Thursday, 29 December 2011 18:04

The Origin and Meaning of the Word “Igbo”: A Response to Ozodi Osuji’s Dilemma

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This brief submission is a response intended to address Dr. Ozodi Osuji's article published in this column captioned: "What is the origin and meaning of the word Igbo"? I developed some curiosity as quickly as I finished reading the article. I kept asking myself, should an Igbo like Dr. Osuji be asking this type of question in the present Nigerian dispensation? He was right! I further reasoned and tried to ask, of what benefit will the question grant to the readers by going to dig into the ancient world to relate how the Igbo formed and expanded as a word and as a name of a people? So, I felt the urge to reply. Below is what I have come up with as a response to the dilemma I consider the author found himself and his idea of the Igbo as a word and meaning. This does not claim to be exhaustive as to what it entails to be Igbo as a historic and people-word. There is more to the word, "Igbo", than to the writing to convey it. To re-phrase the question therefore, I need to ask, what meaning can there be when the word "Igbo" is framed and referred to in the ancient and modern world, particularly in the Nigerian complex cultures and histories? And to answer this in a classic manner, I dare say, "we are not the Jews of Africa; rather we are the Igbo of Nigeria and of the world!" We the 'Igbo' as a 'word' are making the 'world' as a 'word' and a place of meaning and reality.

As such, I happen to have read Dr. Ozodi Osuji’s article captioned What is the origin and meaning of the word ‘Igbo’ in the quest for knowledge. Dr. Osuji must have been in a serious dilemma with the Igbo identity and cultural heritage, especially when it is viewed in the context of understanding who the Igbo people of Nigeria, Africa and the World are? As I read his article above, not only was I somehow disturbed by the frapping of the title but also I got into a sense of wondering about what the author is up to. One may have thought that the author is simply teasing his readers if not pretending about the presumed unknowing of the word “Igbo”. One may also think that Ozodi Osuji should have known better and even much better in the context of his writings. This author, by his essays, discusses the psychological and psychotherapeutic issues of a people, namely the Igbo. One would have quickly also concluded that he knows their history, including the meaning of the word “Igbo” and can educate none Igbo people about why and how they are so called by that word, “Igbo”. I may have over estimated how one can come short of some presumed knowledge areas. I must state that to explore and understand the word “Igbo” is not as simple as it may look on the surface.

On the one hand, I have sort of found sympathy for this prolific and sometimes a forceful, or if you like an aggressive, writer when he saw himself with the claim that he is not a scholar on Igbo matters. Quote “I am not a scholar on Igbo matters”. But here is a writer whose greater part of his published articles discussed or referred to Igbo matters with psychologically analyzed expertise.

Nevertheless, I started reading Dr. Ozodi Osuji’s article with the impression that I am going to learn something refreshing with the caption of the article. But that was not what I saw as an outcome. One wonders what the underlying intent actually was because the article digressed so much to the point of making a reader to guess on what is coming up in the next paragraph. Instead of focusing on the “what clause” and “meaning clause” in the caption, readers like myself, were taken to unrelated issues such as Ebonics and Creole or Pidgin English issues. It went further referring to Romans, Portuguese, Arab, Egypt, Europeans, and all that. At this point, I was already lost. In fact, I stopped reading only to come back to finish the article in another session of browsing. Despite this very difficulty of grappling with what the author intended to show in the first place, I realized towards the end, as a matter of style of writing, that the key issue is to ask Igbo scholars in the field of history, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, theology and literary studies to complement or debate the word “Igbo” in the modern world.

It suffices to point out that scholarly it is possible that one can rigmarole with knowledge but the main point is that after pushing and throttling with all the gear levels in the system of searching for knowledge, the article could not address the caption he set out, or made up to explore. Instead, it resorted to asking scholars who are experts on Igbo matters to do research and provide answers to his question. He even touted that he would not consider or hope that “Igbo fools” should dare him with their response. Who are the so-called ‘Igbo fools’ are unexplained or described? May be any writer not agreeing with his view point may be counted a fool or so. We would like to have some qualifications such as academics, experience, eldership and position about who should actually comment or provide the considerable and acceptable responses.

