Erroneous depiction of Abam in Chinua Achebe’s novels

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chinua_achebeBy Abali Abali

Chinua Achebe came in con­tact with Abam through myth during his days as a student of Fisher High School (now Government College) Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria. Unfor­tunately, he incorporated the myth into his novels without question.

Until the last decade of the 20th cen­tury, a common myth among the stu­dents population of Government Col­lege, Umuahia, was that the people of Abam were human headhunters or killers, kidnappers and even cannibals, who relished serving as mercenaries or hired warriors. This derogatory image of Abam remained what it was –a myth – yet it was widely accepted among the student population as truth. The result was that many of the few students from Abam who were lucky to attend that elite school, simply hid their identities behind neighbouring communities, such as Ohafia, Abiriba, and even Arochuk­wu.

The origin of this myth is not clear, but it is widely believed to be the creation of students from Chinua Achebe’s old Anambra State (now Anambra, Enugu and part of Ebonyi States respectively) who dominated the student’s population. The people of old Anambra State, which included Chinua Achebe’s Ogidi community, had earlier contact with western education than most (if not all) other Igbo communities. Students from the old Anambra State could, therefore, afford to demonize and condemn people of other Igbo communities as barbarians and even cannibals. This derogatory view of other Igbo communities eventually became widely accepted especially where, as in the case of Abam, such communities were not represented at all or were insignificantly represented among the students population to challenge it.

Regrettably, in his attempt to make his novels the primary reference for Igbo worldview, Chinua Achebe incorporated every myth, however far-fetched. In doing so, he did not bother to conduct any research or investigation to ascertain the veracity of the views he adopted in his novels. Chinua Achebe never visited Abam, yet he had no reservation in incorporating the myth about Abam into his novels.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the theme of Abam in Chinua Achebe’s novels vis-à-vis the real Abam community, if only to show the fallibility of Chinua Achebe’s novels as primary reference for Igbo world view. Abam features in two of Chinua Achebe’s novels to wit, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God respectively, although the name is corrupted in the former as “Abame”. In chapter fifteen of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe graphically describes the extent of barbarism among the Abame. The story is narrated by Obierika, a character in the novel thus:

“During the last planting season a white man had appeared in their clan……. He was not an albino. He was quite different….. And he was riding an iron horse….. And so they killed the white man and tied his iron horse to their sacred tree because it looked as if it would run away to call the man’s friends”. For Chinua Achebe, the Abame culture condones corruption and thievery even among title holders. As he puts it in chapter seven of Things Fall Apart, “in Abame…… title is worth less than two cowries. Every man wears the thread of title on his ankle, and does not lose it even if he steals..

In chapter two of Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe presents Abam people as dreaded warriors, hired mercenaries and plunderers. He narrates: “In the very past, when lizards were still few and far between, the six villages – Umuachala, Umuneora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umugwugwu and Umuisiuzo – lived as different peoples, and each worshipped its own deity. Then the hired soldiers of Abam used to strike in the dead of night, set fire to the houses, and carry men, women and children into slavery. Things were so bad for the six villages that their leaders came together to save themselves”. We even find a Diviner warning his client: “Do not forget….. that you are not to pass this way until morning even if the warriors of Abam were to strike this night and you were fleeing for your life.”

The picture Chinua Achebe paints of Abam in his novels, as shown above, seems to conform to the myth about Abam which he was already familiar with at Government College, Umuahia. Like Chinua Achebe, I also attended Government College, Umuahia. I remember it was when I gained admission into that school that I came in contact with the myth about Abam being savages, human head hunters, hired warriors, mercenaries and cannibals. All my effort to convince my fellow students that the derogatory remarks being made about Abam did not conform to the people I lived with back in my village at Idima Abam, fell on deaf ears. They readily countered my argument by waving Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God to my face.

Chinua Achebe is correct in describing Abam as a clan, but every other thing he says about the community is false. To begin with, there is no such thing as “Abam soldiers” or “Abam warriors”, contrary to what Chinua Achebe wants the reader to believe. This is because there has never been a common security apparatus or even any form of centralized political authority for the entire Abam clan. Perhaps, a little explanation of the political structure of the Abam clan will help drive home this point.

Abam is made up of seventeen (17) villages. These are Idima Abam, Ozu Abam, Ndi Oji Abam, Amaeke Abam, Atan Abam, Ndi Ebe Abam, Ndi Okereke Abam, Amuru Abam, Ndi Oji Ugwo Abam, Amagbu Abam, Ndi Okorie Abam, Ndi Agwu Abam, Ndi Ememe Abam, Ndi Inya Abam, Ndi Ebeleagu Abam, Ndi Okorie Abam and Odonyi Abam respectively. It is bound in the north by Bende; in the south by Ohafia; in the east by Abiriba; and in the west by Ikporom (in Akwa Ibom State and Itu Mbuzo (an Ibibio speaking Community) in Abia State –all in the South East region of Nigeria.

