Igbo 101: Facts Little Told


Ogaranya Uju Nkwocha Afulezi, Ph.D., Duru Akwukwo III Ndi Umuohiagu


It is amazing that the kind of education or information that were handed to us by our teachers in school or even the mass media in Nigeria regarding who we are, or are not, is often short of the living facts or reality on the ground. What we were taught, not in science or arts, but in sociology and anthropology, do not stand as facts that can be verified and certified as truth, and nothing but the truth. Methinks, we know, that the mission of education is to seek truth and propagate same undiluted, unembellished, and convincingly proven at all times. If it is a  fact, then there is no "ifs" or "buts." Nobody can truly claim to be educated who doctors the truth, or manipulates facts in order to suit his or her whims and caprices. Fact is not like history said to be largely subjective, that can be doctored or manipulated. When  you have arrived as a truly intellectually liberated person, is when you call facts and figures as you see them, no matter who it may concern. Besides, truth is very exhilarating and bubbles like champagne wine. If you try to stand it on its head, it quickly reverts to its natural form - truth. And if you try to force it into your mind, it tastes sour. Truth is easier to manage, falsehood shifts like quicksand. See?

For many of us, it took coming to America, and devoting significant time, aside from our normal engagements, to dispassionately study our own native societies and where we fit in the larger world in which we all inhabit. And, didn't we know that it took coming to America for people like Mbonu Ojike, Zik, Nkrumah and others, to educate themselves that Africa was a great continent, that Europe had no right to colonize Africa, that the black man was part of the great civilizations of the world contrary to the bleak picture painted of the place of the black person in the sun. Consider how much you knew about the slave trade when you were in Nigeria. Very little, I must say, at least for me. What did you know of Egypt, the pyramids, African civilizations, and the fact that man started his journey on earth from Africa? Who ever knew that there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt? We were taught British Empire History, European History, History of the World, and American War of Independence. We were never taught the making of our society, the ancient and modern accomplishments of our people. We were not taught our culture, our spirituality, our trade and commerce.

In this piece, I intend to focus on the Igbo as a people. The Igbo, their culture, civilization, and their contributions to world greatness, are, perhaps, among the most little understood, taught, publicized and recognized of all human knowledge. What is sometimes upsetting is the little the Igbo themselves, including their educated sons and daughters know about themselves. Or, more bafflingly, how the educated Igbo parrot, and hold fast, without taking a second look at the false information about the Igbo, which they heard or read from scantily informed or biased sources, foreigners and natives, and, of course, the ever busy Igbo detractors.

I decided to write this article after the now familiar surprise look I get from many an educated Igbo when I begin to discuss Igbo factoids and misrepresentations. What embarrasses most of them is that certain incontrovertible, and some would say, elementary facts about the Igbo, which were always self evident, now suddenly hits them like a thunderbolt and it becomes crystal clear to them that their previous beliefs which they parroted were false. Here are a few facts in question and answers:

Question: Is Southeast and Igboland the same thing?

Answer: Not at all. Southeast is only about 3/5th of Igboland. Igboland covers the whole of Southeast, parts of Rivers, Delta, Benue, and Akwa Ibom states.

Question: Why were we taught in school that Igbo people are easterners?

Answer: It is both an unfortunate parroting by teachers and careless adoption by Igbo educated class. Igbo people come from Southern Nigeria and not Eastern Nigeria. It may be correct to say that the Igbo are found predominantly in eastern Nigeria. However, by saying that the Igbo are easterners, the implication is that the Igbo in western Nigeria, numbering about 2.5 million (Agbor, Ogwashi Ukwu, Ibuzo, Okpanam, Asaba, Orimili, Ndokwa, Anioma, etc) are not Igbos. The best known Igbo anthropologist Professor Mike Onwuejeogwu is from the western part of Nigeria, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Dennis Osadebe, Okonkwo Adibe (the famous musician), Sony Odogwu, etc. are all from the western part of Nigeria. They are no less Igbo than those who live in the  eastern part of Nigeria. The correct answer to your question is "the Igbo come from Southern Nigeria."

Question: Why do some Igbo refer to themselves as "core Igbo?"

Answer: That is clearly arrant nonsense. Nobody is core and others peripheral. All Igbo are the same. It is both arrogant, thoughtless and insensitive for anybody to regard others as marginal.

Question: Is Igboland landlocked?

Answer: Not at all. Igboland stretches from Igwe Ocha (Port Harcourt) to Agbor. The Atlantic ocean washes the shores of Igboland. Africa's second largest river - River Niger, traverses Igboland with one part of Igboland in the east and another part in the west of Nigeria. Uguta Lake has the potential of accommodating large ships and could be made  a navigable port. If Igboland is landlocked, then all Nigeria is landlocked.

