Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
The traditional ruler of Nawgu community in Anambra State, George Okaa-Onwuogu (Igwe Orachili), retired in 2008 as a director in the Anambra State Universal Basic Education Board (ASUBEB) before his coronation in 2014. In this interview, he sheds more light on the activities in his community and the state, and why he allowed his first son to become a Catholic priest.
Could you give a brief history of Nawgu community?
Nawgu has a long history because where we are now was not the original settlement of our people. Nawgu is a brother to Awka, Nibo and Nise, including Ugwuoba. They were part of the modern Awka and, that time, there was nothing like Okpuno and other satellite villages of Awka because Nawgu occupied those areas. But over two centuries ago, there was a civil war and the community was thrown out of Awka and scattered all over the place. Like the Olo community in Enugu State was a part of Nawgu, so it is for Amaetiti, Umudunu, Abagana, Agulu and others. The remnants continued the journey to even Awkuzu, Ukwulu and some others before they settled in this place today. In the 1970s, some of our people who settled in Agulu returned home and we gave them land because we knew they were our brothers. Nawgu used to be 12 villages but today we have six quarters; not so populous but not a small town too. We have common boundaries with Urum, Isuaniocha, Ukwulu and Enugu Agidi.
What are some of the cultural practices and traditional activities in the community?
We have some cultural practices as obtainable in other communities in Igboland. The way of marriage is almost the same and we used to have many festivals, though some have gone extinct because of modernism. Our major festivals are the Onwa Asato celebration, usually done in December. It involves various masquerade displays and dances that connect the entire community, while those in the Diaspora even return home for the event. It marks the end of the year and beginning of a new one. We used to have the Nkwa festival, a very big feast usually done before the planting season but that one has actually fizzled out now. We still mark the ifejioku, now known as Ili ji, the New Yam estival. In Dunukofia Local Government, we celebrate it same day now, while the Ofala festival celebrated by the Igwe is still in vogue. For us, we do the Ofala every three years and I’ve done it once after my coronation. The next Ofala is coming this year, 2020, and we normally start on time to do the preparation because it involves a lot of things. We also have cultural dances, including women troupes, and all combine to make the community rich in cultural heritage.
Anambra State House of Assembly passed a bill on burial expenditure, but we know that ozo title holders spend fortunes during funerals. What is the situation in Nawgu?
Expensive funeral is a serious issue in Igboland but I curtailed such in Nawgu when I became the traditional ruler. I made it a rule that no one should sell land because of burial or funeral ceremonies. You are at liberty to spend only within your means when burying somebody in our community; so, not having enough money should not be an impediment. For the ozo title holders, you also cut your coat according to your size, because I spoke against expensive burials and the ozo people reasoned with me and curtailed the requirements to a certain level. Certain provisions often demanded by the umuada and the likes are now optional and not by force, that’s how we have instituted it here so it can be easier for the people. We’ve also curtailed the burial days to a maximum of three days before everything is dismantled. Mourning periods for husbands and wives that usually took one year has been reduced to six months, while there are plans to review the period downwards again.
Men dread going to some communities in Igboland to marry because of the long list of requirements from the umunna. Is it like that in Nawgu?
In Nawgu, we have different lists, according to villages, while we also have a separate list for non-natives coming to marry our daughters but, in all, we have a moderate list that any willing suitor can afford. I’ve also realised that they compile this list by comparing with the requirements demanded by neighbouring communities, that’s why I’ve not mandated them to prune down to the barest minimum because I realised that our own community’s list is far much cheaper than what other neighbouring communities collect.
Recently, security agents rated Nawgu as one of the most peaceful in the state despite the prevalence of strife and tension in many other communities. How was this possible?
It’s a long story but I will be brief. When I became the Igwe, few years back, this place was hotter than Upper Iweka as crime was at its spiralling point. Rape, cultism, drug peddling, handbag snatching, robbery, etc, but I said we can’t continue that way. We went to work and fashioned out strategies. I started with the youths and also went to National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and requested for seminars and workshops, which they obliged. We started a new orientation among the youths and also engaged them in productive ventures. Gradually, they keyed into the agenda while those who persisted were picked up by the relevant security agents and prosecuted accordingly.
What of the continued disagreements between the town union presidents-general and the traditional rulers, have you experienced such?
It’s common in many communities in Anambra State. The problem is that some of the PGs claim so many things and even arrogate powers they don’t have to themselves. My own former PG even said that Igwe is under him and even confused some uninformed people with such error. The previous PG we had here had a very harmonious working relationship with me, but the immediate past one was something else. We had certain conflicts before the end of his tenure and everything boiled down to the fact that he was more interested in what would enter his private pocket instead of what the entire community would benefit from. He initiated several conflicts here but we used superior reasoning to address the situation and we now have a caretaker committee in place. The proper election for democratically elected town union leaders will take place soon.
In Igbo culture, the first son is expected to get married, take over the father’s Obi and inheritance too but, in your case, you allowed your first son to choose celibacy and become a Catholic priest. Why?
(Laughs) I was born a Catholic and I grew within the Catholic mission while my dad established the first Catholic church here. I took active participation in the church from childhood and my father was so much involved in the church that he wished that one of his sons would become a Catholic priest. I had the zeal in me and I entered the seminary with the hope of becoming one but the civil war prevented me from accomplishing that journey, while fate played a fast one on me too when my brother and father died in quick succession after.
But because God works in a mysterious way, it was the same God that put the zeal for the priesthood in my first son. I hoped that one of my children would become a priest too and it eventually happened that Uchenna, my first son, picked interest. It started from his childhood because he served mass as an altar knight and had already started secondary school in Ichi Nnewi, where we lived then, until one day he told me that he wanted to go to the seminary. I couldn’t say no and he enrolled and never had any obstacle until he was ordained in 2011. That day was my happiest day in life because God saw my heart’s desire and fulfilled it in my son. He has been doing well since his ordination, having worked as personal secretary to the Archbishop of Onitsha until he was sent to Rome for further studies recently.