“The oldest person (The Diokpa) is the conscience of any group” – An Ibusa saying
Buchi Emecheta was of Ibusa parentage and one cannot over-estimate the importance of Ibusa in her life and work.
Buchi was born in Yaba, Lagos in 1944. Though she lived there for most of her childhood and teenage years, it was the brief periods she spent in Ibusa – her ancestral home town – which were to mark her imagination for the rest of her life.
Following the death of her father when she was 9 years old, Buchi, her mother and her younger brother left Lagos and returned to Ibusa. It was during this stay in her father’s village of Umua-dafe, that a senior aunt and story-teller introduced her to the colourful legends of the nine villages. Buchi later described these story-telling sessions in her autobiography, Head Above Water , referring to them as the ‘moonlight tales’, as they were told to her and the other children on the verandah at evening time.
The Nine Villages
Ibusa (properly spelt Igb-uzo) is a semi-rural town to the west of the river Niger in what today is called Delta state. It is composed of nine adjacent villages to which a tenth was later added. According to legend, the town was founded by Prince Umejei who was forced to leave his home in the east after losing a wrestling match. He trekked with a small entourage towards the Niger bearing a heavy gourd on his head, and where the gourd fell, was where he established his new settlement.
The new settlers were known to the neighbouring peoples of Asaba and the market town of Onitcha as Ibo-uzo (the Ibos who live in the middle of the road). Agriculture was their main occupation – the cultivation in the riverain delta of maize and yams, but they quickly became renowned as hunters and feared for their warrior skills.
The ‘Ibusa Novels’
Spanning a period of sixty years from the 1890s through the time of the Aba riots to the end of the Second World War, these novels tell the fictionalised stories of Buchi Emecheta’s parents and grandparents. The dramatic lives of her heroines Ogbanje Ojebeta, Aku-nna and Nnu ego, chronicle the changing face of Ibusa, from a pagan era of polygamy, human sacrifice and internal slavery, to its Christianisation by Catholic and Anglican missionaries.
Ibusa, like the rest of Nigeria, is torn between tradition and modernity, between the assurances of a collective past that is rapidly becoming mythical, and a future that, even if questionable, promises economic prosperity and growth. Ibusa is often spoken of as though it were still a collection of nine small villages (especially by those who no longer live there). But in the space of a generation it has become a major city, with close to half a million inhabitants, according to the latest census. As the older, agrarian generation passes away, the red mud paths and wooded groves fringing the sacred Ogbosh river are being concreted over and built upon. A major by-pass now encircles the town, and since neighbouring Asaba became the State Capital, it has become a commuter town for government administrators hailing from other parts of Nigeria. In choosing to make Ibusa their home, the incomers have brought along with them new values and cultural norms, and the heightened demand for accommodation has led to a ‘land grab’ and a flurry of building. Among the indigenous population, the ancestral attachment to the land is slowly loosening, as new generations of sons and daughters of the soil seem increasingly willing to exchange their birth-rights for Naira.
These tensions are reflected on a political level….
Ibusa UK – The ICDU
To be an African in the UK is to be a citizen of two worlds. The tensions between old and new, of lives in transition, and the perils of falling into the liminal spaces in-between, are central themes in the work of Buchi Emecheta. In the journey that she and her compatriots made, from Nigeria to the UK in the 1960s, she embodied many of these contradictions, and gave voice to them her writings.
Though a single black mother in a foreign country, Buchi Emecheta found support from the Ibusa community in London, who as early as 1962 had formed a self-help organisation called the Ibusa Cultural Development Union – the ICDU.
This loose organisation of Igbo immigrants – was reminiscent of the Ibusa unions Buchi and her parents had known as ‘immigrants’ in Lagos. They were a home away from home, and in a sense a continuation of Ibusa life and traditions in the UK. The ICDU organised chapter meetings and social functions – characteristically opened with the breaking and sharing of kola nut, and the pouring of libations by the local Diokpa. From group contributions (essus), the ICDU also provided financial assistance for destitute members.
Apart from Buchi’s writing, which was to take her into a different public sphere, all important milestones of her and her family’s lives – births, deaths, marriages – were mediated in some measure by the Ibusa elders and Ibusa traditions. Until the end of her life, Buchi’s closest female friends remained her Ibusa age-mates.
Sylvester Onwordi, 2017