By Rev. Fr Angelo Chidi Unegbu ([email protected])
1) During my 4th year (SS1) as a minor seminarian, I and my cousin and classmate Fr. Elias Chima Unegbu (of blessed memory) decided to spend our Easter holidays together at Owerri with our uncle Bishop Mark Unegbu, the then bishop of Owerri diocese. The day we arrived coincided with the first day of Ikeji festival. The bishop who was not expecting to see us asked: “When is Ikeji beginning?” “It began today My Lord,” we answered. “Why are you here? Why did you not go to the village to celebrate with others?” The question threw us off balance because it was the least question we had expected from him. We had thought that he would have been happy that we decided to spend the holidays on the holy grounds of Assumpta Cathedral than going to the village to celebrate what was largely considered as a ‘non-Christian’ festival. He did not ask us any other question. Quickly we retired to the boys’ quarters where we normally stayed each time we visited.
2) The next day after breakfast he asked us to dress and get our belongings ready so he can take us to the village. As we were driving into the village that sunny afternoon, we were greeted by sounds of ekwe and other musical instruments. Various chants and Ikeji melodies by young men rented the atmosphere. We saw some masquerades. Some were dancing to the tune of the choruses and instruments as they marched along the road while some others were walking swiftly as if they were late for an appointment. Intermittently our car was halted by one masquerade or the other or by young men in frenzy who would later grant us passage. The bishop asked the driver to slow down so that he doesn’t injure anyone.
3) I was sitting with the bishop at the back as he kept on feeding his eyes with those cultural displays. That was the first time he was home during the Ikeji festival as a bishop, I think. Normally he visited the village once every year on 26th December to celebrate the Christmas with the entire family. That was also his last visit to the village during Ikeji festival. From his countenance he was very happy for such rare opportunity. He dropped us at our family home and returned to Owerri.
4) Because of this and subsequent experiences, my interest or appetite for deeper knowledge of African/Igbo culture as well as its religion, politics and history, grew. The more I tried to know, the more I realised how little I knew and the more I wept for my long years of ignorance. After my graduate studies before my priestly ordination, I had thought that I had understood it all till I travelled to Europe for my postgraduate studies. It dawned on me how little I knew of the beauty, richness and value of our culture. One of the saddest experiences an African will ever have is be to be asked by a European professor: Why do you not see the beauty in your culture and tradition? More than once I had some portions of my theses returned because I did not show my culture enough respect and appreciation. It is sad that I learned to appreciate my cultural values in a foreign land and from a foreigner!
5) Unfortunately, a good number of Ndigbo/Africans are still caged by the chains of cultural ignorance and hate. Many are still in the business of disrespecting their culture and even seeing as as evil and diabolic. We still see men and women of God in the 21st century who still go about demolishing cultural establishments and castigating our cultural norms. Funny enough, these people have no reasons that justify their actions except that they were brought up to hate themselves. Many of them do not even know that the hatred for African culture, religion, history, tradition, negrophobia and afrophobia pre existed Christian mission. They have little or nothing to do with religion!
6) Well, I do not blame African Afrophobes or negrophobes so much because I once belonged to that school of thought. The truth of the matter is that the education system in Nigeria at all levels and in all places is basically faulty and intrinsically destructive. If we don’t move our education system from this imbecilic stage we shall continue to sink into the mud of ignorance, retrogression and self-destruction. Just like religion, quality education must recognise and develop from the educational tools and paradigms of our forebears. It must be rooted in our culture if we must make progress otherwise we shall forever remain imitators, copycats or dependants.
7) Only natural and organic growth is sustainable and beneficial. Our desired character, cultural and environmental values can only be realised by pruning to improve on what we have already. It is never done by uprooting, importation or replacement. That would be a lazy and unwise way to address real human issues.
8) Even with the decline of Christianity in the West, elements of Christianity have remained in their cultures – they still have their flamboyant carnivals, festivals, Dorpsfeest, Santa Claus, and so on. These are ways of sustaining their community consciousness, linking the past generation to the present.
9) We do not condemn or discard Christmas, Easter or Valentine celebrations as evil because of the aberrations that are today associated with their celebrations. It is also unreasonable to condemn or discard our cultural celebrations and values because of aberrations that have crept into them. Our duty is to remove the aberrations so as to preserve their purity and purpose. May we remember that Ikeji and most of our cultural celebrations are nothing but acts of thanksgiving to God for his love, protection, and provision of bounty harvest.
10) Unfortunately, ours today is to destroy what we have inherited from our forebears instead of transforming (where necessary) and promoting them. May our eyes be open to the reality that our doom or success as a people will depend on our attitude to our culture, tradition, history and identity. As for me, I am very grateful to God for letting me be born an Igbo. I thank him for my culture which gives me my identity and pride. Every African should feel same about their respective cultures.
With the psalmist I say:
“For it was you o Lord who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation.” Psalm 138.
As Ikeji celebration begins today (09/04/2021), may we remind all the participants that Ikeji is nothing but a celebration of thanksgiving to God for his love/care and also a demostration of love for our forebears who have gone before us. Let us avoid acts and behavious that might suggest otherwise. Peace be with you!