Sunday, September 9, 2007


By Catherine Acholonu
Nigeria Country Ambassador, United Nations Forum of Arts and Culture.
Head, Catherine Acholonu Research Center for African Cultural Sciences, Abuja, Nigeria.
Keynote Address delivered at the First Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference on Africa and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, 26-28th July, 2007.
Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria.
First Delivered as the 2007 Black History Month Lecture at the Community College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, USA.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which saw millions upon millions of African peoples transported in slave-ships through the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and the Americas, began in the 15th Century and was in its boom in the 16th, 17th and late 18th Centuries. For four hundred years African men and women were traded as commodities with the connivance of local chiefs on the African continent. "By the 1780s, the high point of the African Slave Trade, when more than eighty-eight thousand Africans would be brought to the New World every year, the Atlantic Slave Trade was a well-established mercantile system connecting Africa, Europe and the Americas in a web of (illicit) commerce" (Robert J. Allison, Introduction to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1995). By 1750, England, Holland and France had become leading slave traders with those from Portugal, and later America, and by 1776 there were slaves in every American colony from New Hampshire to Georgia.
Slavery became the mainstay of European and American economies as well as the main domestic workforce, so much so that by the late 1700s when the wind of Abolition began to blow, even the anti-slavery proponents still possessed slaves. When Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence, declaring that "all men are created equal" and endowed equally with rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", he himself was in possession of about 200 slaves. (Robert Allison, 1995)
In 1783 Slavery was declared illegal in Massachusetts. From the year 1780, the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania passed anti-slavery laws. In 1787 the American Congress barred slavery from the territory north of Ohio River, and the American Constitution mandated Congress to prohibit the Slave Trade after 1808.
While the fire of Abolition was raging in North America, slavery remained deeply entrenched in Great Britain. It was against this backdrop that Olaudah Equiano, himself an African from the Igbo tribe ("Eboe") in what is today 'Nigeria', took up the struggle to banish slavery from England. Equiano took on the abolition of slavery in Britain as a personal challenge. His journeys through the Americas as a sailor's boy had exposed him to the horrors of slavery in that part of the world, but it had also fired him with the flame of the American anti-slavery movement. English men were making lucrative business from slavery and from their sugar plantation colonies in the West Indies, and were not willing to see slavery abolished, so Equiano faced a very tough challenge.
In 1783 when the captain of a slave ship called Zong ordered a total of 132 sick slaves drowned in order to claim insurance benefits, it was Equiano who broke the story to the British public causing a national outrage and subsequently giving teeth to the Abolitionist Movement in Great Britain. The most notable abolitionists who were strengthened by Equiano's anti-slavery activism in the wake of the Zong massacre were Thomas Clarkson, a college student at Cambridge, the prolific Reverend James Ramsay, William Wilberforce, the powerful orator/parliamentarian and Olaudah Equiano himself. In 1785 Equiano, who hitherto had been operating from behind the scenes, was incensed by a damaging statement by one of the Abolition's harshest critics, a London slave-merchant James Tobin, into making a public statement in condemnation of slavery. Tobin in a vitriolic attack on Rev. Ramsay's Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the Sugar Colonies (1874), had insisted that blacks who were not slaves would not work and that "out of the whole of this number, those who are not in livery are in rags; and such as are not servants, are thieves or mendicants." Tobin's argument that blacks were fit only to be slaves infuriated Equiano into firing back from what had been his apparent anonymity. The argument was becoming personal, because it raised questions about the personal integrity and character of the black man. And the European abolitionist was not competent to offer any defense at this point. Equiano had no choice but to take up the pen and fire back at Tobin and others like him. He called Tobin "an invective fibber" in a letter to London's Public Advertiser, apologizing for having to descend to Tobin's level in order to give him the reply he evoked.
From this point on, there was no more going back for Equiano. Having lived in slavery for ten years and known 20 years of freedom, and having been born and bred on the African continent, Equiano saw his own life as a testament of slavery on the one hand, and on the other hand, of the integrity, civility and humanity of the black man, which were being called to question. Having experienced every aspect of slavery on the three continents - Africa, the Americas and Europe -Equiano embarked upon his autobiography, to use his own life-story as a instrument to demonstrate the reality, the horror and the savagery of building an entire civilization upon human merchandize and upon man's enslavement of his fellow man. He and another former slave, a fellow Igbo living in London, Ottabah Cugoano, organized an intellectual war on slavery. Ottabah Cugoano hit upon the idea of writing an essay about the evils of slavery. His book was published in 1787 under the title Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery. His was the first such contribution by an African to the debate, and it inspired Equiano to do likewise. Ottabah, as his two names suggest, must have been a skilled hunter from Old Orlu zone, for his two names Utagbaa Koghooanu translate in Orlu dialect as 'Let-The-Arrow-Go-Forth, That-He (It)-May-Become-Meat'.
Two years after the publication of Ottabah Cuguano's work, Equiano's autobiography was published under the title The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself (1879). In the book, Equiano presented himself not only as a victim of slavery, but more importantly, he gave the first ever detailed description of rural/socio-cultural life in a black African village from the point of view of a black African and an ex-slave. He gave some detailed and poignant description of his life's beginnings as a little boy of noble birth from one of the world's earliest democracies; an egalitarian society where men and women lived with the utmost regard for human dignity and honour, the dignity of labour, the rule of law and in total harmony with the environment. By contrast, this picture was parodying the savagery and inhumanity going on all around him in the European society of his day. The book was an instant bestseller. It portrayed Equiano as a great literary craftsman for it was written in such a way as to successfully appeal to all segments of the society. It was at once a theological essay, a slave narrative, a sentimental novel and an adventure story, but more than all that, an irrepressible abolitionist tool.
Robert Allison in his introduction to the 1995 edition of The Narrative put it so succinctly in the following words:
In 1788, diverse abolitionist coalitions banded together to form one of the greatest mass movements in British history. Activists collected tens of thousands of signatures urging parliament to end the slave trade. Equiano presented his own to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, on March 21st 1788.
Equiano's Narrative became one crucial link between these segments of the British public. He had played no small part in inspiring the great English abolitionists Clarkson, Sharp, Ramsay and the parliamentarian William Wilberforce. But he also knew sailors and dock workers, black refugees from West Indies and America, and leaders of London's emerging radical working class. He was recognized by virtually every segment of the anti-slavery and reform movements, and he could speak of his own experiences in a way to move men and women at every level of society. Among the first subscribers of his book were members of the English royal family and political radicals … pacifists and Admirals, Anglican bishops and dissenting ministers, Africans living in London, and women and men committed to reform… (p. 15)
After Equiano sold more than two thousand copies of the Narrative on a trip to Ireland in 1791, a white abolitionist said that Equiano was "more use to the cause than half the people in the country."
Equiano was thus the unsung father of the abolition of slavery in Britain, and the Black world's foremost abolitionist. His Narrative was second only to that of Cugoano in order of appearance, but in terms of its impact as an anti-slavery weapon, it was second to none. Equiano saw himself as the representative of the black race in its entirety, and has been compared to Moses, the deliverer of the enslaved Jews of Egypt.
In America the Narrative is recognized as the first great African-American slave narrative. Equiano was the only slave author who gave detailed insight into the author's native African nation, culture and lifestyles including the lifestyles of the peoples among whom he traversed on the African continent.
This gave his work the stamp of authenticity and even so was his impact on the English, American and global society at large. His Narrative became an international bestseller, and even before Equiano died in April 1797, the book had had eight English editions as well as an American, a French, a Dutch and a Russian, a feat which no other work by an African or a Black had attained. The book continued to be a political tool for the abolition of slavery and racism against Blacks well onto the early 19th Century in America (North and South) and in Britain. Equiano's fame and popularity continued to grow and the records indicate that eighty years after his death he was still remembered as the influential abolitionist "Olaudah Equiano, the African", on the tombstones of his daughter and son-in-law.
In the 20th Century Equiano's voice was a key instrument for Black anti-racism struggle in America, the Caribbean, Europe and among African nationalists struggling against colonialism. Equiano's poignant and proud portrayal of the civilized African society of his ancestors gave African blacks born in the Diaspora who had no knowledge of Africa, a sense of pride and cultural identity, such that an African-American author and veteran of the Harlem Renaissance noted the "whispered pride" with which African-Americans trying to reclaim their own history cited Equiano's Narrative. (See Robert Allison)
In the first and introductory part of The Narrative, Olaudah Equiano had given some details about the customs and socio-cultural lifestyles of the natives of his country. His geographical description of the part of Africa where he was born, indicates that he was born in West Africa, somewhere between Senegal and Angola, among a people he named "Eboe" (Igbo) in a little town he spelt as "Essaka" situated a "very considerable" distance from the kingdom of Benin. Since Equiano had never "heard of white men or Europeans, nor the sea", he concluded that any tell-tale subjection of his people to the kingdom of Benin must be "little more than nominal, for every transaction of government … was conducted by chiefs or elders of the place". Equiano's description of the kingdom of Benin is interesting. Benin prior to the time of Equiano's birth was already trading with the Portuguese. Equiano says that the kingdom was considerable in its extent, wealth, riches, agriculture, power of its king and number and warlike disposition of its inhabitants. And yet its influence was hardly felt in his own "Eboe" tribal homeland of Essaka which was governed by chiefs and judges. About the Igbo system of government Equiano had written: "the chief men decided disputes and punished crimes, for which purpose they always assembled together. The proceedings were generally short and in most cases the law of retaliation prevailed."
In this short and cryptic description, Equiano demonstrated two different types of government found in pre-colonial Africa, namely; Monarchy as in the case of Benin, and Democracy as in the Igbo case which consisted of "senators and judges" who deliberated together on affairs of state and took decisions collectively. Igbo democracy was akin to that of the Hebrews of Palestine before the institution of monarchy and its judicial system like retaliatory laws introduced by Moses to the Jews of the Old Testament.
