Igbo Kwenu!

Umuofia Kwenu, yaa! Kwenu yaa, kwezue nu, yaaaa! wrote Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). In like manner, everywhere in Igboland, you will hear in a public gathering in a village square or community centre, kindred meetings, and so on the cheering up when it is called upon: “Igbo Kwenu! Yaa! Some will say: "Yorooro m, nke bu n’ezi" (true to a fact); others will say,  "Ka obodo di mma" (so that the community will fair well). In all such responses, you will hear hoo, like in tii hoo, tii hoo, or ya-mee or ya-gaa! – which will mean “amen” in a simple English translation.

What does "Igbo kwenu" mean? Why are none Igbo culturally oriented and speaking peoples identify the Igbo themselves with that phrasing “Igbo kwenu”? When the Igbo say in a gathering “Igbo kwenu,” what exactly are they referring to or echoing out?  Whose voice or voices are embodied in the philosophy and culture of Igbo kwenu”? Of what origin has the concept of “Igbo kwenu”? Are there other societies known to the Igbo that share the same collective wish to agree or disagree in a political or communal discourse of that nature? Why are the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria sensitized with such an unshared cultural identity and representation? 
That is, invaluable time, determination, imagination, originality, mobilization, resources, and efforts. To begin with, the Igbo typically say that “gididi bu ugwu eze” (sound of the foot in a stampede or row is a mark of strength and honour to a king) 
To explain the cultural logic and symbolism of “Igbo kwenu” may not be as simple as it may look. I will therefore attempt and situate the concept of “Igbo kwenu” in the context of cultural identity, belongingness, solidarity and contribution to one’s society.

The Phrase “Igbo Kwenu”
A common linguistic analysis may help us to understand the phrase “Igbo kwenu.” Here we have two words: ‘Igbo’ and ‘kwenu.’ The term “Igbo” refers to Igbo people – men and women of all ages of tradition and modernism. On its own, “kwenu” as a word refers to agreement, endorsement, solidarity, unity, bondedness, strength, collective will.

The conception of the idea to stay together as a community and act as one is very important for the Igbo. The Igbo see the fact that to stay united in a direction or course of action will bring a shared honour to them. Therefore, they value strongly to come together. Coming together is deterministic and central to all else. In gathering of all sorts, namely marriage, rituals, celebrations, age grade meetings, war, wrestling, hunting, and village political affairs, the Igbo assert their emotions and psychology together through calls to order of solidarity such as invoking the “Igbo kwenu.” Today, the Nigerian political class come up with all sorts of slogans not far from the culturally enhanced idiom of “Igbo kwenu.” When someone is to speak to an issue, he will call to order the gathered Igbo to listen to him through the application or summon of “Igbo kwenu.”

Traditionally, when a person among the gathered group intends to speak and has masterly and skilfully summoned attention with “Igbo kwenu,” he is automatically granted audience. "Igbo kwenu" is a supreme call to attention and order to speak in a culturally appropriate way. Once the “igbo kwenu” is announced and responded to, all ears will listen, at least momentarily to the person who surely will stand out and speak to them. His idea, point of information and facts, contribution and oratory skill will determine how much attention he will command. The Igbo can be noisy in public meeting sessions. Being noisy while discussing public affairs is not easily understood by the non-Igbo. Speaking out loud and clear is a well cherished Igbo cultural feature. It is not merely seen or viewed as shouting or yelling, rather as a form of strength of communication and emphasis.       
Cultural Origin of Igbo Kwenu
To trace the cultural origin of “Igbo kwenu” is a search for meaning and point of departure. It can be clearly said it is history of a culture in an unwritten form whose parts make up the whole. Like the history of the origin of the Igbo people of Nigeria, Igbo culture is attached to the shared meaning of Igbo life historically. There is no beginning and there is also no end in the dynamic relationship between ideology and realism. An inquiry into knowing and connecting the dots of the origin of the idiomatic notion of “Igbo kwenu” is hard to excavate and pin point to a specific historic and linguistic moment. Legends and creation myths told nothing to our common sense understanding about the first application of the phrase “Igbo kwenu.” Yet important information gathered suggest that Igbo language, philosophy and manner of communication evolved as a collective praxis in charting their ways and transmission of life curiosities.

