Exploring Igbo Identity In The Igbo Diaspora: Notes From The 2012 Ama Ndigbo Symposium
“The Igbo Diaspora has to go back and “Igbonize” the Igbo….we can be proud of who we are.”
Dr. Iheanacho Emeruwa
Vivian Nwakah did not know she would receive the reaction she did after posing her question before a panel of Igbo academicians. She inquired if Igbo people should focus on being Nigerian rather than on emphasizing their Igbo heritage.
It did not take more than a second for her inquiry to spark a stream of sturdy replies.
“Nigeria is an experiment that has failed!” panelist Dr. Samuel Enyia remarked with a startling passion.
Enyia, a professor of communications at Lewis University, had delivered the bold declaration at the recent 3rd Annual Ama Ndigbo Intergenerational Dialogue Symposium. The 3-day Chicago conference, which began on July 26, attracted a wide spectrum of Igbos from California to Washington, D.C. and beyond, representing the five states of Igboland.
Enyia was joined by Dr. Emmanuel Alozie (professor of Media Communications); Dr. David Koren (author of Far Away In The Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift); Dr. Ada Azodo (professor of African and African Diaspora Literature), Mr. Cajetan Iheka (a doctoral student of postcolonial literature and cultures) and Dr. Austin Okigbo (professor and ethnomusicologist.)
In a collaborative effort, Umu Igbo Alliance (UIA) and 100 Igbos USA Inc., organized the Ama Ndigbo symposium, seeking stimulation and an evaluation of Igbo identity. Various panel discussions included:
- “The Role of the Visual and Performing Arts in Preserving Igbo Culture: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”
- “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Perspectives on Relationships, Sex, Love, and Marriage”
- “Preserving Culture through Literature and Storytelling”
- “O Bialu Ije New Una- Reverse Migration and Opportunities in Alaigbo and Nigeria”
- “Understanding Traditional Igbo Religion and Christianity”
- “One People, One Voice- Living Out Our Convenant With The Future”
With the unfettered dialogue stirred from the opening panel appropriately entitled, “Restoring Our Legacy- Exploring Igbo Identity Pre and Post Nigerian-Biafra War” a ripe exchange of ideas was well underway.
A Generational Divide
Nwakah, a 29-year-old writer and traveler, represented the views of her peers-- views that maintain that it is in the best interest of Ndi Igbo to work towards Nigeria’s unity, and any attempt to place Igbo before Nigeria would not only be impractical, but ethnocentric and un-democratic.
“I am Igbo first, but I don’t think that’s a good political stance to take,” she said.
“There’s a lot of us versus them mentality,” she said. “When I was growing up it was always Yoruba versus Igbo and that was confusing for me.”
Another attendant, 19-year-old DePaul University economics student, Emeka “Gozie” Anyadiegwu, holds an even wider view.
“I think we should focus on being African first, then Nigerian, then Igbo,” said the self-styled pan-Africanist. “Nigeria is a failed state and tribalism plays a big role.”
Throughout the conference, a clear generational gap had emerged in the attempt to answer the prevailing question: How should the Igbo people identify themselves?
The matured attendants of the older generation agreed that Ndi Igbo should retrace their roots and revive their cultural identity.
Azodo, who referred to herself as Igbo before Nigerian, said, ““You have to keep your family in good stead before you can go public,” Azodo continued. “If your house is not in order, you cannot be a good member of the community. So you take Nigeria to be your community and the Igbo nation to be your family.”
According to Enyia, the Igbo people have pursued oneness in Nigeria, but such a pursuit has not only been “counter-productive, but also a “distraction”…a costly distraction to say the least.
The argument follows that since the 1914 amalgamation, the Hausa and Yoruba have continued with the preservation of their ethnic culture and needs, while the Igbo people settled throughout Nigeria. Not only did the Igbo champion the fight for independence-- with frontrunners such as Nnamdi Azikiwe—but they were also the engine that ran the civil service, military leadership and educational institutions. With Zik’s concept of one Nigeria in mind, they were guided by their entrepreneurial ambitions and a character trait described by Azodo as “expansive.”
During the panel discuss, Dr. Austin Okigbo asked, “So, where does that leave Igboland?”
The Price of Unity
“Many of you wonder why your parents don’t talk. An extreme evil was done to us.”
Dr. Ejikeme Obasi, 100 Igbos USA, Inc.
More than one million Igbos, reportedly, died during the Biafra War. Some estimates report upwards of three million.
David Koren, an American volunteer, had learned to relish the Igbo culture while serving in the Peace Corps in Nigeria in 1964 -1966. In 1968, he returned to southeastern Nigeria, which was Biafra by then, and he saw the multitudes of starving children.
“I held their frail lifeless bodies in my hands,” Koren said during his opening address at the Ama Ndigbo conference.
Koren had joined the largest international airlift ever attempted. The World Council of Churches and Caritas International had mounted a relief effort to deliver thousands of tons of food and medicine to Biafra. The volunteers flew old aircrafts at night to avoid detection.
For Koren, a witness to unfathomable destruction and despair, his life had changed forever.
Speaking to an attentive audience that had fallen silent at Koren’s depiction of utter suffering, Koren said, “the world lost something when they lost the spirit that was in Biafra.”
Perhaps the Igbo people have never been the same since the Biafra War. Some say the Igbo people lost their unity and phrases like “Igbo Kwenu” have become mere euphemisms with no real meaning behind them.
This, according to multiple Igbo cultural scholars and historians, has been the price of the Igbo people’s desire to make Nigeria a great nation.
Other perceived consequences of the Igbo expansion throughout Nigeria have manifested, such as the continued killings of Igbo people in the Middle Belt and Northern Nigeria; the endangerment of the Igbo language (UNESCO reports that the Igbo language may become extinct in the next 50 years); and the lack of sustained economic development in Igboland
“There is nothing happening in the Igboland area. Economically, it is almost paralyzed and cannot attract people from the North and the West,” Enyia, a former Biafran battalion commander said. He cited that there are virtually no federal government establishments in Igboland.
The Road Ahead
There is a sense that the lessons of the Biafra War have not been learned and thus history may repeat itself if the Igbo people continue bolstering business ventures outside Igboland.
The indispensable role of the Igbo Diaspora, both young and old, cannot be underestimated.
Dr. Iheanacho Emeruwa, the head of the Ama Ndigbo planning committee, may have said it best when he remarked that “the Igbo Diaspora has to go back and “Igbonize” the Igbo.”
A remarkable number of Igbo people living within Nigeria boast their inability to speak the Igbo language. “I don’t speak Igbo,” is what they say with puffing chests.
With dreams set on making it big in Jos, Lagos, London and the United States, scores of Igbo youth have relegated Onitsha, Owerri and Umuahia to the back of their minds, because to them, such places are too “local, ” too “Igbotic” and are deemed only worthy enough to build colossal homes in, to which they can retreat at Christmas.
An alarming lot of Igbo youth pay little attention to cultural traditions that existed long before the existence of Nigeria.
The sense that we were “Igbo before Nigeria and we will be Igbo after Nigeria,” may be one largely held by the older generation, but it has not translated to the youth.
This disconnect is why many in the older generation fear that if Nigeria were to split in 2015, as the American CIA has predicted, it would be the Igbo people—not the Yorubas, nor the Hausas --- who would suffer the most.
However, with forums promoting cultural awareness, such as the Ama Ndigbo symposium, the dialogue continues.
“Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am- and what I need- is something that I have to find out myself.”