The metaphor that one’s personal and cultural history is a plant that extends roots into the land or into the past pervades across various cultures and times. An individual’s, a country’s, or a people’s history is something that is strongly embedded into said entity’s core identity and is an ever-present, almost living yet simultaneously intangible concept to be nurtured; grown leaf by leaf. Continuity and change in Igbo culture is a complex topic to approach, partially because of a remarkable Igbo receptivity to change and their tradition of adaptation that blurs the distinction between what is organic or introduced in Igbo society. However, the Igbo do resist change – the most significant Igbo traditions do persevere, especially when Igbo ideals clash with European ones. Chinua Achebe depicts these issues in his novels. The Igbo are particularly receptive to change due to certain aspects of their tradition; however, they have difficulties adapting to situations that clash with their most steadfast beliefs. In particular, the Igbo have difficulties expanding and lessening their identification with place and handling those within society who hold dissimilar moral codes than the majority of society.
Several general concepts dictate Igbo tradition and culture and apply to all of its aspects: identification with place, ancestral ties, egalitarianism, individuality, and duality. Only within this framework can the Igbo’s worldview and actions be understood.
Historically, identification with place is largely a universal held by African peoples. An apt example arising not from the Igbo, but applicable to the Igbo worldview, is the well-known anthropological case study of “S.M.,” the Kenyan man whose burial place was hotly debated due to the conflicting wishes of his widow and brother. This case was significant because the debate did not center on the simple idea of respecting a widow’s versus a brother’s wishes, but raised issues about the importance of traditional practices and worldviews-including identification with place—in the modern age. Richard Kwach, counsel for the Luo clan defending Luo burial customs, referred to the poetry of Okot p’Bitek, quoting one part of his Song of Lawino: “The ways of your ancestors/ Are good, / Their customs are solid/ And not hollow/ They cannot be blown away/ Because their roots reach down into the soil” (Cohen 55).
Again the metaphor of one’s history as having roots crops up, this time indicative of a strength and substance in one’s history that cannot be ignored. Perhaps history is intangible, but it is certainly strong. The traditional Luo practice of burying people where they were born emphasizes the African’s identification with his home and with the physical land he cherishes and is born and raised upon. Traditions, as Okot p’Bitek portrays them, are physically connected to the earth, rooted in the land. The metaphor of ancestral ties as roots bespeaks a strong identification with place as a symbol of group identity, history, and culture. Clearly, cultural identity has unavoidable ties with place, and “home” is a concept that is interwoven tightly into the fabric of the people’s cultural and individual identities.
Igbo people are no exception – their identification with place and ancestral ties are strong, and I would argue that African peoples’ identification with place is stronger than Westerners’ for reasons I will outline later. It is for these reasons that the Igbo are less receptive to change when it comes to identification with place and find it more difficult to expand their definition of “their people” and “home” when it became paramount to build a sense of nationality at the eve of Nigeria’s declaration of independence.
Igbo people are highly individualistic, which lends the population an egalitarian set of values—as Uchendu remarks, “all Igbo share the same egalitarian ideology: the right of the individual to climb to the top, and faith in his ability to do so” (71). Ottenberg explains further, “The possibilities of enhancing status and prestige are open to virtually all individuals…. Ibo society is thus, in a sense, an ‘open’ society in which positions are largely achieved” (186). Igbo propensity for an egalitarian mindset is intertwined with the idea of duality.
The precept of duality is an Igbo universal. As Uchendu says, “Existence for the Igbo… is a dual but interrelated phenomenon involving the interaction between the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the good and the bad, the living and the dead” (12), which mandates “‘the element of balance by virtue of which the relationship of the two terms of duality is complementary rather than contrary (Nwodo 15)’” (Ndibe, History and Memory). Achebe remarks that duality makes the Igbo world “an arena for the interplay of forces…” (Foreword, Igbo Arts) which lends its people and society a “dynamism, multidimensionality, and nonlinear character” of thought (Cole 216).
