Ndi Anambra na ndi obia, ekenekwa m unu.
I feel greatly honored to be here today. I want to thank our governor, Chief Willie Obiano, for inviting me. As we mark the first one hundred days of his term, I would like to commend him for his vision and ambition in the areas of education, health and agriculture. And particularly security.
Most of us know how, for a long time, Onitsha has been a security nightmare. If you are travelling, you do NOT want to be in Upper Iweka after 6pm because of the fear of armed robbers. But today, because of our new governor’s initiative, people in Onitsha no longer live in fear. True freedom is to be able to live without fear. A relative told me that you can drop your mobile phone on the ground in Upper Iweka and come back hours later and still see it there, which was NOT the case in the past. And which is one of the best ways to measure leadership – by the testimony of the ordinary people. My sincere hope is that, under the leadership of Governor Obiano, Anambra state will continue its journey of progress with strides that are wide and firm and sure.
I am from Abba, in Njikoka LGA. My mother is from Umunnachi in Dunukofia LGA. I grew up in Nsukka, in Enugu State, a town that remains deeply important to me, but Abba and Umunnachi were equally important to me. My childhood was filled with visits. To see my grandmother, to spend Christmas and Easter, to visit relatives. I know the stories of my great grandfather and of his father, I know where my great grandmother’s house was built, I know where our ancestral lands are.
Abum nwa afo Umunnachi, nwa afo Abba, nwa afo Anambra.
I am proud of Anambra State. And if our sisters and brothers who are not from Anambra will excuse my unreasonable chauvinism, I have always found Igbo as spoken by ndi Anambra to be the most elegant form of Igbo.
Anambra State has much to be proud of. This is a state that produced that political and cultural colossus Nnamdi Azikiwe. This is a state that produced the mathematics genius Professor James Ezeilo. This is a state that produced Dora Nkem Akunyili, a woman who saved the lives of so many Nigerians by demonstrating dedicated leadership as the director general of NAFDAC. (May her soul continue to rest in peace)
This is a state that produced Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, Professor James Adichie, a man I also happen to call daddy. This is a state that produced the first woman to be registrar of Nigeria’s premiere university, UNN, Mrs. Grace Adichie, a woman I also happen to call mummy.
This is a state that has produced great writers. If Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa and Chukwuemeka Ike had not written the books they did, when they did, and how they did, I would perhaps not have had the emotional courage to write my own books. Today I honour them and all the other writers who came before me. I stand respectfully in their shadow. I also stand with great pride in the shadow of so many other daughters and sons of Anambra State.
But the truth is that I have not always been proud of Anambra. I was ashamed when Anambra became a metaphor for poor governance, when our political culture was about malevolent shrines and kidnappings and burnt buildings, when our teachers were forced to become petty traders and our school children stayed at home, when Anambra was in such disarray that one of the world’s greatest storytellers, Chinua Achebe, raised the proverbial alarm by rejecting a national award.
But Anambra rallied. And, for me, that redemption, which is still an ongoing process, is personified in our former governor Peter Obi. I remember the first time I met him years ago, how struck I was, how impressed, that in a country noted for empty ostentation, our former governor travelled so simply and so noiselessly. And perhaps he is proof that you can in fact perform public service in Nigeria without destroying the eardrums of your fellow citizens and without scratching their cars with the whips of your escorts.
I was struck by other things – how he once arrived early to church, because according to him, he tried not to be late – in a society that excuses late coming by public officials – because he wanted young people to see that governors came to church on time. How he visited one of the schools handed over to the missions and gave the school prefect his direct phone number. How Government House here in Awka was often empty of hangers-on, because he had a reputation for what our people call ‘being stingy,’ which in other parts of the world would be called ‘prudently refusing to waste the people’s resources.’
Former governor, Peter Obi, ekenekwa m gi. May the foundation you built stand firm and may our governor Chief Willie Obiano build even more.
Anambra was and is certainly one of the better-governed states in Nigeria. We measure good governance in terms of accountability, security, health, education, jobs, businesses. All of these, of course, are important. But there are other values that are important for a successful society. Two of those in particular are relevant to ndi Anambra and ndi Igbo in general: the values of community and consensus
Most of the recorded history we have about the Igbo – and indeed about many other ethnic groups in Africa – came from foreigners, men and women who did not speak the language, missionaries and anthropologists and colonial government representatives who travelled through Igboland and recorded what they saw and who often had their own particular agendas. Which is to say that while they did useful and fascinating work, we still have to read their writing with a certain degree of scepticism.
However, all the history books written about Igbo people are consistent on certain things. They all noted that Igbo culture had at its heart two ostensibly conflicting qualities: a fierce individualism AND a deeply rooted sense of community.
They all also noted that Igbo people did not have a pan-Igbo authority, that they existed in small republican communities, to which that popular saying Igbo enwe eze – the Igbo have no kings – attests.