Equiano described in great detail, Igbo customs such as existed and still exist among the generality of Igbo people in Nigeria. These include religious belief in one Almighty God, the creator of all, who lives in heaven; Igbo harvest festivals and offerings, marriage, housing, architecture; agriculture and animal husbandry; marriage and gender relations; Igbo system of government, legislature, language, commerce, medical system, military system, slavery (the involvement of Aro slave-raiders, the methods of taking slaves and of protecting citizens from slavers); Igbo social system, cuisine, dressing; Igbo belief in reincarnation, etc., all or most of which have been corroborated through field work by scholars, not the least of which is my humble self who traced his claims to his home in Essaka between 1986 and 1989. (See The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, Catherine Acholonu, Afa Publications 1989, revised edition, 2007). He described the flora and fauna of the rainforest region where Igbo land is located, emphasizing on the oil-palm tree, a tree that produces wine, nuts and oil, which is specific to Nigeria and environs and whose general usage differs from tribe to tribe, highlighting, accurately, its diverse uses in Orlu part of Igbo land, where Isseke, his home town has been located. Of great importance to Equiano and to any reading and appreciation of his work is his overweighing emphasis on the Igbo facial scarification, Igbu Ichi, which he called "Embrenche".
But he also described customs of his native community of "Essaka", supplying minute details that have been found to tally with an uncanny exactitude with the customs of the little known town of Isseke in Ihiala Local Government of Anambra State of today's Nigeria, located on the Eastern side of the River Niger. (See The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, 1989 and revised edition, Abuja, 2007). Interestingly, Isseke has been found to possess some peculiarities of customs, known to Equiano, that also add to its identification as Equiano's actual homeland. They include women militancy; ichi scarification as a mark of manhood for boys, as the greatest symbol of nobility among elders, and as a prerequisite for joining the council of senators and judges; Isseke as a nation of dancers and music-makers; a community of master smokers where men, women, boys and girls indulge in pipe-smoking as a favourite pastime; a militia community; a community of craftsmen and women: moulders of pottery, spinners and weavers of cotton, blacksmiths and smelters of iron who produce their own ammunition and tools of tillage out of iron. Equiano goes to such infinitesimal details as to describe correctly, the colour of Isseke earth, which is red, the arrangement of the houses in their homesteads. He named the common crops and agricultural products of Isseke, indicating those that grow with and without culture. He described Isseke musical instruments, farming implements, mentioning details that would elude any one but a native.
For a period of over two and years, between 1986 and 1989, I conducted field work in Isseke, verifying Equiano's claims (and again in 2006/2007 after I was informed that someone was claiming that Equiano was neither born in Igbo land nor in Isseke).
My findings confirmed that Equiano had first-hand knowledge of Isseke customs as indicated in The Narrative, a few examples of which are cited here: the number of offerings made after harvest, before the new yam is eaten - which is two; the kind of spices used in these particular offerings - bitter herbs, which Isseke people and their neighbours call onugbu and utazi; Isseke common practice of marrying no more than two wives; veneration of the python; Isseke traditional cloth which consists of calico usually died blue, spun, woven and died by Isseke women (It is still in use among Isseke elders and a sample was presented to me during my visit, see Fig. 12); the act of kissing eatables and drinks before a buyer to erase the suspicion of poisoning; the absence of any river or spring in Isseke and the preponderance of wells in the town. (See The Igbo Roots, 2007 edition.)
Equiano had written that his name 'Olaudah' signifies in Essaka language "vicissitude, or fortunate; also one favoured and having a loud voice and well spoken". Indeed the name Olaude is a common name in Isseke and means 'a ring with a vibrating or loud sound, a fortunate person; it also implies a person with a loud voice and a person who will touch lives/ go places (vicissitude)'. Igbo names have prophetic meanings and the subsequent course of Equiano's life proved true to his native Igbo name. He wrote in The Narrative that "my father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche, a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur". Olaudah thus revealed that he was descended from an Igbo noble family. As it was rare for sons of noblemen to be sold into slavery in Igbo land and in Isseke, and as there was and still is only one Isseke noble family with a similar surname to that borne by Olaudah, our search light quickly turned up the family of Ekwealuo (also pronounced 'Ekweanuo'), a family of nobles and Embrenche whose name portrays that war-like disposition of Isseke people described by Olaudah. Ekwealuo means 'when-we-mutually-agree-we-go-to-war'.
Of recent, more light has been thrown on the name of Equiano's home town. In his autobiography, he called it Essaka, which has been identified by various scholars as Isseke. More than that, Equiano, in a letter to the members of the British senate dated 9th June, 1788 wrote that he hoped "to return to my estate in Elese, in Africa". Prof Dorothy Ukaegbu of Community College of Southern Nevada has identified Elese as a short form for Ala-Isse, 'land of Isse', formed from a joining of two words, "'Ala' and 'Isse' (Isse or Ise means 'five'). (Las Vegas Review Journal, Dec. 18, 2006). This is totally in tandem with the explanation given to me by the traditional ruler of Isseke, His Highness Igwe Emma Nnabuife, regarding the origin of the word Isseke. "Isseke," he said, "is a short form for Isi-Eke-Ise. Over the years, the word was shortened to Isi-Eke and then to Isseke." Equiano's privileged knowledge of the etymology of the word 'Essaka' is added proof that he was indeed a native speaker. Isi-Eke-Ise means, 'Head-of-Five-Eke'. Eke is the name of a leading deity in Equiano's part of Igbo-land: the deity associated with the Eke market day. (The Igbo have four market days which make up the Igbo four-day week: Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo. See Achebe's Things Fall Apart.) Igwe Emma Nnabuife explained further that there are five leading Eke deities in Isseke. The deity that has its shrine in Isseke is the leading deity of the five. Its name is Ogwugwu. It is because of this deity that Isseke earned its name Isi-Eke-Ise (Head-of-Five-Deities). Accordingly, the Isseke market, which is a daily market (one of the very few daily markets in traditional Igbo-land), does not function on Eke days, which is regarded as the day spirits and powerful wizards and god-men from all over Igbo-land buy and sell at the market. Ala-Ise, 'Land of Five' miss spelt Elese, would thus be a native code name for the hallowed Land-of-Five Deities that has come to be known as Isseke, known to and only used by indigenes. The fact that Equiano used this native code word in a letter he personally made out to the British Parliament, is further proof that he was a son of Ala-Ise (Isseke) soil.
All through the two and half years during which I undertook the field work of searching out Olaudah Equiano's Igbo roots, I had thought the most I could do would be to make a likely identification of his town by virtue of the instances of customs he described in his book. I hardly believed that I would actually find members of his family. Therefore nothing prepared me for the shock of getting to Isseke and coming face to face with actual living family members who not only bore the same surname with him Ekweanuo/Ekwealuo, but actually had the same facial features: a fourteen year old boy named Bright Ekwealuo whose facial features were the same as those of young Equiano preserved in the latter's portrait at Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, UK; Fidelis Ekwealuo, a grand nephew of Olaudah; Oliver Ekwealuo, another cousin of Fidelis. My meeting with Fidelis Ekwealuo (who was living in Lagos but had to come down because I had requested a general meeting with members of the Ekwealuo extended family) was an unbearable experience for me. Even today twenty years after, whenever I speak about the experience, I have never succeeded in holding back the tears, for Fidelis Ekwealuo is like a carbon copy of Olaudah Equiano. My meeting with Fidelis sealed it for me. I had found Olaudah Equiano's family!
Ekwealuo is also pronounced Ekweanuo. The shift from -l- (used in Orlu dialect) to -n- (used in Onitsha dialect) might have been effected by Olaudah himself. This kind of shift is common when Orlu Igbo come into contact with a larger Igbo community. To this day, whenever this happens dialectal differences usually shift in favour of Onitsha which is considered by to be sweeter to the ear.
Further enquires revealed that Olaude Ekwealuo was a prince, for he belonged to one of the two ruling houses of Isseke. Igbo Ezeship was by primogeniture. An Eze was a ceremonial king, who with the judges and chiefs together decided the affairs of state. He was not a ruler, but the royal head of the community by virtue of his birth from the lineage of first sons (okpala) of the aboriginal settlers of Isseke. The Igbo saying, "Igbo-enwe Eze" (the Igbo have no king) derives from the fact that Igbo culture is rooted on the cult of the god-man, which regards every Igbo man and woman as a sun and daughter of the sun and as such is born a king. Among the Northern Igbo this phenomenon is captured under the concept of Nwa-Anyanwu (child of the sun) and Onu-Anyawnu (shrine of the sun) and the more generalized Igbo concept of Chi, Ihu chi and ichi which shall be treated in greater detail in due course.
During the years while my research was going on, I was publishing my findings in the local newspapers. When I released my preliminary findings through The Guardian newspaper to the Nigerian public with the pictures of Bright Ekwealuo and Olaudah Equiano, there was an uproar as shocked but highly impressed readers wrote in the congratulate me on my findings. I then sent an article titled "The Home of Olaudah Equiano: A Linguistic and Anthropological Search" to the editor of Journal of Commonwealth Literature (JCL), England, who quickly accepted it and published it in the same year (vol. xxii, No. 1, 1987). The editor of this journal was too excited by my findings that he made contact with Paul Edwards, the Europe authority on Equiano, and with the British Council, recommending that I be supported with my research. I was thus brought into contact with Paul Edwards, and between 1987 and 1989 I continuously shared my findings with him by mail. (These letters are published unedited and in their original form in the revised edition of The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, under Appendix iv. They are listed here in Fig. 2-4) In his letter of 17th August, 1988 Paul wrote
I think the name Ekwealuo is likely to be as you say that of Equiano's ancestors. Thanks for your information on Omumu (the coin described by Equiano) and I think your information on Igbo details in The Narrative are very valuable. Why didn't a Nigerian do this kind of work on him years ago? I suspect that they were prevented by your own good chi.
On 8th September, 1988 he wrote,
I have already written about the work you are doing to Berndt Lindfors editor of Research in African Literatures and to Henry Louis Gates at English Department, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y…."
