Since I attended Odenigbo and heard those shocking revelations about how Igbo people are unwittingly destroying their language, I have been acting like a badly-trained policeman and forcing everyone around me to speak Igbo, especially if they are Igbo in the first place.
I’m now more protective of our mother tongue and have no patience with anyone doing anything contrary. That’s why I’m sharing this experience I had in London, recently, at a naming ceremony organized by an Igbo family and attended by 99 per cent Igbos. I will compare it with a similar ceremony in the Caribbean held by a Yoruba family.
Nearly all the guests at the London party came from within Owerri – Emekuku, Uratta, Ikeduru, Mbano and Mbaise, precisely. One-year old Chioma, repeatedly called Chaaoma by the emcee from Emekuku was having a naming and birthday party. Chioma’s parents, Chidumam and Rachel are British-born and in their 20s but they are impressively afrocentric. Chidumam, 27, speaks beautiful Igbo, thanks to his parents who are also the main sponsors of the party.
The ceremony started with a church service, followed by a reception two hours later. Most people came late but that’s African time! At about 4 p.m. the party was in full swing, with men, women and children, young and old, dressed in their finest. The hall itself was tastefully decorated and shimmering with colours.
About 100 guests attended – the majority of them couples 50 years and above, as well as youngsters within Chidumam’s and Rachel’s age group. The little ones were not left out because they too came in good numbers to celebrate with Chioma.
As expected, the women stepped out in gorgeous traditional clothes – wrappers, long skirts and blouses with matching headties. A few chose glittering, long Chinese gowns but “Nigerianized” them with appropriate head gears. Some of the men preferred French suits and others dressed casually in their normal everyday wears but not jeans.
The young girls appeared in their party best, with long weave-on hairstyles and 12 –inch shoes. Luckily, no one fell. I saw mini-skirts as never before. One of the girls wore a skirt which barely covered her “bottom” and two sisters chose to expose their “boops” in a crazy display of fashion. I saw a father look at his 29 year-old daughter, frown and quickly look away. Notwithstanding, the majority of the youths dressed sensibly.
I must mention that Chidumam, the young father of the day and his younger brother Osita graced the occasion in a lovely black and gold “isiagu” – which worked well for the ceremony, just as the food –
For a while, these were the only semblances of culture that I could identify beside the music. The opening prayer was said in English, even the “Oji” was not celebrated in Igbo although someone had come out earlier to announce that “Oji” did not understand a foreign language.
I saw no real display of culture or tradition associated with a naming ceremony. Some elders came out to give short speeches but regrettably none said anything that made any cultural impact or even explained the significance of a naming ceremony to the igbos.
Sadly also for me, the Emekuku-born emcee drove the nail on the Igbo language coffin when he repeatedly and laughingly called the baby “Chaaoma” instead of “Chioma”. ‘That’s how the British would pronounce it,’ he remarked. People roared with laughter. But for me, it was a serious issue because the emcee was missing an opportunity to correct the mistake. He also refused to teach the young people a little bit about Igbo culture, or even make some remarks about the sacredness of a name in the Igbo tradition.
There were some children bearing Igbo names but didn’t know the meaning or the correct pronunciation. If “Chioma” is “Chaaoma” and it’s acceptable, it means anything goes in the Igbo language and you wonder why our people are speaking Igbo in English, so to speak. I am not sure that would be acceptable to the Yoruba or Hausa.
The only thing that brightened up the London occasion culturally was when the men bellowed “Igbo Kenu”, greeting the audience and the women responded with a resounding “Oro” or Oronu”- I even saw some children joining.
When it was time to bless the baby, the elders did so in English – another minus in my opinion. It was only in dance that the Igbos really showed off. Men, women and children took to the floor, grinding it out on their waist in typical Igbo form. It was interesting again to see some of the young girls taking dance lessons and trying to emulate their mums in the hip rolling, waist wiggling exercise – “egwu Ukwu”. The ceremony ended on a joyous note but without teaching much cultrally. No one left the venue with any knowledge about how the Igbos really do their naming ceremony.
But the Yoruba ceremony I attended in the Caribbean was culturally rich and well-flavoured traditionally. It did not matter that the majority of the guests were non-Yoruba. What seemed to matter was that tradition must be fulfilled.
The celebrants are a mixed couple. Shawn is afro Caribbean from Barbados and Mobola, a Nigerian mulatto, has an English mother. Her father, retired justice Aguda had journeyed from Akure to attend the ceremony of his first grandchild, with his white wife and son joining from England. Everyone was dressed traditionally in solid aso oke, including the white mum. We are not Yorubas but we supported them by dressing in our traditional wears.
But it wasn’t only about the dressing – the ceremony was culturally impactful. For example, the guests were requested to arrive before sunrise and they did. The occasion began with opening prayers in Yoruba conducted by the grandfather. Anyone would have sworn that Justice Aguda did not know a word of English.
When it was time for the naming rituals, he also did so in full Yoruba, while his son, white as snow, translated to the audience in English, to everyone’s delight and admiration. The young man carefully dissected his father’s words, interpreting all the proverbs, riddles and jokes with fervor. It was fun, interesting and educational – an eye opener to our Caribbean friends. We all listened, laughed and thought at the same time.
The heart of the ceremony was the “blessing” which was the most informative and spectacular. The grandfather held the baby and opened up eight little bowls carefully arranged on a table before him, consecutively. The contents included salt, honey, water and other things brought from Nigeria for the occasion.
He would pick up a bowl, tell us the contents, explain the origin and usage. He would then use it to pronounce present and future blessings on the child and then put some of it into the baby’s mouth as a sign of introduction and acceptance. That continued until all the contents of the bowls – the different elements – vital to life and living had been introduced to the baby.
The ceremony ended with food and refreshments – stewed beans, boiled yam and stew, fruits, nuts and juices – being served, again according to tradition. Guests were also asked to name the child, and they did in cash or kind. Some of the child’s gifts included a potted coconut plant and plenty of cash.
Unlike the London ceremony, everyone walked away from the ceremony more informed about Yoruba culture and tradition.