Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Myth of akwụkwọ anaghi atụ asị in Igbo Discourse


Obododimma Oha

Arising from the awe with which the early Igbo who first encountered Western written communication held the book, and indeed, all written texts, is the myth of Akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị (The book does not lie, or the written text does not lie). The early Igbo were amazed that what someone said could be recorded in marks made on a surface and retrieved afterwards, even several years later, just exactly what that person said. For them, it was some kind of new magic or superior art that bore witness against an attempt to falsify the true situation or that exposed situations. This was reinforced by the fact that the art could be employed to convey what one wanted to tell his relative that lived in a faraway land; the written text would reproduce one’s message to that relative, just like that! Those who mastered that art of writing, that white man’s magic, was venerated as special people. Thus, early Igbo education in the White man’s ways was principally devoted to the mastery of that art of recording messages and happenings and being able to interpret same when the need arose. In a word, the book or written text came to be trusted mainly because of the errand it ran. An errand person that does what he or she is is sent to do or is expected to do is normally liked.

Early Igbo persons that acquired a bit of Western education (in English) reinforced the written textual errand in various community contexts that required the recording of messages and events: minutes of community meetings, land sale agreements, tax payment receipting, and so on. These, of course, were in addition to the writing of letters for non-literate members of the community who wanted to communicate with relatives in other locations. Unlike oral messages, the written message hid there in those signs, pretending to be asleep, but would wake up any time and say the same thing. In serving as the memory of the group in a meeting, a group like the age-grade, it would record that Okeke Okolie paid ten shillings owed as dues when the group held a meeting at Okonkwo Unoka’s house on 23rd October, 1923. And the members would agree that that was exactly what happened! It would also remember that Nwoye the son of Okonkwo was fined one penny for coming late and that his excuse that he was delayed in his Whiteman’s house was not considered genuine. Truly, akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asi, they would nod their heads in agreement.

The early Igbo did not understand that that same art of writing could be maniputed to falsify situations, to tell lies. Gradually, that myth of akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị matured on the lips of the people and joined the ranks of “wise” unquestionable sayings in Igbo public discourse. Once in a while, one hears an Igbo person utter that “wise” saying as proof or backing in an argument involving what has been recorded in writing in a community meeting, sometimes in an attempt to rest the matter. Once that wisdom and power of the book is invoked, the force in contrary arguments about the factuality of what is recorded is demobilised. If akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị and many accept this, then the individual further pushing the case to the contrary is viewed as a trouble maker or liar.

But it so happened once that I attended an Igbo community meeting where issues about the indebtedness of members was being tackled. Once or twice, the akwukwọ anaghị atụ asị wisdom was invoked to settle the doubts about the person not paying the dues at previous meetings. With so much grumbling, the fellow accepted the judgment that, according to the book, he had not paid. Then, came another interesting situation. The financial secretary was asked to read out names of members who were not regular at meetings for them to pay fines for their absence. The financial secretary read out the names and the fines were collected as required. But when he said that he had concluded the task, the chairman said NO, that he had skipped some names, an allegation he denied, claiming that all other people not mentioned were regularly present. Many other members of the executive committee supported the chairman, arguing that the name of a particular person present at that meeting (who, they knew, had been absent without apologies) was not called. They clearly alleged that the financial secretary was probably trying to exclude that person and probably had received an egbu-eri-akụ, a bribe! At that point, the person sitting beside me (who had invoked the akwụkwọ anaghi atụ asi narrative in a previous situation at the same meeting) also muttered that probably the book had started telling lies! And those close by laughed at the joke.

The Igbo who created the myth of akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị have also started interrogating it in various discourses. Just like all other myths that once in a while reign in the lives of a people, only to be exploded as they make their journey through life’s experiences.

As someone attached to books, surrounded by books, nourished by books, I have come to love and trust books. But I know that the magical power of the book, of written things, is not greater that the power of human memory. It is such a wonderful thing to be able to remember. As we remember, we re-member, and remain members of a thinking community. What the book has recorded may be skipped; in fact, people may decide not to record certain things in a book (OFF RECORD, as they say), but human memory can never decide not to remember what it has recorded. To decide to forget is to remember what one has decided to forget.

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