Mazi Ifeanyi Atueyi is the Administrative Manager, Centre for Igbo Arts and Culture (CIAC), Abuja. The Otolo Nnewi-born Theater Arts graduate in this interview with Okechukwu Onuegbu dispels beliefs by most Christians that Igbo masquerades and cultural festivities were evil, arguing that the Igbo were the main people marginalising themselves. He provides deeper perspectives into the establishment of CIAC in Abuja and the place of arts and culture in the civilisation of Ndigbo among others.
What background information can you provide us about the Centre for Igbo Arts and Culture (CIAC), Abuja, Sir?
As the name signifies, Centre for Igbo Arts and Culture, which came into existence 12 years ago, is into the preservation of Igbo culture and language. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations (UNESCO) had predicted that Igbo language and culture would go extinct within 40 years, if nothing urgent was done to preserve it. That is what we are fighting to prevent. If you look around, you will discover that our people, especially the youths, no longer speak Igbo language. Worst still, most of our people see those speaking the language as unlearned or illiterates or should I call it inferiority complex. We are trying to make our people understand that speaking Igbo language will never prevent them from learning and performing excellently in their chosen field of endavour. We want them to understand that speaking English language cannot make one a better person. For instance, our worthy ambassadors like late Professor Chinua Achebe, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu were all grounded in Igbo language yet it did not stop them from speaking English language or distinguishing themselves in life.
What informed your decision to site the centre in Abuja instead of any part of Southeast states?
The only reason is to help our people especially the children born and bred outside the Igbo land whose parents have not visited their country-homes for years to learn and communicate in Igbo language fluently. We discovered, through our findings, that the language is still being spoken by our grandparents in rural communities. But outside the Igbo land there are Igbo parents who have never gone to their villages with their children for the past ten years. And most of these parents make English language their official language of communication at home. Therefore, we bridge the gaps by making their children to learn and communicate fluently in Igbo language.
Since you are in Abuja, do you also extend what you do here to other parts of Igbo land and beyond?
We work hand in hand with Southeast traditional rulers so as to see that whatever we do are translated down to rural communities. Dr Dozie Ikedife, the former President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo is our patron and a board member. For instance, one of our publications which took us two years to compile is a compendium of Igbo masquerades. It took us to diverse parts of Igbo land within the five Igbo-speaking states including Rivers and Delta states. We researched and documented the Igbo masquerades for future generations, especially now that religions are affecting their existence. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters currently view our culture and tradition as a bad omen that should be proscribed. But we don’t see it that way. We want them to understand that our culture is our culture and we can’t let it go down the drain. That was why we consulted our people in the East and they encouraged us to help document masquerade festivals. With their help, we visited most of the masquerade festivals in Igbo land and documented them in our compendium.
How else do you plan to reach out to other parts of the country including the South Eastern states?
Our focus is at all parts of country including UK and USA etc. Our presence and services are being felt around the world. We circulate thousands of our magazine publication which is a bi-lingual (Igbo and English languages) periodical worldwide. Our people all over there study them and are always happy about them. We set an agenda to achieve every year. Among them is organising of Igbo language competitions on current affairs, essay writing, debate and quiz across all the private and public secondary schools in Abuja once every two years. At the end of it, winners go home with mouthwatering prizes, including the scholarships we usually offer those who came first, second and third positions to study at any institution of their choice. However, the essence of organising this competition is to encourage our people to teach and encourage their children to be speaking Igbo language without fear or favour. So the competition is purely an Igbo language affair. A professor we once invited to deliver a lecture in Igbo language decided to deliver it in English language. As a result, we stopped her. This is because everything we do in this centre is purely centered in Igbo. Again, we usually organise Igbo seminars in Abuja every year during which Igbo professors and linguists deliver lectures on Igbo language. Our banners, pictures, write-ups and other things for the programme are prepared in Igbo language. The lectures are structured to encourage children and parents to join in promoting our language and culture always. For instance, our topic this year is “Ndigbo, speak your language to your children before it is too late” (Ndigbo subara umu gi Igbo tutu otee aka). The lectures usually centered on the importance of raising children using Igbo language, the merit and the demerit of understanding Igbo language, the importance of preserving Igbo indigenous foods and plants. Most of our people are not even aware that there are merits and demerits of having knowledge of Igbo language and culture. That is why you will hear them saying “Junior doesn’t hear Igbo.” That one is a poor grammar. Our people must be proud of their language and culture. Parents must stop discouraging their children from speaking Igbo language. It is all about passion. I did not study Igbo language in school but my passion for it led me into CIAC. I am now an Igbo translator and I have assisted several international and local organisations in translating English articles, examination questions and others to Igbo language. Also, we begin each year with a press conference involving different media houses in Abuja. We raise topic on Igbo language and debate it with them. At the end, they will publicise our position on national dailies. We also publish our unique magazine, Odinala twice a year. It is the first bi-lingual magazine in Nigeria written and published both in Igbo and English languages. It is a conglomeration of Igbo culture and language. We have sections of research work, kiddies corner, Igbo designs and fashions, Igbo proverbs, and other compilations from across Igbo land in order to showcase our diversified culture. All these and lots more we do to provide a platform for our people to learn, speak and understand Igbo language and culture. Similarly, we organise seminars for Igbo school
Do you have any connection with Otu subakwa Igbo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and others?