On 29th August, 1988 Paul Edwards had written,
"Now what about a combined project? I like the idea of a book on Equiano from three angles - part I, Equiano in Africa (by you), part II, Equiano in America and part III, Equiano in Britain. How would you feel about doing part I? There'd be no problem finding a publisher and I've already written to the very distinguished Henry Louis Gates at Cornell asking if he'd do the American section… I told him about your work. He had read your JCL article.
On 8th November 1988, Paul adjusted this proposal from a three-continental to a four-continental perspective, thus:
I am proposing a title to Gates to suggest to OUP. Equiano's Travels in Four Continents - It would have a section on Africa from you, USA from Gates, Duffield and myself on Asia Minor, and myself on Britain… The new Equiano (referring to his forthcoming book) of which I have just had advance copies, won't be published officially till late January so that it will be in the bicentenary year. Expect it in early February. As I explained, all I could fit in was a reference to your pamphlet in the Bibliography, but when the reprint goes through, I'll ensure that you're given the attention your work deserves. I think your case is very persuasive…
In two subsequent letters (March 29th, 1989 and June, 2, 1989) Paul wrote,
I am delighted to hear that the famous James Currey has your ms (manuscript) on Equiano. I'll write to James at once, in support. But as for my visiting Nigeria, I would rather see the money spent on bringing you to the Commonwealth Literature Conference in August at the University on Canterbury… I think your identification of Essaka as Isseke and the family name as Equialuo (sic), is wholly convincing, and a most valuable piece of research.
Paul did make good his promise to bring me to the Commonwealth Literature Conference, but more than that, he got the British Council to organize a lecture tour of universities and culture centers in Britain for me to share my findings with the academic and culture community as the highlight of the Olaudah Equiano Bicentenary Celebrations in Britain in December, 1989. Between November, 19th and December 6th, I delivered talks on my Equiano research findings at the Commonwealth Institute, London; University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies; University of Exeter; University of Hull; University of Reading; University of York and at the East London Polytechnic - all thanks to Paul Edwards. One of the organizers of the program, Lucy MacKeith, an Education Officer at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, U.K., had written to me on May 16th, 1988, saying,
I was so excited to read your article, 'The Home of Olaudah Equiano' in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. I received a copy of it the day a colleague and I had to drive some 50 miles for a meeting. We were both crying by the time I finished reading it as I drove along! ... Here at Exeter Museum, we have an excellent portrait of him… The evidence which you have collected linking Olaudah Equiano and the Ekwealuo family of Anambra state, Nigeria, is a wonderfully poignant example of careful academic work which brings a 200 year old piece of writing alive today. (See The Igbo Roots, revised edition, p. 305)
On my return to Nigeria after the Europe lecture tour, I got a thank you letter from Rebecca Jewell, Culture Officer, Commonwealth Institute, London, dated December, 20th 1989, saying,
Thank you so much for coming to the Commonwealth Institute and giving such a lively and interesting talk on Equiano. Several people rang me afterwards to say how much they had enjoyed it. Your Account on how you discovered Equiano's birthplace certainly unravelled (sic) like a fascinating detective story, and I do not see how anyone could now doubt Equiano's Igbo roots. (See The Igbo Roots, Revised Edition. p. 307)
In this same period, the Olaudah Equiano Bicentennial Celebrations were going on in USA and the United States Information Service (USIA), with the support of Henry Louis Gates Jr., invited me and sponsored my trip to USA under the American International Visitors' Program, to share my findings with scholars in USA. At the Olaudah Equiano Bicentennial Symposium, University of Utah, I gave the Keynote Speech which was received with a rousing, standing ovation. I visited and shared my findings and research materials with the Library of Congress; Howard University (Moorland Spingarn Collection and Afro-American Research Center); Temple University, Philadelphia (Afro-American Historical Museum and the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection); gave a life interview to Voice of America and met with staff of Essence Magazine. I gave lectures to staff and students at Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, Ithaca. I gave a talk to a class at Harvard University. At Harvard I visited the Du Bois Center for African American Studies and donated copies of The Igbo Roots. Other highlights of my trip were meetings with famous collector and Museum curator, Charles Blockson, famous Afro-American Educationist Elma Louis and novelist Kristin Hunter.
In January 1989, on the advice of the USIS (US Information Service), Nigeria, I had written to Henry Louis Gates Jr. informing him about my work. The USIS, which was sponsoring the trip, had scheduled a TV discussion program in Lagos on Equiano for Henry Louis Gates and me. On February 2nd, 1989, Henry Louis Gates wrote me the following reply clearly indicating that Paul Edwards had informed him that I had indeed found Equiano's birthplace, that he had read my work and was, himself, impressed:
Thank you very much for your good letter of January.
Paul (Edwards) has indeed told me about your marvelous discovery of Equiano's birthplace! Congratulations. I am coming to Nigeria directly from the ALA meeting at Dakar. Please contact me c/o Soyinka, P.O. Box 935,
Abeokuta. I shall be pleased to give a lecture and participate in the TV programme. I also notified the USIS of that fact, and they promised to
contact you. I especially want to join you in visiting his home. (Emphases mine. See The Igbo Roots, revised edition, p. 308; see Fig. 5 of pictures attached here).
Of course Loius Gates did not eventually join the planned excursion to Isseke. He and Edwards had been harranged into changing their minds about my work. The excursion however, did take place comprising of staff and students of Alvan Ikoku College, Owerri, Nigeria, led by the then head of Department of Igbo and African Languages (See Fig. 13).
During my trip to UK, the widely read West Africa magazine published in Britain carried an interview with me on three full pages of the magazine. When the issue came out, all hell was let loose. Paul Edwards, my major supporter, suddenly turned against me. Not a few foot-soldiers, among them one former Student Union leader at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Olu Oguibe by name were unleashed against me. This man came attended my Oludah Equiano Roots Research workshop at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter UK and for more than 40 minutes distracted the proceedings by engaging me in a word duel that I had done nothing new because Chinua Achebe was the first to mention that Equiano's "Essaka" was Isseke and that the credit for that discovery should go to him. Then came Paul Edwards' two articles: one in The Guardian (Nigeria) and the other in Research in African Literatures, in which he simply "dismissed" my work! In the hurried review of my book which he published in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 21, 1990, p.124-128), he stated that in two letters written to him by Chinua Achebe twenty six years earlier (in the early sixties), Achebe had told him that "Equiano's birthplace might be 'a village called Iseke in the area I have always suspected to be the home of Equiano. The village is dead on the Onitsha-Orlu boundary, about six miles from Ihiala…'". One would have thought that this would lend credence to my own conclusions, but no, Paul Edwards had made a total u-turn, calling my work "a pioneering attempt to map out the Igbo world of Equiano, a task which can only be carried out adequately by Igbo scholars (which I was not?) He went on to say, "We have in fact discussed together the matters I raise here and she knows that I am as hopeful as anyone that she is on the track of valuable information." (This was totally false, as all his letters to me clearly reveal.) He continued, "The fact that a widely read journal of some standing (meaning the West Africa magazine) gives lengthy but uncritical consideration to this book, confirms for me the need to examine it more closely if students in the field are not to be misled." So, this was the problem! Jealousy! Some hired assassins even went to the extent of accusing me of plagiarizing Achebe and Edwards, all in the bid to kill my work which was then getting quite a bit of global attention. For the avoidance of doubt, Chinua Achebe has never done any research on Equiano; he had merely expressed a personal feeling which he did not substantiate. Even so, I had listed Achebe's name on page 1 of The Igbo Roots among those who had "contributed constructively to the debate about Equiano's (Isseke) homeland". No one can accuse me of not giving due credit to Achebe and to other Igbo scholars, who, like him, had speculated on the likelihood of Essaka being the same as Isseke. My sin was simply the popularity of my book.
Attacks were suddenly coming from most unexpected angles. Henry Louis Gates, whom I was meeting for the first time at the Olaudah Equiano Bicentennial Symposium at the University of Utah, where I was billed to give a Keynote Address, was the last straw. After listening to my Keynote speech, Gates stood up and tried to dismiss my presentation and my findings, but the audience unmoved by his unconvincing rhetoric, yelled for an encore. The thundering standing ovation I received from that mammoth audience consisting of scholars of Black African Studies from USA, UK, Africa and South America was enough to make me not to take seriously Gates' obvious act of sabotage.
Shortly after all this, Paul Edwards had a stroke and died soon afterwards, and I was not in any mood to launch a counter attack on a dying man. I was also convinced that Paul was under pressure by forces he could not afford to ignore. I decided that time alone would reveal the truth. In September, 1990 I was offered a Fulbright-Scholar-Writer-In-Residence position at the Westchester Consortium for International Studies, Purchase, New York, USA, during which I worked as a Visiting Professor at the four colleges of the Consortium. During the period, I gave lectures on my Equiano research at the University of California at Santa Barbara, UCLA at Los Angeles and a host of others. I was offered the headship of a new African and Black Studies unit that I had helped to introduce at Manhattanville College. I declined the offer because of pressing family matters. I completed my program in 1991 and went back to Nigeria. In 1999, I was appointed the Special Adviser on Arts and Culture to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I served in that post for three years and resigned when I was appointed the Country Ambassador to the United Nations Forum of Arts and Culture (a UNCCD/UNESCO joint global project.
However, during my sojourn at the Westchester Consortium for International Studies, I had embarked on a major research work aimed at unearthing Africa's pre-historic contributions to World Civilizations. That project brought me into the study of African Rock Art as linguistic expressions. In the year 2005, after fifteen years of library and field work, I with my research team, published the first major book on our findings under the title, The Gram Code of African Adam: Stone Books and Cave Libraries, Reconstructing 450,000 Years of Africa's Lost Civilizations, Afa Publications, Abuja, 2005. The book was formerly presented to the international media by His Excellency President Olusegun Obasanjo, represented by the Nigerian Minister of Culture and Tourism. Since the publication of the book accolades have been coming from various quarters, including, recently, the Asst. Director General of UNESCO, (who is the Director General, Africa Department), Prof. Noureini Tidjani Serpos who described the book as "a most outstanding contribution to African History and civilization" and subsequently offered the full support of UNESCO to the research project. The United Nations Forum of Arts and Culture, the Catherine Acholonu Research Center for African Cultural Sciences and UNESCO Africa Department have entered into a collaboration for the purpose of further advancing the research project. We have, in response to popular demand factored in the Equiano project into the program. The Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference on Africa and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which shall take place at the end of July every year is a vital part the program. The Vice Chancellor of Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria, Prof Chuka I. Okonkwo has volunteered Imo State University as the permanent host of the conference.
