Original

Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Igbo Tradition of Oratory

Photo: Postcard via the Library of Congress.

There's been focus on the importance of the individual's voice in Igbo societies. The following short examples examine traditions of consensus decision-making and how they have influenced behaviour, relationships, and communication.

Consensus decision-making in Igbo society lead to the development of a particular persuasive way of speaking. Misty L. Bastian on debates between missionaries and members of Önïcha society.

First, it is deemed polite in Igbo-speaking areas to use the terms of those with whom you are visiting or who are your guests. This politeness persists. For example, even today if there was one person in a room who did not speak Igbo, everyone who could do so would witch to a language of mutual intelligibility. Just because a person uses the outsider's terms does not mean that he or she has agreed with the terms' import. […] Such verbal twists and elaborate, ironic construction are common in the speech-play of modern-day Onitsha elders and are much applauded.

This indirect way of speaking, perhaps masked as politeness, would have developed as a way of pushing a particular idea or argument while trying not to offend or put off a particular section of the congregation. Balancing views may have made extremism avoidable.

Money was also a persuader and undermined other forms of leadership. An example among the Agbaja (present-day Enugu State). Interview of Noo Udala, aged c. 102, in Ụmụaga, Agbaja, June 19, 1973 by E. N. Okechukwu.

In fact, much respect was given to these titled men, who because of their wealth were known as ndị āmadị, as against ndị ogbènyè, the poor. These ndị āmadị then formed the governing council of the village or town. They took the initiative in calling meetings and soon, after some time, our elders were happy to be called to such meetings without any efforts to show the influence of their age at such meetings. During deliberations in the governing council of ndị āmadị, the suggestion made by an àmadị was more agreeable to those present than that of a poor elder, no matter if he was the eldest. I do not mean that we now have two separate governing councils. But what I am telling you is that even though the ndị ishi ànị̀ summoned meetings, the views of the rich titled men are more readily accepted. Both rich and poor still attended the council meetings.

In Igbo society, titled people are people of influence. Titles cost money. The more titles could mean the more influence. Titles symbolise success and also knowledge; title societies were centres of esoteric learning.

In the Igbo view, intelligent and therefore trustworthy people capable of leadership would, logically, be also wealthy. Compounds of wealthy people were used as meeting places for the community.

Photo: A meeting in an Igbo notable's compound, late 19th century. British Museum.

Even with more formal leadership, there was representation for various lineages, the core of Igbo society. In Önïcha, before colonisation, there were reportedly eight hidden kings in addition to the Obi of Önïcha representing original Önïcha lineages.

The Aro developed leadership from three kindreds. One of these Nna Atọ becomes Eze Aro. Under them were leaders, and under them lineage heads who take on individuals opinions. A similar structure exists in some other Igbo communities such as Asaba.

The role of the individual in Igbo society also factored in anti-colonisation movements such as Ekumeku and the Women's War. Philip A. Igbafe (1971). "Western Ibo Society and Its Resistance to British Rule".

The first Ekumeku outbreaks were regarded as an illustration of the people's inability to govern themselves. The British administration therefore decided to establish native courts in the centres of Ekumeku activities as a way of bringing the people under effective control. Further violent eruptions after the establishment of these courts pointed to some social ferment which generated an anti-European feeling in the Asaba hinterland and nurtured the growth of a well-organized resistance movement. The Ekumeku risings were then attributed to a lack of supervision of the native courts.

Finally, this tradition of oratory influenced independence era Igbo politicians. Raphael Chijoke Njoku (2013). "African Cultural Values". p. 152.

In the colonial society, the progressively oriented Igbo age-grade organization along with the modern political parties, served as a forum for leadership education. Within the age-grades, the future leaders trained in the art of public speech—an important marker for leadership in all societies. Thus, while the ability to speak, read, and write were inculcated in mission school graduates, the new elite also acquired the skills for public speech through participation in the various age-grades, secret societies, and other village forums. Ikoku, Ibiam, Azikiwe (who belonged to the Ndọkwaka age-grade in Onitsha in addition with membership in other fraternities), Ojike and KO—were all distinguished as political leaders by their knowledge and oratory skills. As members of these indigenous institutions, the elite learnt about the supremacy of institutional authority over that of the individual as practiced among the Igbo people. In public, power resides with the people and one's ability to persuade and convince them.

This social structure may explain why idiomatic expression is so important in the Igbo oral tradition, well known for its proverbs.

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