Question: Is there oil in Igboland?

Answer: Yes, indeed. There is a lot of oil in Imo State, Abia, Ebonyi, Rivers State and Delta States Igbo areas, and now in Anambra. Besides, Igboland has many other natural resources, including coal, limestone, etc.

Question: Are the Igbo a nation or a tribe?

Answer: The Igbo are a nation, and a very large one. There are many tribes in Igbo nation, just like you have many tribes within Israel.

Question: Why do some Ikwerre people say they are not Igbo?

Answer: First, it is not up to them to say what they are and what they are not. When God created them, He did not ask them who they wanted to be. He just created them Igbo. The only way you'll know who belongs to what ethnic group in Nigeria is the name and what language the name comes from. Anybody whose name is Amadi or Onyeri, or Eke, or Odili, Wanodi (Nwanodi) does not need to tell you who he is. He is Igbo, his politics notwithstanding.

Question: But they claim that their language is Ikwerre, not Igbo.

Answer: That is politics. Ikwerre is a dialect of Igbo language. Just like an Ngwa man speaks Ngwa Igbo, Arochukwu speaks Arochukwu Igbo, etc.

Question: Some people say that Igbo language is not complete, is it true?

Answer: No language is complete. All languages borrow from each other. Igbo language is very rich. It has inexhaustible and rich linguistic features like idioms, proverbs, aphorisms, sayings, anecdotes, riddles, folklores, etc. Igbo language is one of the major languages of the world, being spoken by millions of people.

Question: How many are the Igbo?

Answer: The Igbo are very numerous. There is educated guess that if Nigeria's census is properly enumerated, the Igbo could easily be the largest ethnic group in the country. They may number up to 40 million. Everything right now, is speculation. Nobody knows the true stratification or ethnic populations in Nigeria. The Igbo are the only ethnic group found in large numbers everywhere in Nigeria, and foreign countries more than any other ethnic group in Africa.

Question: Do the Igbo have a culture of their own?

Answer: Yes, indeed. Igbo culture is perhaps, one of the richest and all-encompassing cultures in this world.  Igbo culture always observes the temporal and the spiritual aspects of cosmology. The study of Igbo culture reveals that it is extremely deep and original.

Question: Why do the Igbo wear Yoruba Agbada and Hausa babban riga but the Yoruba and the Hausa do not ever wear Igbo national dress?

Answer: Unfortunately this is the case. The Igbo have very attractive and resplendent national dresses. And they come in assortments that are extremely dignifying. The Igbo take up foreign cultures more readily than other Nigerians, and they seem not to care that nobody reciprocates their carefree attitude to life. Most ethnics promote their cultures and show off what makes them unique. Actually, it is still the same so-called educated Igbo class who behave in such disgraceful and the devil-may-care attitude.

Question: Why do the Igbo call themselves Biafrans?

Answer: Great question. Some people have the idea that Biafra originates from the Bight of Biafra. But that is wrong. There was the Kingdom of Biafra that ruled most of the ancient world about 50,000 years ago. Unfortunately, nobody talks about it, for whatever reason, I do not know. But, it is in the ancient maps of the world. If you wish I'll make a copy and send to you.

Question: Were the Igbo also taken into slavery during the slave trade?

Answer: Yes. The Igbo slaves themselves gave account of their travails in slavery. Olauda Ekwuano an Igbo ex-slave who bought his freedom in Britain was the first slave to write about his experience in slavery. His book has become a classic. You ought to find it and read it. Also, other Igbos who were brought to America revolted and some walked back on water and were said to have returned to Africa. Several books have been written about them. One of such books is "Ibo Landing." It is available in bookstores like Barnes & Noble. In Haiti, the Igbo settled there and refused to be colonized by anybody. There are many places where the Igbo left their mark or their signature.

Question: How did the Igbo know days and years?

Answer: The Igbo invented an accurate, if not the most accurate calendar called "Iguafo Igbo (Igbo Calendar)." In Igbo calendar, there are four market days - Eke, Afor, Nkwo, Orie that make one week. Four days make one week, seven weeks make one month, and thirteen months make one year. There are 28 days for each month, with the last month having 29 days. Each month starts the same day as the previous. Igbo calendar forms the perfect astronomical alignment with the cosmos, and regulates the seasons, agriculture, navigation, astrology, geography, mathematics, travel, etc.

Question: Did the Igbo have their own alphabets?

Answer: Yes, indeed. It is called "Nsibidi."

Question: How about mathematics; did the Igbo know mathematics?

