Nigerian author and professor Chika Unigwe recently spoke at the Centre for Memories, Enugu, Nigeria, as the November speaker for the Centre’s monthly distinguished speaker series. Other notable speakers in the series include Nigerian professor and social activist, Chidi Odinkalu, and Nigerian professor Pat Utomi. Currently convened by Patrick Okigbo, the Centre for Memories is a cultural organisation that serves as a “repository of the history and culture of Ndigbo, informing and empowering leaders to serve with excellence and integrity.”
The full transcript of Chika Unigwe’s speech, which begins with her recollections of growing up in the hilly, gentle city of Enugu, but goes on to reflect on Igbo identity and to ask the Igbo community to support each other and tell their own stories, is available on The Village Square Journal.
Here is an excerpt from the speech:
Ndi be anyi, ekene m unu. Igbo no na uno na Igbo pulu ije, unu ga-adi. Umunnem, mmamma nu! My Igbo brothers and sisters, my non-Igbo brothers and sisters, greetings. Thank you for having me here today. It’s a great honor to be a guest of Nzuko Umuibe series, following in the steps of other speakers, many of whom I’ve admired for years, and others whose works I have only recently discovered through nzuko umuibe. Umunnem you’re doing great work. Jisie nu ike. Tulu nu ugo.
I am particularly pleased to be back in Enugu. I was born and raised here, and no matter how long I’ve been away, every time I return, I feel the air shift especially for me. I have wonderful memories of growing up in this city. Sadly, some of the places I knew and loved as a child have given way to residential estates, shopping malls or have fallen into regrettable disuse.
Family has always been very important to my parents and growing up, we would drive with my mother to her village, Lokpanta, in Abia State every Sunday afternoon to visit my grandparents, stay long enough to have an early dinner and drive back to Enugu. And twice a year (Christmas and Afia-olu), like many others, we would make the longer drive down – which my father did every weekend – to our ancestral home, Osumenyi, Nnewi South. I remember the guava-infused scent of those days, the sounds of women greeting each other on their way to Eke Osu, the dust we raised as we ran from masquerades. Most of all, I remember the freedom we took for granted in the way people do when there is little to fear: trekking the length of the village with my sister, Blessing, and our co- ‘returnee’ friends and cousins; riding my chopper or racing my cousin, Chukwuma on his; and when we became older and able to drive, Blessing and I would pile into a car with my brother or with my cousin driving and head out to nearby Ukpor or Amichi or Nnewi for some isiewu or nchi. Our parents didn’t know about these outings. Often my uncle or my dad would have tasked my cousin or my brother with fueling the car and the four of us would just disappear for many delightful hours, returning to parents upset that an errand of a few minutes had somehow morphed into us being away for far longer. They were upset, but they were never worried. They did not think that we had been kidnapped by some ransom-demanding thugs or attacked by herdsmen. This wasn’t that terribly long ago, relatively speaking. This was in the early 90’s and even then, our parents complained that Nigeria was on a downward spiral, that ‘things’ were bad, blissfully unaware of the shape of the horrors yet to come.
The horrors that are here with us today. Our nation is in a crisis. AlaIgbo, especially, is in a crisis and we cannot ostrich our heads-in-the-sand out of it. We cannot pretend that the crisis is not urgent when we are confronted with it almost on a daily basis. Three months ago, the US authorities indicted 80 people for wire fraud and for swindling millions of dollars from U.S. businesses and individuals, 77 are Nigerian, and 74 of the 77, bu Ndigbo. According to Abike Dabiri, of the 21 Nigerians on death row for drug crimes in Indonesia, 20 are from Anambra State. 5 of 5 men arrested for stealing the equivalent of over N220 million from a bureau de Change in Dubai are young Igbo men. We all remember the 2017 drug-related shooting in an Ozubulu church. In a 2017 interview with the Nigerian Punch, the then president of Nigerian Union South Africa, Mr. Ikechukwu Anyene, conceded to the journalist interviewing him that Ndigbo made up the bulk of Nigerians arrested in South Africa on drug-related charges. These men (and sometimes women), the Igbo 419ers, the drug pushers, the robbers are not invisible. The are not shy about showing off their wealth. And because they crave the attention and adulation that affluence brings, right about this time of the year- almost December- they are getting ready to swarm our villages and towns. They’ll return from China and Malaysia and South Africa and wherever else with ridiculous nicknames and other crass displays of their ‘arrival.’ Videos will go viral of them in churches thanking ‘Baba God’ for blessing them. We will see videos of them at parties, christening each other with expensive champagne, spraying money- foreign currency- like confetti and we will witness our youth retweet the videos and ask on social media, “God, when?” Not “how?” but “when,” which in itself is illustrative.
Drug peddlers. 419ers. Swindlers. People without a kobo to their names suddenly catapulting out of nowhere with massive wealth, soiling the nation’s reputation. These are the dominant narratives. Ndi be anyi si na mmadu ada egbu ozu o ga-eso kwa but we are causing our own pain by contributing to and enabling these narratives to move from the margins to the centre. Ndi Igbo as drug peddlers, 419ers, swindlers.
These stories are not lies but they are not representative of our people and they are certainly not narratives that we should allow to define us as Ndigbo. The significant thing about narratives is that they have the power to shape our notions of who we are, and not just what others think of us. The African-American historian and panAfricanist, JH Clarke said famously that “to control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.” Our ideas of beauty, of race, of civilization and so on are based on the narratives that were told of us by those with the power to shape and share those narratives, and they in turn have become the narratives that we tell ourselves of ourselves. Why would an Igbo child tell another that eating akpu is bush? Or that eating with your fingers is bush? Or that speaking Igbo is bush? Why would an Igbo man come on Twitter – as someone did recently- and say what a pity it is that one of our Igbo leaders has an Igbo accent. Why have we accepted that calling someone – calling an Igbo man – an Okoro is one of the most terrible insults to hurl at him? It is because over the years, we have allowed – not always willingly, I must add- we have allowed others to calibrate what is ‘bush’ and what is not, what is desirable and what is not. For years, even though our traditional wrapper looks better on full bodied women, we swallowed the myth that a certain body shape was preferable. Now, with the body positivism movement being championed by full bodied women in the west, the body shape meant for ima akwa is again being touted as beautiful. The narratives that we have allowed to dominate, tell us to look elsewhere- outside of us- for what we (ought to) find desirable. We do not see the irony in overzealous pastors and their acolytes destroying what should be our world heritage sites and preaching a total eradication of our traditional festivals in some cases, going as far , sometimes, as to abandon/change their names for being ‘heathenish,’ but who then live happily in a world where days of the week are named after European pagan gods. Like Achebe would say, Ofogoli aburo ife ofuu.
Watch Chika Unigwe’s speech below. Read the full transcript here.