Day 89 – Sunday 21st June 2020
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
When I talk about my time in Nigeria in blogs and columns it is usually in generic terms. After all, most of the time I lived and worked in Lagos, which is broadly a multi-cultural city. It has a long history with a foundation story from the Awori, a clan of the Yoruba people and has strong links to Benin. The traditional name (Lagos, of course is Portuguese) is Eko. The traditional rulers are The Oba and his court in which the 13 White Cap Chiefs are paramount. The city’s rise coincided with its prominence as a trading port and then as the centre for the colonial administration. From the late nineteenth century the return of formally enslaved people from the USA, the Caribbean, Brazil or from intercepted slaver vessels, usually via Liberia or Sierra Leone created another dynamic. It goes without saying that during this period there were outbreaks of British colonial violence, the most notorious of which was the shelling of the Oba’s Palace in 1851. There are several excellent histories of this period available. Today, Lagos is the proverbial melting pot and is home to twenty million inhabitants; indigenes of every part of West Africa, let alone the colonial construct that is Nigeria. There are many thousands of Igbos, Hausas, Birom, Efik, Itsekeri and representatives of the more than 350 separate peoples that make up Nigeria who call them selves Lagosians, just as there are thousands of residents of London who call themselves Londoners whose roots are in other parts of the UK. **
Before 2000 I knew plenty of Igbos and had travelled east of the Nigeria but my knowledge of Igbo culture was pretty superficial. Most of my visits had been to the major cities of the oil producing areas: Port Harcourt and Warri. Like many people, my first shallow knowledge of the Nigerian-Biafran war (1967 – 1970) was that ‘the East’, the entire area that seceded from The Federal Republic and called itself Biafra, was Igbo. The reality, of course, is that core Igbo-land is a much smaller territory and that many other peoples of the South-South and South-East had been, not always enthusiastically, part of the Biafran independent state. So when, in late November 2000, (as detailed fully in my book) I took up the position of boss of a soap factory in Aba, a fully Igbo city just a few miles from Umuahia (that for most of the war was Biafra’s capital), I was in for some serious education.
The first part of that instruction was the reaction of my Yoruba mates and even Lagos Igbos. The message was overwhelmingly negative and included comments to the effect that I could expect no social visits and even ‘you know they still eat people there, don’t you?’ To be fair this was less about an antipathy to Igbos and more about the reputation of the town Aba itself. Aba is a commercial town. Everything is focussed on commercial activity especially the various markets. The city sprung up in the middle of the Palm Oil belt when in 1915 the British built a railway from Port Harcourt to collect agricultural produce: predominately palm oil and kernels. With the railway came trade and the uncontrolled growth of the city as a market town so that the infrastructure never caught up with the flood of people. Over time the availability of resources and location as a transport hub meant that Aba also became famous for small-scale manufacturing. Small outlets for locally produced shoes and clothing, all sporting counterfeit brand names, are everywhere. The lack of infrastructure combines with the markets to make Aba a notoriously dirty place.
In my book I quote from the blog and news site ‘Nairaland.com’.
“I went to Aba, my God the town is a of trash, stinks, horrible smell added to all this a road network that is wrost than the wrost. Ossisioma, part of Ariaria market are the wrost culprits. my Godness i could not eat. Ibo people are considered clean, but Aba ibos are exception.” (Sic)
I lived in Aba for just under two years. I have to say, I never really gained an affection for the place, per se, but it did afford me a base for travelling around the area and learning a little more of the culture. It also gave me an insight into the massive marginalization of eastern Nigeria after the war. Infrastructure throughout the entire region from roads to telecommunications, social welfare have suffered from an absence of investment. The failure of many of the State Governments to channel resources for the benefit of their people has been shameless. Still, mine is not to provide that analysis but for those that wish to read more about the subject I will come up with a reading list.
Since my retirement back in the UK I have obviously tried to keep up my links with Nigeria and since it was in Aba that I received my first title as Ike Oha I of the Okpu Omoubu Autonomous community in Ngwa Land (the Ngwa are a sub-division of the Igbo people) one of the several ways I have done that is to try to attend the annual Igbo Diaspora Conference, usually done in conjunction with SOAS University in London. This year’s was last week and to reflect the times was done virtually with Live You Tube events, which enabled me to dip and in and out. It can still be accessed here. http://igboconference.com/ I will come back to the conference when I do my usual musical round up.