Late last year while I was on my way back from Benin Republic where I had gone for the Africa launch of The Gram Code of African Adam, I got a call on my cell-phone from someone who introduced herself as a staff of the Community College of Southern Nevada, who apparently had been sent to Nigeria to look for me in connection with the on-going controversy unleashed upon the world of Black and African Studies arising from the discovery by a Henry-Louis-Gates-sponsored-scholar, Vincent Caretta, of baptismal and naval records purporting that Olaudah Equiano was born in South Carolina, USA. I was told that this discovery was being sensationalized to the point where Equiano's African origin is being questioned. I placed a call to Isseke's current traditional ruler, His Royal Highness, Igwe Emmanuel Nnabuife. Igwe Nnabuife, incidentally turned out to be a son of one of my informants in the 1980s, Onyeonubuteuzo Nnabuife, now late, who had then been introduced to me as a kindred of Equiano. (See The Igbo Roots, p. 217-223) Igwe told me he was informed about the controversy when a son of Prof. Chinua Achebe called him by phone from USA asking to know what Isseke people intended to do in defense of the integrity of their son from Vincent Caretta's onslaught, and suggesting to him that Isseke community should contact the British Government and request for the exhumation and repatriation of Olaudah Equiano's corpse for reburial at Isseke. His Royal Highness then requested me to assist Isseke to bring the truth to the world about the true origin of Olaudah Equiano.
Without going into details of what Igwe Nnabuife told me in confidence, I would like to mention that it is only thanks to my research on Equiano that any one can begin to talk about Equiano as an indigene of Isseke as if it was a matter of course. It was thanks to my research that Olaudah Equiano has become a household word in Nigeria and a name engraved in gold in the minds of the indigenes of Isseke, and it is thanks to my research that the issue of Equiano's Igbo origin was, until Vincent Caretta, being seen by scholars as a certainty, rather than a matter of speculation and wistful thinking (as suggested by Steve Ogude), which again is the real reason scholars are shocked that someone is trying to suggest otherwise.
It is an incontrovertible fact that without the contribution I made through my research published in The Igbo Roots and in a number of journal articles, the question of whether Olaudah Equiano is from Isseke would have still remained in the realm of speculation. My research was the one contribution that took the question of the Isseke origin of Equiano out of the realm of speculation into the realm of fact. By defacing my work, Achebe apologist Paul Edwards inadvertently brought the matter of Equiano's Igbo origin back to the realm of speculation. In the hands of the Vincent Carettas of this world this blunder has become a weapon for trashing Olaudah Equiano and the Igbo nation. This point is critical and shall not fail to go down in history, which is why I must call on our 'Eagle on Iroko', the eminent Professor Chinua Achebe, to speak up and set the record straight, not for my sake but for the sake of his brother, the eldest statesman of them all, Olaude Adipuoerie Ekwealuo, an Anambra citizen like himself, a bonafide Igbo man and a Nigerian.
Let me say it loud and clear that in the final analysis, all that this Caretta-Gate will achieve is the vindication of Olaudah Equiano, for this would be, after all said and done, part of Equiano's long-drawn vendetta against the conspirators. It is these lizards that ruined their own mother's funeral (to borrow an expression from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart), that we have to thank for this brazen attempt to brand one of Africa's greatest heroes of the last millennium as a liar.
This question is summarized in a recent reply to Caretta by Paul E. Lovejoy titled, "Autobiography and Memory - Gustavus Vassa Alias Olaudah Equiano, The African". Lovejoy writes, "Vassa was engaged in so noble a cause as the freedom and salvation of his enslaved and unenlightened countrymen. If he was not born in Africa, then he lied, perhaps with noble political motives". In the same article Lovejoy presents a most poignant case against taking the baptismal record seriously, revealing through his own research that the South Carolina entry emanated from Equiano's god-mother, Mary Guerin, most probably against Equiano's will, and that notwithstanding this entry, the same Mrs. Guerin testified on more than one occasion on the veracity of Equiano's African birthplace. Accordingly Lovejoy asks, "Are we to believe the testimony of his god-mother in St. Margaret's church at the time of his baptism or her later testimony confirming his African birth? …Why doubt Vassa's own account of his birth rather than what is registered" in these controversial records and "muster books". One can only concur that going by the facts of the case, where there is a lie in the case of the baptismal record, it is not to be attributed to Equiano but rather to his god-mother. And going by this Guerin example, we must conclude with Lovejoy that the Racehorse/muster record might equally have been influenced and contrived by some one or other who felt that an outside Africa birth-place was "more respectable". This is the more sensible and objective approach to the issue, but Vincent Caretta, intent on sensationalizing the whole matter, argues:
Recent biographical discoveries cast doubt on Equiano's story of his birth and
early years . The available evidence suggests that the author of The Interesting
Narrative may have invented rather than reclaimed an African identity …
Baptismal and naval records say that he was born in South Carolina around
1747. If they are accurate, he invented his African childhood and his much-
quoted account of the Middle Passage on a slave ship." (Equiano, The
African Biography of a Self Made Man, 2005, p. xiv and in "Why Equiano
Matters", Historically Speaking, 2006)
The question of "if" has been answered by the fact that the South Carolina birthplace was known to have been fabricated at the time of young Equiano's Baptism by his overbearing godmother, Mrs. Guerin and is being carried forward by default! This ought to have been the end of the matter, but unfortunately, it is not.
Because Equiano, a noble African of no mean standing, a world hero, is being called a liar, I am constrained to break my twenty years of silence and tell the world of that sinister conspiracy and dirty cover-up crafted by Paul Edwards and Henry Louis Gates Jnr. to silence the truth about the true birthplace of Olaudah Equiano and my discovery of the surviving Ekwealuo family name and surviving relatives in Isseke, Anambra State, Nigeria. I wish to state without equivocation, that because they spoke from two sides of their mouths on the issue of my discoveries about Equiano's birthplace, and because of their conspiracy in doing a hatchet job on these discoveries that would have in no small way advanced scholarship on Olaudah Equiano these past twenty years, Paul Edwards and Henry Louis Gates lied to the world, and as such I would not trust any 'discovery' about Equiano with which they and/or their cronies are even remotely connected. May God help all those Nigerians and Africans who were accomplices in this wicked blunder because what they did is beyond pardon - lying against a dead man, a noble man and a prince turned slave, who spent all his life struggling to assert his true identity, that the world may know who he really was! The evil that men and women do lives with them and not only after them. If what we read in Equiano's The Narrative is anything to go by, then Truth is perfectly capable of its own vendetta, and I bear no personal grudges against those who squandered and may still be squandering their energy, goodwill and resources amassing foot soldiers against Olaudah Equiano and Truth. Let posterity judge us all! And let God vindicate the just and consign the liars and his lies to the dustbin of History!
Henry Louis Gates Jr. conspired to crucify my research and findings on Equiano's birthplace so prematurely as not to give scholars any opportunity to form their own opinions about the merits or demerits of my efforts. And as a result, even the most serious scholars in the field took up the refrain. As the conspiracy quickly wove a web of falsehood around The Igbo Roots, all Equiano scholars, without any mentionable exceptions, have avoided making any serious or positive reference to my book. Yet every single one of them, without exception has borrowed heavily from The Igbo Roots. It had even become fashionable among Equiano scholars to borrow all the major findings of my research for propounding and authenticating their own arguments as to the African origins of Olaudah Equiano without mentioning my name or my work in the body of their publications. Any reference at all to me or my writings were neatly tucked away and hidden in the Index pages. In this way they all avoided being accused of theft or plagiarism. Those who cared to mention me were careful to cow-tow to the whims and caprices of the Godfathers by making sure they added a derogatory clause such as what we find in Paul Lovejoy's recent defense of Equiano under the title: "Autobiography and Memory - Gustavus Vassa alias Olaudah Equiano, the African" where the author shoots himself in the foot with the following self contradictory statements:
The suggestion of Isseke was first made by Achebe… although Achebe did not explain his selection. The identification has been argued elaborately, though not always convincingly, by Acholonu." (Index entry No. 41). "Vassa states that 'I was born in a charming fruitful vale named Essaka'. Very possibly, this is to be identified with Isseke, in Orlu, in central Igbo land. As Catherine Obianuju Acholonu has argued, numerous cultural and linguistic similarities between Orlu and Vassa's description lend support to this identification".
In the index entry to this statement (marked as number 39), Lovejoy wrote, "On various details, see Acholonu, The Igbo Roots of Equiano, although it should be noted that Acholonu makes errors in quoting The Narrative". Perhaps I did, but he too made an error here in writing the title of my book. As if an error in quoting The Narrative has anything to do with the value of my argument. My reply to all these personality worshippers is that my research was at one time so convincing that the eminent Paul Edwards and Henry Louis Gates were willing to stampede me into a joint world project on Olaudah Equiano. But after all said and done, not all scholars were taken in by Paul Edwards' dismissal of my work in the said review. Independently minded scholars disagreed with Paul. Among them was Emma Ejiogu, an Igbo, and Jennifer Hall. Their conclusions, summarized in Jennifer Hall (1999) says "we agree with Emma Ejiogu that in spite of Paul Edwards reservations about Acholonu's conclusions as expressed in his review (Research in African Literatures, 21, 1990, 124-1s28), we find the correspondence between the Narrative and her (Acholonu's) consultants' reports of their history compelling".
