BY CHUKS OSUJI
Incontestably, the Igbo nation is a combination of families, kindred, villages, and towns (communities). One of the identifiable cultural patterns of the Igbo is the collection of homesteads. If one is airborne and is to take an aerial photograph of the entire nation of Nigeria, one will not find it difficult to distinguish between towns and villages belonging to the Igbo and other communities in Nigeria. One distinguishing aspect is the clustering of homes in any Igbo community. The Igbo live together in buildings for the purpose of common protection. This is because the Igbo believe in the concept of being one’s brother’s keeper.
It is the characteristics of the Igbo that they live together, work together, in order to protect one another. This is why in Igbo communities, towns and villages, Igbo homes are built together and every collection of villages are mostly under the authority of the most senior members of the family. This gives rise to the concept of “igwebuike” (collectivism is strength).
Another important aspect of the Igbo is the concept of collectivism. When the time was time, the head of every family would march an army of members of his family to the farm for collective farming. They may stay there until early evening before they could return to their homes for dinner and other nightfall activities. This concept of collectivism is perhaps one of the noticeable items in Igbo culture. Today, in overseas countries, the Igbo nationalities do a lot of things together, congregate together, form associations or groups because of the concept of “be your brother’s keeper.”
For example, while I was in the United States and rounding off my doctorate programme, one of my cousins, Richard Anakani, and I were returning from our nightshift job and were waiting in our car for the traffic light to give us the green light to move on when a young man in his 20s approached us and rapped at the car’s window. We did not find it difficult to identify him as an Igbo person. I pulled up by the side of the road to listen to his request.
It is not necessary to ask how we knew he is Igbo. If that question arises, it is too simplistic. Without wasting time, we asked him to enter our vehicle. During the preliminary conversation, he told us that his name was Okoh from Afikpo and that he has been wandering on the streets of Dallas trying to locate where he could have a roof over his head. We took him to our residence.
It was during his stay with us that he told us that the first thing he did was to go to a telephone booth and go through the entries. And that he started with the letter A. According to him, he knew that many Igbo names begin with A, C, E, and O. He chose few names and tried their numbers. But some white receivers who picked his calls were either not willing to continue to discuss with him or cut off the conversation midway. In the course of the discussion, I asked him: “Why did you not look for Okoh in the telephone directory?” He replied that he felt that he wouldn’t find Okoh because people with that kind of name would not be in Dallas Texas.
Incidentally, we kept him in our home for three days in order to help him find accommodation. On the third day, we came back from work and could not find him. A few minutes later, our doorbell rang. As I was about to open the door, I saw Okoh sandwiched between two policemen. As I showed up my face, one of the policemen asked me: “Do you know him.” I replied yes. He is one of us.” The man pushed him in while holding him by the scrawl of his neck and said: “Young man, be careful.”
Okoh told us that since we lived in a cluster of apartments with over 500 units looking like the other, he found it difficult to know which of them was ours. Hence he took to knocking on every door that he saw. And, he continued to do so until one of the tenants called the police. When they arrived he gave them the name of one of us. With that, they were able to trace our apartment and, thereafter, the rest became history.
I gave this analogy or anecdote to show the congregating spirit of Igbo people anywhere they find themselves. But that phenomenon and the cohesiveness it brings is more pronounced within the age-grade system in Igbo land. A cursory look will show that there exist numerous age-grade groups in our communities. These age grades are highly influential in decision-making. In fact, they are very much involved in the socio-economic development of their various communities. They hold monthly or weekly meetings at which they decide what and what to do for the communities. Sometimes they get involved in road clearing; at other times they take up market stalls protection and security.
In all communities in Igbo land, age grades are mobilised to execute some important jobs, including the provision of security. And, in any given community, you can get 20, 30 of such groups. Since most of them are young and vibrant, they are mobilised by their communities to impact lives in one way or the other.
Now that our existence appears to be threatened by some miscreants in our midst, I think it is high time that both the government and traditional rulers mobilised these age grades to form vigilance units for the safety of their communities. In my opinion, all they need is proper orientation and clear definition and delineation of their roles. Where they are properly organised by the communities, I believe there will be no need for security operatives to go about harassing innocent people because they are in a position to know who is who. I want to say that they are indeed veritable tools for community policing and should be made use of, to help lower the tension that is threatening our existence as a people.
•Dr. Osuji is the former MAMSER Director for Imo State.