Nigeria: On Igbo Titles

By Uche Nworah

To the uninitiated, Ndigbo are a show-off race, what with their big titles and ceremonies but such allegations are far from the truth. Ndigbo are proud and traditional people and so are other races, but in the case of Ndigbo not even the ‘civilisation’ brought by the Whiteman as depicted in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart could rob them of their Omenani. Agreed the Whiteman may have desecrated the land and committed alu upon alu in Alaigbo but Ndigbo as a people have always produced several Okonkwos who have ensured that the flames enkindled by their ancestors never burn out.
While some may say that tradition is gradually disappearing in some areas or aspects of Igbo culture, it is still thriving in several others especially in the taking and bearing of titles. Sometimes titles are given, and taken to reflect the character of the title bearer or holder. In some other cases the titles are just symbolic, and become a mere symbol of greeting during social interactions. In typical Igbo communities, people are not known, called or greeted by their names but rather by their titles. Some of these titles are self explanatory, but majority require hard thinking to fully decode their meanings, but still each title signifies something or else it becomes a mere nickname.

The titles are a deep reflection, and an extension of another aspect of Igbo culture, that of speaking in parables or communicating with proverbs. Just like the proverbs which are not expected to be translated else as Ndigbo would say, it would be deemed that the bride price paid on behalf of the mothers of the persons requiring translation of the proverb is in vain. The meanings of titles are not meant to be interpreted either by the title bearers, especially to fellow Ndigbo. An exception of the rule may be applied if the persons/people requiring interpretation are non-Igbos.

In Igbo land, titles could be either assumed without any ceremony or fuss, or taken through elaborate feasting and fulfilment of other conditions. Hence Ndigbo would often say that there are titles and there are titles whenever they wish to mock an Ofeke who they feel has not merited the huge or bogus title he or she bears.

The average Igbo man by tradition is expected to have a title, either given to him by his father or one that he assumes and takes up himself. However, there are titles that one can only bear after going through some traditional rituals and practices such as Nze na Ozo, Ichie, chieftaincy or other Igbo traditional titles. Any one who successfully goes through the stipulated processes would have been considered to be fully initiated, and his peers will no longer have any inhibition in giving him the traditional Igbo 3 – back hand slap and hand shake (ina ito) - a social greeting ritual that is reserved only for the initiated.

During formal title taking events, the titles are symbolised through sticking a feather or feathers in red caps (red capped chiefs) and then placed on the recipients head, by hand beads (Iga) made out of elephant tusks or by a piece of woven thread tied to the title takers ankles (ata). Title holders may also be presented with a specially carved working stick (Mkpo), or a metal staff (Oji) in addition to a fan made out of animal skin (Akupe) with the person’s name and title engraved on it. Women receive thick arm bracelets carved out of elephant tusks (Odu).

It is customary to hear Ndigbo making expressions such as Ichi zu lu echi zu; such people (the initiated) are accorded more respect within their communities and have more opinion in traditional matters including traditional marriages etc. They may also have a say during land disputes, especially if such a community has no constituted Ojiani group.

During feasts and other ceremonies, the fully initiated title holders are rewarded with extra portions of thighs of goat or tubers of yam and other items, and their food which must include pounded yam and soup stocked with anu mkpo and azu mkpo are usually prepared separately by umu nwanyi di ocha.

Although there is no general expectation for people to formalise their titles, there is however a class system within the Igbo cultural system. More respect and honour are accorded to those who have formalised their titles. The act of formalising one’s title is indeed not something for weak hearts and requires some elaborate preparation which culminates in series of events. The title holder will be expected to fulfil certain conditions including feasting his Umunna, Umuada, initiated title holders and other relevant stakeholder groups in the community .

In the olden days, such feasts will cost lots of cowries, manilas and shells. It would require regular trips to the village market where the cowries will be exchanged for goats, tubers of yams, jars of nkwuenu and other food items. Depending on the title being taken, it may sometimes involve wrestling with (killing) a lion or any other task that may be assigned by the custodians of Omenani. Fable has it that bearers of the Ogbuagu title, Maverick politician Francis Arthur Nzeribe’s title would normally be expected to have either wrestled with a lion, or killed one with a spear, they would then peel the dead animals’ skin which would be dried and hung in the title holder’s Obi as evidence. Many would have lost their lives during this process but for those that succeed, the honour and respect they receive afterwards makes it worth it as their stories are told far and wide. In the end, such people are applauded and congratulated by all, including the initiated and non-initiated for as Ndigbo would say Odiro Ofele.