There is nothing wrong to ask to be enlightened if one does not know of something as it should be. But the trouble again is why a writer should dabble into what that writer cannot fully explore or attempt to do a fair cerebral journey and justice to the knowledge issue being hunted for or to be exposed should be an indisputable concern. It is better not to start as attempts like this one by Osuji would make the writer look as if writing is just forcefully commenting on things and leaving the work undone. By doing so, a responder might equally turn around and assign Dr. Ozodi Osuji to complete the work by himself. Given the dilemma of the author, I think it is wise to respond on the dynamic word “Igbo”. A term some close friends in moments of joking relationships sometimes blurb to mean Inspector General By Origin (IGBO). Like every other community name associated with a population group and its geographical or territorial enclave, stereotyping people by calling them names that add up to a group’s identity are common experiences in the world of human beings and human relationships.

For a start, I will offer a small discussion to the query by referring to the work of Prof. Catherine Acholonu entitled They Lived Before Adam: Prehistoric Origins of the Igbo, the Never-Been-Ruled first published in 2009 by CARC Publications Abuja and printed by Flyann Limited, Owerri, Nigeria. We understand that Dr. Ozodi Osuji hails from Owerri and he considers frequently that Owerri, its people and its areas are indeed the core of Igbo things. This book is one of such Igbo things as a word and as a people.

This ground-breaking ethnographic book by Acholonu was developed with archaeological insights of the Igbo since 1.6 million B.C. I personally chose this book to discuss the word “Igbo” as the work in itself is a compendium of religious, material culture and historical accounts, as well as, social, linguistic and cultural blends of outstanding researches, findings and critical appraisals on Igbo origin, cultural connection and affairs in the world.

While the work is archeologically and historically blended, it is also semantically tailored, exciting and sometimes surprising as it is reflectional and symbolic. In other words, the book is a comprehensive but a significant brief account of the subject, “Igbo” [given the perspective to be drawn from it to meet Dr. Osuji’s quest] – in its prehistoric enclave and expansion to the Nigerian, African, and intercultural sphere of the larger world.

According to Acholonu, the world knows who the Igbo really are, only the Igbo themselves do not. Why? It is possible to state that the Igbo do not know too much of whom and who they really are due to their high migration culture, capacity for adaptation, enduring resilience and competitiveness in any situation in the world that they may face. It can be intriguing to read from this book that the Igbo are the direct descendants of the oldest sojourners on the planet, the ‘Sons of the Earth’, the autochthons, the so-called bushmen who have been here longer than everyone else and who taught the rest of the world everything they know of and ought to know in human evolution.

Prof. Acholonu was once surprised as I am sure it will surprise you and others when she first visited the Yoruba Center in Havana, Cuba, and what she saw, heard and closely recorded as a researcher. Anyway, before this, Acholonu was informed to engage with the word “Igbo” by one African-American woman academic who tracked her down to Nigeria through her publication of The Gram Code of African Adam. The visit as she stated was to encourage her to pay attention to Igbo scholarship and therefore write the prehistoric account and offer or fill the lacuna of the word ‘Igbo’, which she did.

It was this challenging work that earned her the title of professorship in history from one American university too. Her masterpiece achieved with her research team was a devotion of 18 years of research which started in 1990. They Lived Before Adam is essentially a serious work which ranged through history, archaeology, palaeontology, genetic science, linguistics, oral traditions, philosophy, esoteric literatures, religion, and the study of ancient African rock symbolic writings. Put together, the work helped to elucidate the meaning of the word, “Igbo”.  The Igbo of Nigeria and world over can be said to be those whom one can ascribe to be or mean in a proverb such as Ndi Igbo si na elelia nwa ite, ya gbonyo oku; this literally means, when a small cooking pot is neglected or ignored, it will over boil and spill water to quench the fire). That is, why the Igbo are named, considered, debated, admired, feared and watched by their neighbours. But if the small pot is well attended to it will cook well and behave by giving less frustration in making sense of the meal and cooking and thus feed the immediate and extended.

As this proverbial analogy might be true, the un-named Acholonu’s African American visitor spurred her to consider the Igbo and not ignore it by searching for materials from her home land, even though it may sound too far-fetched to her, to support many of their flying around theses pointing to the Igbo as real, symbolic and meaningful to the world of the origin of humanity before Adam.  That the Igbo were here before the north-south Hamite migrants the Kwa, came into the land, is over-boiling to be known; and that Yoruba mythology, Benin mythology and others confirm this cannot be demeaned or ignored (p. xvi).  Now, at Yoruba Center in Havana of Cuba Prof. Acholonu had this to state:

“I saw among the Yoruba pantheon of gods at the center, the statue of a god named Obatala whose inscription/explanation read: Father of the Igbo nation, Master of all divinities, Creator of man in various forms, Gentle Lord of the Pure White”! Continuing, Acholonu said that “this was a great puzzle to her”; that the Father of the Igbo nation was revered among the Yoruba not just as a god, but that he was seen as the master and head of all known Yoruba divinities and as The Creator of Man. Acholonu confirmed in the treatise that the Yoruba Center was set up under the guidance and approval of Prof. Wande Ambimbola, the well known Yoruba authority on Ifa.”