Well, Otu subakwa Igbo is not based in Abuja but we invite them in whatever we do. The first seminar we organised for Ndigbo in Abuja had Professor Pita Ejiofo, the founder of Otu subakwa Igbo in attendance. He was also with us three years ago when we held a-two day programme at Enugu in collaboration with Nigeria Research Institute and Micheal Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike. The essence of the seminar was to encourage planting, conservation and preservation of Igbo indigenous foods and plants currently going extinct. For instance, most Igbo adults in the East and abroad might fail to explain what ado is. Ado is like cocoyam but is not. We also have akidi, and others simply going into extinction.
You earlier talked about how teachers in Abuja. We work with Universal Basic Education Board (UBEB) and Secondary Education Board. This seminar is meant for all the Igbo teachers at both private and public institutions. We use it to teach them how to improve on their teaching through application of modern techniques. The seminar usually encourages them to remain in the teaching profession as Igbo teachers. This is because we discovered that in Abuja we have few teachers handling Igbo language. They told us that they lose their jobs every day because most secondary school owners in Abuja are saying they no longer want Igbo taught as a subject in their schools.
This seminar also creates an avenue to meet teachers and school proprietors and advise them on retaining both the language and teachers in their schools. Also, we have written several letters to government agencies and schools, educating them on the sustenance of the teaching of the Igbo language and culture since it is one of the three major languages of communication in Nigeria. Do you know that we were the one who made it possible for people all over the world to be viewing African Magic Igbo section? We wrote several letters to DStv immediately they introduced Yoruba and Hausa channels without Igbo language channel. They told us they were ready to introduce it if we can present them with at least 40 copies of Igbo movies because that was their main reason for not introducing it initially. As at that period, we couldn’t get up to 40 Igbo movies. However, DStv showed us over 1000 Yoruba movies and over 2000 Hausa movies. We searched for Igbo movies but couldn’t get up to 10. This was so disheartening because 95% of Nollywood movies producers and marketers are Igbo people. Why don’t they produce in Igbo language? We took it upon ourselves to write Nollywood actors and actresses, producers and marketers. We discussed with them and today, we have Igbo movies and Igbo channels of African Magic.
Are there some Igbo organisations you work with on these projects?
Yes! But I will say that we are mother of Igbo centres in Nigeria anywhere. We work with Igbo Language Academy, also based in Abuja with branches all over the world. We also work with Education Resource Centre, Igbo Language Teachers Association Abuja branch, Secondary School Education Board, UBEB and others.
Igbo teachers were losing their jobs. Why is it so, especially in the federal capital territory where Ndigbo are believed to have larger population?
The issue is that Ndigbo (Igbo people) don’t have a reading culture. That is a fact. It is so disheartening that most private schools owned by Igbo people in Abuja told us they won’t employ Igbo language teachers. Most of them prefer Hausa, Yoruba and other subjects as local languages to be taught in their schools and employ teachers for those. Some even have French teachers as well. But when a trained Igbo language teacher comes for a job they will proudly tell them they don’t accept Igbo subject teachers because it is not taught in their schools. Even Igbo parents encourage it as well. They will tell you they prefer their children to learn Hausa rather than Igbo language. This is why we are going everywhere urging Ndigbo to wake up. We are not marginalised. We are the one marginalising ourselves. For instance, the chairman at the Igbo Day celebration Ndigbo had in 2014 at Eagle Square wrote his address in English language and was about reading it when I intervened and told him it was wrong. He told us he would read it in English language because there were some of non-Igbo speaking people in our midst. We insisted because if it were Hausa or Yoruba it must be read in their languages. At last, it was translated in Igbo language by someone else. That was how we conquered it. I believe that our language and culture will not die if every Igbo man or woman will start standing for the course in the same way we did at that occasion. Whenever and wherever you see a loophole, stand up and demand for a right thing to be done. I am sure it must be corrected. It is abnormal for Igbo to write or read address in English language at Igbo events like Igbo Day, cultural festivals and so on.
