KWENU! Our culture, our future
Ije m nAlaigbo nAmasaiba
[My journey in Igboland on Cyberspace]

Adaoma Carolyn
Michigan, USA

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

My fascination with West African culture began long ago. I learned that my forefathers came from West Africa to America by way of the Middle Passage, the slave trade route. The schoolbook image of Black people was distorted. Other than a few grass huts and talking drums, little to nothing was taught about African civilizations. In fact, Africa and civilization were considered contrary terms.

Acquaintance with Twi, Wolof, Fulani, Yoruba, and other African students fueled my desire to know what happened before the Mayflower and that from an African perspective. As my affinity for African culture grew, my knowledge of it remained at best shallow and fanciful.

My interest in Igbo began with the renowned writer Chinua Achebes book, Things Fall Apart, a genius work. Its pages unveiled the humanity, sophistication, and structure of Igbo society from an Igbo perspective. Before I knew it, this book had not only engaged me and educated me it had also changed me.

I have heard well-meaning Africans say to me that I should just embrace the American side of my heritage. They said, after 400 years or so, there is no use hoping to find my root, my so-called African culture that was lost. Its gone! So, why look for it? they said.

Should 400 years be considered too late to reclaim culture? After 44 years, should Ndiigbo give up trying? I think not. That is why several generations removed, Ive elected not to take up Spanish or French (been there, done that), but Igbo language. Language is the vehicle, which carries culture to the world. How can one really claim to know of African culture without being able to speak to African people in their language?

To Hear Their Voices

Africans, now independent of colonial rule, are attempting to regroup politically and to reclaim indigenous tradition and language. At the same time, the need to modernize and meet the growing demands of the digital age requires Western sophistication and the mastering of the English language. If it is true that indigenous languages are dying out from lack of use, what measure of culture threatens to die with it?

Ancient oral tradition that has been passed along from song, proverb, story, prayer, from memory to memory, heart to heart, generation to generation, is threatened! This should be a concern of all Black people of African descent. When it comes to Igbo language, in particular, I believe this. The worldview and collective voice of Ndiigbo threatens to die if Igbo language ceases to be spoken and written.

I longed to hear the voices of the ancients. Igbo is my language of choice.

Why Learn Igbo language?
Why not? There is so much to be learned from Ndiigbo (Igbo people). The Igbo people who come from the southeastern and midwestern regions of Nigeria, a country historically known as the Giant of Africa, have a voice of over 30 million strong. Their track record of commitment to excellence in education, their respect for the aged, their unshakeable confidence and ability to persevere with joyfulness are admirable qualities. Their love of being married and having children, their deep faith, (their being one of African societies that have embraced Christianity) and ability to excel in foreign environs are qualities worth emulating by any individual or community. It is my personal opinion that Ndiigbo can positively impact the image and quality of life in Africa, as they have so positively impacted communities in the Diaspora.

Language is the vehicle that transports culture to the world. Igbo culture and Igbo language are nearly indivisible. To separate Igbo language from Igbo culture is to divide the soul from the spirit or at best separate marrow from bone. What better way to know, to preserve, and to share Igbo culture than to read, write, and speak Igbo language?

So, this, my story begins as so many Igbo stories, with a journey my quest to be Igbo literate.

Endeavoring to be Igbo literate
Joining Uwandiigbo (online language group) was much like my very first plane flight. From Detroit Metro to Londons Heathrow Airport was nearly 9 hours, with a layover in Boston. Seven-and-half of those hours was over very deep waters! This was a pretty brave attempt for a first-time flyer. So, I prayed: Now, unto Him, who is able to keep me from falling (Jude 25). The reward: I was reunited with my brother after 5 years.

And, so it was with joining Uwandiigbo, a leap of faith. I took off, on an uncharted course through amasaiba (cyberspace) with the hopes that it will bring me closer to my brother after 400 years! This is an account of my first year in learning Igbo language. Let me share it with you.

