By Collins Odogwu
photo credit: oraifite.com
Take trip with us down south — not quite far from the equator — to the southernmost point of West Africa. It is a location that holds a lot of promise: home to the Igbo people of Nigeria. One of the unique aspects of this ethnic group is the consistency of its language spread across the southeastern region of Nigeria.
Walking down Onitsha (traditionally pronounced Ọnịcha) in Anambra State — one of the busiest market cities in Nigeria — you get connected with the rich history of the land; a land once in its prime. Yes, it may be somewhat dilapidated, from its boisterous markets to its beat-down and overused clay roads. They are hard-used, but it is still standing. Proudly standing. This setting is still the perfect backdrop for the hustle and bustle of the market place. It is a textbook market city.
Almost like a game of “spot the difference,” you can pick out the current and distinct variations from a time not too long ago, like a then and now photograph. The land was once filled with traditional worshippers, popular with practice of polygamy, and based on a status system of wealth, and taboos.
Now it’s an almost total opposite of what it once was. Former traditional worshippers are now Christians due to the advent of Christianity. Modern day Igbo families have adopted the nuclear and extended unit as models for their families. The taboos are not what they once were, even though some still exist. But like everywhere else, the status remains the same.
The difference now is that instead of yams and cowries used as symbols of wealth, the Nigerian Naira reigns supreme as currency. Though society seems to be in vehement disregard of past practices, it is heartwarming to observe that some key principles stay the same. This is what has made it possible for traditions and modern culture to exist (relatively) seamlessly side-by-side.
One aspect of the traditional Igbo culture that it still remains is the attitude toward deities. It is not one of fear, but one of friendship and respect, regardless of change in religion. Some traditional Igbo deities of old are:
Chukwu- The god on high
Aha Njoku- The Yam Spirit
Ikoro- The drum spirit
Mbataku & Agwo- Spirit of wealth
Igwe- Sky god
Anyawu- Sun god
Ala- Goddess of earth
Respect has not only been bestowed on deities, but also on a smaller and paradoxically significant extent, to the ancestors and elders. Although this tradition isn’t perfect because of its focus on age and gender, it works.
Marriage and rite of passage are also procedures that have not changed. The process of marrying a young Igbo woman is still a long and elaborate one. It falls into four stages: asking for the young woman’s consent (based on her family's approval), negotiating with the family through a middleman, proving commitment from the groom and his family, and paying for the bride wealth, a kind of dowry. This process can take a long time, depending on the willingness of the bride’s family to negotiate with the groom, and the groom’s ability to fulfill the necessary traditions on time.
The Igbo culture is no stranger to hospitality, as might be the case with many cultures in Africa. On any given day, sitting as a guest in a typical Igbo household, you will find that your appetite will be filled with some kind of yam or rice based meal. The rich texture of the soups and stews complement the other foods to provide a dietary balance. Emphasis on food and hospitality, regardless of social standing is a clear indicator that, in a continent of relative poverty, there is still eagerness to share.
For a people so strong and filled with promise, to the Igbo, there is no end goal other than success. Known as the most industrious culture indigenous to the region, its illustrious sons and daughters can be seen in various parts of the world today, making strides towards redefining Nigeria. From Chinua Achebe to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Igbo people continue to make a global impact.
For the many states and cities that make up the Igboland, here’s to our spotlight culture.