It was a sullen and warm November night when, in that eternity that lurks between the time when one goes to bed and when they finally fall asleep, I remembered the story a friend of mine Olisa, once told a few of our university hostel mates and myself during another warm and sullen, probably November night.
That night, we were in a discussion about our states of origin and the villages where our fathers were from – well, our fathers because other than one of us who was born in Benin and grew up in Warri, the rest of us were born and bred in Lagos. He said he was from Umuleri (translated to Igbo, this means the People (or descendants) of Eri), Anambra State and he knew this because when he was younger, his father had told it to him and also shown him proof of his origins from the Holy Bible itself. Expectedly, the rest of us must have berated him either for lying or being presumptuous because, how sure exactly was he that it was same “Eri” that was recorded in the Bible; the same bible, especially the old testament, that recorded the ancient history of Mesopotamia and the old Arab fronts, that would have spawned a race of people so far removed from the biblical depiction of that reality that they ended up in Africa, Nigeria to be precise – how sure was he, that this was the same Eri who was being referred to. For all we knew, it could have just been a coincidence. Our basic reasoning then must have been along the lines of Africa being the birthplace of our species; “you don’t go to Africa; Africa comes to you.” However, he offered to show us the Bible verse that bore the name “Eri” even if he wasn’t exactly a bible scholar himself. We made available a copy of the bible and, sitting on the carpeted floor and against a dirty wall with his legs crossed under him by the flickering dim yellow light of a candle, my friend foraged through the bible, from the very first page to Chapter 46 of The Book of Genesis. At verse 16, we all saw “Eri” mentioned as a son of Gad, half-brother of the fashionista Joseph; the one with the coat of many colours and one who would be sold into slavery by his brothers and transported to Egypt where he would follow dreams, literally, and end up as governor. Gad himself was one of the famed sons of Jacob who would later become known as Israel, and was a product of a union between Jacob and Zilpah; slave girl to his wife, Leah. From this end, the genealogy is common knowledge: Jacob was the son of Isaac, brother of Esau who sold his birth right for a plate of porridge (absolutely no Igbo spirit in this one) and; Isaac was the only legitimate son of Abraham. I laughed it off but I knew it was not impossible, especially with the long history of speculation that has surrounded the Igbos regarding their “links” to the ancient Jews.
But biblically tracing the history, to put actual dates to it, Jacob existed sometime between 1900BC to the early 1600s BC which puts both Gad and Eri conveniently between 1700s BC and 1300s. the bible also records Jacob heeding instructions from God and going with his family into Egypt to escape famine ravaging the original land of Canaan which, they called home. It was about 2-300 years between the death of Joseph and the coming the new king who put the Israelites in slavery for more than another 400 years after which saw the coming of Moses who would eventually lead them out of Egypt and back to Canaan. If some of the descendants of Eri had decided to leave the unforgiving conditions in Egypt, heading south, rather than northwards towards their homeland in a bid to elude the Egyptian patrols who would have recaptured them and returned them to slavery, it would have been within these 400 years of slavery in Egypt. By approximation, the children of Eri, leaving along the Nile River and Sudan, travelling westwards from Ethiopia, must have arrived in West Africa and settled in by around the periods of 1300 – 1100 BC which, very beautifully coincides with evidence of some of the earliest archaeologically postulated origins of the Igbos in Africa.
While a lot of archaeological research still goes on as to where the hotly contested “Cradle of Ndigbo” lies, this story very strongly reveals the power of informal education especially as a means of passing down history especially in Africa where griots were made before conventional methods of records keeping like reading and writing were more available. Under this setting, stories were passed down from parents to children and the children passed the same stories down to their own children in a cycle that effortlessly defies time.
Amusingly enough, this also comes at a time when a means of writing among the Igbos called “Nsibidi” has made something of a resurrection as the ancient art finds its way back to modern times. This, apparently, was a means of expression and record keeping among the Igbos up until the coming of the missionaries and colonialists in the 1800s. it bore marked structural similarities to the calligraphy of the Chinese and has had some 190 character unearthed to date.
The use of Nsibidi as a means of communication, like many other facets of traditional African cultures and traditions, was discouraged and demonised in favour of the conventional western alphabets and numerals until it was almost entirely forgotten. Although, quite a few people still recount memories of these strange inscriptions on walls and pottery which they attribute to grandparents who must have lived through these periods. In all, Igbo history seems to be quite rich. In the course of this article, I had come across some evidence of political relations between the Igbo race and that of the Bini Kingdom that reaches as far back as to the first century even though details were scanty. It makes for very little in the way of progress to cry over the spilt milk of colonialists’ invasion and how much detriment it has wreaked upon our cultures and identities as people but rekindling the flames of curiosity in favour of better knowledge and understanding of our past as Africans, is always going to be a welcome idea any time.
To conclude, I am not from Umuleri like my friend, Olisa as I described above, my surname is “Okeke” which simply means “born on the Eke market day”; one of the four days of the Igbo week, although, my surname might not have always been Okeke. I am also from Enugu State, which, also, might not have always been as my great-grandfather, surnamed “Kanu”, hailing from somewhere in Umuahia (literal translation: market people) or Abia at least, on one of his travels to where we now know as Enugu State, fell in love with a princess who tradition and the responsibilities of royalty prohibited from leaving her hometown for anyone, not even for marriage. So, my hopeless romantic of a great-grandfather packed up his things from Umuahia for a life in Enugu with his beloved. Soon enough, my grandfather would come around and then my father and then me.
Random detail about great-grand by the way, the romantic: he was a slave trader, what his “travels” were? Your guess is good but mine is definitely better.