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The Igbo are a group of people who live in the southeastern part of Nigeria in west Africa. This civilization is among the most numerous nationalities with an estimated population at about fourteen million people. They are one of most widely cited examples of a non-centralized society which somehow thrives without much modern technology. There are neither enough comprehensive nor reliable information regarding a number of things in this society. Thus, after reading “Efuru”by Flora Nwapa I became greatly interested in learning more about the origin of the Igbo, the cultural groups, the environment, religion, tradition, and their politics.
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Like many other cultural groups, the Igbo people have a number of compelling stories that explain their origin. However not much has been proven. It has been suggested that they were perhaps the lost tribe of Israel due to the fact that they, like the Jews, named their children after specific events or experiences, practiced circumcision, and confined their women after childbirth for purification (Okpoko). The Ruler of Nri, Eze Obidiegwu Onyesoh, started the argument that his community is the origin of the Igbo society. “The origin of Nri is Egypt about two centuries ago and the father of Nri was called Gad. Gad was the son of Jacob while Jacob was the son of Isaac and Isaac was the son of Abraham. The family tree of Nri was traced from the origin of Abraham who was the favorite child of God” (Vangaurd). He insists that his community was the first home of the Igbo before their migration to Nigeria. However, there is no general trend in history that supports this. Some people don’t believe they came from anywhere else, that they’ve always lived where they are now. Other’s still believe they came from Egypt or Israel, despite this claim being largely abandoned due to lack of supporting evidence.
The Igbo people can be found in the area between Igala, Nigel Delta cities, and the Cross River. These people are divided into 5 major cultural groups: The Riverine or Western, Cross River, Awka or Northern, Ogoja Igbo, and Owerri. They share similar socio-political, linguistic, economic, and religious activities. But, each cultural group has its own tradition, distinctive customs, and institutions that distinguish them from another. To date, there is no known or reliable historical information on whether the Igbo language of Kwa was first spoken elsewhere before they entered the region they live now. It perhaps emerged among the native speakers around 6,000 years ago as a sub group of Niger Congo language (Okpoko). This system is reliant on high and lone tones indicate differences in grammar and meaning of words. It is around the mid0fiteenth century when European contact began. At first the Igbo were confined as slaves on the Niger Coast. After the abolition of slavery in 1807, British companies along the coastal areas pursued control. Until October 1st, 1960, the Igbo were British subjects as Nigeria remained a British colony.
The Igbo have a total land area of about 15,800 square miles in southeastern Nigeria which include 4 distinct areas: Delta, riverbank, Central belt, and the Udi Highlands. In the Delta Igbo region of , the land is full of low lying creeks and swamps, making this area is very fertile. (Oguntomisin). The Central belt is quite a high plain while the Udi Highlands remain as the only coal-mining area in West Africa. The vegetation consists of mainly scrubs and jungle grass. The soil is mostly reddish and sandy, which is not good for crops to grow. The land is of poor quality for agricultural purposes, much labor is required in which there is no great return. On the Western side of the region, Asaba, the land for farming is much more fertile. Great quantities of products such as vegestables, cocoyams,, and yams are raised and the fields are very rewarding. Palm trees dominate this area. People often use these trees in their products and preparation of food, buildings, and timbers. The dry season begins in early October to around March. In between this period of time, slight rain falls. There is also excessive dryness caused by particles of dust that obscure the sun. Between April and September heavy downpours dominate the season (Oguntomisin).
Religion among the Igbo people is a mixture of human and spiritual being (Boukari). They consist of diviners, ritual elders who conduct worship and sacrifices to the gods, and priests. Sacrifice in Igbo religion is performed in town to petition the ancestors, ward off evil spirits, and as an expression of thanks. The Igbo believe in a supreme god, Chukwu Abiama, whom keeps watch from a distance as he hardly interferes in the affairs of humans. He is called the creator of everything, or just the great/high god. No sacrifices are made directly to him, yet he is seen as the ultimate receiver of sacrifices made to the minor gods. The minor gods include Ala, the earth goddess, Anyanwu, the god of the sun, and Igwe, the god of the sky. They may be kind and hospital, and at other times they may be unmerciful and treacherous; they are generally subject to human weaknesses and passions. The people also believe in supernatural deities or spirits. The spirits are varied from one Igbo group to another. They are located in rivers, trees, mountains, and hills. They are regarded as guardians, which may be benevolent, fearful, or mischievous. Christianity is also a major religion among the Igbo people (Oguntomisin). This religion was introduced though the Angelican, Roman catholic, and Methodist missionaries. They are widely responsible for the establishment of education that became accepted by the people.
