NDI IGBO: WHO ARE THEY?
By Chinwendu - Carlos - March 28, www.aekwe.com
The question of who are the Igbos is simply put, a question of not just ethnological identity, but of linguistic classification. To produce an adequate answer to such huge question requires from us, the knowledge that ethnological classification is the job of ethnographers the same way the classification of organisms is the job of biologists. Everything in the universe have been classified mostly by their physical characteristics. We identify living and nonliving things according to their characteristics. Biologically speaking, anything that displays Movement, Respiration, Nutrition, Irritability, Growth Excretion, Reproduction and Death is categorized as LIVING THINGS. Because the opposite of living things is naturally non-living things, one would naturally agree that things that did not possess the listed attributes are not living. Therefore, there is a standard for knowing what a living thing is and what is not.
And so it goes even among the living things and nonliving things. For instance, living things later fall under two categories, or rather kingdoms: the plant and animal kingdoms. Within the two kingdoms too, one finds other categories characterized by their physical appearances too. Here, we already know humanity falls under the animal kingdom and no matter how one wants to be elevated above other animals, humans will always wound up as animals. We may call ourselves higher animals, but that tag will take us long journey to arrive at. We are destined to start from living things, animal kingdom, from vertebrates, warm-blooded, mammals, down to primates. One reality being that we cannot skip any of the tags. We are all that we are…
And so it is in studying and grouping people in the human societies. Ethnology is the study of ethnic groups: the scientific comparison of different cultures. Ethnologists are the authority on ethnic groups the same way biologists are the authority on living things and physicists are the authority on optics. In their study of ethnic groups, ethnologists make use of what is known as ethnomethodology: studying how people interact in ways that maintain the social structure of the situations in which they find themselves. The characterization of an ethnic group is known as ethnography. It is under ethnography that ethnographers characterize an ethnic group. Meanwhile, all these have to initiate with the word ‘ethnic’ which is, relating to a group of people in society with distinct cultural and linguistic traits. Further step brings us to ethnolinguistic, because culture and language palpably work together.
One mistake people often make while debating the Igbo question is to think of Igbo as a tribe. The Igbo are not a tribe, but technically an ethnic nation of many tribes. It is important at this juncture for us to grasp the mean
ing of the word nation. A nation is people of same ethnicity: a community of people who share a common ethnic origin, culture, historical tradition and frequently, language. Here, it seems language is the key identifier of an ethnic group. So we can now agree that the primary identifier of the Igbo people are language and culture. What then is Igbo language and what culture is within the bracket of Igbo cultures?
Indeed, it would have been beautiful to begin by defining the word Igbo. But sadly, the word Igbo seem to have no singular and authentic meaning; all the definitions of the word we currently have are mere assumptions. It had even been argued that the word Igbo is not an Igbo word. Some historians believed it was a ‘kwa’ word and was at a point, used by both the Igbo, Yoruba, Igala, Edo and many ‘kwa’ language speakers. However, the term Igbo as used by ethnologists, simply means ‘language group’, not necessarily a language. This essay is going to discuss what ethnographers to as Igbo. Hence we shall not be discussing just what Igbo as a word means in the Igbo languages because it certainly would mean a lot. Prof. Onwuejiogwu earlier suggested the word Igbo to mean ‘people’ in many Igbo language and most of the towns with Igbo prefixes and suffixes seem to vindicate his supposition. For instance, the name Igbo-Ukwu can easily and sensibly be assumed to mean ‘Great-People’. Igbo-Uzor can as well be assumed as ‘People along the way’. Igbo Nkwor fits into ‘Nkwor people’. Arguably, RumuIgbo is meaningful as ‘Igbo Children’. Progressively, one can make sense out of Ama-Igbo – ‘People’s square’ and Akwukwo Igbo can be regarded as ‘People’s leaf of herb’ or ‘Igbo herbs’ Names like Onwuzuru Igbo and Obi Igbo can as well be regarded as both ‘Death is available to every people’ and ‘the heart of people’. In the future, we are going to discuss the meaning of the word Igbo right here.