The implications of duality on Igbo society are both deep and broad. Aspects of Igbo life impacted by duality include cosmology, religion, social relations, government, and the Igbo worldview in general. Within Igbo cosmology is the idea that balancing complementary opposites forms the basis for maintenance of harmony between worlds: “In his role as mediator, the priest became both man and spirit (Basden: 1938, 132-133)” (Kalu 140). Similarly, when it comes to government, the same principle of balance of forces is seen at work in Igbo legal procedures. In an example elucidating the Igbo ways of governing (the Aro), Uchendu explains, “The principle of equal sharing of rights and privileges is sacred. To be effective decisions must be unanimous” (45-6). Achebe depicts this in Things Fall Apart when Umuofia and all its inhabitants come together in meetings to make important decisions in a highly democratic way (Achebe). As aforementioned, Igbos prize an egalitarian government where “political cohesion is achieved by… consensus rather than by dictation” (46). Democracy reaches new heights in Igbo society at least partially due to duality, which safeguards against imperialism, which Igbo people detest. This principle is expressed in the statement “Igbo enwe eze (the Igbo do not have kings)” (Okafor 68). In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, a man who hopes to excel in society, ultimately fails because of his imperialistic mindset (Achebe).
As Ndibe points out, the “‘thing that stands besides’ encodes alternatives, embodies possibilities, and offers a harvest of blueprints and departures” (History and Memory). Duality allows for a high receptivity to change in Igbo society because so many options are available to the Igbo people, who are not barred by the singular mode of thought so common in Western societies. Ottenberg elucidates Igbo tradition of change more thoroughly in his essay “Igbo Receptivity to Change.” Ottenberg states, “The Ibo are probably most receptive to culture change, and most willing to accept Western ways, of any large group in Nigeria” (179). Ottenberg makes the paradoxical statement that “of all Nigerian peoples, the Ibo have probably changed the least while changing the most” (142). The premise of this argument is that the Igbo, with their dualistic worldview that makes them so receptive to change, have a “tradition” of adaptation. Ergo, at their roots, they have changed their fundamental principles very little by transforming their society when adaptation becomes necessary. Others have added to this concept with their own opinions and observations. Isichei agrees, stating: “To understand Igbo history in the colonial era it is essential to understand that for many, perhaps most Igbo, life was not changed very fundamentally” (19). Uchendu also describes the Igbo world as one “…in which change is constantly expected. Its contractual character makes it a constantly changing world” (Uchendu 15). Okafor points out: “the democratic nature of Igbo society… has enabled its people to adapt rapidly to the modern, Western way of life” (Okafor 69).
Afigbo goes so far to say, “‘basically’ colonialism did not change the Igbos because they maintained Igbo identity and cultural soul. He states:
While changing they were able to preserve their ‘ethnic essence’ because they were astute enough to use in their own way, the new institutions and values introduced by colonialism (283-4)
Upon European intrusion, the Igbo used British influence to their advantage and incorporated them into their traditional system of values. The Igbo wanted independence in order to become westernized more quickly: “Ibo politicians tend to be anti-colonial but not pro-traditional or antagonistic to western European culture; they believe that they can become westernized more rapidly if freed from British rule” (Ottenberg 180). As for religion, generally “…belief in ancestral spirits [gave] way to Christianity” and “missionaries have had considerable success in converting Ibo to Christianity” (Ottenberg 181). Igbo adaptive propensities facilitated this forced societal change by the British colonial administration. Chinua Achebe’s works show a progression of Christian penetration into Igbo society. Beginning in Things Fall Apart, Christian converts consist mainly of outcasts from society, like women who bore twins or slaves and “lazy children” (Achebe 102). However, in Arrow of God, Ezeulu, a chief priest, gives a son to Christianity. In No Longer at Ease, set on the eve of Nigerian independence in the 1950s, the main character’s father, Isaac, is such a religious zealot (a Christian catechist) that he condones a sacred traditional Igbo act – kola nut “sacrifice to idols” (59) – and refuses even to allow his wife to tell his children folk stories or allow his children to eat in the houses of heathens (66-7).