Answer: Yes, indeed. There are such inventions as "Okwe" and "Mkpisi" which the Igbo used to resolve figures.

Question: Did the Igbo know anything about banking?

Answer: Yes. Igbo banking was more in the nature of Savings and Loans. The authentic Igbo savings and loans invention called "Isusu' in which contributions are pooled each week and one person, who has the need, collects, is still in practice. Igbo slaves took this invention to the Caribbean Islands where they still practise it and call it "Sue Sue."

Question: Some people say that Igboland is too small for the Igbo, that they have no alternative than to live as Nigerians: is this true?

Answer: False. Igboland is a large country. Do every Igbo need to stay and work in Igboland? No. Everywhere in the world, some will stay home while others venture abroad in search of opportunities. Igboland is large enough for the Igbo. And it is a very rich and hospitable part of the world. It has rich soil for agriculture, abundant rainfall, good sunshine, and table land in many parts. Its land space and population are more than that of over half of the present countries in the world.

Question: Where did the Igbo come from?

Answer: That question is still being asked. There are very intriguing theories or histories now being studied. You may have heard of the Jewish angle, the Egypt angle, and the Origin of man angle. This twenty-first century, hopefully, will resolve the mystery.

Question: Why do people say that the Igbo are not united?

Answer: Those who say so, do so out of ignorance. The Igbo are famous for their unity. In the colonial period and the First Republic of Nigeria, the Igbo were always envied for their unity. Under Igbo Union, they accomplished many things. They were feared by others for this. Since after the war, the Igbo are gradually recovering and getting rid of the individualism they developed brought about by their war experience which enabled them to survive as a disinherited people. Now, there are vigorous efforts to reunite them and return them to their old glory which served them well in the past.

Question: Some people say that the Igbo are susceptible to being bought by some other Nigerians, and that they "sell" the Igbo in the bargain; is this true?

Answer: The same parroting and recycling of unfounded talk. When you hear such a talk, challenge the one who is mouthing it to give you evidence, or to cite an example of such an Igbo person. He is likely to say "what of Jim Nwobodo?" Tell him that the Igbo number about 40 million, if it would be fair for the action of one person to represent the integrity of the other 3.99.9 million. The truth is that an Igbo is like any other human being, when he sees where he can take advantage of a situation, he goes for it. It has nothing to do with "selling." Were we not told that fish clusters where the river was deepest or that the dog follows he who has crumbs? Not long ago in the history of Nigeria, other Nigerians were also running after the Igbo for crumbs because the Igbo were in position to call the shots. Things will not remain as they are today. In fact, things are changing fast.

Question: Why are other Nigerians always persecuting the Igbo?

Answer: I have always tried to know myself. I am one of those who believe that the Igbo are among the most peaceful people on earth. But, because of the fact that they are very hardworking, ambitious, and not afraid to live anywhere, or take up any task, they tend to be resented by their less ambitious and successful neighbors or hosts. When you confront a non-Igbo to say what specific offense the Igbo have committed against them, oftentimes they draw blank, or engage in fabrications, which they insist must stand for a fact. The Igbo believe in live-and-let-live. It is virtually impossible for any Igbo to rise against their guests or hosts. It has never happened in Nigeria, or elsewhere. It is an abomination in Igboland for a host to cause his guest harm. Instead, a guest is considered metaphysically and physically under the protection of the host. All Igbo deities forbid doing harm to a guest. The Igbo are accused of "loving money." I suppose the charge is based on the fact that they work hard and acquire money in the bargain. One would like to believe that the outcome of hardwork is good harvest and hopefully prosperity. If anybody takes offense at the prosperity of a hardworking person, then the Igbo or for that matter any other person or persons, have no apologies to render.

Question: Do the Igbo have their own system of jurisprudence before the arrival of the white man?

Answer: Yes. The Igbo had a system of resolving conflicts. The elders were presented with cases that could not be satisfactorily settled within the family or kindred. Matters where veracity must be ascertained, the Igbo resort to spirituality. Oath-taking is a matter left to the spirits to settle. Those who swear falsely were expected to be killed by the spirits within a given period. After the period, he is acquitted and he could celebrate with public merry-making. The Igbo did not have any prisons, but they could ostracise a culprit, exile him, or send him into slavery or to serve to a deity.

Question: Why don't the Igbo teach these things you are telling me to their children?

Answer: In the pursuit of what they taught was the "new way" either from Europeans or o Christianity, the Igbo began to distance themselves from their heritage, and in the process became lost in the wilderness of a world they hardly understand. They have learned their lesson the hard way. The twenty-first century will lead them back home.