Igbo cosmology 1: the meaning of ubani.

Agozino Agozino is a mellifluous name. It is one of those names that sounds Italian, Spanish or of any of the great rhythmic languages of the world. But it is Igbo. Perhaps, Igbo is one of the great mellifluous tongues of the world. Anyway, since I have known Agozino Agozino, the name has turned up unforgettable in my mind. So when I saw the byline of another Agozino, Professor Biko Agozino, I was attracted to read. Biko Agozino is a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in Virginia Tech, USA. He is a relation of my own Agozino Agozino, I later got to know.

Igbo cosmology 1: the meaning of ubani.
Alfred Ugochukwu: Obi of Onitsha

In a piece, Professor Agozino replied Nwaubani on her New York Times piece. Ms Adaobi Tricia Nwabuani is a Nigerian journalist based in America, I believe. The piece in the issue is:  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-great-grandfather-the-nigerian-slave-trader

Generally, Professor Agozino’s response was excellent and one recommends it. However, there is a little kink in his responsorial armor. Professor Agozino writes:

”Her family name, Nwaubani does not mean someone from the coastal area, it is the name of King Ja Ja of Opobo whose name was really, JoJo Ubani or someone who was wealthy in real estate: Uba is wealth and Ani is land. Similarly, the name of the town that they changed, Umuojameze, does not mean that the oracle is king. On the contrary, it means that the children of the flute, Oja, know no king, Ama Eze. It is the Igbo egalitarian philosophy that the Igbo know no king but it is understandable that after the military imposed chiefs on Igbo communities in 1976, those who wanted to be kings might be embarrassed by a name that said that the Igbo know no king.” https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/07/18/seeking-atonement-adaobi-tricia-nwaubani-on-her-slave-trading-grandfather-by-biko-agozino/

It is perhaps not obvious that the professor got his assumptions or root meanings wrong, but he did. And those are in very important ways as we shall see.

1. Ala is a dialectal variant is ani. Ala is more commonly used in Imo, Rivers and Abia States, while Ani is the near exclusive rendition in Anambra, Delta, Enugu and parts of Ebonyi. Ala/ani means land in all Igbo states.

2. Ala also, and perhaps more importantly so, means something else in these states. And that something else, is cosmologically more fundamental than land. In fact, ala as land, may actually be a derivative word, a synecdoche of that root and more fundamental word-meaning. And this root or more fundamental meaning of ala is chi, the owner or animating spirit of the [physical land]. And the fact of this is imbedded and made obvious by Igbo language itself.

3. Take Nkwerre in Imo State. I am sufficiently familiar with her, in part because I was a part of her planned defense during the Biafra-Nigeria war. In Nkwerre, as in all Igbo land, statements like:

I mee ruor la ala/literally you have brought sacrilege upon the land, ekwe kwele ala kugbuo nnu/do nothing that will make the earth want to strike you dead, Okuko yuruor ala chuwa nya oso/When a house fowl soils the earth with its droppings, ala/the land will pursue or go after her – which is a proverb.

In all these, nothing suggests literally that the land itself will act. What is implied, especially with the proverb, is that there is an animating, a quickening spirit in the land, which acts. And this spirit is not the ordinary land, which in being inertial can’t thus act. Thus, in Igbo cosmology, the ala as an active agent is not the humus or mere earth. It is the spirit that the Igbo believe owns and suffuses the land that is the active agent. The fact of this is important as we shall also show later.

4. There are other examples. For instance Professor Chinua Achebe’s full name is Chinua Ani-chebe. Achebe is a diminutive of the full name, Ani-chebe. And the ani which is supplicated, to guide and guard him, is not Ogidi as real estate. [Igbo in Achebe’s father’s era were city states as the Greeks. Ogidi is Achebe’s home city.]

Igbo cosmology 1: the meaning of ubani.
** FILE ** Nigerian author Chinua Achebe on Oct. 13, 2002, in Frankfurt, Germany. Achebe won the 2007 Man Booker International Prize for fiction in London, Wednesday June 12, 2007, beating nominees such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan.(AP Photo/Axel Seidemann)

That is the ani in anichebe is the immanent spirit in that land. So Achebe’s name translated into English is not: Ogidi land protect me. It is the gods/spirits/chi who own Ogidi land, protect our baby boy, Chinua. Interestingly, Achebe in Things Fall Apart writes:

”When he killed Oduche in the fight over the land, he fled to Aninta to escape the wrath of the earth.” In novelistic terms, Achebe’s translation may be adequate, but philologically it is wrong. The point is that Aninta is still of the earth. And if it were the mere earth that acted, Oduche would have been struck dead too. But ani if properly translated will be the owner spirit of Umuofia. Since Igbo run city states, to escape Umuofia is to escape its Nso-ani, or its sanctions. A more appropriate translation thus, would have read: Before the spirit that owns the land bends and crushes and bends you.