Equiano spent more than twenty of the last years of his life telling everyone he was "Olaudah Equiano, the African", signing his signature as "Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa, the African". This is evident in the sample of Equiano's signature written in his own handwriting featured on p. 297 of The Igbo Roots. (This was mailed to me by Paul Edwards.) Even his tombstone/epitaph and obituary and those of his wife and children, including that of a son-in-law who never met him, still bore the allusion to their relationship to "Olaudah Equiano, The African" more than eighty years after his death. Surely the records which Caretta claims to have discovered, cannot be more legitimate than Equiano's own handwritten identification of himself, his authorized epitaph, and the knowledge of members of his own immediate family, not to mention countless other existing official and personal records that say unequivocally that Equiano was born on the African continent, such as Equiano's self-authored The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself and Equiano's countless letters to the British parliament in which he made numerous references to Africa as his birthplace. There are dozens of letters and countless other existing records in which Equiano stated that he was born in Africa. Most of these have been published by Caretta himself. Why then should he or anyone single out the few, the very few records that just happen to say the contrary?
In these days when dubious "inventions" and fraudulent "discoveries" have consistently trailed the global world of scholarship and scientific research, it is amazing that the world of Historians, Anthropologists, Black and African Studies and related disciplines has allowed itself to be hoodwinked into a premature 'debate' questioning Equiano's African origin and as such bringing his overall credibility to question because of records well known to have originated from false statements credited to an overzealous Godmother. As a result, again, of the overzealousness of Vincent Caretta and Henry Louis Gates Jr., all "Middle Passage" depictions by all Black and African slave authors are being brought to question over what is obviously a non-issue. My position is that since Caretta is so hell bent on getting his theory of a South Carolina birthplace of Equiano accepted by the academic community, he should do the only logical and rational thing: provide the matching South Carolina birth records and actual birth certificate, actual birthplace and existing relatives of Equiano in South Carolina. Nothing less with suffice! This should be quite easy for Caretta and his acknowledged supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr. with all the Harvard funding at their disposal. Finding Equiano's birth records in Caretta's own country USA, should be even faster than finding baptismal and muster records in far away Britain on another continent, unless of course there is no South Carolina birth record, because Equiano was neither born in South Carolina nor in any part of the USA. If Equiano was born in USA, whether under the name of Equiano or Vassa, the family records would still be there. In USA African slaves were never allowed to retain their African names and in the case of slaves born in USA, it would have amounted to grave peril for parent and child for slave parents to give African names to their children. A slave going by a native African given name (Olaudah) and surname (Equiano) could not have been born in USA.
And what about the fact Caretta's much touted baptismal record of a South Carolina birthplace was judged by those who investigated it physically as very vague and lacking in vital facts that would have made it authentic? Lovejoy tells us that "the entry in the baptismal registry is curious and deviates from the other entries in the records, which give full name of child, … as well as the first names of father and mother and the date of birth or age if not an infant." A baptismal entry that is lacking in such vital details as full name of the child, names of mother and father, and date of birth, should actually not be worth anyone's second look, unless of course, that someone is an enfant terrible hungry for fame, with loads of vested interests and ulterior motives. As a matter of fact and for the avoidance of doubt, let it be known that all that the Equiano baptismal certificate that Vincent Caretta discovered says is "A black born in South Carolina 12 years old". Let the reader judge for himself, for it was this blunder by Mrs. Guerin that was being quoted in the other records because it became a vital component of Equiano's ID. He could no more shake it off since it had gone into his record. Only in his Narrative, personal correspondences and tombstone did he manage to set things straight. One can only imagine how much he must have been irked by Mrs. Guerin's effrontery and dishonesty, that in his later years he had to force a retraction from her, just for the records.
I shall be disappointed if the academic community would allow Caretta to get off with a mere "No, I haven't" to the question, "Have you found any further evidence of where in South Carolina he (Equiano) may have been born?" (The Chronicle of Higher Education), 8th Sept., 2005, question from Hollis L. Gentry.) His conclusion that "That may be impossible to do because we would need to find a record that would indicate that a male baby would become known as Equiano/Vassa" is defeatist and totally unacceptable to one like myself who spent over two years searching for the birthplace of Equiano, at the end of which I came up with blow by blow evidence corroborating his personal claims to an Igbo origin. I challenge Caretta to search out the actual date of birth, the full names of Equiano's father and mother in South Carolina, the house number, street name, and municipality where he lived and where he drew his first breath; even the name of the slave master in whose slave-quarters Equiano was born should not be hard to find because, as we are all aware, all such records do exist. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is making extensive use of such records in his Oprah Winfrey Roots project, should lend Caretta a hand.
What I am saying, is that we must have proof, and when I say proof, I mean proof beyond all reasonable doubt, for this is what scientific research is all about. Nothing less will suffice. And, that proof, to be acceptable, must also disprove Equiano's very elaborately illustrated and long drawn claim to an Eboe (Igbo)/Essaka (Isseke) homeland. In the final analysis, such a research much include Igbo land and must disprove the mounting evidence I have amassed as proof of Equiano's Igbo/Isseke heritage, the same ones that induced Henry Louis Gates to write me a letter insisting that "I especially want to join you (my first group-excursion to Isseke) in visiting his home". Obi Iwuanyanwu of Kinston University, UK agrees with me that Vincent Caretta must visit Africa for further research, failing which his findings cannot be taken as conclusive!!! ("Fire Works at Equiano's Conference", by Ike Anya, published on the Internet, and in ThisDayOnline, 30/03/03) This is the general opinion of African scholars, who are infact feeling that unless Caretta includes Africa in his field work, his work will go down as a neo-colonialist stunt aimed at degrading the seriousness of African scholarship. This is without prejudice to the possibility that Henry Louis Gates Jr. might have cashed in on Caretta's overflowing gratitude and hunger for fame and used the opportunity offered by Caretta's sojourn as a Du Bois Institute Fellow at Harvard to hatch a carefully crafted conspiracy to damage Equiano's credibility as "one of the most accomplished English-speaking writers of African descent", a bona fide African and a first class world hero of the Anti-Slavery movement. If this is not a literary Watergate, nay, "Caretta-Gate", then, I do not know what is. The rush on the part of a scholar of the status of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to "endorse" Caretta's "forthcoming book" even before anyone had had any chance to join issues with him, tends to support the above assertion. Vincent Caretta himself inadvertently revealed the personal involvement of Gates in the project, when asked, "Can you tell us what has Prof. Gates thought of your finding?" His answer that "Your question came in just after I mentioned Prof. Gate's comments on my work, so let me take this opportunity to acknowledge his GENEROUS ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT OF MY RESEARCH THROUGH A DU BOIS INSTITUTE FELLOWSHIP THIS PAST ACADEMIC YEAR" says it all.
Equally worrisome is the fact that Caretta's description of the Igbo, in his choice of words, sources and quotations, exhibit evidence of ethnic profiling of the Igbo nation to a point that suggests that the major problem that these conspirators have with Equiano is that he was an Igbo man. Caretta's act of heaping unprintable invectives on the Igbo tribe is despicable, uncouth, and has definitely no bearing on the issue in question, and could only have been employed by him as a means of giving this dog a bad name so as to effectively hang it. Igbo people are well known around the world since Pre-colonial times. The fact that their sense of self worth, character, dignity, industry and enterprise is hardly matched by any other African tribe is also well known. Their home grown democratic system of governance, highly organized social systems, modes of worship, customs and ways of life popularized in Equiano's works and in the world-famous novels of Chinua Achebe have in no small way been a source of pride to all Africans in the home continent and in the Diaspora. Yet Caretta, leaning on obscure and questionable historical sources, describes the Igbo as the "lowest and most wretched of all the nations of Africa", insisting that "the conformation of their face …resembles that of the baboon"; … "very frequent to seek in a voluntary death, a refuge from their own melancholy, … the Eboes are in fact more truly savage than any nation of the Gold Coast… of religious opinions and modes of worship… they pay adoration to certain reptiles…". These dubious conclusions about Igbo ways of life, easily recognizable as falsehoods and outright lies, are no doubt true to type, and give Caretta away for what he really is, and what Equiano would have called him: a liar! For Caretta often employs falsehoods, which he knows to be falsehoods, to buttress his points, such as his claim that "the teeth-fil'd Ibbos …as they are more commonly called … make good slaves when bought young; but are in general foul feeders, many of them greedily devouring the raw guts of fowls, they also feed on dead mules or fowls…". Vincent Caretta, Equiano The African, 2005) In fact Equiano had written about a people who filed their teeth and ate without washing their hands. He described them as savage even in their sexual behavior and concluded that he was appalled at their way of life which he said was at variance with that of his Igbo native country, and that they spoke a language he did not understand! Researchers have generally concluded that these were the Ibibio from the Niger Delta region. Yet Equiano researcher and finder of lost records, Vincent Caretta, knowing fully well that these are not Igbo people, choose to call them Igbo. For the avoidance of doubt, I quote Equiano's account of these people in full:
All nations I had hitherto passed through resembled our own in their manners, customs and language; but I came at length to a country, the inhabitants of which differed from us in all those particulars. I was very much struck with this difference, especially when I came among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands. They … fought with their fists among themselves. Their women were not so modest as ours, for they ate and drank and slept with their men… The people ornamented themselves with scars, and likewise filed their teeth very sharp. They wanted sometimes to ornament me in the same manner, but I would not suffer them; hoping that I might some time be among people who did not thus disfigure themselves, as I though they did. (Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, ed. by Robert Allison, p. 53, emphasis mine)
The reasons given by Caretta as to why Igbo Slaves were unpopular, and postulations as to why some would take their own life rather than live in slavery, are also false and contrived. The true reason, which has been stated in many texts not the least of which was Hugh Crow's (1790), is that the Igbo, especially the ichi bearers were noblemen and gentlemen and sons of noblemen "and having seen better days, would not suffer themselves to be enslaved". (See Lovejoy, p. 13) How could such a vital piece of information elude Caretta? What this clearly suggests is that the issue of the purported South Carolina birth of Olaudah Equiano is part of an assassin's paid job against the Igbo, by branding Equiano, an Igbo world hero, the Black Moses, and the pioneer author of the Black and African novel a liar and by denying his Igbo heritage. I am not unmindful of the fact of Henry Louis Gates's direct connection with all this. His antecedents and the very fact that there is a lingering battle of wits between Chinua Achebe (an Igbo) and Gates's bosom friend Wole Soyinka (a none-Igbo) over the question of who is the greater writer and who should have won the Nobel Prize, a feud that has raged for two decades and engulfed large followings on both sides, may not be unconnected with all this. Judging from other antecedents of the trio and how malignant the raging personality feuds between these godfathers of Black and African scholarship have often got, it is easy to see a link here especially in the tendency on the part of Gates's hatchet-man (Caretta) to tribalize the matter. Another case in point would be the Soyinka versus Ali Mazrui and the Henry Louis Gates versus Ali Mazrui feuds. In fact in the Soyinka/Mazrui case, I personally wrote a newspaper article pleading with the duo to keep to issues and refrain from attacking each other's personalities. I am not suggesting that Wole Soyinka might be personally involved in this Caretta issue. Who knows? Perhaps it is merely a case of 'enemy of my friend is my enemy'. Whatever the case, Olaudah Equiano has certainly become a victim of intellectual tribalism and ethnic profiling, and it is a very big pity indeed and a very big shame to us all. This is what scholarship has come to in the Black and African arena.