You talked about Igbo masquerade, an aspect of Igbo culture which Christendom condemns.
How can you differentiate between Igbo culture and tradition from paganism?
I don’t know what they meant by the word paganism. Tradition is tradition. There is no aspect of Igbo culture or tradition that should be regarded as a taboo or paganism. I am also a Christian. This is what God created us with and we must uphold them. When I was interviewed by a radio station some years back, I told them masquerade festivals must be sustained. I reminded them that the same Europeans who brought Christianity to us and termed masquerades evil still practice it in their land. Go to United Kingdom you will see that Nottingham Festival which they celebrate every August is all about masquerading. You can research that. Go to China; you will equally see they do the same thing. They are even becoming world champions yet they are not Christians. I don’t know why they are condemning our culture.
Why would they call ours evil and still practice theirs?
Our artifacts they stole are currently in use in all parts of United Kingdom and beyond. Go to Yoruba land to see how they value and cherish their cultures. They have Osun festivals. If you attend the event, you will see their professors like Wole Soyinka. They embrace it in totality and nobody can take it away from them even though some of them involve rituals. It is only the Igbo man who can reject his culture because of Christianity. Look at our situation in Nigeria today despite our so-called Christian ways of life. Two of them must work hand in hand. We can’t take away our culture because of white man’s religion. I don’t see anything evil in our culture and tradition. It is ours and we must maintain it. Everyone has a unique way of worshipping God. If there is any of our culture or tradition that is inimical, our people should disclose it so that we shall look at it and see how to make it better. That is better and not outright cancellation. Our festivities must be sustained for future generation.
Does your group subscribe to IPOB agitations for Biafra and its recently held sit-at-home, and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo calls for restructuring?
For the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), I can tell you that everyone is entitled to his opinion. We are not against anything that is Igbo cause because they have their reasons and right to agitate for them. But we are advocating that it should remain peaceful and without violence. Because every means of getting what one wants that is peaceful is commendable. We are not against them. We only want them to be cautious. On restructuring, we believe it is a step in the right direction. But we want it to be done in all fairness and justice. I wouldn’t want it to be lopsided. We want total restructuring of Nigeria system because anything outside that will make no meaning. That is, we want Nigeria to be taken back to its six regions. Anything outside that does not make sense.
It was observed that your group was not seen at the recent Ohanaeze Ndigbo summit on restructuring. Do you have separate positions to it?
No! We see Ohanaeze Ndigbo as an umbrella body of every Igbo man or woman. We won’t be against their positions. However, we will always offer them our good advice because we are the mother centre of Igbo language and culture. For example, in the 2014 national confab, we wrote a letter containing some of our positions which I personally presented to Igbo representatives at their lodge in Abuja. They took about four of them and incorporated them into their demands. But for the summit you’re talking about, we were not aware. We only heard about it on media when the members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) were issuing threats that they would bomb the venue of the event if it held. It was not well publicised. We have our Ohanaeze in Abuja yet they were not also informed. But we won’t use because of it to reject it. We have learnt to handle whatever that happened to us at home not by washing our dirty linen in the public. You know that it has been the problem of Ndigbo. And it must stop. You don’t have to kick against what your brothers agreed on because you were not part of the decision makers.
What advice do you have to Igbo youth?
The advice I can give to Ndigbo including the youth is that there is no place where oil and milk flow. The ways you make your bed is how you will lay on it. Starting a race does not matter because an end justifies the means. We need passion. Passion is all we need to sustain our language and culture for future generations. You can only do well in a business or field where your passion lies. That is why some of us kill their children while pushing them to study what they had no passion for. Money is not everything. We must be passionate of our language and culture, follow our passion and other things will follow.