There are many different traditions and/or rites of passages that man would consider wrong in modern day societies. For example: Circumcision. For a boy, circumcision takes place in the early days surrounding their birth. During this time the umbilical cord is buried under the tree of the mothers choosing. “Female circumcision, also referred to as excision, is a tradition that is found in different cultures in Africa, Asia, and even some parts of South America. Just as young boys went through wrestling and other physical and mental initiation rites to become men, the girls, apart from the house-hold duties, had to be circumcised” (Boukari, p.25). This operation occurs before the girl is pregnant or married. It is often described as a very painful experience that helps the girl overcome childbirth pains. This is the center of much outrage. Many argue that it is a human rights violation as it deprives the woman of something precious, mutilates her genitals, and it prevents the woman from enjoying sex. The women who are uncircumcised however, encounter worse fates, “…Uncircumcised girls were the objects of cutting attacks. Everything dirty and impure was heaped on them. They were the impure things of the tribe and they would bring the wrath of the ancestral spirits on the ridges…” (Boukari, p .33). When practiced in sanitary conditions, it is linked to spiritual healing and provides a sense of harmony within the tribe. Considering the cultural impact on the people and the power it grants the younger generations, this rite of passage has been accepted without much resistance.
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Polygamy is another example of tradition. Under the practice of polygamy, many men have more than one wife. Men in this society will marry as many wives as he can support. However, the process of marrying an Igbo woman is long and elaborate. It quite often takes several years to achieve. The process takes place in four stages: first asking for the woman’s consent, negotiating through another person, testing the female, and then finally providing a dowry. The groom will first visit the potential wife’s family accompanied by his father. The father will explain the purpose of the visit while the bride’s father welcomes the guest. The father will ask if the bride knows the groom, if she confirms, she agrees with the proposal. The groom and his father will return to the bride’s settlement on another day. They will bring wine and kola nuts, which are then given to the bride’s father. The fathers will then negotiate the price to be paid for the bride. Once marriage is achieved, the Igbo families are made up of the husband, the wives, and all their children. These families may consist of 30 or more members. (Okpoko). Ideally, all members of the family, and even the extended family live together in one big compound.
The political structure of the Igbo is based on religious associations and marriage affiliations which bind the people to the community. These have special significance in the maintenance and promotion of order within the settlements. The people are often divided according to their clans. There are two main institutions, the Ama-ala and the citizens themselves (Oguntomisin). Since everyone has the right to rise within the society, competition is encouraged between the families. The two institutions come together to discuss issues that affect the settlement. Everyone in these hearing experience fairness and social justice. Rituals may be conducted to unite a group of Igbo people within and outside their settlement. A highly ritualized priest kingship is used as an instrument of social control.
The Igbo society is truly a fascinating one. What we may consider a social ”issue” could also be said about modern day issues. We see their views of circumcision as a form of bodily mutilation, when in a modern society those who do not like their natural faces willingly suffer through plastic surgery to change that. Just because it is different from what we know does not mean it is as bad as we may make it out to be., “ …We need to be willing to transcend all our differences without ignoring them, to build new communities that bring us nearer to our Utopian ideas, to continue to redefine our ideas about womanhood and feminist politics, and to embrace concepts of justice and equality, while at the same time recognizing the complexities of our diverse identities”(Boukari, p.47). After researching the origin of the Igbo, the cultural groups, the environment, religion, tradition, and their politics, I yearn to learn more! We may have quite different views on things, but most things are not extreme. I Specifically, I wish to learn more about their origins. Not much is actually known, and each group of Igbo culture has their own origin story. This is perhaps the most interesting society I have yet to discover.
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