However, one of the other topics of the day that led to my talking about Igbo culture was an article I read this weekend in the UK’s Guardian concerning an upcoming sale at Christie’s in Paris. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/21/nigeria-igbo-sacred-artworks-sculpture-christies-paris
If there is any better example of how the European elite are still looting Africa today, then please let me know. In the immediate aftermath of the Biafran war there was an orgy of looting. Some of it was perpetrated by Igbos themselves, desperate and starving after years of economic blockade but the greater part by the Federal troops. The pictures of their trucks returning to the West and the North loaded with booty are legion. Much of this was household furniture and the like but the really valuable loot were the many religious and cultural items that found ready buyers among the European and American collector community. At this very moment the debate is heated about the demand for the return of artifacts taken during the colonial conquests of Africa during the nineteenth century that currently reside in Museums all over the world. David Olusoga, the historian whose views have been prevalent concerning the Bristol Colston Statue protests and who has several documentaries on BBC iPlayer at the moment, is actually a Trustee of the British Museum and has called for the return of the Benin Bronzes looted by the British in the punitive expedition of 1897. It is not just African cultural heritage, nor the British Museum, of course. Recent controversial examples range from the Elgin Marbles belonging to Greece, Indigenous American religious items, the recent return of Sri Lankan ancestors’ skulls from Edinburgh to Trojan jewelry in German Museums. How insensitive, how outrageously symbolic of colonial arrogance and elitism is it then for Christies of Paris to advertise an auction thus:
“Highlights from this season’s curated Arts of Africa, Oceania and North America sale in Paris include works of art from the Collection of James and Marilynn Alsdorf featuring African masterpieces, such as a newly discovered Akan terracotta head and North American art. The Oceanic section of our April 8th sale is highlighted by a gope board and agipa hook both collected by Thomas Schultze-Westrum in Papua New Guinea. The African art section includes works from an Important European Private Collection, including a major Urhobo statue from Nigeria, a museum-quality Igbo couple and beautiful masks from the Fang, Chokwe and Punu. From a Belgian collection, an important Songye kifwebe masks will be offered at auction, as well as a rare Songye power figure with a turned head.” This is from their own publicity.
“Newly discovered Akan terracotta head” – discovered where, when ? “From a Belgian collection” – Oh, well that cannot remotely be part of the plunder from the King Leopold’s genocidal activities? The Nigerian items come from the collection of Jacques Kerchache who built collections for Chirac, The French President who liked his African despots to buy Chateaus and keep their looted funds in French banks. The ‘guide prices’ of these stolen heritage pieces are in the tens of thousands of Euros. The Urhobo Statue, from Nigeria’s Delta region, quite possibly also looted towards the end of the Biafran War is expected to fetch some wealthy collector up to the best part of a million Euro’s. I would also make the point, with particular reference to the Igbo “Alusi” (Sacred Sculptures) that the looting of these carvings caused pain and hurt to the Igbo. The relationship between the living and their ancestors is a fundamental part of the Igbo’s belief system – as it is for many African cultures. It is a complex relationship and not only formed a part of the traditional indigenous faith but continues to have a central position in family structure in modern Christian communities. To see these cultural icons being sold in such a way, as decorative trophies for the super rich, is despicable and heartlessly insensitive to the global conversations we are having.
So, returning to my musical rounding off and referencing the Igbo conference, I came across this video of a modern DJ recreating the sounds of traditional Igbo music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbzSIDoblmQ
Now, I had heard the sound of the Oja before. It is a small hand carved flute and usually played alongside various percussive instruments in rhythmic support of cultural events. However, I was blown away by this video and asked my mate, Ed Emeka Keazor (whose contribution to the Conference is the story of how the mighty Rangers of Enugu symbolised the resilience of the Igbo after the defeat of Biafra) to tell me more. He explained that the Oja would be played at events from marriages and funerals to wrestling matches (the Igbo traditional sport) along with the ‘ogene’ (gong) and drums. They would also accompany the amazing dancing ‘masquerade’ cult related cultural events. He was kind enough to send me a few examples and I will share a couple here. The first is a live piece being played in Lagos’ Freedom Park (a cultural centre built into the restored site of the old Colonial Prison). The Oja player here, by name Gerald, was a classically trained, award-winning flautist who went back to mastering the indigenous version of that instrument. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_x6ohDTSRs&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2ih5iCkEGXxXQ2cGVLrUToWssF4qKwoaR32pd3TYzijdHG5anNUx-wVeI
The final video is a more modern one by a young Nigerian artist called Flavour N’abania (usually just known as Flavour) who hails from Enugu. I am not sure quite how you would describe his music. Related to the Afrobeats phenomena with Hip-Hop influences it differs in that he uses much more local Igbo music and often sings in Igbo rather than English and Pidgin. The setting of the video is suitably Enugu and is set in ‘Coal Camp’. Enugu is often called ‘Coal City’ as it was rich in coal deposits, first mined using traditional techniques and later developed in the colonial era. However, the discovery of oil and the increasing cost of extraction meant the decline in activity. Neglect after the Biafran War saw further collapse of the local economy and despite some attempts to diversify areas such as Coal Camp have become somewhat notorious. During my stint with Promasidor Ltd. we used him for a while along side Kate Henshaw as a brand ambassador to our flavourings under the Onga heading. I have to say he struck me as a pleasant and intelligent young man who was certainly a massive hit with the ladies. The reasons are obvious in the video where he obviously feels at home in the local township. Listen out for the sound of the Oja, again played by our young Maestro Gerald. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTWYQnbqN8I
** It does make me laugh when people claim to be Cockneys and then tell me they were born in Hammersmith or St John’s Wood. To be a Cockney is to have been borne within the sound of the Bow Bells – the Church of St Mary-Le-Bow. Strictly speaking, as the bell tower was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941, no one born after that date can be technically a cockney but generally those born in the East end can refer to themselves as a cockney. I was borne in Pimlico and I laughingly claim that on a quiet day with the wind blowing in the right direction you would have been able to hear the bells from there but that is pushing it a bit!