Igbo cosmology 2: the adventures of the word Ubani.


Igbo cosmology 2: the adventures of the word Ubani.
Tony Ezenna

13. With the coming of the white man the following happened. The coastal areas naturally became their staging posts and thus first commercial and diplomatic emporiums. Of course, that was the first time the Igbo were encountering the white or indeed any, non-black men. It is also on record that the white man visited with more abundant if not superior material accoutrements than the Igbo nationals ever had.

Now, of the observed historical pattern, if not a necessity, one can correctly conjecture as follows. That the first Igbo who ventured out to the coastal areas to interact with these white strange ones, were not the lords of the clan, to use an Achebe phrase. They were the upstarts at best or the lowly but venturesome members of the community. That is their interaction with these strange ones was some absurdity, in common sense at play in their day.

14. We should all remind ourselves that nobody within the Igbo world was sure how these interactions would play out. Things were just too tentative for the lords and rulers of the land to dedicatedly wager on. And it so happened that those who braved or were pushed into the interaction came into sudden wealth and even power. Nobody epitomizes this more than Jaja of Opobo. Jaja of Opobo was, we all may recall, sold out as a slave boy. That is indication enough that he came from a lowly and non-powerful family.

15. And suddenly Jaja made mightily good. The fact is that it is this mystery of Jaja-like wealth and coming to reckoning, that the Igbo style Uba-ani. And it means a coming to wealth as only the gods/ani give, unexpectedly and largely unexplainable. Ani, as used here, is of the animating spirit like in ani-kwe, if God allows, chi-kwe, if personal god allows, ani-chebe. It is not ani as in a real estate. Igbo wise men are smarter than that. Jaja himself was sometimes styled or nicknamed Jaja Ubani.

16. Other-nation’s parallels to the specific example of Ubani, are what happened in America. And the signal examples are the Californian gold rush and the Texan wildcatters. Both were simply acts of coming to sudden and ”unexplainable” wealth by rough, largely lowly and uncouth Americans. The genius of these lucky wildcatters etc. was more in moving West and not in thinking deep, as it were. And that shifting of their soles, not the leveraging of their brains, if they had any, led to the creation of some of the greatest of American wealth. The Hunt Brothers who once willed to corner the world silver market, are a typical cast.

In other words, the great wealth of the Texan cowboys and wildcatters everybody agrees is more from untrammeled luck than personal ikenga or ingenuity. The venturesome ones were or simply moved to the right place at the right time. That is to say, that if these Texans were lucky enough to have been born Igbo they would have been called ndi uba-ani, not cowboys or wildcatters. That is a clan of men whose palm nuts have been cracked for them by benevolent gods, as Achebe again, would say. That is, the gods who own the land and perhaps the oil therein have let them run away with the world.

17. Next, our American history tells us that great American wealth is divided roughly before modern times, into East Coast Establishment wealth and West Coast parvenu wealth. As the Britannica says:

”Virtually every part of the United States except the Eastern Seaboard has been “the West” at some point in American history, linked in the popular imagination with the last frontier of American settlement. But especially it is that vast stretch of plain, mountains, and desert west of the Mississippi that has loomed so large in American folklore, a region of cowboys, Indians, covered wagons, outlaws, prospectors, and a whole society operating just outside the law…. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought a burst of migration to the West Coast….” https://www.britannica.com/place/the-West-region-United-States

Igbo cosmology 2: the adventures of the word Ubani.
Barack Obama

So ”going West” in America came to mean at a certain time in her history, going after the great and largely un-policed territory of new wealth. Thus, when an American wrote of one of the President Bush’s ancestors, that ”he moved West” he means that the Bush ancestor went after great and emerging opportunity. Of course, Americans are a little less superstitious than the Igbo ancestors, so Americans wouldn’t attribute such sudden wealth to the gods as ancient Igbo did. But they did to luck. And whatever else luck is, it also is an urban synonym for the gods. However, the idea of mind-boggling and ”unexplained” wealth remains, even unto today. For instance, the miracle of Silicon Valley geeks, even given their smartness, turning billionaires, sometimes in their twenties, still beggars belief.