Many of these missionaries and anthropologists did not approve of the Igbo political system. Because THEY themselves had come from highly hierarchical societies, they conflated civilization with centralization. Some of them wrote that the Igbo people were not civilized. This was of course wrong. The fact that the Igbo did not have an imperial system of governance did not mean that they were not civilized.
One of the writers summarized the Igbo system as being based on two things: consultation and consensus.
In fact one can argue that it was a much more complex form of organization, this system that I like to call the democracy of free-born males, because it is much easier to issue an order from the top than it is to try and reach a consensus. Professor Adiele Afigbo beautifully describes the political culture of precolonial Igboland when he writes that “AUTHORITY was dispersed between individuals and groups, lineages and non-lineages, women and men, ancestors and gods”
Perhaps it was this diffuse nature of authority that made it difficult for those early travellers to understand the Igbo. Professor Elizabeth Isichei has argued that if we are looking for unifying institutions among the Igbo, then we cannot look to political organization since there was no centralized system. Instead we must look at other areas – social institutions and customs, philosophical and religious values. And language.
And on the subject of language, I would like to tell you a little story.
Some years ago, I met an academic in the US. An Igbo man. He wrote articles about Igbo culture, organized conferences about Igbo history. We had an interesting conversation during which he bemoaned the behavior of Igbo people in America.
“Do you see the Chinese children?” He asked me. “They speak Chinese and English. See the Indian kids? They speak English and Bengali. But our children speak only English!”
He was very passionate. Then his phone rang and he excused himself and said it was his daughter. He spoke English throughout the call. At the end, I tried to be funny and asked him if his children spoke Igbo with an American accent? He said no.
Something in his manner, a certain discomfort, made me ask—do your children speak Igbo?
No, he said.
But they understand? I asked.
Well, a little, he said. Which I knew meant that they probably did not understand at all.
I was suprised. Not because it was unusual to see an Igbo whose children did not speak Igbo, but because I had imagined that THIS particular man would be an exception, since he wrote and spoke so passionately about Igbo culture. I imagined that he would not be infected with that particular condition of the Igbo – a disregard of their language.
It is not enough to bemoan this phenomenon or to condemn it, we must ask why it is happening, what it means, what it says about us, why it matters and most of all what we must do about it.
This condition is sadly not limited to the diaspora. I once ran into a woman here in Nigeria, an old friend of my family’s, and her little son. I said kedu to the boy.
His mother quickly said no, no, no, he doesn’t speak Igbo. He speaks only English.
What struck me was not that the child spoke only English, but that his mother’s voice was filled with pride when she said ‘hei mbakwa, o da-asukwa Igbo.’
She was proud that her child did not speak Igbo.
Why? I asked
Her reply was: Igbo will confuse him. I want him to speak English well.
Later as we talked about her work and her son’s school, she mentioned that he was taking piano and French lessons. And so I asked her, “Won’t French confuse him?” (okwu ka m na-achozikwa!)
The woman’s reason — that two languages would confuse her child — sounds reasonable on the surface. But is it true? It is simply not true. Studies have consistently shown that children have the ability to learn multiple languages and most of all, that knowledge of one language can AID rather than HARM the knowledge of another. But I don’t really need studies. I am my own proof.
I grew up speaking Igbo and English at the same. I consider both of them my first languages and I can assure you that in my almost 37 years on earth, I am yet to be confused by my knowledge of two languages.
My sister, my parents first child, was born in the US, when my father was a doctoral student. My parents made a decision to speak only Igbo to her. They knew she would learn English in school. They were determined that she speak Igbo, since she would not hear Igbo spoken around her in California. And I can assure you that she was NOT confused!
My parents are here/I could not have asked for better parents/Grateful to them for much/for giving me the gift of Igbo
I am richer for it. Sometimes I wish I could speak beautiful Igbo full of proverbs, like my father does, and I wish my Igbo were not as anglicized as it is, but that is the reality of my generation and languages have to evolve by their very nature.
I deeply love both English and Igbo. English is the language of literature for me. But Igbo has a greater emotional weight. It is the enduring link to my past. It is the language in which my great grandmothers sang. Sometimes, when I listen to old people speaking in my hometown Abba, I am full of admiration for the complexity and the effortlessness of their speech. And I am in awe of the culture that produced this poetry, for that is what the Igbo language is when spoken well – it is poetry.
To deprive children of the gift of their language when they are still young enough to learn it easily is an unnecessary loss. We now have grandparents who cannot talk to their grandchildren because there is a hulking, impermeable obstacle between them called language. Even when the grandparents speak English, there is often an awkwardness in their conversations with their grandchildren, because they do not have the luxury of slipping back to Igbo when they need to, because they are navigating unfamiliar spaces, because their grandchildren become virtual strangers with whom they speak in stilted prose. The loss is made worse by imagining what could have been, the stories that could have been told, the wisdom that might have been passed down, and most of all, the subtle and grounding sense of identity that could have been imparted on the grandchildren.