Some related stories asserted that the Igbo as a whole like to think and speak to and of things in a dynamic sense. There is an indication also of the fact that the Igbo reinvent any of their agreed upon matter of importance. As such, the “Igbo kwenu” concept captures their before, now and ahead of their time and events. Put practically, “Igbo kwenu” cuts short the form of saying  -  Igbo kwere na ihe ha kwuru (The Igbo believe in what they have agreed upon to think, say, and do). Classically, there is no record of history exclusive to the origin of the idiomatic connotation of “Igbo kwenu” this writer came across in the search for knowing.  Made to believe is that the phrase “Igbo kwenu” is aligned to Igbo language process on solidarity register and shared meaning of holding to what is agreed upon. We can deduce that “Igbo kwenu” is a psychic of a collective voice, the oratory skill and community action. Its origin and continuity have endured so much so that the significance of “Igbo kwenu” has become a norm in gathering of the Igbo for Igbo affairs.                       
Igbo kwenu and Symbolism
A central way to explain the symbolism of “Igbo kwenu” is to refer to a local proverb which says: Ukwu diri otu, a kuo ulo gbam-gbam, ma ukwu adighi otu, a kuo ulo akirika (if we are united, we roof the house with a corrugated iron zinc; but, if we are not united, the house will be roofed with raffia palm).  The proverb simplifies the obvious fact that unity is critical to any form of collective discourse, agreement, development action, connection and result. As when there is unity of purpose, the result of any action is comparable to roofing a house in a solid iron sheet. On the contrary, discourses that lack unity of minds and actions will result in disorder and of achieving less such that roofing a house is comparable to using vulnerable materials of less durability. The powerful proverb unveils the notion of ikwere or ekweghi (agree or disagree; come out and belong versus stay out and do not come out to be part of the community).

Let us not diminish the meaning of disagreement. To disagree with an opinion does not mean refusal to belong and participate in a given action. In the process of a debate, disagreements do arise but at the end a consensus will be reached in which case every varied opinion will be fine tuned, reduced to, and harmonized with an acceptable ground to act as one for the communal good.  This way, the phrase “Igbo kwenu” signifies a process of engaging in discourses until an agreement is reached and carried out. One can boldly state that the phrase “Igbo kwenu” corresponds with a reached Igbo mind or spirit for action in a given circumstance, such as Igbo Cultural Day of the Igbo Cultural Association of Calgary or Edmonton, 2005. Igbo kwenu is a cultural tick-tack of agreeing to move on. So, it is ahead, we go on because when the Igbo agree (kwe) they will give productive and enduring results. They will mobilize and fight to achieve things with their cultural heart and soul. And that is, indeed, the reference term of Igbo kwenu. Equally, it can be said to be a wooden gong in words for preparedness in line with any mutual community voice and action. Igbo kwenu initiates the voices, due process or rule, custom or law and action for the community of people involved. This is embodied in their thematic forensic rituals of life adaptations and death.          
In this rendering, I hope I have been able to highlight the cultural idiomatic expression of “Igbo kwenu.” By bringing out the linguistic and symbolic expressions to the fore, we now realize that the concept of “Igbo kwenu” is both ideological and philosophical enterprise in action applied to daily events among the gathered Igbo during discourses, communal and development action scenarios. Not only is the idiomaticity of “Igbo kwenu” a bold cultural reference to the Igbo of Nigeria, it essentially ties in with the Igbo sense of solidarity, belongingness, participation, and the fostering of their psychological momentum in a cause of social, cultural, economic, political, and global identity of who they are at home and abroad. Igbo kwenu is a mark of Igbo cultural identity and heritage. It is their collective voice in action at a moment of need to move on and achieve things of honour for their valued meaning of life in solidarity.  We invite our Igbo experts in this lexicon field to join in exploring the notions of Igbo kwenu in Igbo tradition and contemporary cultural world.

By Patrick Iroegbu  

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