Let it surprise us the more to know that many ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria have Igbo origins and the Kwa/ka element in such place-names, in the light of linguistic evidence, namely Kaduna, Kwara, and so on have very ancient Mega Igbo links (p. xix). Let it also surprise us that the word Adam is derived from Adamada – adara m ada, the fallen. The question of Igbo identity needs to be mentioned and let it surprise us also that all Benin Oba Kings of the ancient time originally received their mantle of office from Eze Nri, including the prehistoric titles of Idu and Oduduwa which originated from a prehistoric period dominated by the Igbo. Even so, the deluge was a circumstance of the anger of God as accounted for by Osaren Omeregie’s book, Great Benin 1 & 2 (1997) in connection with the birth of the first ancestor of Igbo nation an oral history attesting to the fact that, on the one hand, the Igbo were there before everything.

On the other hand, the Igbo roots were to be sought among the gods themselves. The authentic history of black Africa is indeed the one needed to be exposed and explained with the word “Igbo” – sons and daughters of the earth. The African origin of Greek Philosophy (1994) by Innocent Onyewenyi, as well as, Onwuejeonwu Michael’s An Igbo Civilization and Nri Hegemony (1981) are accounts that help to point out the cultural meanings of the word ‘Igbo’.  Here the word “Igbo” is bigger than a play of mere labels because it is both history and unique people making history.

Acholonu’s book, They Lived Before Adam, projects in chapter one that the story of Igbo is not just the Igbo story, it is the story of the black race all over the continent, for Ndi Igbo simply means “the Ancients, the First People, the Aboriginals (Ndi Gboo, Ndi Mbo Uwa). This work is not a matter of propaganda, but purely a research work presenting the facts of the Igbo as a word as they vigorously unfold and illuminate human history, cultural migration and knowledge system.

Igbo people consider themselves as a people who migrated from nowhere else any human memory can recall settling in Igboland. They record, recall their myths and folklores and consistently tell stories of having not come from anywhere else. Igbo ancients lived by oral history and made attempts to transmit that oracular skill to justify the legacy of Igbo autochthony. A matter Igbo historians and anthropologists such as Adiele Afigbo, Elizabeth Isichie and Onwuejeonwu Michael have adequately discussed.  Healers and medicinal practitioners embody material, oral and symbolic historical accounts of the same Igbo autochthony. They state that Igbo as a word is epum (Iroegbu, 2010). That is, a people who are germane, and indeed, connected to the land and sea of their region where their ancestral forebears set them up. Only recently expansionist theorists have been attempting to link the Igbo to Greece, Egypt, Israel, the Jews, Palestine, China, etc. using linguistic resemblances.

In addition to material and oral accounts, the word ‘Igbo’ has been subjected to social studies in connection with what Igbo neighbours and strangers call them. In this respect, the word “Igbo” changes in meaning according to who is calling or referring to the Igbo. Whereas the word “Igbo” can mean soil, land, such as in ugbo, farmland; it can subsequently also mean ebo – that is, to carry, accuse, witness, etc. The word ‘Igbo’ can be associated with land, idea, incident, experience, and side of the geographical side of Igboland – be it upland or riverside a person may dwell. Agriculture is important to the Igbo as the main stay for their adaptation and survival. The word ‘Igbo” is therefore hugely tied to food and animal matters – hunting and gathering, including rites of passage, medicine and kinship.

Igbo language which is the common language of the people connotes the term “Igbo” also. In the field of roots and herbs, “igbo” refers not to Igbo as a people but to a weed (wiwii) called marijuana. Is there any wonder why a people like the Igbo are at the same time a weed of life, energy, power, strength and excitation! Igbo people are not cold beings; they are warm, hospitable, resourceful and outgoing. Oji, kola nut, is particular to the Igbo even though other ethnic groups in West African coastline eat kola nuts. Like the ji, yam with ahiajoku, as its deity, a male crop that is surrounded with masculinity in the array of the word ‘Igbo’; Ofo and Ogu are symbols of Igbo rites of right and wrong, conscience and ethics, peace and war, danger and safety, good and evil, fortune and misfortune, illness and health.