To think that Henry Louis Gates, the most highly rated Black scholar in USA would be involved with this hoax, this literary assassination job by Vincent Caretta on Black world's greatest hero, surely beats everyone's imagination! So much so that realizing that the matter has slid off from the domain of academics into racial profiling of not just the Igbo but the entire black world, Steve Ogude who had spent all his academic energy propagating that Equiano was not an Igbo was shocked into a dramatic self-conversion. Ogude, all the while a victim of ethnic myopia, unable to stretch his mind wide enough to see the merits of my argument, certainly did prove me right after all: I have to confess that I have always regarded him as an unserious scholar which is why I never responded to his opinions. I used to call him a "pseudo-scholar" whenever I met him at literary conferences because his opinions were always so very shallow and could hardly engage my interest. Steve Ogude, true to type, having realized that this pseudo-scholarship of his which was more of a sport, a pastime and a cheap popularity stunt, has now become a deadly weapon in the hands of enemies of Africa, took the easy way out: he shamefully retracted from his twenty years long doggedly held position that Equiano was not an Igbo but was rather a native of his own tribe Edo (Benin): a wonderful example of scholarly integrity, I dare say.
At the 'International Conference on Olaudah Equiano' organized by the Kingston University, UK in 2003, the two enfant terribles, Caretta and Ogude were specially invited to nail Equiano and by extension all black and African slaves' claims regarding the inhuman treatment of slaves during the Middle Passage. But to the shame and chagrin of the conference organizers and of Caretta, Ogude's presentation upheld that Olaudah Equiano was indeed an Igbo! As an afterthought he added that Equiano's hometown was Ikwuano in Umuahia area of Igbo land. In the light of Equiano's personal claims, this would amount to stating that London is in USA, for ichi, so central to Equiano's claims, is unknown in Umuahia which has more cultural affinities with the Cross River people than with the mainland Igbo. An Umuahia born Equiano would have written about the Ekpe cult and its Nsibiri writing system which is the essential foothold of Umuahia traditional government and judiciary, instead of Mgburichi(Embrenche). But of course Ogude would know nothing about all these. As an Igbo proverb says, 'No matter how many divinities sit together to plot a man's ruin, it will come to nothing unless his chi is there among them'. (Quoted from Jennifer Hall, 1999) The Caretta storm-in-a-teacup will eventually add more feathers onto Equiano's already very rich wings, making him once again as topical as he was 220 years ago, and will eventually earn him that sought-after place on honour on the African continent. Ogude's act of shooting himself in the foot is part of Equiano's vindication and the long-drawn vendetta against Nigerians and Africans (and of course non-Africans) that have constituted themselves into stumbling blocks for Equiano's quest to return home to Africa and to be recognized as an African world hero.
Equiano's knowledge of Igbo language for which reason he was deployed while serving under the slaver Dr. Irving to recruit and manage slaves of Igbo origin (referred to as "his own countrymen") has been amply emphasized by Paul Lovejoy, (p. 13-14) who argues that Equiano's selection for this venture is proof that he was of Igbo birth, since the success of the project depended on his fluency in Igbo language and the ability to interact in the native language and gain the confidence of fellow Igbo fresh from the home continent. Lovejoy argues that Equiano could never have acquired his proficiency in Igbo in South Carolina "where there were few Igbos". What I can add here is that this bit of information supplies proof that Equiano was a fluent speaker of Igbo language and was conversant with Igbo ways of life. More than that, the records refer to Igbo slaves as Equiano's "own countrymen". I do not think that we need more proof than these that Equiano was an Igbo. How many African Americans speak any African language fluently? The speaking of vernacular African languages among slaves was forbidden in USA by slave owners and attracted severe penalties. Therefore Equiano could not have acquired proficiency in Igbo in any part of the United States.
Equiano insisted he was born in Africa, gave the name of his African family and that of his home town, described accurately and in detail the customs of his native African village and of the Igbo tribe, was accepted among Igbo slaves as a fellow Igbo and spoke Igbo fluently! In fact the missing bits of information on the Caretta baptismal record actually lend credence to the fact that Equiano was born in Africa because children born in Africa before the introduction of written records (which commenced around 1850) had no recorded birth-date, contrary to what would obtain in South Carolina at the same period. If Equiano had been born in South Carolina, he would certainly know his birth date and his parent's first names; and his parents would have had two names each in the baptismal record. The fact that his parents did not have "first names", indicating that they had one name each instead of two, is again strong proof of his African Isseke/Igbo birth, for in Igbo land married men possess only single names and do not bear surnames. In Orlu district, where Isseke is located, it is customary for wives to drop their first given names after marriage and to be renamed by their husbands. The names given them by their husbands are pet names or romantic names such as Ukwudiya (Husband's Legs), Obidiya (Husband's Heart), and Ihudiya (Husband's Face). These names replace the woman's real name. Equiano could not have known his mother's real name and would have been hard put to give his father's pet name for his mother in the Baptismal record. The fact that the Baptismal record did not have a name for Equiano's mother, is yet further proof that Equiano was born, not in America, but in Igbo land.
Equiano's very detailed and knowledgeable description of the process of Ichi scarification and its meaning and importance to the Igbo nation is another strong evidence of his Igbo origin, for Equiano's was the first recorded description of the process of ichi scarification in history. His description tallies very closely with that given to me in elaboborate form by Isseke elder Igwe Agabaka, (The Igbo Roots, p. 197-200) which again is in tandem with that rendered by eminent Igbo anthropologist, M.A Onwuejeogwu (1981), illustrating the process of ichi scarification among Nri people who are the custodians of Igbo culture. Isseke elders, Onwuejeogwu and Chinua Achebe's accounts agree with Equiano's that ichi (which in most instances is synonymous with the ozo title) is the title of greatness and well being borne by the rulers/elders/senators/judges/ndi-ichie of the land; that it is facilitated by rich men for their teenage children, and that it is the symbol of manhood and dignity. Within the same period that Equiano wrote his book (1790s) other authors (J. Wilson, Hugh Crow) made some mention of ichi scarification, but without the graphic detail of the scarification process which Equiano provides. Hugh Crow wrote that, "the Breeches, so called from the word Breche, signifying gentleman … or son of a gentleman … undergoes the operation to distinguish his rank by having the skin of his forehead brought down from the hair so as to form a ridge or line from the temple…" Crow's Breeche contrary to Lovejoy's opinion, is actually a transcription of the Igbo word Mgburichi (Equiano's Embrenche) which when pronounced goes with a double [i] sound, a sound which in English Alphabet is represented by the letter /e/. The Igbo letter and sound /gb/, which does not exist in the English language, is usually rendered with the letter /b/ as we also find in Equiano's transcription of the word 'Igbo' as 'Eboe'. I have reason to suspect that Hugh Crows "Breeche" might have been coined directly from Equiano's Embrenche and that the phenomenon might only have attracted his keen interest after Equiano's book was published and was commanding national, even global attention.
Another proof of Equiano's Igbo origin and actual experience of the Middle Passage is the fact that he knew about a very remote and, until recently, unknown town of Tinimah (which he called Tinmah), where he claimed to have been bought by a widow. His description of the geographical location of Tinimah and the landscape of the place, have been found to be accurate. Yet Tinimah is so remote and unknown that two hundred years after Equiano, no Nigerian Equiano scholar could place it on the Nigerian map, including those who live and work in the region of the Niger Delta where Tinimah is actually located. Tinimah is so anonymous that even in this age of the Internet it had to be 'discovered'. Only five months ago, my good friend and fellow Equiano scholar, Prof. Dorothy Ukaegbu, called me on the phone and said, "I have discovered Tinmah", and my first reaction was to ask, "Where is it?" And she said, "It is in Bonny Local Government Area of Rivers State. I then went searching and found out that she was right. Tinimah and the twin town of Finimah attracted media attention only recently when the Federal government in the bid to develop the Niger Delta, cited an LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) project in the area and had to move the communities to another location. That was how Tinimah and Finimah first drew public attention. Other than that, Tinimah has remained unknown and unheard of except in Equiano's Narrative for more than two hundred years. Here again Equiano's description was more than accurate: the creeks which he called rivulets, the cocoanut trees which formed and still form the vegetation of Tinimah, the Ijaw coastal-dwellers of Bonny who still live, eat and sleep in their canoes. Equiano said that the family which bought him in Tinmah spoke his language and treated him as their equal. The reason is that many inhabitants of this area of the Niger Delta are descended from former Igbo slaves. Such was the famous King Jaja of Opobo, also like Equiano, a native of Orlu province, who rose from the rank of a slave to become king of Opobo and one of the most famous monarchs of pre-colonial Nigeria. Opobo is not too far from Bonny where Equiano's Tinmah is located. Here again is undisputed evidence that Equiano's middle passage was experienced and not fabricated.
