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Ezumezu Igbere: Lifting community through age grade

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Ezumezu Igbere: Lifting community through age grade

Uniting for developmental projects

 

As a microcosm of the Igbo worldview of unity, development and progress, the Ezumezu festival of Igbere in Bende Local Government Area of Abia State is significant in many respects. It is a triennial festival in which everyone born in or married to the community identifies with irrespective of gender and social status, IGBEAKU ORJI writes

 

Ezumezu festival provides a veritable platform for review of events in Igbere community in the past three years and projections for the next three.

In most communities in Igbo land a day is set aside to appraise the performance of the community in terms of development and to make projections for the future. Most communities have used such platforms to lift the people. Aside, developmental projects, empowerment programmes have been undertaken. The result is that such communities no longer wait for government to provide them with basic amenities as the well-to-do are compelled by culture and tradition to give back a part of their wealth to the society.

Self-help community developmental projects are undertaken either by well-to-do individuals, organisations or the town union as the umbrella body that encapsulates the collective aspirations of the people. However, while in some communities some individuals who lack the means or the generosity to contribute may have no compulsion to do so, there is no such leeway in Igbere.

In Igbere, as in other communities in Old Bende area, including Abam, Abiriba, Ohafia, just to mention a few, the age grade system is a strong traditional institution through which projects are executed without waiting for government’s intervention. Everyone is involved either as individuals or through the age grade system.

Institutions like schools, hospitals, maternities, health centres, as well as projects such as bridges, culverts, town halls, scholarships and skill acquisition programmes have been provided for the benefit of deserving members of the community.

For instance, the popular Enuda High School, Egwuana Girls Secondary School, Akahaba General Hospital, among others, in Abiriba community, were built by the age grade whose names they bear. In some other communities with fewer people of means in which a particular age grade cannot singlehandedly complete a school or hospital project within record time, it will be given a block of classrooms to complete and hand over to the community as its contribution to community development before its retirement from community service. This explains the reason tradition compels everyone to participate in community development via the age grade system. Over the years the system has become stronger as it provides the community a pool of financial and material resources for its development. Beside developmental projects, the age grade as the police of the community, also provides security of lives and property.

The age grade system is a leveller; whatever attainment in academics, politics and commerce one has is subsumed under the bonding unity and sense of equality of the age grade. Such achievements, though by individual members of the age grade, is for the collective pride and honour of every other member. Every member of the age grade participates in community watch, night or day. Those, who reside outside the community and so by nature of business and residence, cannot take part personally, directly, do so by paying a token. Where the age grade system is strong respect for elders is sacrosanct. The tradition serves as a bulwark against the eroding blight of westernisation in which educational attainment and acquisition of wealth tend to replace age long honour and respect for elders. Political differences rather than destroy the fabric of the age grade system has no place in it at all as it serves as a melting pot for members from different backgrounds. The age grade has also become a platform for assisting members of the age grade itself who are handicapped to stand either in commerce or other endeavours in order to contribute their quota through the age grade to the development of the community.

The 2017 Ezumezu festival was held from December 24 to 27, 2017. It was a colourful celebration of unity, progress and development of Igbere community. It also served the triple purpose of the traditional retirement (Igbotomma) of the oldest age grade in service from community service, ascendancy of the succeeding age grade to the administrative authority of the community, naming of a new and youngest age grade and fundraising.

In neighbouring communities, the ceremony is called Igba Uche, Ila Oso, Omume Ogwe, Igba Ota Omu, Ipu Ogo, etc. Unlike its neighbours and indeed the larger Igbo land, Igbere has had the exceptional privilege of producing chief executives of three states at different times both in the military era and political dispensation. The late Commander Amadi Ikwechegh was the military administrator of the old Imo State. Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu was the governor of Abia State from 1999 to 2007, while Emmanuel Ukaegbu was at the helm of affairs in Enugu State. This explains the uncommon development of the rural community both in infrastructure and human resource. Though a rural community, Igbere has all the trappings of a modern city. It has a modern market and good network of roads not common in rural communities.