5. Interestingly, Ome-na-la, the lore of the land, is not what happens on the earth. Ome-na-ala is what happens on the earth in a priori approval of the gods, the animating spirits, that own the land. So, the key meaning of omenala is not what happens, but what is given a priori approval.

For instance a kid just murdered his father in Enugu as per newspaper reports. The fact is that the deed has happened – omene na ala, but is not ome-na-ala. That is, the key provision of omenala is not that it cannot happen on the earth. No, it is that it if it did, it is not an approved act. This approval as in all societies, is as pronounced by the wise men of the clan. These wise men are taken as the mouthpieces of the gods.

6. It thus follows that when libation is poured to, [sorry, actually upon the earth], it is poured to the spirits who own or animate the earth. Libations are not poured to, they are poured upon the land. But, they are poured to a higher order, that is to the gods. The pouring to or rather upon the land is a symbolic act. Igbo even have an urban and related proverb on this: agbara akporo aha gbuo okuko/the deity upon whose name a fowl sacrifice is rendered as against who eats the chicken etc. This hints on the distinction between symbol and substance in sacrificing to the gods. Libation is a form of sacrifice to the gods.

7. So, when Warrior sings “”Elu rie ala rie,” apart from the metaphor of all inclusiveness, it means the powers that own the earth/ani and the heavens/igwe. And of course Igbo grant that igwe ka ala -which I suspect is a latter – but pre-colonial – theological development.

8. In other words uba-ani is wealth from the owner/animating spirit of the land, not the land itself. That wealth from the land is called ihe ubi/iku oku – that is harvest. And ihe ubi which is a generic for results of personal endeavor or achievement is of Ikenga [dike] – or the achievements of a man or the hero.

9. Igbo readily make a distinction between the ikenga wealth and the ubani wealth. Thus the Igbo say ”agba ka mu mbuo bu ego nni ma uba sina chi”/That is great wealth is from the gods who own the earth, but no man who works hard shall go hungry. Thus names like ubani, chike-uba, chinwe-uba are related and have ike-nga, ike-otuonye, obi-dike as rough antonyms. So, ubani as used by our ancestors, that is philologically, means a material or unearned gifts from the gods, the gods who own the land. This is in contradistinction to iko oku/ihe ubi, that is, harvests out of one’s labor.

10. The matter gets interesting here. This is because to quote Nwaubani herself:

”My great-grandfather was given the nickname Nwaubani, which means “from the Bonny port region,” because he had the bright skin and healthy appearance associated at the time with people who lived near the coast and had access to rich foreign foods. (This became our family name.” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-great-grandfather-the-nigerian-slave-trader

11. The point is Ms. Nwaubani is both right and wrong. In the urban usage she is right. Uba-ani is a synecdoche [of a part as a metaphor for the whole] of coastal regions. Or better the coastal regions are one but non-exhaustive expression of the Uba-ani concept. Ubani as we shall see is a concept not tied to place or time. It’s near equivalent is Europe’s concept of the New World, or American concept of the frontier as developed by the historian Professor Frederick Turner. Frontiers are not time or place bound. For instance, Silicon Valley is taken as a part of the idea or ideals of American frontier.

Having said the above, Ms Nwaubani is wrong in the philological or more exact notation of her name’s meaning. Before we go further let us all remind ourselves and the author too of Achebe timely and correct warning:

”We know that a father does not speak falsely to his son or [daughter]. But we also know that the lore of the land is beyond the knowledge of many fathers.” Arrow of God. Thus that Nwaubani is quoting her father is no surety, the teller or retailer of the story is cannon correct.

12. Now, immediately it is understood that uba-ani is the gift of the spirits who own the earthly universe, then the knot can be elegantly and beautifully tied up. TO BE CONTINUED.

Libations are not poured to the land… they are poured to a higher order, that is to the gods.

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