Photo credit: @chikaihuoma
If you’ve ever stumbled across Nigerian spaces on social media, you wouldn’t have to look very far to see the stereotype that Igbo people love money. Although most Igbo people aren’t offended by this, after all, who doesn’t love money? —Where does this stereotype come from?
Is it something that stems from the Biafra war, as many like to suggest? Or does it have much more historical origins?
Adiele Afigbo’s Essays on Igbo History and Society might provide some answers. On pages 298 to 301, the author goes into detail to explain the Igbo connection with material wealth and success.
“The other feature of Igbo traditional religion which should be mentioned here to help throw light on our discussion is the Igbo idea of immortality. The Igbo not only believed in a life hereafter, like many other branches of the human race, but also that status achieved in this life can be carried over to the next world. One important implication of this idea from the point of view of our discussion is that a successful man (that is a rich man) in this world would be a rich man in the world hereafter, while a poor man and failure in this world would be dogged by his failure and poverty in the next world. Similarly, an amadi (free born) in this life will be an amadi in the next, and a slave here, a slave in there, etc.
These three features of Igbo traditional religion were very important in helping to determine the attitude of the Igbo to material wealth and to labour – the means by which wealth could be acquired and success in this life registered. For instance, among the Igbo, wealth is no barrier to salvation, as it could be in Christianity. And here it must be understood that to the Igbo, salvation is admission at the appropriate status at death to a life in the company of those members of one’s clan who had preceded one to the other world.
He also writes:
In Igbo society, therefore, it was easy to identify material success with salvation and material failure with damnation. In some circumstances, one would expect this particular religious ethic to induce passivity, fatalism and laziness. But it is here that Igbo religious ethic manifested its close similarity to the Puritan and Calvinist ethics which Marx Weber very ably argued tended to induce men to work very hard, to show initiative and enterprise in business.
Chi and self determination:
One or two examples of this Igbo straining to attain material success which was assumed to be indicative of peace with the gods will be given here. In Igbo land each man was believed to have a personal god known as Chi that protected him in life and helped to complement his efforts. On setting up his own independent family unit, he also set up a shrine for his Chi by calling on a diviner, or some other person ritually qualified to perform the function, to plant and consecrate on his behalf at a chosen spot certain life plants and special slabs of stone which served as an altar for sacrifice.
At this shrine the man sacrificed and prayed regularly to his chi for long life, a full household (that is many children) material wealth and peace. Each time he met with good fortune he sacrificed a fowl or goat (depending on the degree of good fortune) to his chi in appreciation.
If he met with bad luck, say his harvest failed or members of his family fell ill or died, he went to the same shrine with a sacrifice to urge his chi to wake up if it was asleep, or to forgive any crimes which he might have unknowingly committed and for which he had been visited with the particular ill-luck in question.
If in spite of such propitiatory or “catalytic” sacrifices the man continued to fail as a farmer, trader or father, then he and his neighbours would conclude that his chi was bad either because it had not been properly set up or because of some enormity which the owner or his father or some other ancestor had committed. In any case so over-whelming was the desire to succeed, to prove that one was not damned, that such a man would go so far as to dismantle the chi shrine, set up and consecrate another in order to have a fresh chance to try again and, may be, succeed”.Adiele Afigbo – Igbo History and Society: The essays of Adiele Afigbo, Edited by Toyin Falola
If we look at significant events in Igbo history, the ideas Afigbo outlines in his book might explain why Igbo people reacted to their circumstances as they did.
1) The Igbo Landing:
The Igbo Landing refers to the 1803 event at Dunbar Creek, Georgia, where Igbo people chose to drown themselves instead of living a life of enslavement. Enslaved Igbo people were known for being melancholic and suicidal, but why many opted to end their lives has always been a perplexing matter for historians.
The points raised in Afigbo’s writings might be critical to understanding why.
As outlined in the excerpt above, traditionally, Igbo people believed in the afterlife and that a person’s material wealth and status could follow them into the next life. With that considered, despite suicide being taboo, for some enslaved people it would have been better to die as a free person (in hopes of returning as a freeborn) than to face a life of enslavement in their present life and the life after.
2) British Colonisation
It is often noted that colonial forces from Britain found it quite challenging to conquer Igbo regions, not just because of their non-centralised communities but also because of their stubbornness towards adopting a new way of life.
However, colonial masters and anthropologists realised that Igbo people responded well to perceived opportunities for success. Colonial schools were used to re-educate a generation of Igbo people with a new religion, language, and worldview. In order to convince parents to send their children to school, the colonial regime elevated those who went. The tactic swayed many Igbo mothers who saw that their children could be more successful if enrolled into missionary schools.
3) Biafran War:
Igbo people are often praised for their response to defeat during the Nigeria-Biafra war and genocide. The region recovered quickly despite the mass loss of life and the economic and infrastructural ruin. This striving for betterment through self-determination despite the odds can be linked to the Igbo concept of ‘chi’.
Above, Afigbo outlines this determination for success with a scenario demonstrating how a typical Igbo man would react to his ill fortune, writing: ‘In any case so over-whelming was the desire to succeed, to prove that one was not damned, that such a man would go so far as to dismantle the chi shrine, set up and consecrate another in order to have a fresh chance to try again and, may be, succeed.’
In conclusion, whether Afigbo’s statements convince you or not, the stereotype will unlikely disappear soon! If you’re interested in reading more, you can purchase the book on Amazon or see if you can find it in your local library.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on the topic, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear your options!