”The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinem
The Igbo/Tamil writer Akwaeke Emezi is not Ogbanje. They were not born Ogbanje—and one can’t decide, on a whim, that they are ogbanje. That isn’t how it works.
Igbo cosmology does not allow the leap from sexual identity or surgical transitions to Ogbanje. Claiming that it does is deceitful.
In one of Emezi’s emails to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, they confess not knowing how to speak or write Igbo. How do we trust such a being to know Igbo tradition so well that they can tell they are Ogbanje in the absence of corroborators? How?
Sadly, when you write against this “false-hearted” approach to literary fame, their penury-stricken legion of self-acclaimed Ogbanje boys and girls will squirm like hungry birds and accuse you of jealousy—probably on the grounds that Emezi has attracted great press, including making the cover of TIME magazine. But Akwaeke’s approach is better understood by those who appreciate, from first hand experience, that profiles of African writers—with very few exceptions—and the publicity that is garnered through those profiles cost these writers an arm and a leg, or sometimes their conscience. The objective is fame.
That they are now famous and presumably enjoy substantial material comfort cannot be argued, but one has to set limits in the pursuit of these comforts and one doesn’t need to feel that they are in competition with someone else. That is a symptom of poverty that is not easily treated. Not even by wealth.
Predictably, when taking on a new client from the African literary class, western publicists come up with a theme or backstory to boost publicity for their client. The client would need to be onboard with the theme. The client can even suggest the theme but not everyone arrives at that point of reckoning with a ready-made answer.
A nimble thinker, though, or one with keen opportunistic eye soon finds their theme. It seems that in their case, Akwaeke chose Ogbanje as theme. I’ve been told that they got the inspiration to regard themselves as Ogbanje from Adichie herself! Apparently, it was Ms Adichie who told Akwaeke that they are Ogbanje. Emezi then thought to carve Ogbanje marks on their face.
“Women have two choices: Either she’s a feminist or a masochist.” – Gloria Steinem
A detour is necessary here. It seems fair to say that Ms. Adichie created the monster she must now fight off. I don’t expect she will agree with my take. But it is undeniable that for good or evil, she is a powerful draw, including for a cast of characters driven to profit off her shine by demystifying her.
The whole spectacle leads me to indulge a subversive thought experiment: what could happen were Ms. Adichie a man? Predictable responses would range from accusations of bullying to insinuations of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
As that option is unavailable, a different form of slander has been deployed. As a friend said, if a man ever did what Adichie just did by writing the “It’s Obscene” essay, people will call it bullying and insinuations of sexual relations will begin. It isunfortunate that the people she wrote about can be considered her family. But Ms Adichie needs to learn not to bring people who are not already successful close. People are desperate.
In March last year, I was to travel to South Korea to interview the poet Ko Un. The old poet had his works removed from the curriculum in 2018 because of an allegation of sexual harassment. The younger generation of South Korean males began to fight back. They said they’re being made villains of things the older generation did and they won’t take it. The old poet was later found to be innocent. He had defended himself, writing in a statement that he had “done nothing which might bring shame on my wife or myself”. He now lives with his wife in the south of Seoul, a 30 minute-drive away from the popular city.
“Women are always saying, ‘We can do anything that men can do,’ but men should be saying, ‘We can do anything that women can do.”” – Gloria Steinem
If we were to have only Akwaeke’s account via their tweets about Ms Adichie, we would be tempted to join in the dastardly campaign to get Adichie cancelled. But we know now that someone has been using lies as a marketing strategy. Above all else, their Ogbanje claim shows they need medical help.
No human being in the history of the Igbo has demonstrated so much disrespect for Igbo cosmology as they have done.
It is a shame that when you write this truth about them and their claims, their fanboys and fangirls, most of whom are children who know nothing of Igbo culture, will say they have the right to be Ogbanje. No, you don’t, you scoundrels! And you can’t reference the Ogbanje narrative to any Western literature.
No! Akwaeke Emezi’s account clearly differs from the established pattern of the Ogbanje in Igbo cosmology. In an interview with the BBC, Akuzzor Anozia, the Chief Priestess of Oguta Lake explained the concept of Ogbanje in clear terms:
“When a child is brought to us, we perform the rituals we have to, in the presence of her parents, to determine whether the child is Ogbanje or not. She goes further to say, “Sometimes, Ogbanje children come as Urashi, the God of Water. Ogbanje is Ogbuide, the Goddess of Water. Ogbuide(Ogbanje) was married to Urashi. She would disappear and appear. Why the rituals have to be performed also is to know whom the child reincarnated as. In Igbo culture, there is Life after Death. Everyone who dies returns as somebody else. Nobody can wake up and give themselves mark that they are Ogbanje. It is done at childhood—when the child is a few months into the physical realm. Ogbanje is not a spirit. It is a reincarnation of the River Goddess and they always come alone…You will know them from their childhood marks on the sides of their face.”
