Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All for Wealth: Igbu Ozu and the Spirit of Christmas

by

Obododimma Oha

For more than a thousand years, Christians all over world have been celebrating Christmas, a remembrance about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who is recognized in Christianity as the Son of God and savior of the world. Christians value Christmas as a celebration of the love and mercy of God, as well as peace to the world. They attach particular significance to the name given to Jesus -- "Emmanuel" (God with us) -- as indeed a statement God is making through the birth of a savior, his son, who, as part of the Trinity, is also God Himself. So, if God is with us, how can we want in a country where politicians see their election as an opportunity for them to loot or share public funds? How can we be afraid of bomb attacks, abductions, armed banditry, etc?

Christmas, for some people, is not just a celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ who is a symbol of love. It is also a moment to think money and how to make the other surrender it, willingly or unwillingly. This dimension, however, is often not considered in thinking about Christmas as it is celebrated today, or is lost in the dominant discourse on "joy to the world"! The fact is that someone makes someone pay for sharing in this joy to the world. Christmas thus largely become a commodity, as well as context for exchange of commodities. Many business persons pray and expect to have a large volume of sales, with significant profit. For aviation workers, it is high season and fares have to be high to "compensate" for the heavy traffic of clients. In a country like Nigeria, the expectation for prices of goods to rise has almost become normal and even acceptable, especially among business people. Priests and other religious gatekeepers give us the impression that they discourage this merchandizing of Christmas, but they themselves also do not fail to harvest from those who have come to share in the joy of the new-born king. They expect the offertory takings to rise beyond normal at Christmas season services -- especially on Christmas Day. There has to the Christmas thanksgiving, where every worshipper must come and financially express gratitude to God for "living to see another Christmas." One thanksgiving procession would not do; two, no three separate thanksgivings. And then the main offertory for the service. And then the special offertory for the church building. And then the offertory for church office. And then the "offertories" as may be required by the bishop. And then the special thanksgiving for those "abroad" (that have returned for Christmas, if it is a church in the local area). We don't see these people often; now that Christmas has brought them home, we must really bring them home! After that, members of the congregation can begin to troop out of the church showing their new clothes and running from the fireworks...

And what about those more eloquent settings of modernity where Santa Claus jingles the bells of the little town of Bethlehem? Surely, they have practices that signify that Christmas is still Christmas, not so? Discount sales in shops during Christmas, for instance, which many see as a show of goodwill, for some who do not have to be able to afford the cost and be able to share with others during Christmas. Perhaps in some cases there is such genuine motive behind discounting sales during Christmas. But in many cases, it is part of the strategy to deal with competition in the market, to attract more customers, to clear the old stock and prepare for a new season of getting people to buy. Furthermore, some that buy from discount Christmas sales also do so to be able to stock what they would use elsewhere to make more gain -- whether monetary or non-monetary. So, even discount sales are not always given to the spirit of Christian love. 

Even if Christmas discount sales are that attractive and heartening as  being in tandem with the message of Christmas, its contrast applies in some poor African countries where the orientation is to hike prices -- from fares to cost of chicken parts. At least in that respect, we may be reminded that the world isn't really any fool's global village. What we do here for Christmas isn't exactly what you do there for your own Christmas. Those who celebrate Christmas are symbolically being told by their exploiters -- who may also be Christians wishing to celebrate Christmas in a big way -- that they must pay dearly to have a merry Christmas.    

The Nollywood movie, "Onwa December," in a very panoramic way, presents a sharp critique of what Christmas has become in postcolonial Nigeria. Instead of being a celebration of love, it has become a moment when some individuals enact their heartlessness in their exploitation and dispossession of others of their lives and property. In a society where being wealthy attracts respect, where not many people bother about has that wealth has been acquired, many individuals -- who incidentally bear Christian identity -- would want to be celebrated as they celebrate Christmas, even if they have robbed and killed other citizens, if if they have engaged in ritual murder, even if they have made away with valuables entrusted in their care, etc. As indicated in an Igbo slogan, igbu ozu (literally "committing murder') is their only creed. 

Igbu ozu, figuratively, indicates a sudden and amazing acquisition of wealth. Often featuring in discourses about wealth among modern Igbo business persons, this slogan captures almost literally the lack of feeling that goes with arriving at such sudden wealth. Incidentally, igbu ozu, though shocking to our sense of decency and ethics, is very attractive to many young business persons who have almost lost confidence in the ability of God to intervene in their circumstances. It is quite clear that the choice -- a very costly one -- that they are making is to do just anything to get wealthy. Quite clearly, using one's igbu ozu to welcome Jesus the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world is not just contrary to the Christian message; it is also against reason. One cannot use what Christianity does not stand for to celebrate Christ's birth. 

The igbu ozu, as a means of achieving self-flagellation, is, however, considered a means of impressing one's local community which, on its part, has turned the Christian feast to a moment of comparing and contrasting between Okeke and Okafo, and celebrating individuals from whom they can receive a handsome piece of pottage. In this case, instead of encouraging a sense of community as known in Igbo traditional festivals, the new Christmas has becomes a poison that endangers community. And, indeed, some who travel to their villages to display their igbu ozu, or to know who has achieved igbu ozu, may become the ozu that would never return to their businesses in the cities. The igbo society, it must be acknowledged, encourages genuine industry and healthy competition with one's peers. Igbo persons that refuse to work hard to catch up with their peers (as one finds in the life of Unoka, Okonkwo's father in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart) become a disappointment, indeed a source of shame, to their families and communities. So, this spirit of struggling to be a success is already part of what igboness means. But its misapplication in the form of igbu ozu is quite an embarrassment and a scandal that the contemporary Igbo society should be interested in confronting, as one finds Igbo cultural productions, for instance the movie, "Onwa December," already doing.

Those who celebrate igbu ozu within Christmas essentially try to subvert the message of Christmas from salvation to damnation and also destroy the sense in which community feasts in Black Africa help in servicing the spirit of community. Communities that directly or indirectly encourage igbu ozu have become like nwanza the bird that prefers to eat beyond measure and later fall dead on the road. 

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