Social constructs also morphed within the confines of traditional social norms in Igbo society. Ottenberg explains that after British conquest, the Igbo recognized the superior strength of the intrusive forces, but instead of rejecting or accepting it, “the acquisition of this power and authority became one of their important goals. The task was not merely to control the British influence but to capture it” (187). The adaptability and flexibility of Igbo society allowed Igbo people to transform something that could have been highly destructive into a positive force: “Villages compete to build the first or the best school, village groups to improve their markets… Many social groups strive to push some of their ‘sons’ ahead in schooling and to obtain scholarships in competition with other groups” (Ottenberg 187). The highly individualistic mindset of Igbo peoples meshes well with the introduction of new ideas and practices, and the shifting African landscape became a veritable mine of opportunities for the intelligent, innovative individual in Igbo society: “the alternatives open to the individual have been increased by… culture change” (Ottenberg 188).
Uchendu argues another important ideological factor contributes to Igbo adaptability: “Igbo ideas about change. A people who fear change and are ideologically opposed to experimentation might not react in the same way…” (104). Uchendu is correct about a crucial point: other ethnic groups have not reacted nearly as well as Igbo people have to situations in which change is necessary. As Ottenberg warns, “The Ibo—traditionally accustomed to thinking, acting, and making decisions in terms of a range of alternatives—are more at home in the culture contact situation than members of other societies with different orientations” (188). Other societies, evidently, did not fare as well under the new regime and many fervently struggled to maintain their traditional ways, often in futility.
In fact, a number of ethnic groups in Africa responded with vehement outcries that their traditional practices would be stampeded to dust in the aftermath of British colonization. In one community, “young boys receive training and instruction in traditional lore and morality… Education is designed to instill an appreciation of the value of their way of life” (Schneider 157). Another people, the Pakots, believe that “the traditional way of life is most acceptable to Tororut, that he created it and desires it to continue, in fact, that it is the best conceivable life” (Schneider 158). Furthermore, “magic may also be used by the community to punish a deviant, so that most persons are careful not to transgress the accepted ways even if they should so be inclined” (159). To this day, the Pakot have “found almost nothing in Euroamerican culture that will entice them to abandon their old ways” (Schneider 160).
Even in Igbo culture, receptivity to change can fail. One example in which tradition trumps new ideas is where identity is tied irrevocably to place. Everyone has ties with home, and places, but in Western societies, especially the United States of America, people cannot typically stand in their houses and say “my ancestors have lived and died on this very land for hundreds or thousands of years,” mainly because the majority of US citizens have immigrated to the land in recent history. African peoples, however, have a much richer history that has been preserved in the memories of society’s members and passed down through the generations orally.
For example, Davidson discusses that when a Bushongo tribe elder was asked to recall the legend of their past, he “traversed the list of their kings, a list of one hundred and twenty names, right back to the god-king whose marvels had founded their nation” (6). Again the metaphor of one’s history as having roots crops up, this time indicative of a strength and substance in one’s history that cannot be ignored. Perhaps history is intangible, but it is certainly strong, and is irrevocably tied to the land upon which it was played out.
For Igbo people, specifically, land holds significant meaning to them. As Uchendu says, “Land means many things to the Igbo. It is the domain of the earth-goddess, a burial place for the ancestors, a place to live on and make a living. Land is therefore the most important asset to the people” (Uchendu 22). Clearly, land is an important aspect of Igbo identity, and even with their highly adaptable and amorphous mindset, ties to land are one facet of the set of traditional Igbo values that cannot be altered as easily as other aspects of Igbo society. As I outline later, this can be problematic when a sense of national identity is crucial to obtaining independence because Igbo ties to land are very localized and difficult to expand to larger spatial scales.
One cannot possibly hope to build a sense of identity without a basis of history on which to begin. History makes us who we are, and without it, we would be lost. A key aspect of many cultures’ histories is the idea that one’s ancestors are still with one, guiding one, watching over one, or even influencing or interfering with the future or actions of one, even if these ancestors have long since passed out of the world of the living. One’s ancestry is a vital part of one’s history that allows one to feel as if, through one’s self or one’s ancestors, the actions of those who share one’s blood – one’s genes – have made a lasting impact on this earth, and it is something one can be proud of and revel in. One’s ancestors’ existence provides a substance of character and identity rarely matched by any other force.