Igbo or Ibo was described by linguists as a language spoken in southern parts of Nigeria and in some areas of Niger, belonging to the ‘kwa’ group of the Niger-Congo languages. In ethnology, Igbo people are classified as firstly, a people whose mother tongue falls within the bracket of languages linguistically classified as Igbo. Igbo is a language under the ‘kwa’ group. Kwa is a group of languages in the Niger Congo family that are spoken in West Africa and includes Yoruba, Igbo, Ibibio, Edo, Idoma, Igala etc. a language is categorized as Igbo if it had the basic characteristics the Igbo language is known for the same way an animal is characterized as a mammal if the animal in question had the mammalian characteristics. This is why the sea whale in the distant ocean is a warm blooded animal and a mammal. The tribes whose native tongues falls within what ethnographers later termed Igbo are many.
Here is the list of the tribes.
Aro, Edda, Ekpeye, Etche, Ezaa, Ika, Ikwerre, Ikwo, Ishielu, Isu, Izzi, Mbaise, Mgbo, Ngwa. Nkalu, Nri/Anaedo, Ogba, Ohafia, Ohuhu, Omuma, Onitsha, Oratta, Ukwuani, Waawa, Owerre, NsukkaEnuani, Mbano.
It should be noted that that prior to the general tag of Igbo, almost all these tribes now ethnologically classified as Igbo did not view themselves as Igbo, mostly at home. But in the diaspora, they ‘accept’ being tagged Igbo. The acceptance of the tag being because to them, people of the next tribe are always Igbo and since they came from the other tribe, they find it normal to be called Igbo by those who see them as members of the neighboring tribe or clan. On this, Prof Onwuejiogwu says: “Igbo is used to refer to other Igbo-speaking groups other than one’s own. Thus the West Niger Igbo refer to all East Niger Igbo as IGBO. The Onitsha refer to all living east of them as Igbo, the Nri refer to the rest Igbo-speaking people, east and west of the Niger as Igbos. The Aro too, refer to the Nri and Onitsha as Igbo”. In his anthropological report on the Igbo speaking people, James Africanus Beale Horton in West African countries and natives published in 1865 wrote: “Although there are considerable dialect differences among the igbos in the different parts of this extensive country such as those between Elugwu on the north and Ebani or Bonny on the South, yet still in their country in Egboeland, ‘each person hails as a sailor would say, from a particular district where he was born; but when in a foreign country, or when away from their home, all are Egboes.” In his memoirs, interesting narrative, Gustavus Vassa brought our attention to the way people were called igbo in the days before he was enslaved. On this he said: “We have also markets, at which I have been frequently with my mother. These are sometimes visited by stout mahogany-coloured men from the south west of us: we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men living at a distance. They generally bring us fire-arms, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish. The last we esteemed a great rarity, as our waters were only brooks and springs. These articles they barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and our salt of wood ashes. They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous.” Gustavus may be speaking about the Aro traders but with confused geographic location. The point being that in the days of Gustavus Vassa in Igboland, the word ‘Igbo’ among the Igbo was strictly used on other people that do not belong to one’s clan.
Some writers suggested that the general tag of ‘Igbo’ was first used on these ‘Igbo-speaking’ tribes in the late sixteenth century, although this is mostly speculative, but what we know for sure was that the Igbo tag on every Igbo speaking tribe is not above six hundred years. It is important we know the same situation is common among the Yoruba and Ijaw peoples of same Southern Nigeria. The first known ethnologist to record an ethnic group known as Ibo in the collection of his ethno linguistic book was Alonso Sandaval, a missionary. The similarities between the tribes gave them the tag. And this brings us to the characteristics of being an Igbo.