Igbo identity is an open world of belongingness – class and status – are common but everyone can attend his or hers without limitation being placed on the way and how. Title-ship such as ozo, nze, eze, lolo, chief are instances where the word “Igbo” has no limits placed on attaining status heights. Igbi ichi – sacrificial face marks are part of the word Igbo. Do not forget, of course, the popular saying “Igbo amaeze”, “Igbo enwe eze” – Igbo as a word and as a people have no kings and do not worship kings and queens. They are acephalous, that is, stateless and know how to govern themselves by themselves only. Any imposed leadership or autocracy will be resisted by the word Igbo as a people and as an identity.

One remark on the word Igbo as Biafra and vice versa is also important. Afa,afara, bia, are some common terms that go with the word “Igbo” and linguists will better serve us the meaning of the evolution and migration of these terms. But for sure, the word bifra is instructively saying bifere, bia fere or bi gharia ofe ulo. This means relocating a residence like in Biafra when the Igbo declared secession from Nigeria. Whether anyone likes it or not, Biafra has become an Igbo word and identity. It means Igbo. To understand the word Igbo today, one must not ignore discussing Biafra not as its antonym but its exact reality in a larger world.

Upon the European expansion, Africa was encountered and colonized and the name afar, afer (far away) was subsequently given to people of Africa as a continent. Consequently, when Nigeria was fighting the Igbo people in the 1960s, the leader of the Eastern region dominated by the Igbo who were being massacred chose to identify with the name Biafra. This appellation can be interpreted differently such as people who have been blockaded or relocated to be on their own. In other words self determined to rule and govern themselves as a people on the run from Nigeria. Also it can be drawn as an idea to show the Igbo as Biafra (a far) are people that were afar in being understood, tolerated and considered as the integer, the figure and form that Nigeria should consolidate as a nation where everyone can belong and live in any part of the region and village. Faraway from the psyche of Nigerian leaders, the Igbo were treated as people to be cleansed off, or re-colonized like the Europeans did to Africa upon discovery of the continent. But unfortunately, Nigerian leaders did not realize that it was the Igbo as a word and as a people from afar that discovered and integrated Nigeria as a population region of the world before everything and everyone.

 Though the name, Biafra, is related to the river geographically speaking, but its identity and symbolism matters a lot to the people of Igbo who were being killed in large numbers – and therefore fleeing from being wiped out by the Northerners and the Federal government from 1966 – 1970 was important to them. Annually, rituals of killing the Igbo and Christians in Northern Nigeria have continued. Igbo as a word in these circumstances can be associated with the historic biblical deluge, slave trade and ethnic cleansing in Nigeria.

Let us not forget so quickly as Acholonu has put it that the ancient name of a larger part of the country now known as Nigeria was originally ‘Biafra’ (p. ix). Thus this word Bi-afra is the origin of the word Africa, which esoteric records say, is derived from the word Afra – the god-man who founded the continent. In Igbo language, she shows that the word ‘Bi-Afra’ refers to Be-Afra, which is Obi-Afra (heart or epicentre of Afra) the home place of Afra hence Nigeria being confirmed as the spiritual and cultural capital of Africa in agreement with the esoteric and material ethnographies of the NOK culture. The Igbo secession attempt in the 1960s that claimed Biafra as a name for the new country was not a mistake but a way to give inalienable resonance to its origin and belongingness. The name Biafra cannot be jettisoned by the Igbo for it stands as their identity and human rights law of survival, change and continuity.

The “Igbo” as a word and as a people as seen by others has been well accounted for by F.C. Ogbalu (1988), Adiele Afigbo (2005), Iroegbu (2010), Meek, C.K. (1937) among numerous other outstanding works. Since there are a lot of ideas and realities of the Igbo one can mention about the word “Igbo”, and we cannot say all of them here for Dr. Osuji, let me as nearly as I can portray it by following once more the account of Acholonu in chapter 27 of her book, They Lived Before Adam, which delineates or sets down an African one world language shaped by the Igbo as a word.