Such is the connection with one’s ancestors that the Igbo even believe that the living are spirits reincarnated from dead ancestors: “In the Igbo view, there is a constant interaction between the dead and the living: the dead are reincarnated, death making the transition from the corporeal to the incorporeal life of the ancestors possible” (Uchendu 12). The Igbo incorporate their ancestors into their identity so much that they believe that the spirit of the ancestors lives on within them, fully reincarnated.
Although having such strong ties with place is an enviable quality of Igbo society, it does not come without its hindrances. As aforementioned, the Igbo people found it difficult to expand their worldview to include a “nation” or a unified people when the collective unit of peoples who dubbed themselves “Nigeria” was fighting for independence in the late 1950s. As Phoebe Ottenberg elucidates, “Though they share many linguistic and cultural traits, the Ibo have only recently begun to think of themselves as a unified people” (205-6). Phoebe Ottenberg further attests, “There were no large political groupings—no states or kingdoms—to unite these groupings and provide them will an over-all unity of social structure and culture” (179). Thus, it was difficult to unite without a cohesive social structure and culture that was lamentably lacking on the eve of Nigeria’s independence.
Achebe provides examples of the struggles of Igbo people to expand identity to include a “place” of larger spatial scale in his novels. In the Igbo world, everyone knows where his or her place is, and where everything and everyone in that place exists. Such is the small spatial scale of the Igbo world that to an Igbo person, the familiarity of everything and everyone important to him is heightened to the extreme and opening up to the unfamiliar can be highly daunting. In Arrow of God, the British administration built a road to “connect Okperi with its enemy, Umuaro.” This opens up contact between communities that had previously been antagonists and inevitably changes the landscape of both communities and causes some distress within them.
Isichei argues that “A sense of Igbo identity came only when its people left Igbo-land” (19), and indeed this is evidenced by Obi’s viewpoints in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. Obi, the main character, receives a scholarship given to him by the people of Umuofia to go to England to become educated as a doctor or lawyer. As Obi states, “It was in England that Nigeria became more than just a name to him” (14). To those who never leave their villages, “Nigeria” is a word without meaning—not a place, nor a collection of people the Igbo ostensibly belong to, but an empty title holding a sense of nationality that was foreign to Igbos. As Isichei aptly reiterates, “There was…no sense of pan-Igbo identity. The Igbo villager’s view of external reality was a sharp dichotomy, ‘they and us’ with sense of attachment to us growing weaker as the unit grew larger – the family, the village, the village-group. Invariably he felt a strong local patriotism” (19). This local patriotism is reduced when Obi leaves Umuofia. However, his people condemn him for lack of respect when he does not return for his mother’s funeral: “He was told that his mother died and he did not care” and “he forgets his home and his people” (181). Obi’s perspective, however, is different: “What was the point in going to Umuofia? She would have been buried by the time he got there, anyway. The thought of going home and not finding her!” (183). He separates the idea of place with his identity and with that of his mother. Now, he thinks only of his mother—his home is not part of those feelings anymore. It is not place, but intangible bonds between people, that constitutes community for Obi. This difference between Obi and his people bars the uniting of all Igbo people needed to form a national identity.
Another situation that the Igbo find difficult is when an individual within society has an ethical code that does not mesh well with traditional Igbo values or when differences in individual’s ethical codes arise. When the British administration took over, they introduced new morals, ideas, values, and practices in society. Inevitably, different people incorporated different aspects of European society into their own lives, and suddenly, the Igbo people did not share all of the same traditional views and moral code. Each Igbo individual is pulled in different directions under the influence of tradition, his family, his own beliefs, and now, under European influence. How, then, does one determine ethical values in a society where the grounds shift considerably; where a citizen must negotiate between several conflicting deities and codes? Achebe explores these struggles and conflicting ethical codes in depth throughout his novels.