CHARACTERISTICS OF AN IGBO
Indeed, what later became the features of any tribe that qualifies the tribe to be ethnologically Igbo was the uniforme
d cultural practices and linguistic similarities. In his book, The Slave Trade and Culture in The Bight of Biafra, G. Ugo Nwokeji stated that ‘The Igbo group as we have come to know it in the twenty-first century did not exist in the era of trans-Atlantic slave trade is not in question; what is subject to debate is whether there were any people who identified themselves as Igbo and, if so, when they began to do so.’ And on this, one will likely come to discover that they probably started seeing themselves as Igbo after they discovered that both the Europeans and other Southern Nigerian captives on hearing their language pattern, term them Igbo. This may seem a reasonable explanation. Another way to look at is the Negro scenario. Before the invasion of Africa by European explorers, we can generally agree that no black African considers his or herself a ‘negro’ but started accepting the negro tag after experiencing it as the European word for black people. The Igbos are characterized by some cultures that is common among them.
Contrary to what we used to think, there are no such thing known as Igbo culture. The real term was and still is, Igbo cultures. These Igbo cultures are the combination of cultures mostly found among Igbo tribes. In other words, the method used by anthropologists, linguists and ethnographers in characterizing Igbo languages and cultures is more like the mathematical style of collecting like terms. By collecting like languages that shared over sixty percent of words and are mutually comprehensible among their speakers, the mentioned tribes were thus categorized as Igbo. The same method was used in categorizing the Igbo cultures. There are cultural elements that in addition to language similarities, qualifies a people to be ethnographically categorized as Igbo. First are two deities: ala/ani/ali/eli. The name of this very God alone is yet another pointer to the Linguistic similarities. The deity is called ala insome places, ani, ali and eli in others and they mean same thing – earth deity. G. Ugo Nwokeji included Chi personal god, and reverence for two crops/foods, yam ( ji ) and kolanut ( ọjị ) as primary components of the Igbos. Ever Igbo group equally had certain cultures and traditions that is unique to them and may not be found among other Igbo groups. This do not indicate that the people are no longer Igbo. If anyone intends to use a unique culture among a particular Igbo group to de-Igbonize them, then we may wound up not having any group to call Igbo since every Igbo group had one or two ‘tribal cultures’. On the other hand, Igbo groups on the borderlines often borrow some cultures from a neighboring non Igbo tribe. The borrowing is not only in cultures, but in languages. Tellingly, the Ukwuani will surely borrow certain words and cultures from the eighboring Urhobo/Isoko. The Ika is expected to borrow words and cultures from the Edo neighbors, the Aro are expected to borrow words and cultures from the Ibibio, the Ikwerre are expected to borrow words and cultures from the Okirika and the Ogoni, the Ogba are expected to borrow words from the Ijaw and the Isoko, the Nri and Nsukka are expected to borrow words and cultures from the Igala and the Waawa are expected to borrow words from the Idoma and Igala also. Cultural borrowing however, is a two way business. The neighboring tribes will in turn, borrow Igboid words and cultures from them.
The availability of tribal words known as dialects is the reason we have names that are peculiar to certain tribe, and every Igbo tribe have names that cannot be found outside their group. For instance, Ishioma might be same as Isioma but of different dialects. Chidi, Chizi and Chudi are Igbo names belonging to different Igbo groups. Kalu and Kanu, are strictly Aro and, Ovunda, Ovinna, Ikwutosim and Ekwutosim, Ezenwa, Ezewa and Ezenwo, Merenini, Merukini and Ginikammere. These are names found among different people. Most tribal names are going out as people continue to subscribe to those of their neighbors, Iheoma is gradually giving way for Ifeoma and Iheanyi is losing it to Ifeanyi. The current official language now known as Igbo that is spoken by every Igbo group locally known as union Igbo was a conglomeration of words from the different Igbo tribes to form a language that will ease the communication problem the early missionaries encountered. The availability of numerous Igbo dialects troubled the early Christian evangelizers. Those coming from the Bonny area were shocked to discover a newer dialect after taking much time to learn Ikwere. They came upon Owerri. And beside Owerri is Mbaise, then Ngwa etc. Those who settled on the bank of the river Niger quickly discovered that the Onitsha dialect did not extend beyond three towns to the east and to the west.