Some titles are also hereditary, passed on from generation to generation, in such cases while all the male children born to a family may be addressed commonly by such titles by which their father or grand father was known, in the long term it is only the eldest male child that eventually retains the title. Preference in this instance always goes to the first born son. The younger siblings will be expected whenever they can, to assume or take their own titles.

In Igbo land, there is no compulsion by any native law or custom for men or women to bear titles; however any one who does not may find himself being the odd person during age grade, community or village square meetings, and during other community festivals and events where people are only addressed by their titles.

The culture of titles in Igbo land has often been chided by certain commentators who call it a craze, but in fairness there is really nothing wrong with it. By doing it, Ndigbo are only trying to uphold their tradition, just like other cultures would in other ways. On the subject of titles in Alaigbo, Charles Ikechukwu Okoli, an Awka indigene who goes by the traditional title of Nwa Ezeoku says that it is good that the Ndigbo have carried on with the practice, “Perhaps an aspect of this that Ndigbo should look at is in the abuse of titles, which sometimes sees less deserving members of the society being rewarded with big titles. Such practices usually send the wrong signals to the younger generation”, he concludes.

Some Igbo titles offer a mirror or parody into life, especially when the titles are juxtaposed with the personal circumstances of the bearers. A few ones come into mind here especially titles that suggest that the bearers are people of great financial and material means but in reality they may not be, examples include such grandiose titles such as Udu ako mmiri, Aku n’ata ka si, Okpata ozuo oha, Akuluouno, Ide ji ogwugwu, Ono n’ikpo aku, Ide, Eselu enu ego, Eze ego etc.

Titles can also be restraining tools, for example I have found that my title Ezeudo has on several occasions served to restrain me from acting when provoked, it serves as a reminder to me always to ‘watch it’, else I will be ridiculing myself, title and culture.
I know a man who goes by the title of Ome mgbe oji, in retrospect I think that the title is quite befitting, a very clever chap he is as his title forecloses any expectations relatives may have of him for financial assistance, he would make promises but with a clause that the promises can only be fulfilled whenever it is possible, a smart title indeed.

There are also absurd cases, for example when known charlatans or cowards in the community bear titles that are too big for them such as Ochi agha, Ekwueme, Dike ana agbara izu, Aka gbajiri igwe, Dike eji eje mba. In some other cases, some titles may be considered off-putting in an increasingly modern Igbo society which has largely embraced Christianity, such titles connote the impression of idol worship for example titles such as Agbara ahuru gbuo okuko, Alusi n’ejere onye nwe ya ozi, Eze Udene etc.

As with men, so also with women, there is no evidence of discrimination against women in the Igbo culture with regards to title taking, in fact the women are holding their own and giving the men a run for their titles. They do have their class system as certain titles can only be taken by the initiated, usually into the much revered and influential Iyom society. If you are an Igbo woman looking for a title, perhaps the following may get you thinking; Oso di eme, Agbala nwanyi, Oche eze, Mkpulu nma, Nwanyi gbue efi, Asa mpete, Nwanyi ma uche di ya, Ugogbe, Ola edo, Ada eji eje mba etc.

Interestingly, men and women do not normally bare similar titles in Alaigbo as they would some Igbo names such as Uche, Ngozi, Chinyere, Chika and Udodiri which are unisex names, but it does seem from the sound of some Igbo traditional titles, that both the women and the men already know which titles they could bear and which is exclusive to the opposite gender.

Ndigbo are also very accommodating and have been known to show their appreciations of friendships and beneficial relationships with other races through the bestowing of honourary titles, some Igbo In-laws are known to have bagged titles such as Nwanne di n’mba.

Afa otutu will continue to play prominent roles in the cultural and social lives of Ndigbo, and no matter who you are; Onye Igbo, Ogo, or enyi Ndigbo – Zaa kwa nke ichiri!

Uche Nworah has a Master's from University of Nigeria. He's currently pursuing his Doctorate at the University of Greenwich in London. Mr. Nworah has extensive management and marketing experience having worked as an independent investment adviser in Germany and for Leading Edge Consulting Ltd, Lagos as a management consultant. He also worked for Sunrise D'Arcy Lagos, as Head of Events and Public Relations. He currently teaches Business and Marketing at NewVic, London. His articles have appeared in leading African newspapers, journals and websites. Uche Nworah can be reached at uchenworah@yahoo.com