Ndigbo, Misunderstood

Patrick O. Okigbo III

There are many misconceptions about Ndigbo (that group of people found predominantly in the Eastern part of Nigeria) which, left unchallenged, have assumed the status of unvarnished truths. A phone call I just got from the President General of my town union got me thinking about these misrepresentations. The call was to solicit a donation towards the purchase of food items for the vulnerable in my Ojoto who would be most affected when the Federal Government finally gets round to declaring a national shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. *”IGBO ENWE EZE”*: A direct translation of this statement is that “Ndigbo do not have kings”. Indeed, it speaks to the republican nature of the people. However, it is used pejoratively to mean that Ndigbo have no respect for traditional institutions or persons. This is false.

Ndigbo (like most humans) do not want to be lorded over. They desire that issues should be presented for debate before decisions are made. Ndigbo will not accept a position simply because a man of authority said so.

My President General could have issued a statement demanding or levying funds for the programme. Instead, knowing the republican nature of his people, he chose to call. On the call, he mentioned that my traditional ruler, Igwe Gerald Mbamalu, Eze Oranyelu I (Eze Ojoto) endorsed the programme and asked that a WhatsApp group should be set up for the purpose. The Igwe could have decreed a levy as well. Rather, he chose to discuss it with his Ndichie (the highest decision-making council) and then to solicit support through dialogue. This particular Igwe has been excellent in the way he reaches out to all when decisions are to be made and the clarity and transparency he brings to the process. As such, he has enjoyed broad-based support for his community-development programmes.

I have no doubt that before the close of day today, enough funds would be raised to procure the food items. My confidence is rooted in the approach that has been employed. You don’t lord it over anyone; not because you are ordained or elected. Rather, you present a position, open it up for debate, and if it makes sense, Ndigbo will support it. QED!

Ndigbo respect leadership but it must be from a position of discussion and negotiation. Not from a lord to his vassals.

2. *SELFISHNESS*: Many people who do not understand Ndigbo present them as self-centred (”They will sell their mothers for money”). This is false.

Don’t get me wrong. Ndigbo are intensely competitive and success is highly valued by their society. However, they are a group of people (like most humans) who are drawn to philanthropy.

“Ịgba Boyị”, the Igbo business apprenticeship or pseudo-impact investment system, is an example. Likewise, most of the infrastructure in the various Igbo villages (roads, drainage, erosion control, electric power, hospitals, schools, etc.) are built by individuals and their various town unions. There is hardly any successful Igbo person who does not financially support a few widows, indigent students, clan members, etc. Every Igbo person is raised to know that they owe a responsibility to the community and that they should not expect any encomiums in return.

Indeed, in some communities in the South East, the new way of displaying wealth is no longer with status cars, expensive homes, or spraying money at events; rather, it is in the number of kilometres of tarred roads one has constructed in one’s village. It is in the number of kilometres of solar street lights one has installed. It is in the number of health insurance payments one makes every year for the indigent in one’s community. It is in the number of JAMB forms one pays for every year. It is in the number of university scholarships one provides every year. Many of the benefactors are known just to the person providing the support. Even when such benevolence is mentioned in public, it is quickly dismissed with, “Ọ ịfe ọ kwesili ịme” (It is what is expected of one). These can not be the attributes of a selfish, money-hungry, people.

3. *LOUD AND BRASH*: Many observers claim that Ndigbo are pompous, loud and brash. Well, there is some truth to this one. But it must be understood that, for most humans, it is the same thing that makes one strong that makes one weak.

Most of these Igbo people swim against currents while fighting sharks with bare hands to become successful. It is this “never-say-die” spirit that brings the success that is also seen as loud and brash.

I guess this is one of those attributes that the world would have to find some space in their hearts to tolerate. After all, a man who, with nothing, was able to sell snow to the Eskimos deserves some bragging room.

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