The Union Igbo which people now called Igbo language was created to help the early missionaries and the colonial government create a central language for all the Ibo speaking people of Southern Nigeria. At the completion of the first union Igbo, it was discovered that even the Owerri people whose dialect was massively used in constructing the Union Igbo would not understand it properly because words from Onitsha, Isuama were used by Achdeacon Dennis and his team. But Dr Ida Ward had a handy explanation on why a particular dialect has to be used as a primary base for the Igbo languages. He insists that to do that, one would need to undertake a linguistic tour of Igbo land. He said:
“In other to examine a number of Ibo dialects from the point of view of sound usages and constructions in other to find out if there is a dialect which could be used as a literary medium for African writers and for school publications, which would be acceptable over a wide area of the Igbo country and which might form the basis of growing a standard Ibo.”
But no matter how the Church Mission Society tried, they wound up facing a newer challenge on the Igbo language dialects. In all, one must appreciate the efforts of men like Archdeacon Dennis. It was not an easy work recreating a new language out of groups of dialect clusters.
Dennis thought it wise to infuse the Onitsha and Owerri dialects as a standard form of the Igbo language because, his group, the Church Mission Society, on arrival at Onitsha, decided to use the Onitsha dialect in writing Igbo language only to discover that to the east, Onitsha dialect does not extend beyond five towns and to the West, it was same. But the infusion of words from the Owerri, Onitsha, Bonny Arochukwu Dialect in 1905 ensured that wider reach to the east and west was achieved to some extent. But inspite of these, many towns that are even closer to the Owerri dialects find it difficult understanding the new Union Igbo. Even in Agbor, the teachers hired from Asaba by the missionaries who themselves have learned the Union Igbo, find it difficult with the Ika speakers who like others, saw it as an imposition of a new dialect on them without knowing that it was created by the White people and for a purpose.
Of course the reason why the new Union Igbo ran into trouble was that the P.R on it was very poor. People were not notified of the new language and the reason for its formation so in some areas, the people found it as a deliberate attempt to impose a new dialect on them.
Even among the Missionaries, the Union Igbo was poorly accepted by the RCC simply out of jealousy. They must have thought it intimidating to borrow a thing from their arch rival, the protestant church and hence, they stuck to their Onitsha dialect as a medium of reaching every Igbo. On this, Prof. Adiele Afigbo says,
“Union Igbo was a creation of the Church Missionary Society. The other protestant Churches were prepared to adopt it, at least, in so far as they use the same Bible, as well as the same or more or less, similar prayer books. But the Roman Catholic Mission would not. Unfortunately for the Igbo, the bitter and senseless rivalry AMONG the churches extended to the linguistic question. As a result, the RCM at first, stuck to the Onitsha dialect with the result that school children as far as Okigwi and beyond were taught to say ‘yịọlụ ayị ayịyọ’ in place of yịọra anyị arịrịọ, only to be laughed at by their non-catholic brothers and sisters.’ After some time, however, when the RCM discovered that the importation of Onitsha dialect into the Owerri Province and beyond hindered their work, they turned around and issued primers in both Onitsha and
Other authors who noticed the complicacies relating to the too many dialects of the Igbo language like Professor Westermann argued that Igbo language is a very difficult language because you could learn the dialect of one region only to find yourself in a new region where you realize that you have to start same thing all over again. He said:
“Ibo is one of the most difficult West African languages on account of its dialectal variations, its richness in prefixes and suffixes and its intonation.”
The use of migration stories in deciding who an Igbo is and who is not is illogical. There are certain Urhobo quarters that traces their ancestry to Ukwuani, but today, they knew too well that they are now culturally and linguistically Urhobo and not Ukwuani – because they have no characteristics of being an Ukwuani anymore. There are some Edo people of today that traces their ancestry to Ika and Enuani, but today, no one will tag them either Ika or Enuani because they have been Edonized. In Ijawland, there are people who can trace their ancestry to the Ikwere and Ogba areas, but today, these people knew they have been fully Ijawnized and do not go about denying being Ijaw. One important fact we must have in mind is that every Igbo group have their own migration or non-migration stories. The whole of the people now known as Igbo did not migrate together as a single group. And more so, most of the migration stories we are conversant with today do not represent realities, but that is an entire different topic.
To be continued…