igbo. Jews are Jews and we are whom we are, period. Yet both groups share in unparalleled brilliance, doggedness and my new favourite word, grit. The Igbos and Jews both rose from the ashes of hate to excel way beyond the imagination of those that pillaged and left them for dead.
But then you discover some ugly contradictions. The type that leaves you with the impression that the people are heroes fatally flawed.
Early last year, a dear friend from Ikare Ekiti was my guest at a wedding reception held at Onitsha, Anambra State. It was a traditional Igbo wedding that turned out to be a showcase of the Yoruba aesthetic culture. It would be his first time being in such an event, East of the Niger and so Yomi came all the way from Lagos, mentally prepared to witness a sea of men with heads covered in red caps, festooned with feathers. But Instead, it was a groom’s train populated by young men dressed in crisp ashoke paired up with heavily embroidered, double-winged fila hats. Surprise, suprise?
Well…I tried to make excuses for the young couple by bringing up the famed Igbo openness to accept other cultures but he wouldn’t buy it. “You cannot love other cultures more than your own”, Yomi quipped. “How many Hausas or Yorubas have you seen lately wearing Isi-Agu on a regular day let alone in a sacred family occasion such as this?” he queried. “And don’t get me wrong, it has nothing to do with not liking Igbos or any other culture for that matter”.
Then he continued…
“In Yorubaland we just happen to love our culture so much. I don’t get that same vibe with the Igbos which I think is a shame. Bros, the white man spends millions to preserve his cultures and institutions and that’s why the British Monarchy is so revered. The black race should do the same”.
I thought it was in my place to be angry but instead Yomi was pretty pissed and so I yielded. Besides, before then I had no inkling he was such a strong cultural ambassador.
Needless to say my encounter with Yomi in that wedding resurrected an old set of harsh realities and left a sour taste in my mouth. I remember one certain time my kids visited home and were quite eager to show off their newly acquired Igbo speaking skills. To their consternation and utter disappointment, it turned out that their cousins, born and raised in Nigeria, could neither converse fluently in Igbo nor fully comprehend the language basics. Every now and then, you chance upon an Igbo who would rather not be called by their given native name. Why are we so self-loathing to the point of embracing everything else but our own culture and identity? My mind was seriously agitated but unfortunately, I had more questions than answers.
I remember a big part of my childhood with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Though brought up in a Christian household, we were still able to enjoy that aspect of our culture outside the sphere of traditional African religion with idol worship. One of the highlights was the mystery and thrills of watching the village masquerades perform. It was nothing fetish or occultic, just pure artistry. Our Christmas was incomplete without getting to see the Agaba Idu with huge smokes billowing atop his head, displaying raw masculinity. Following him around without getting scared was one way to show girls you had come of age. Now all those things are gone and I fear that my son will never get to enjoy that rich part of our culture. Talk about some Igbo culture? Please don’t even get me started on the evil that is the Osu caste system.
Few years ago, a young man from Abia State got engaged to his sweetheart of many years. A month to the wedding, the marriage got called off upon the bride family learning the man is an Osu. The so-called freeborn families are always up in arms against any of their members who wants to marry an outcast. The young man himself was born and raised in Lagos and such a huge cultural stigma attached to his family was unbenoknowst to his innocent soul. As at the last count, he was still going through cycles of depression and series of suicide attempts. Stories abound of young men and women of Igbo extraction who suffered heartbreaks and emotional traumas as a result of this anomaly of culture.
Efforts have been made in many fronts to address this remnant of a decadent slave culture, including through formal legislative procedures without success. In fact on 20 March 1956, the Eastern House of Assembly sitting in Enugu passed law to abrogate the osu caste system. The problem is the apparent lack of will power even among our Christian faithfuls to denounce one of the greatest sins against humanity. Most families though condemn it but are not brave enough to break the jinx for fear of generational blow-black.
I have often wondered how we interprete Christianity in Igboland or better still what we understand to be the qualities of a good Christian. The biggest paradox here is attempting to understand the rational for throwing away our beautiful culture sometimes in the name of Christianity while on the other hand still clinging on to a crude, vicious and outdated one that makes less a human being out of God’s creation. That confuses the living hell out of me.
It’s most unfortunate that for generations we have failed to stand up against this evil and by that very fact compromised on our spirituality. Fortunately today, the Igbo millennials are having none of this. They are starting to fight hard and are determined to rid themselves of those shackles of the old that continue to retard our collective progress as a people. It’s time we face the demons of our ugly past, atone for our sins and come clean. To do that while preserving our rich Igbo cultural heritage and identity is the only way to push forward.
•Dr. Agbo is the President/CEO of African Centre for Transparency and writes from the United States