‘Since Out of Africa’ phenomenon of human origin, migration and spread has been theorized and validated, linguists understand that humans move out with their common communication systems and cultures. That humans evolved in African simply indicates to common sense that human language occurred first in Africa before the dispersal, diversity and confusion as it is also noted in The Hebrew Bible in Sumer during the reign of Nimrod, the African grandson of Ham. (p. 396).  Records point to Nimrod, the ancestor of black Africans to have named his city Akkad and spoke Akkadian as the language of black Africans. Acholonu shows that with the proliferation of Igbo words in the Akkadian language, the international language of the ancient world, and in Canaanite, the mother of Akkadian and Hebrew count to illustrate a familiar language of a group among the Kwa family of Niger-Congo languages of West Africa: the Proto-kwa. This first one world language group has been identified as Proto-sapiens by Merrit Ruhlen as noted by Acholonu (p. 396). Igbo as a word left traces of its language on many languages of the old world. Acholonu argues that Akkadian was the language, going by the word “Igbo”, of the Akkad, a city in Ur, the home of the Chaldeans, the ancestors of Abraham, the father of the Hebrews. And that Akkadian was the official language of a people who spoke the Igbo native language or its direct ancestor. Acholonu declares convincingly that:

“This was how Hebrew language and Igbo language came to resemble! Igbo people are not Hebrews! To say that Igbo people, “as a word and as a people”, are Hebrews is to place a grand child before its parent in pedigree. Nevertheless, Acholonu further noted that Hebrews adopted Igbo spiritual and mystical culture on the prompting of the god of Abraham, Ra/Marduk, who took the names of Iyi-Owe (Yahweh) – names originally used by Igbo god-men for the true God of light (p.399).”

The conclusion one can draw from this is that the word Igbo is an ever unfolding name that set the world of humans into the beauty of God, religion, worship, migration, enterprise, power, influence, life, death, co-existence, and symbolic nuances of being and becoming. No single individual can finish exploring the word ‘Igbo’. It is in itself history, people, language, identity, religion, business enterprise, a race. There is no wonder therefore in every village of the world, there is to be found an Igbo person as a word of language and as a word of individual in community essence.

Dr. Ozodi Osuji may have seen himself in the dilemma of not being able to contextualize the word “Igbo’, hence his query: What is the origin and meaning of the word Igbo? I have attempted, like I said I will do, to offer this insight through the work of Prof. Catherine Acholonu, who was awarded Professor of African History and Philosophy from the University of North Carolina. I first met Professor Acholonu in person in April 2011 during the Igbo Studies Association Conference at Howard University, Washington, DC. One could notice how untiring she is to explore and relate Igbo knowledge and history to the modern world. Having said all of the above, the scholar and her works with over sixteen books devoted to African issues, in particular, Igbo matters must not be in vain in addressing the esoteric and material histories and realities that matter on the all important question, which Dr. Osuji may have thoughtfully or by accident raised on Igbo identity, culture and perceptions by those who encounter the Igbo on daily and timely basis. The word “Igbo” is therefore a complex argument that will continue to keep researchers busy until the people will eventually find a territorial enclave to call their home. This is likely to happen as they wander around, giving origin to and civilizing the human world as they have been doing since their emergence. Indeed, the Igbo as a whole – male and female, young and old, at home and in the Diaspora – are currently and tirelessly involved in search for a living and security that Nigeria cannot offer them.

By and large, the word “Igbo” therefore means a people who lived before everyone and everything - providing the ancient world a point of existence, rites of passage, its origin and meaning of life, culture and continuity even in the new inter-global age. One undeniable claim is that the word "Igbo" refers to a people and meaning of a people on a mission - a mission to do good to the world it gave its origin and life of connection. Like it or not, the Igbo are a God given people and name as a word to Nigeria, Africa and the world as entire. That is why the Igbo are the only single human population group to be found in every village of the world. They are on a mission for history making, human diversity, religiosity, cerebral and material enterprise and solidarity.  Agree or disgree! And I strongly hope this entry will help Dr. Osuji and others on the question of who are the Igbo as a word and as a people? 

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Patrick Iroegbu Ph.D

Patrick Iroegbu is a Social and Cultural (Medical) Anthropologist and lectures Anthropology in Canada. He is the author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in a Changing African Society: The Igbo of Nigeria (2007). He equally co-ordinates the Kpim Book Series Project of Father-Prof. Pantaleon Foundation based at Owerri, Nigeria. Research interests include gender and development, migration, race and ethnic relation issues, as well as Igbo Medicine, Social Mental Health and Cultural Studies.