Ndeewo nu,
> It is exciting to be back in class and I would like to thank everyone for
> hanging in there while we were on our prolonged break. We also have a few new
> people and what I would like to do is have everyone introduce himself or
> herself and give us a little information about their background and how much
> Igbo they think they know. That will help us decide how to structure this
> class. We need to decide whether we are doing a beginner's class or continuing
> with the high-level discussions we did in the past.
February 2, 2001, Omenka Ejike Eze (Onyenkuzi of Uwandiigbo)
--- In [email protected], "carolyn ":

> Ndeewo nu,
> Cheers, everyone! I am Carolyn. I am probably the new kid on the
> block...definitely a beginner. I've learned a few isolated words from
> friends and associates. What little else I know of Igbo language is from
> literature and the few websites that touch the subject. I am excited about
> this endeavor and a quick learner. Just yesterday, I visited the KWENU
> site and learned that "nu" is a plural marker for words! Further, I learned
> the deep meaning of "kwenu." Rich! Glad to meet you all. Omenka, daalu,
> for this opportunity. Let's strike while the iron is hot! Daalu nu... Carolyn
February 2, 2001, Carolyn

An associate who knew of my interest in learning Igbo gave the subscription information to me. I was sent the link and nothing more. Little did I know I was to land in a male-dominated, scholarly environment with participants from three continents.

The first reply to my greeting was from a linguistic Ph.D. candidate, who told me to check out an old book by Comrie. Who? This was to show me an interesting point about the plural tag nu in relation to how Jamaican slave used the Igbo word. Those speaking Pidgin English in Nigeria as well used it. Heavy. I was intrigued.

Then came the next posting in all Igbo!

With each incoming email, I could clearly see that high-level discussion group was in the majority. I dreaded that the next mail would be an apology for not being able to accommodate me, as there were no other beginners, yet enrolled. Then came this mail.

>I am MOE (Egbedaa), the re-appointed monitor of the class.
>Finally, since I just saw Carolyn's piece, the phrase "Kedu kime" is a
>product of the shortening of Igbo terms that Ndiigbo are yet to stop.
>You see, it should be: "Kedu ka i mere?" or "Kedu?" (Hi!) for short. And,
>since we are on "nu," you can always replace "i" (you) with "unu" ...
>when not addressing Chinedu alone, with "o" when inquiring about
>a third party (singular) or with "ha" when referring to third party (plural).
> Now who says Igbo language is unsophisticated!
February 2, 2001, M. O. Ene (Monitor of Uwandiigbo)
Wow! I just had my first lesson!

KWENU [KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future] was to be an additional resource for our learning experience on Uwandiigbo. It was referred to as the "village spring. And surely it was that. I was refreshed with articles about the life of Ndiigbo in Nigeria and in the Diaspora. Political and cultural gems (such as the book Jaundiced Justice: A Careless Whisper and You Are History, by Dr. M. O. Ene, Afamefune, I(g)bo Landing article, and the old lessons from Uwandiigbo) prepared me for my challenge.

Nanu, Nanu-
As silly an association as it is, it kept me on track in learning Igbo. The uses of Na and Nu, lessons written by our most distinguished Onyenkuzi, Dr. Ejike Eze, Ph.D. (Omenka), were the first keys to unlocking this language that was so foreign to me.

I immediately went back to Kwenu, as MOE had encouraged and tackled the first lesson regarding NA. I stumbled in the dark (no dictionary, yet). What I found was that forum members began to discuss my posted attempts at doing the assignment.

In the beginning, it helped greatly to have a native English speaker on the forum. This person processed the language in her mind, much the way that I did. She wrote very well in English, which helped me to compare Igbo to English sentences and sort out meanings.

Tone and tone markings were not of immediate concern to me. Unfortunately, I had no person who would consistently speak Igbo with me, so I focused on comprehension of the written postings. I still needed to know that tone distinguished meaning in words that otherwise looked identical. For example: akwa has several different meanings. Depending on the tone marking, it could mean: cry, cloth, egg, bed, or bridge.

Igbo is a highly contextual language. So, when I encountered a word that had several meanings, I depended on context to understand the sentence. Well, most times. Akwa is a word that cannot be identified without tone markings in written Igbo. Considering those things, I still managed to learn how to carry on a written conversation and to be understoodwithoutthetonemarkings, especiallyduringmyfirstyear.

