Back to the Future

Why cultural change is so difficult

Why cultural change is so difficult
  • PublishedJuly 8, 2019

Ideas shape peoples and nations; and nations change only when the ideas that supported them also change. But as the case of the Igbo declaration shows, resistance to change remains as powerful as ever. By Onyekachi Wambu

Peoples and their nations are essentially ideas – ideas about who they think they are, and how best to organise their societies, including the roles and status of different people within them: leaders, workers and in some cases, even slaves.

Despite claims of eternalness and divine intervention, ultimately these ideas are traceable to key historic moments or individuals, who unleash revolutionary change. New ways of thinking lodge themselves, a new people/nation emerges, gradually these new ideas, their systems and resulting cosmologies are codified and ritualised within religious, legal or other folkloric systems, until the next change.

Last September, an announcement via social media suddenly brought some of these processes to a head amongst my people – the 35-40m Igbo speakers of Nigeria.

A statement, supposedly emanating from Eze Nri, the historic spiritual head of Igbos, declared that at the end of December, there would be a cleansing and forgiveness ceremony to abolish the discriminatory Osu caste system and others that conferred low status (slavery even) to particular groups. Continuing such practices would henceforth be considered an abomination.

Alongside this declaration of human and spiritual equality, the ceremony also aimed at reconciliation, reaching out to Igbos globally, who had in the past suffered such discrimination, in a bid to wipe the slate clean.

The announcement was important for a number of reasons. First, it acknowledged the fact that despite the 50-plus years of legal abolition, such discriminatory practices had quietly continued socially and culturally – echoes of which are still evident in the treatment of domestic staff and the poor.

Second, it acknowledged the influence of such caste systems in the creation of a global Igbo diaspora, especially during the period of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when many Igbos, like the celebrated writer and anti-slavery activist, Olaudah Equiano, were captured and sold initially by other Igbos.

The outreach to the descendants of such Igbos was interesting, as the statement noted that Eze Nri wanted to engage in ‘educating all on the history, origin and consequent abolition of the obnoxious practices’.

Third, that the statement was coming from the current Eze Nri was of particular interest, given the priesthood’s silence over the years.

Eze Nri and his family are regarded as the keepers of the oldest ancestral sceptre (ofo) of Igbos. The family owe this pre-eminence to the fact that Igbos believe Eri, an earlier Nri ancestor, was considered the ‘culture hero’, initiating the transition from foraging in the West African forests to farming and establishing settled communities through the domestication of a number of crops, principally yams, coco yams, bread fruit and palm trees.

Spiritual, not political leader

A civilisation which produced the magnificent bronze Igbo Ukwu pieces, had grown around the Priest King, with him acting as spiritual but not political leader of thousands of Igbo villages. This leadership ended in 1911, when the Kingdom was sacked by the British and the ruling Eze Nri forced to renounce the religion in the public square.

Igbos, who prior to this event had been reluctant to convert to Christianity, began converting in droves. If the founder of the space no longer believed, why should they? Also, Christianity now offered access to mission schools, the gateway to the new political economy.

Unlike other African kings who embraced the new dispensation, indirectly running their polities on behalf of the British, the Nri family largely disappeared from political/spiritual life, leaving Igbo destiny to a new class of mission-educated politicians and generals.

In the September declaration, Eze Nri now seemed interested again in taking responsibility for the people and culture led by his forebears. The outreach to the historic Igbo diaspora also suggested an opening to finally reckon with how a culture of proud free people also produced caste systems which unleashed horrors amongst enslaved ordinary Igbo people in the New World.

Come December 2018, instead of the expected opening, there was suddenly a rapid closing down and counter-briefings, as to whether the declaration had come officially from the Eze Nri, or a rebellious faction in the Court. It appears that the renunciation and silence that began 108 years ago, looks likely to continue for a while longer! NA                                

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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