In No Longer at Ease, when Obi goes to England, his people expect him to become a doctor or lawyer and return to Nigeria to provide services to and repay his people. However, Obi neither becomes a doctor nor a lawyer, and instead of helping his people, finds a position in Lagos and subsequently attempts to woo an “osu” woman named Clara, who, due to her ancestry, is considered unacceptable for marriage by Igbo society. Umuofians are confused and disappointed, saying, “He runs after sweet things, dances breast to breast with women and forgets his home and his people. Do you know what medicine that osu woman may have put into his soup to turn his eyes and ears away from his people?” (181). Obi left Umuofia before the Igbo ways could become entrenched in his worldview and at the time during which his young, impressionable mind could be influenced by what he sees and experiences during his time in England. Achebe’s experiences as a child may have influenced his depiction of Obi’s character:
The young African boy enthusiastically opened his heart and mind to the exciting, wider world unfolding around him. I did not see myself as an African to begin with. I took sides with the white men… The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid. I hated their guts” (A Celebration 7).
Indeed, upon return to Umuofia, Obi, while aware of the stigma associated with osu women, believes that he can convince his parents that his marriage to Clara is acceptable. His equally educated friend, Joseph, wisely warns that although they have been educated, not all of Igbo society has: “In future, when we are all civilized, anybody may marry anybody. But that time has not come. We of this generation are only pioneers” (86). However, Obi stubbornly persists on the same path, saying, “What is a pioneer? Someone who shows the way. That is what I am doing” (86). As Achebe warns, however, “…stories are not innocent…they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you” (Achebe A Celebration 7). Obi has been placed in the “wrong crowd” by spending time in England. He faces pressures that pull him in opposite directions-toward his roots or towards educated, high society. Obi views himself as a pioneering modernist, but ultimately, the pressures of his people’s displeasure overwhelm his love for Clara, and Obi is unable to follow through with the marriage.
Similarly, Obi’s father Isaac sees himself as a rejecter of tradition, but ultimately sticks to traditional values when he forbids his son from marrying Clara, an osu: “Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children unto the third and fourth generations will curse your memory” (152). Isaac faces difficulty with the changing landscape of African thought that provides multiple conflicting alternatives, both traditional and new, that one must combine into a cohesive worldview. He is a zealous Christian, but prohibits marriage to an osu, a highly pagan view, because his traditional values conflict with his new religion.
In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, a warrior and secular figure fascinated by personal power and obsessed with excelling, believes he is a defender of tradition. However, he is too imperialistic and extreme to uphold Igbo tradition, which is dualistic and more focused on finding balance. Okonkwo’s sins in the eyes of Igbo society are all of a moral nature because of his dissonant ethical code. Where Obi fails to act, Okonkwo acts too quickly or too violently. For example, during the week of peace when no one may raise a hand against another, Okonkwo beats his wife. When people tell him to stop because he is committing a moral injustice by beating his wife during the week of peace, Okonkwo does not cease because he “was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (19). Beating someone during the week of peace was “unheard of” (19) and no one knows how to deal with it, because Okonkwo’s moral code differs from that of the majority of Igbo society. He is a man of profound moral misconceptions, and in attempting to preserve the tradition of manly power over women, he in fact rebukes a much more sacred tradition.
Okonkwo’s desire to appear strong is one that is traditionally shared and considered important by many male members of society, but unlike other Igbo men, Okonkwo places this desire above the communal good and desires. Near the end of Things Fall Apart, Umuofia holds a village meeting for the people to discuss how to deal with impending war against their clanmates. The decision-making process is lengthy and consists of many steps including consulting the oracle, deciding as a whole village, and hearing from the elders of the village. However, Okonkwo goes to the meeting having already decided how he is going to act, no matter what the village decides: “If Umuofia decided on war, all would be well. But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself” (113).