There were no chats, no instant messenger, no conference phone calls nor sound bytes, my first year in Uwandiigbo only the written word! Discussions involving standardization of the language, grammar, proverbs, poetry, riddles, and songs were posted. One member was a bona-fide odeabu (or poet). One other member always had a song on his heart. Even what I could not read looked beautiful to me.

Uwandiigbo had a curious structure, an overlapping structure. By overlapping, I mean that on one level, those that had reached written conversational level and above carried on communication in Igbo, with little English. They debated issues of standardization, and tone marking; on a more elementary level, fundamental lessons on abd (alphabet... the sound of "c" is not represented in Igbo language) verbs ... since Igbo is a verb-based language, and more verbs. Those who were so inclined helped to answer the elementary questions.

There was a lesson to be learned from anyone who posted (addressed the forum) in Igbo. Whether it was a new greeting, regional use of a phrase, or a mistake, I could always glean knowledge. Uwandiigbo archives became a great learning resource.

With Uwandiigo, it was feast or famine when it came to the number of postings for any given discussion. Two -undred messages could be posted in one month and half that much the next.

Igbo culture, by nature, is shrouded in secrecy. The masquerades, age-grades, and titled societies are examples of this. The art of ilu (telling of proverbs) is a coded way of communication that the non-Igbo hearer understands on one level, but completely and differently by indigenes. It can be contextual, philosophical, or literal!

So, the more Igbo that I learned I realized there was a level in learning that I may never reach. It is as one member said: No one can fully learn Igbo language. It is something that is lived. I began to understand that statement.

On Igbo-English Dictionary by Michael C. Echeruo

What person would read a dictionary from cover to cover, like a novel? I did. I wanted to learn everything about this helpful tool.

Veteran class members recommended Echeruos dictionary, along with a couple of other dictionaries. It cost forty US dollars ($40.00), a serious investment. I found it easily at a bookstore in town. I was soon to learn that it was worth its weight in gold.

Using the Igbo dictionary was difficult because I had to identify the root of a word. In English language, if I am looking for run, I look under the first letter r. In Igbo, the root of a verb normally comes AFTER the first letter in the word. Ex. Ekele m gi. I look under k.

As members of Uwandiigbo began to post messages in Igbo, I discovered that our class was a multi-dialectal group. Onyenkuzi Omenka advocated Igbo Izugbe standardization; yet, dialectal differences in the language were acknowledged and expounded upon early on. No one had yet mastered Igbo Izugbe. It was very important to me to be able to read from whomever wrote. Echeruos dictionary was a great tool, in that word entries included dialectal variants, yet embraced Igbo Izugbe standardization. My only complaint of the dictionary is that it did not deal sufficiently with -ghi, negation in Igbo language.

I am proud to be able to write in Igbo Izugbe, yet read with some measure of understanding from some Igbo dialects.

The class was not ridged, by any means, but it had a professional tone. In fact, Igbo writers were articulate, eloquent, and crisp in their fashion of writing English. It provoked me to learn to write in Igbo equally as well. Educators, linguists, and other learned folk wrote easily and often. I wanted to be as good a steward of their language as they had been of mine.

In Lorraine Hansberrys classic African-American play, Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha (a medical student) is dating a Nigerian student. He proposes marriage by announcing that after hundreds of years the prince (himself) walks across the Middle Passage after the princess (Beneatha) and carries her back home to Africa. He vows to teach her the old ways, and the songs of his people, that she may feel she had only been gone for a day. I am Benetha and Igbo language is my prince.

Reflections of my first year in Uwandiigbo fill me with joy. As a busy wife and working mother, I could not drop everything and fly away to Nigeria. Alaigbo came to me.

With the amazing technology of computer science, Ndiigbo are in a unique position to bring light, open minds, and broaden perspective about Africa by bringing Alaigbo to the world. Each day that I log onto Uwandiigbo, I feel that I am a click away from the voices of the ancients, from knowing a little more about one African society and worldview. My love and respect grows.

Birikwe nu, Ndiigbo!
Birikwe nu,!
Birikwe nu, [email protected] !

Logging off but, not shutting down.

Adaoma Carolyn 2004
KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future: Simply surprise yourself yonder!