Some things can’t be translated. My wonderful British-born niece Kamsiyonna once heard me say, in response to something: O di egwu.
She asked me: What does it mean Aunty?
And I was not sure how to translate it. To translate it literally would be to lose something.
One of the wonderful things about language, any language, is that it gives you a new set of lenses with which to look at he world. Which is why languages sometimes borrow from one another – we use the French au fait and savoir faire in English — because communication is not about mere words but about worldviews, and worldviews are impossible to translate.
Some people argue that language is what makes culture. I disagree. I believe identity is much more complex, that identity is a sensibility, a way of being, a way of looking at the world. And so there are Igbo people who don’t necessarily speak the language but are no less Igbo than others who do.
But I focus on language because while it is not the only way of transmitting identity, it is the easiest and the most wholesome.
I’d like to go back to the story of the woman whose son did not spoke Igbo and the pride with which she related this.
The corollary of her pride is shame. Where is this shame from? Why have we, as Ama Ata Aidoo wrote in her novel CHANGES, insisted on speaking about ourselves in the same condescending tone as others have used to speak of us?
There are many Igbo people who say the same thing as the woman with the son. Others may not think that Igbo will confused their children, but they merely think it is not important in our newly globalized world. It is after all a small language spoken only in southeastern Nigeria. Kedu ebe e ji ya eje?
It is indeed true that the world is shrinking. But to live meaningfully in a globalized world does not mean giving up what we are, it means adding to what we are.
And speaking of a globalized world, I remember being very impressed by the effort that the people of Iceland put in preserving their language, Icelandic. Iceland is a tiny country with a population less than that of Igboland. Many people speak English but speaking Icelandic is also very important to them. It is NOT because Icelandic has economic power. Iceland is certainly not the next China.
It is because the people value the language. They know it is a small language that does not have much economic power but they do not say: kedu ebe e ji ya eje?
Because they understand that there are other values that language has beyond the material and the economic. And this I think is key: Value.
To value something is to believe that it matters and to ACT as though it matters.
We don’t seem to have this value. It is one thing to say speaking igbo is important, but it’s another to make a conscious, concerted choice to speak Igbo to our children.
In many respects, to argue for the preservation of a language should be a conservative position, but oddly, in our case, it has become a progressive position.
I should pause here and say that I am not trying to romanticize Igbo culture. I quarrel strongly with a number of things in Igbo culture. I quarrel with the patriarchy that diminishes women. I quarrel with the reactionary arguments that try to silence dissent by invoking culture, by saying that so and so is not our culture as if culture were a static thing that never changes.
Igbo is not perfect, no people have a perfect culture, but there are Igbo values that we can retrieve and renew. The values of community. Of consensus.
In his book about President Yar’Adua’s administration, Segun Adeniyi tells a story about the dark weeks when Nigerians did now know where their president was, and whether he was alive or dead. He writes that Dora Akunyili came to him and said, “Segun, my conscience will not allow me to continue keeping quiet.”
Her conscience. It seems to me that conscience is rare in Nigerian public life. It should not be, but it is.
Conscience and integrity are central to Igbo culture, and to any culture that has strong communitarian principles. Conscience means that we cannot think only of ourselves, that we think of a greater good, that we remain aware of ourselves as part of a larger whole.
Some years ago, my cousin from Eziowelle told me a story that his grandfather had told him, about ISA ILE, where people in a dispute would go to a god and swear that they had not lied, with the understanding that whoever had lied would die. My cousin said, ‘thank God we no longer do that.’
Have we become, I wondered, a people now overly familiar with falsehood? Are we now allergic to truth? Should we not continue to have a metaphorical isa ile as a guiding principle? Should we not have a society where willfully telling lies that cause harm to others will have real consequences?
The Igbo are famed for their entrepreneurial spirit. But at what point did we decide that we will no longer sell goods and services, but instead sell the safety of our sisters and brothers? How did we come to a place where people no longer sleep in their ancestral homes because they are afraid they will be kidnapped for ransom by their own relatives?
Igboland was once a place where people were concerned about WHERE your money came from. Now that is no longer the case. Now, it matters only that one has money. As for where the money came from, we look away.
In Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart; Unoka consults Agbala about his poor yam harvests.
Every year, he said sadly (to the priestess), ‘before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Anị, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear. I weed…’
‘Hold your peace!’ screamed the priestess, her voice terrible as it echoed through the dark void. ‘You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.’
So while we, ndi Anambra, till our fertile soil with strength, let us also be sure that we have not offended our fathers or our mothers. Let us retrieve and renew the values that once were ours. The values of conscience and integrity. Of community and consensus.
Let us disagree and agree to disagree but let us do so NOT as separate fractious groups fighting against each other constantly, but as people who ultimately have the same goal: a better community for everyone, a better Anambra State.
Chimamanda Adichie delivered this speech at the ceremony to mark Anambra’s Governor Willie Obiano’s 100 days in office.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.