Expectedly, more than ours, the American ubani story has been more historicized. For instance, Sandy Sheehy tells in her delectable St. Martin’s Paperbacks/February 1992 book, ”Texas Big Rich,” that ”Better nouveau than never” was Texan businessmen’s battle cry.

She continues: ”Like the early oil wildcatters, [the Texan] stood alone against the vagaries of nature. He was comfortable with risks but uncomfortable with moral ambiguity, long on native intelligence but short on formal learning – …. If he got rich, it was partly through luck and partly a matter of recognizing [new] opportunity and having the courage to make the most of it. He… struck oil while digging for water.”

Please let’s repeat with Sheehy: ”He… struck oil while digging for water.” The parallels are evident and even more dramatic with Jaja. Jaja struck royalty, being monarch while striking out as a slave boy. Which mightier return on ”investment” has history ever recorded?

18. In other words, just as going West for Americans, making it to the coastal emporiums, epitomizes new wealth opportunities for the Igbo. And it is telling as Ms Nwaubani confesses, that Nwaubani was first given her forefather as a nickname. Nicknames are often suggestive of one’s peculiarity. And this peculiarity one can assume comes from her forefather’s sudden great wealth. Later the Nwaubanis adopted it as a proper name she records.

19. Thus the tying-up insight is to track the adventures and travelogue of ubani as a word and its changing meanings. We may now state as follows. Ubani as a word began life meaning

gifts of god or the sudden acquisition of wealth, [largely inexplicable save as favor by the gods]. The backdrop here is that it assumed to be some ”epidemic” or widespread accomplishments, not the singular achievements of one jackpot winner. Just as with California gold rush, ”epidemicized” or breakout riches is like the tides that help most dinghies brave the storm in cruise velocities.

Next, ubani as a word moved on, even as it retained its original meaning, to be a metaphor for space. That is, ubani also came to signify the zones, which merely happened in this instance to be coastal, where widespread creation of the sudden wealth so happened. [That is properly ubani is not a coastal region in any strict sense. And this is important. Ubani is any space, any region etc. where a good epidemic of wealth creation suddenly happens. That is ubani is a concept, the coastal region is just one expression, not an exhaustive expression of that concept. The fact of this is important as we shall see in a related paper on Oru na Igbo.]

And the fact of this travelogue of meanings is usual in all languages. For instance, 1. Attic began life as a region in the ancient Greek empire. Today, it has, coming a long way up to mean 2. the purest dialect of the ancient Greek tongue. Additionally, it also means 3. something of unsurpassed excellence, Attic quality.

Amongst the Igbo for instance, ikenga began life as a artistic/mystical representation of a man’s strength. Today, urban Igbo lexicographers take it to be the male organ, besides. The moral is that words and their meanings are moveable, are changelings etc. However getting to its original meaning – or philological meaning – helps us to drive the narrative and our futures better. It also helps to tell us who our fathers were. Language unconsciously is a storehouse of our past if understood or worked out philologically.

Of wordy powers or the powers embedded in words, it serves well to recall Honore de Balzac’s ”What a marvellous book one would write by narrating the life and adventures of a word!… in its triple aspect of soul, body and movement.”

Implied here is that these adventures are triggered by the Shakespeares and Balzacs of their languages. It thus follows, that Igbo language had its Achebes, makers of wordy adventures, even before the white man came upon us as pestilences. Achebe in Things Fall Apart, his great classic, hints it: ”Okoye said in the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs… and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”

And a great proverb I can assure is in the seduction of metaphors – is in playing Shakespeare, Balzac or Achebe with words. TO BE CONTINUED. Ahiazuwa.

A great proverb I can assure is in the seduction of metaphors – in playing Achebe with words. Ahiazuwa. 

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