Each of the villages in Abam is self-governing and, until the late 1970s, there had never been an attempt to bring the villages into a central administrative or political unit. The villages constituting the Abam clan share three common denominators, the clan’s name “Abam”, the Abam dialect, and strong similarities (but not uniformities) of customs and traditions. Each village has its village head, a body of elders who advised the village head, and a body of youths split into age grades who enforce the decisions of the elders and the village head.

In pre-colonial times the age grades fought the wars against external aggression. There has never been a time the age grade in One Abam village formed alliance with those of another village or other village to fight against external aggression not to talk of engaging in military expedition in other Igbo communities. In short, every Abam village is strictly on its own when it comes to security and defence. Thus, the concept of “Abam Warriors” is a creation of Chinua Achebe and not a reality. In fact, rather than being the aggressor, Abam has been a victim of aggression from its neighbours. In the west of the Clan, for instance, an age grade in Abiriba known as Onarubi Age Grade”, woke up one morning and decided to invade Ndi Ebe Abam. They armed themselves and took off for Ndi Ebe Abam, chanting war songs along the way. The people of Ndi Ebe Abam watched helplessly as a vast portion of their land was occupied by that age grade. To ensure the occupied land never reverts to Ndi Ebe Abam, that age grade built a school right there which is today known as Onarubi Secondary Technical School, Abiriba.

In the East of Abam clan, the people of Idima Abam have fought unsuccessfully to reclaim a vast area of their land under forced occupation by the Ikporom Community of Akwa Ibom State. In the north, the people of Amaeke Abam have since resigned themselves to fate in the face of continuous seizure and occupation of their community land by the neighbouring Bende Community. The situation is even more pathetic in the south where the people of Ozu Abam have been watching helplessly as their community land mass shrinks perennially under their feet following incessant invasion and occupation of their land by the people of Ebem Ohafia community.

In one of such invasions, the people of Ozu Abam, in desperation, sent emissary to Idima Abam begging for help to repel the invaders. The request was greeted with consternation in Idima Abam mainly because the two villages (Idima and Ozu) have never agreed, cooperated or worked jointed on any project whatsoever from time immemorial. Needless to say that the request was turned down. Thus, if there was such a thing as “Abam warriors” or “Abam soldiers” as Chinua Achebe wants the world to believe, then these external aggressions against Abam Communities would have been jointly tackled and repelled.

Inter-communal rivalries in Abam have not allowed the development of a common political or administrative front. As recent as 1980, the then Imo State (now Imo, Abia and part of Ebonyi States) Government, sought to unite Abam under one autonomous community headed by a first class paramount ruler to be known as “Eze Abam-the Onyerubi I”. The idea was to create a paramount ruler in Abam who could rank equally with other first class traditional rulers such as the “Eze Aro” (the paramount ruler of the entire Arochukwu Clan) and “Eze Abiriba – the Nnachi – Okon I (the paramount ruler of the whole Abiriba Clain respectively. The paramount rulership stool was proposed to be rotational –moving from one Abam village to another.

The heads of the various villages in Abam were invited to Government House Owerri (the then Imo State Capital) where the proposal was tabled before them. All the village heads agreed to come under one paramount ruler. The question was which village head should be the first paramount ruler of Abam? In other words, which village should the rotation start from? To answer the question, the government representatives at the meeting suggested balloting and all the village heads accepted the suggestion. When the ballot was conducted, the village head of Idima Abam (Eze Atum Akwara) picked number one which meant that he was to be the first paramount ruler of a unified Abam and the rotation would start from Idima Abam.

It was jubilation in Idima Abam, but reservation in the other villages. In particular, the village head of Ozu Abam (late Eze Ike Okoroafor) went home and was greeted by very strong anti-Idima Abam sentiments. He capitulated and quickly sent a petition to the State Government at Owerri in which he reneged on all his commitment to a pan-Abam paramount ruler on the ground that his people (Ozu Abam people) are opposed to it. He added that Ozu Abam has never had any form of political affiliation with Idima Abam and his people did not want the situation to change.

Bewildered by the sudden turn of events, the state government quickly split Abam into three autonomous communities. The government appeased the people of Idima Abam with one of the autonomous communities known as Ohaeke Abam Autonomous community. Thus, Idima Abam became the only village in Abam that could elect its own councilor into the local government area council without requiring votes or support of any other village. The other sixteen villages were split into two autonomous communities namely, Ohafor Abam and Ovuku Abam, respectively.

I have gone to this length just to make it very clear that what Chinua Achebe describes as “Abam soldiers or warriors” never existed, and there was no basis for it because there has never been a pan Abam political institution or co-operation to make that possible.

At this point, supporters of Chinua Achebe may argue that Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God are mere fictions and that Chinua Achebe never told anyone that the two books represent the history of Igbo people or any Igbo community. Such argument, with due respect, is naïve, because Chinua Achebe’s classics, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God have since transcended the realm of fiction and made Chinua Achebe a highly respected authority in African culture and tradition. Chinua Achebe’s classics are quoted the world over as authorities on life in pre-colonial Africa. It is for this reason that no one should be ruled out of order or charged with belabouring any point in an attempt to clarify or correct any misrepresentation in Chinua Achebe’s novels.

 

 

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