This is an extreme view clashing with Igbo morals for two important reasons. First, it is unheard of that a man would go against the wishes of his entire village. However, Okonkwo does not abide by the universal Igbo principle of duality. He is singular: his will stands and nothing stands beside it, not even a god’s, as evidenced by his lack of fear of godly wrath when he beats his wife during the week of peace. Okonkwo’s beliefs are, according to him, not only central, but also the only set of values worthy of respect, a concept that is foreign to the dualistic mindset pervasive in Igbo society. As Onuekwusi explains, “He relies on old strategies and old yard-sticks such as show of brute force and rashness, fiery temper, resistance to change and rigid show of ‘manliness’ complex to acquire excellence” (75).
Second, if Okonkwo did single-handedly go to war against his clanmates, the punishment would be death. This issue is what Umuofia is deciding upon-how to go about warring with clanmates if part of their law states that this is morally unjust. At the end of the meeting, Okonkwo kills the messenger representing the British administration who had come to break up the meeting. Other Umuofians ask, “Why did he do it?” (116), unable to wrap their minds around the fact that Okonkwo’s worldview and moral code clashes with their own. Ultimately, Okonkwo, who sees himself as a preserver of tradition, commits the epitomic sin in Igbo eyes: suicide. As one Umuofian states, “It is against our custom… It is an abomination for a man to take his own life” (117). The people throw him into the Evil Forest where only the abominable are left to rot in “a final show of revulsion from the clan, which is unable to accommodate Okonkwo’s inability to change with the times” (Onuekwusi 75). Okonkwo, a believer in the preservation of tradition, has such a warped ethical code that he condemns himself to a tragic end and becomes an infamous figure in Igbo folklore because of it.
In Achebe’s Arrow of God, Ezeulu is a priest obsessed with contemplating the nature and scope of his power whilst perceiving himself as, primarily, a moral agent. Ezeulu is the chief priest of Ulu, a war god that was created by the villagers to secure the future of six villages which all came together to stand as one: Umuaro. However, time and time again Ezeulu’s actions have the potential to break apart the villages. Ezeulu bears witness against his own community, Umuaro, when the white administration is deciding whether to give disputed land to Umuaro or Okperi: he says, “the land belongs to Okperi. It was Okperi who gave us a piece of their land to live in” (15). Ezeulu defends his actions by arguing it is his duty to speak the truth, but in Igbo society, when the truth that you tell leads to a fracturing in society, you shouldn’t tell the truth. Ulu is the god that brought together the six villages; but now, due to Ezeulu’s love of the power and influence he holds, Ulu’s priest is tearing the villages asunder.
As Ulu’s priest, Ezeulu also dictates the changing of the seasons, an important task because if he does not count the seasons, the people cannot plant or harvest when it is time to do so. Therefore, Ezeulu essentially regulates the people’s access to food, both for subsistence and economic value. Ezeulu should be obsessed with the success of the community, but from the very beginning of the novel he is contemplating his power and is obsessed with it in an intellectual, abstract way:
“Whenever Ezeulu considered the immensity of his power over… the people he wondered if it was real… No! The Chief Priest of Ulu was more than that, must be more than that. If he should refuse to name the day there would be no festival—no planting and no reaping. But could he refuse? No Chief Priest had ever refused” (3).
Eventually, Ezeulu does refuse to name the changing of the seasons, and condemns his people to death by starvation. However, Ezeulu eventually descends into utter madness and dies an insane old man. Ezeulu views himself as a faithful priest who must stay fast to the stipulations of his deity, but he is ultimately unable to carry out Ulu’s wishes and tears the villages apart when Ulu was in fact created to bring them together. His conflicting morals—obsession with power and the wish to please his deity—drive him to extreme action, insanity, and eventually, death.
The Igbo people are remarkably receptive to change, and their society has fared better because of it, adapting quickly to European intrusion and using Western ways to their advantage to “get up” in society. However, people like Obi and Okonkwo face difficulties adapting to change, whether it be identifying with place on a national scale or forming a cohesive moral code that does not contradict itself or that of society at large. Despite these difficulties, the Igbo people were able to unite to form Nigeria. Although they face hardships as a developing country, they are independent and continue to use Western civilization to their advantage, with increasing numbers of Nigerians becoming educated, prominent members of society every year. It is my hope that we of the United States can learn a lesson or two from these receptive, unique people by interacting with and learning about them and better ourselves because of it.
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