Akwaeke Emezi is not an Ogbanje: Annotations on Igbo Tradition, Cosmology and the Ogbanje spirit- Onyeka Nwelue

Last week, I had a long conversation with my parents about funerals.

My grandfather would have been 100 years old on November 20th. My aunt, who has been a professor in the US since 1992, reminded me of this and said she raised a toast in his honour.

Papa lived a good life and my mother talks about him all the time. I was brave enough to tell my father that when he dies, I will not be at the ‘funeral party,’ because I do not think funeral parties are important. This is based on principles. I no longer say congratulations to people when they get married or have children.

My parents were not shocked; my father only stressed: “Nna, so you will not bury me?” I said, I would. But, I can’t throw parties for those who didn’t like him. They both laughed and we went on talking: my mother had told me of a relation who just died. I said to her. “Since I never helped her when she was alive, I have no business with her in death.”

The writer with the Chief Priestess of Oguta Lake Goddess, Akuzzor Anozia in her shrine.

Funeral parties are expensive. You throw these parties for people who never knew the deceased, who would have treated the deceased badly when they were alive. They call it befitting burial. Even educated people are involved in this madness and when you speak about it, they say they are following tradition and honoring the dead. What does it mean to honour the dead? Do people realize that funeral parties are shameful and not needed? That there is no need eating at the funeral of someone and celebrating one‘s death?

People are not ready for difficult conversations, but since last week when I wrote about Adichie and Akwaeke, many people have messaged me privately to thank me for writing what I wrote. Someone suggested my piece was the most balanced piece I have written. 

An Igbo writer said to me: “Don’t you think they will say you are trying to pull your fellow Igbo down?” And I said: “Who cares what anyone thinks these days?” 

Let me say what I have been wanting to say and what every Igbo writer says in private: Akwaeke Emezi is not an ogbanje

This is not a case where you ‘choose’ who you are. Or become. And flaunt it on the pages of newspapers, to sell your book. Not in Igbo cosmology.

It was difficult for me to write this, when everyone advised against it. Ms Adichie did not ask me to. I am not even sure Ms Adichie knows that I exist. I don’t think so.

I write this because I am worried that the fans of Akwaeke, especially in the West, have bought into her narrative, regarding the ogbanje spirit. Akwaeke has a sister – so, they are definitely not ogbanje. They have twisted and lied about the truth in Igbo cosmology to suit their own propaganda. They could stick to the narrative about gender and sexuality but as far as Ogbanje is concerned they have made all Igbo traditionalists look doltish with their narrative – which has been bought, swallowed and digested by gullible people in the West. Let me also add, that it is difficult for me to keep using THEY.

The writer, at the Temple of Python in Ouidah, Benin Republic. 

As every gay person must protect the ‘gay narrative’ and trans-men and women protect their kingdom, I have to also protect the tradition that I am seeped in and correct the false narrative, paraded by Akwaeke who does not take chances with people who peddle stories that they do not like.

Every Igbo person knows that Akwaeke’s version of the ogbanje world is fabricated. It reeks of fiction, imagined fables and narratives that astound. When I read Akwaeke flaming up the embers of the spirit world, I cringed at the tone of exigency.

This is not the narrative, where you can make up stuff and say, it is your right to choose what you want to be. Not in Igbo cosmology. You can wake up and change your life and become what you want to be in other climes and religion, but to claim you are an ogbanje, because you are fascinated by the idea of being ogbanje, without realizing the fact that there are people who still practice Igbo religion, like me, mindlessness should be the hashtag. It is not only deceptive, but absolutely bewildering and shameful. 

The ogbanje child does not have any siblings. I repeat: ogbanje children never allow kids into the homes where they choose to live. 

It is not something they publicly accept, because their parents always hide their identity from them. When a woman loses a child, now and then; lots of miscarriages and the baby eventually arrives and stays, we know what to do: we go to a Dibia and find out what the child is. A Dibia will tell the parents what to do and inform them of whom the child had reincarnated as.

I was about 4 and 5 years old, when my paternal grandmother would take me to a popular Dibia in Umuota, called Eddy Ahaonu. Eddy Ahaonu was the Dibia my ‘Christian’ parents would go to, when they had a child and they needed to know why he or she had come into the world. It is a common practice in Igbo homes. 

The writer at the palace of the Igwe of Oguta, Eze Nnani Nzeribe.

Like I said earlier, our neighbour’s daughter is ogbanje and we know how we came to this conclusion. The child did not decide to be an ogbanje. It happened in the Other Life, in the spirit world. She is pampered by her parents. Till now, her mother has not been able to conceive another child. Even when she tried to adopt a male child, the baby mysteriously died. In the history of me studying and learning and practicising the simple but complicated Igbo whims and traditions, I have never seen any ogbanje child with siblings and ogbanje children are never told they are ogbanje. 

Akwaeke quickly made up their narrative and presented it to the world and stunned non-Igbo people. The Igbo people who know the truth, are scared of questioning her publicly, so it wouldn’t look like they want to tear her down, but not me. I have no business being scared of anyone. Their narrative of the ogbanje spirit will be accepted as the real one and the real story, discarded and called fake. 

I am only writing this to say that Akwaeke is not an ogbanje and their narrative of the ogbanje spirit is false. Completely. No iota of truth in it and they disrespect the real worshippers of the Igbo religion, by lying about what we hold dear to our hearts. They must be stopped. And it is not the job of Akwaeke’s fans to defend them and label me a hater. I do not want a response. I just want them to stop bastardizing what is sacred to us.

We deserve respect and honour. 

Onyeka Nwelue’s The Strangers of Braamfontein is out in 2021 by BookCraft Publishers (Nigeria), BlackBird Books (South Africa) and Griots Lounge Publishing (Canada). 

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