According to The Narrative and according to my findings, Olaudah Equiano was from an Igbo noble family, a princely family of the highest distinction. For a person from such a noble standing to tell a lie is actually a taboo and an abomination among the Igbo. In fact an Igbo adage says, "Onye ashi wu onye oshi" (in Onitsha dialect Onye asi bu onye ori), which means, "A liar is a thief". Stealing is viewed as the most degrading crime an Igbo can commit, and lying for that would be tantamount to losing their honour and to lose one's honour is worse than death. Accordingly an Igbo adage says, mmebo emeboro ogaranya ka ogbugbu egburu ya, which means 'a noble man would prefer to be killed rather than to lose his honour'. All readers of Equiano will easily attest that the most striking thing about him (which is the most important thing to him) is his honour, his integrity as evidenced in his honesty, character, high sense of dignity and infectious humility. These are the traditional and quintessential qualities of an Igbo gentleman. Traditionally the Igbo of Equiano's day valued wealth, riches and opulence, but they valued impeccability more than these and more than anything else. What is Igbo impeccability? We need only refer back to the traditional values of the elders in Chinua Achebe's Things fall Apart, to understand Igbo impeccability. Thus Achebe's Umuofia community does not go to war unless "its case is clear and just, otherwise its gods and ancestors would bring it defeat and shame." (Things Fall Apart, p. 9) Likewise we are told by Onwuejeogwu that "the concept of a good man in Nri is based on the character and success of an individual. A good man is a man who is upright in his dealings with men - he does not pervert the truth, justice or the peace of Nri. He breaks no taboos and does nothing which the ancestors will disapprove. He has wealth and children and good health, which are the markers of his success and above all he takes the ozo title." (1981, p. 41) These were the very values Equiano lived by, which underlined his Christianity to the point of sainthood.
Igbo impeccability implies an untainted, unsullied image, an unsullied name, a saintly conformity to the laws of life and observance of natural justice in one's daily living. Igbo impeccability often requires one to do what New Testament Christian Bible calls 'turning the other cheek' in order to remain on the right side of the laws of God. Impeccability is what the Igbo call Iji Ogu and Ogu Ama. Its observance confers spiritual power and upper hand through innocence, piety and sacrifice. It is the weapon of a spiritual warrior. This Golden Rule of 'Right is Might' was the quintessence of Igbo theology and the guiding principle for every Igbo man and woman, elder, statesman or leader. Onwuejeogwu describes the characteristics of a member of the council of elders/state (Ndi Nze or Ndi Ichie) as "a man of upright character and integrity… His installation is centered on his ability to speak the truth and maintain justice and peace amongst his people." (Onwuejeogwu, 1981, p. 85) Describing the awesome nature of the installation ceremony of an ozo into the revered company of Ndi ichie, Onwuejeogwu relays the command of the leader of the ozo council to the new initiate which goes thus: "our ancestors say 'go, be old, look after our people with justice and truth'…You are now Nze. Beware of lies. Never tell lies. Beware of injustice. Never be unjust." The aspirant remains silent, he takes the ofo (his ritual staff of power), walks away without talking to anyone or looking backwards…" He goes to the ritual alter, ebo, and confesses his sins and to the Ajana shrine to be cleansed. (p. 83) The ritual of confessing one's sins to fellow ozo men and cleansing must be repeated every year or one is stripped of one's title, for it is held that an ozo cannot maintain his holiness if he harbours any sin and he cannot continue to be an ozo. "He must attend the onu ebo ritual annually to swear to his integrity and honour and confess his social crimes before the ozo men, otherwise his integrity, honour and purity will be in doubt." (p. 84) Wilfred Samuels noted this trait of the silent, impeccable warrior in Equiano and wrote, "Equiano's muted voice camouflages an idealized African identity that he wishes to claim as his own". (See Jennifer Hall, 1999)
Impeccability was originally derived from another deeper, mystical tradition that links the Igbo to the very soul of the Black race if not of humanity as a whole - a tradition which Equiano touched upon but did not fully understand, a tradition, indeed a cult, whose origins have been forgotten even by modern Igbo themselves. It is the cult of the god-man which had many expressions one of which was the ozo title and council, characterized by those who bear the ichi scarification who are known as Nwaichi or Mgburichi (plural) which Equiano transcribed as Embrenche. Nwaichi or Nwanchi is the singular form of Mgburichi and describes the cult of men (and women) who bear the facial scarification known as ichi. Ichi facial scarification has been part and parcel of Igbo consciousness from time immemorial. Ichi is the identification mark of noblemen, senators and judges known as Nze na ozo. These constitute the government, judiciary and legislature of every Igbo community. They are respected, honoured and revered by the rest of the community as no ordinary mortals, for by virtue of their having gone through the ordeal of the scarification, these people have become initiates of a high degree. They have left the rank of ordinary mortals and have entered the realm of the gods. They are imbued with some level of mystical powers such as the power to curse and to bless and to make whatever they say to come to pass. But there is a catch - an Ozo or Nze (i.e. one bearing the ichi scarification) must never willingly and knowingly utter falsehoods, give a false judgement, cheat, steal, deceive or inflict injustice upon another. In one word: he must be impeccable. If he commits any such abomination he would loose his mystical powers and come to some major harm in the hand of the Almighty God (Chukwu Abiama) through the instrumentality of the laws of Mother Earth, Ala/Ani or any of the lesser deities/messengers of the Almighty such as the Thunder god, Amadioha.
It must be understood that the introduction of slavery by the white man marked the onset of the breakdown of Igbo traditional social order. Incidentally Olaudah, though he had never seen a white man, was to become a victim of the wave of corruption of the status quo ante instituted through the combined instrumentality of the colonialists with some corrupt village heads and those natives he called Oye Ebo, the Aro (an originally Ibibio people that advanced into Igbo land just beyond the Ibibio border and settled), who raided the Igbo hinterland for slaves. This state of affairs tilted the power base in favour of the corrupt, upturned the natural order of things and destroyed the traditional cohesion of the Igbo society. Equiano, however, left Igbo land with his impeccability intact and this was evident in the innocence, childlike purity and sense of justice he portrayed in his doings, his relationships, his judgement of people, situations and himself. Deceptiveness is incongruent with Equiano's character and with his traditional cultural heritage. This was not the man who would weave the web of deceit that Caretta implies, this was not the man who would claim a false identity, a false parentage, fabricating a culture not his own and writing an entire autobiography based on a fabricated personality! Such a falsehood would amount to self condemnation and self alienation, and if Equiano had committed such an abomination, he would have had to face the Okonkwo option on the long run: namely suicide. The truth is that it is unthinkable for Equiano, being who he was, to willingly and intentionally live a false life or weave a web of lies such as is being suggested by Vincent Caretta. Igbo integrity was, as we have said, well known and well documented, which is perhaps why Caretta had to bring the Igbo down from their high pedestal in order to convince his readers that Equiano was an artful liar. This explains Caretta's insistence that Equiano's greatness as an author was enhanced by his ability to have so well fabricated his subject. Need we emphasize that by telling his readers that lies are allowed, Caretta is inadvertently giving away his own character and his expectation that his own lies will bring him fame too.
Equiano had written in the first chapter of The Narrative -
My father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche, a term as I remember, importing the highest distinction and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur. This mark is conferred on the person entitled to it, by cutting the skin across the top of the forehead and drawing it down to the eyebrows; and while it is in this situation applying a warm hand, and rubbing it until it shrinks up into a thick weal across the lower part of the forehead. Most of the judges and senators were thus marked; and my father had long borne it; I had seen it conferred on my brothers, and I was also destined to receive it by my parents. The Embrenche, chief men, decided disputes and punished crimes, for which purpose they always assembled together.
In The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, I gave a detailed description of the process of ichi scarification as illustrated to me by an Isseke nobleman (Igwe Agbaka), a native of the Dimori kindred to which belong the Ekwealuo family, who himself bore the ichi marks. Igwe shared with me his own scarification experience and the fact that ichi was introduced in Igbo land by a cult of god-men known as Nwa-Nri, Nwa-nshi, Nwa-nchi, Nwa-ichi (meaning Child of Nri/Nchi/Nshi/Ichi). These were dwarfs from Nri clan in Northern Igbo country in today's Anambra state to which belong the towns Nri, Aguleri, Umuleri, Nimo, Neni, Oreri, Igbo Ukwu, etc., who possessed in-born magical powers with which they could control their environment. (Things Fall Apart, p. 38) Nri, writes Onwuejeogwu (1981,p. 15-16), is the name of a person (the person who first inherited its legacy from its originator), a culture (that has become the quintessential Igbo cultural legacy), a people (the initiators and custodians of Igbo culture, religion and cosmology) and a place (a town in Anambra state). Nri were the first bearers of ichi, and it was they who introduced the phenomenon to the generality of the Igbo nation. The Nwa-nshi were priests, but also like griots and troubadours they were the living records of Igbo History which they went from place to place narrating by heart through their endless songs in which they captured the earliest events of Igbo History and the roots of every clan, town, village, kindred and family. (The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, Revised Edition, p. 201-206). The Nri dwarfs possessed proven magical powers such as the power to control locusts as recorded in Achebe's Things Fall Apart (p. 38), to invoke and call off rain, famine, pests, etc., to bless and to curse. They were noted to possess longevity such that they could live for hundreds of years and still appear like children. This is recorded in The Igbo Roots.
The Nwanchi dwarfs were custodians of the Igbo belief in the cult of the godman/revered ancestor (living or dead) otherwise called Ozo, Nze, Ichie. The basic tenet of this belief is that a man has the capacity to become a god while he is alive, by going through a series of initiations while taking titles that place him in the hierarchy of the gods. In Nri, the highest title/initiation is that of Eze Nri or Nri. "Eze Nri (the divine king of Nri) is regarded as mmuo (spirit) and as a kind of Alusi (deity). He was called Eze Mmuo or Eze Alusi, meaning king of spirits (and king of the gods). He is greeted as Igwe, meaning symbolically 'the sky'". (Brackets mine. Onwuejeogwu, p. 85) This is the title borne by the present traditional head of Isseke. Likewise to take the ozo title is called ima mmuo (knowing/seeing the spirit), and the collective spirits of those who have taken the ozo title are called Ichie Ukwu (Great Ancestors) who are supposed to have joined the rank of gods.