I have italicized those parts above for emphasis. (You can listen to the full interview on BBC Igbo talking about it and the connection with Urashi)
It was only in 2017 as a grown adult that Akwaeke Emezi got the marks that now adorn their face and they gave themselves the marks as they, themself, have documented. They also did not “come alone”. They have two siblings: a sister and a brother.
The case against Emezi’s claim is clear. About Ogbanje, there is no question as to who to believe between the Chief Priestess of Oguta Lake and Akwaeke Emezi.
At the near-end of my documentary film, The House of Nwapa, the Chief Priestess of Oguta Lake, deconstructs the concept of the ogbanje, comparing it to the concept of children born with dada. It will interest you that this documentary was screened at a film festival in Trinidad & Tobago in 2017, same place and year, in which this Tamil writer locked themselves in a room and bruised themselves. In their words, they wrote: “Scar the child to discourage its return to the human world. Scar the child and it will no longer be ogbanje. (They are wrong, exposure does nothing to us.).”
This deluded person, who needs to be checked into a mental home – apparently suffering from schizophrenia – has no respect for the Igbo belief system. They say, “They are wrong,” yet, exploiting the roots of the religion and tradition. In African psychiatry, this person should have been locked up in a forest and whipped, so the demons possessing them, would disappear. It is also strange that the psychologists and psychiatrists (doctors) that they have seen in the US, couldn’t diagnose them of a serious mental illness that has plagued them. Imagine telling yourself lies and believing the lies. Who intentionally uses a blade on their face, just to perfect a scam!
Akuzzor Anozia, in my film, The House of Nwapa, says: “ You know Ogbuide does not choose the person who will serve her. It is destiny. According to my father, before I was born, he learned I will come into the world with a burden, not now that there are lots of churches. It was not like this back then. It was said that one month after I was born, a fowl should be killed to lift that burden off my shoulders. My father forgot everything he was told and I became ill. He went somewhere and was reminded what he was asked to do when I clocked one month. Then the fowl was brought and slaughtered to appease the gods and goddesses. Owing to the fact that whoever is serving Ogbuide will also serve other gods and goddesses, they appeased and begged the spirits. As a child, they took something and pasted it on my forehead. That was how I became well again.”
What god or goddess in Igbo cosmology does Akwaeke worship? Or told them they are Ogbanje. This is not a situation, where you are at will to decide if you want a sex change or not. You can’t be selective of what you want in Igbo belief system. There is a pattern.
The social and political activist and feminist, Gloria Steinem, who is largely recognised as the face of the feminist movement during the sixties and seventies, said, a feminist, is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men. And I think that if anyone lies, whether man,woman or any other gender, they deserve to be told they are lying. This is not the same thing as attacking their sexuality,religion or gender; this is just telling the truth. They are liars. Akwaeke Emezi is a chronic liar who seems to believe their own lies.
Nigerian musician, Tkinzy, whose real name is Anthony Felix, only recently spoke about the marks on his face, which he got as a child, when he was very sick and his mother tried having more children. The children never came. His parents eventually died when he was very young. He was an only child to his parents and he has no sibling. There are other people I have spoken to, interacted with their parents. Their parents have not succeeded in having more children. The Ogbanje concept is not what people are proud to speak about publicly. A child who is known to be Ogbanje is feared. Definitely not Akwaeke.
Akwaeke didn’t realize that an Ogbanje child gets their mark at birth! And that rituals must be performed by a Dibia. They didn’t do proper research. They followed the fiction of Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart.
Akwaeke picked up a razor blade and sat infront of a mirror in their room in Trinidad & Tobago and decided that they are Ogbanje and that the true source of this belief is wrong but either way, they must put some marks to complete the scam! What a thoughtless soul!
This madness must be stopped quickly, before a seed of confusion on the nature of Igbo cosmology is planted for the next generation. This is why I keep returning to this Adichie-Akwaeke-Ogbanje matter.
This would be the third time I am writing about them and I will be writing more, until they stop lying to sell books and achieve fame by deceiving people who believe their false narrative of the Ogbanje.
Onyeka Nwelue is author of The Strangers of Braamfontein, out in the UK on 26th August, 2021 from Abibiman Publishing.