M.D.W. Jeffreys, the British anthropologist who studied the ichi phenomenon in Awka province from 1930-31 observed that "Umundri (sic.) means 'children of Ndri' (a 'Sky Being')"… and that "this people, having a sun-cult and a divine king, gave the names of 'sun' and 'moon' to the two upper designs in the (ichi) pattern". (F.C. Ogbalu, ed., The Igbo as Seen by Others, 1988, p. 47, 49) Jefferys observed that the word ichi is derived from chi which means 'sun'. Chi means 'daylight', 'sunlight', 'day'; but it also means 'soul/spirit/the god in man'. As C.K. Meek (1934) had noted, the Igbo idea of chi means 'soul' and is derived from Chi-ukwu 'God Almighty' "sometimes… regarded as the Father of Anyanwu, the sun", which is why some Northern Igbo communities are known as "The Children of the Sun". (Ibid. p. 58) Thus ichi as an inscription is the symbolic representation of deity - Chi: a writing, a carving of the emblem of god-being upon its bearer, the symbol of the Sons of the Sun. It is the mark of sky beings instituted by Eri, the Sky Being who (according to Nri mythology as recorded in numerous works by Onwuejeogwu) arrived from Space to found what has become known as Igbo culture. Ichi is the mark of Chi, the spiritual emblem of the god-man, the sun king, the light bearer.
True to the cult of sun kings, the Igbo have a curious religious practice of self-worship or self-deification, whereby an individual's first god is himself and his very first shrines are constructed and dedicated to the divine duality which he or she represents: Chi and Eke, both of which are resident sparks of Almighty God the Creator (Chi-na-eke). This makes him more or less a representative of Chi-na-eke 'God the Creator'. He venerates these twin gods (whose physical manifestation is himself) along with his ancestors. In fact the chi Theology is ample proof that the Igbo see themselves as a nation of gods and goddesses equivalent to what the Hindu refer to as Bodhisatva. A fundamental tenet of Igbo religion which sets them apart from other nations and tribes is that every Igbo man and woman is expected to set up shrines to his or her god-self (ihu chi, ihu eke) the moment he completes the building of his own homestead. These personal shrines are more important than any shrine set up for any other deity and are meant to be tended as one would do to any deity through such acts as libation, incantations, prayers and petitions and feeding with food, without which the individual would be expected to fail in all his/her life's endeavours. (See Equiano's The Narrative)
Whereas the Igbo may consult a deity for guidance in solving external problems, the only true deity he prays to in his daily live is his chi, the deity that he himself ensouls, the god that lives and interacts in nature as himself. He believes that his chi is an emanation from Chi-Ukwu (the Almighty/Supreme God/Creator of all life) who lives in the heavens and acts through the instrumentality of deities chief among which are Mother Nature (Ala), Amadioha (Thunder) and tutelary deities. All are classified under the general term Agbala (spirit beings). Nri theology which is shared by all Igbo people says that
Chukwu is the Great Creator of all beings, forces and things both visible and invisible. The Great Creator has four major aspects which are manifestations of his existence. First Chukwu is Anyanwu, which symbolically means the sun. As the sun's light is everywhere so Chukwu is everywhere; as the sun is powerful so Chukwu is all-powerful; as the sun is the light that reveals things so Chukwu is the source of all knowledge. Secondly Chukwu is Agbala (Ani/Ala) which is manifested in the fertility of the earth and beings that inhabit it. Thirdly Chukwu is chi which is manifested in the power and ability of living beings to procreate themselves from generation to generation. Fourthly, Chukwu is Okike, that is creation, and is manifested in the creation of (creative power immanent in) everything visible and invisible, which is a never-ending process. Chukwu as Okike created the laws that govern the visible and invisible. (Onwuejeogwu, 1981, p. 31)
Okike is another word for Eke. It is believed that Chi is male and Okike/Eke is female and both are the male and female (creative and generative) aspects of God as Creator. Thus God is also called Chi-na-Eke which is a pun meaning 'Chi and Eke' as well as 'Chi is Creating/Chi is the Creator'. The Igbo idea of God as Chukwu (Chi Ukwu) translates as 'Supreme God' also called Chi Uwatuwa 'Eternal God'. He coincides with God the Father in Christian theology (Chukwu Nna); Chi coincides with God the Son (Chukwu Nwa) and Eke/Okike coincides with God the Holy Spirit (Chukwu Mmuo Nso), which in the Hebrew Cabbala is held to be female. Chi and Eke are inseparable opposites or two sides of the same coin and are said to exist jointly as the essential spiritual make up of every individual whether male or female.
Interestingly the Igbo believe that through impeccability: right action and right judgement, honesty, integrity, justice and through right interaction and cooperation with his chi a man becomes a god on earth and when he dies he becomes a great ancestor. Jennifer Hall partially captures this philosophy in her article, "The Path Not Taken: Cultural Identity in The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano" (Melus, 1999, published Online). Hall wrote:
As Equiano tells his story, his chi is manifest as earnest endeavor, eloquent use of language, and economic advancement despite monumental odds. His becoming a scrupulously honest worker (regardless of the nature of the task which he undertakes) a devoted Christian, a community leader, an eloquent writer and a successful entrepreneur all allow him to achieve his destiny as a man of "honour, action and bravery" (in the words of Wilfred Samuels) - Jennifer Hall, 1999.
Traditionally every Igbo man was expected to attain the status of a god-man while alive. This was only possible if he observed the rules of impeccability as well as undergoing a series of initiations marked by titles, chief of which was the ozo, and ichi scarification was the quintessence of ozo. Initiations are accompanied by ritual paraphernalia of power such as the ikenga, a carved representing oneself, the ofo a sacred wooden staff for invoking the power of Almighty God and of Mother Nature, the oji, a metal staff, and so many others; paraphernalia of nobility and creativity such as the short, carved ivory tusk borne by kings representing okike (Onwuejeogwu, 1981, p. 33) and a number of other ritual objects.
I have demonstrated that contrary to the postulations of the racial profiler, Vincent Caretta, the Igbo gene is sprung from a lineage of noblemen, world civilizers and god-men - a pure race if ever there was one. In the time of the slave trade, these traits made slave-owners avoid acquiring Igbo slaves, and especially ichi bearing Igbo slaves who saw themselves as Lords and Masters of Mankind and would never condescend to servitude. Today Igbo people are found in every part of the world, still civilizing the world, one would say! They are avid adventurers who are quick to master any situation in which they find themselves and to assert their Lordship over their environment. Their general characteristics are: hard-work, diligence and dedication to duty, honesty, forthrightness, a heightened sense of self-confidence and self-worth, enterprise, adventurism, and a superlative IQ; the Igbo man and woman does not believe in impossibility and is never a quitter. They are great mixers and do not usually find it hard to learn new languages, acquire new skills or imbibe a new culture. They do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or race and are unusually very friendly, approachable and hospitable to strangers. These traits are all possessed by Equiano, showing without doubt that he is Igbo, in word, in character, in gene and in deed. Jennifer Hall summarizes these same traits in Equiano as "earnest endeavor, eloquent use of language, economic advancement, (survival of) monumental odds", and hails him as "a scrupulously honest worker, a devoted Christian, a community leader, an eloquent writer and a successful entrepreneur… a man of honour, action and bravery" Akaolisa sums up these same traits in Igbo behaviour and character in the following terms: "egalitarianism, individualism, competitiveness, taste for achievement, hard work, and clamorous democracy,… determination,… business acumen, uncondescending tenacity." (The Igbo Race, 2003, p. 136-7) As Igbo proverbs say: A lion's son cannot be lost in a crowd; a cow's head cannot lost in the pot; even slavery could not drown the tenacity, the drive, the bravery and the conquering instincts of an Igbo warrior with his impeccability intact.
Igbo physique is generally highly athletic and very proportionate. The theme of the Divine Proportion studied by Leonardo Da Vinci and captured in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code easily comes to mind here. Their men are generally handsome and their women are reputed to be beautiful. There is a myth in Nigeria that men who marry Igbo women are quick to advance in their professions, especially in wealth and leadership. It is also a fact that the highest performing ministers and chief executives who brought about the success of the reforms of the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration in Nigeria between 2003 and 2007 are of all Igbo stock. The Igbo, though long suffering, are never despondent or without hope. Olaudah Equiano was a typical example of Igbo tenacity and leadership acumen and business sense. Thus, suicide and begging are taboos to the Igbo. When the Igbo suffers prolonged injustice or sustained victimization, he will surely device a way to become the hero of the situation. This is also captured in Jennifer Hall's reference to the Equiano's "economic advancement despite monumental odds". It is very easy to pick up an Igbo from among any random group of Black Africans because of their unbridled sense of self confidence and air of dignity. Another common joke is that any black man found in the remotest place of the world is most certainly an Igbo.
Igbo impeccability, the genetic streak of the god-man makes every Igbo (especially the nobility) worth his salt a natural enemy of injustice. This natural destiny of sun-kings placed Olaudah Equiano at odds with slavery and with its proponents. It became his loadstone and his self imposed cross; it drew forth his warrior instincts, propelling him to engage it head on. His Chi, which he called "Providence", often floored his detractors before him, as Captain Thomas Farmer, a friend who cheated Equiano on the sailing trip to Montserrat, found out too late and at the peril of his life. Equiano became a veritable African Moses and the greatest black hero of the abolitionist movement, not by accident or stroke of luck, not by cheating or lying, but simply by the fact that this was his divine destiny: the destiny of the god-men/the saviours, prophesied as he wrote in The Narrative, at the time of his birth - a destiny encoded in the very name his parents gave him: Ola Ude, signifying a person of far-reaching fortunes, a gem whose sterling qualities would affect many, a voice with far-reaching vibrations; the destiny of a warrior paternity whose surname Ekwealuo/Ekweanuo simply means 'if the opposition wants a war, then war it shall be!'
Catherine Acholonu
Abuja, July, 2007.
Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart, 1988
Acholonu, Catherine Obianuju: The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, 1989
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