As the Oganihu Ebiri age grade steps out, Omezi Ebiri age grade takes over. The retiring age grade handed over the doctors’ quarters it completed to the community on December 25 as its contribution to community service. That was aside the ICT Complex at the Igbere Secondary School attracted by a member of the age grade and the Federal Character Commission, Dr. Iboko Imo Iboko. The service earned them a place of honour and retirement as they clock 65 years. No true member of the age grade is less than 65 years.

Chief Jones Udeogu, retired permanent secretary and former commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning, Abia State, a co-chair of the event, captured the mood succinctly in a speech delivered on the second day of the event entitled: “Consolidation of the Dignity, Tradition and Cultural Values of Igbere Clan.”

Udeogu identified four distinguishing features held jealously and bequeathed by their forebears which had kept the community ahead as “unity, unity of purpose, security of persons and community, preservation of our cultures and common heritage”.

He said: “Ezumezu is for unity, development and progress of our community. As we gather here every three years we contribute money for the development of the community. This Igbere Secondary School was built in 1975 by community effort. We have bridges, halls, health centres, library, market; all done by an age grade. It’s when we are here we gather and donate. The privileged ones will give more and the Igbere Welfare Union will manage the resources for the benefit of the community. As a clan, this is the only thing that holds us together, the Igbere Welfare Union. We have 13 age grades that cut across the 13 villages that make up Igbere.

“The new age grade is given a name and a project to execute for the community. It lasts for a period of 35 years. During the period you serve the community, you do contribution, you do night watch or you pay money in lieu.”
Also, while the autonomous status has torn some communities, which were hitherto one, apart, Igbere has remained uniquely one, according to Udeogu.

He added: “Look at what that unity brought to us. We have used unity both as a culture and tradition to give ourselves schools, hospitals, bridges that today are giving us the self-respect and a feeling of self-importance. Today, among the communities that enjoyed the autonomous largesse of the government Igbere clan remains an enigma. We are all autonomous of each other, yet we remain one community, one people under the same government. We cannot afford not to be united. This you cannot find in any other community in Abia State. Our problem is how to consolidate this unity as a tradition and culture in Igbere clan.”

While he paid glowing tribute to the visionary leaders who laid the foundation of progress and development in the community, Udeogu challenged the new generation to preserve and surpass it.

Udeogu posed some rhetorical questions to his generation to reflect on as far as the unity, unity of purpose and development of the community and its people were concerned.

He said: “The question now is how are we making these shared experiences and beliefs stronger for us and for our children so that we will continue to reap the benefits? Do we have unity in Igbere Clan as our elders envisaged and bequeathed unto us? It has never happened before that any part of Igbere will go to war alone. It had always been a collective Igbere war but today, we are fighting modern wars of environmental degradation. How collectively is Igbere helping each other? I am of the opinion that we should belong to different political blocks but what we do with our differences is entirely up-to us. Is it to betray your brother? Is it to betray your community interest because of political promises? Where is the mantra of Onye-agbala-nge-nge? Should our political differences destroy the rest of Igbere or the objectives of NdeIgbere? Does your dignity mean deceiving your community? Is this a part of the traditions?

 

“Every three years, we celebrate our Ezumezu and we will make donations to the development of Igbere that will never be redeemed. Is this how we are consolidating our traditions and cultural values by deceiving our people? Ask all the age grades that hosted Ezumezu how much donations were made and how much is redeemed and by whom? How do we encourage the younger ones? By enslaving them, not paying them for the work they did for us? Do you attend Igbere

 

Welfare meetings in your domain?
“This Ezumezu, Ulo Nkuma, Obi ebiri Hall, Igbere Health Centre, the Primary Schools in Igbere, Igbere Secondary School and so many others are all a product of Igbere Welfare Union. Do you attend their meetings? Do you pay your levies? What is your contribution to these things that unite us? Culture and tradition is not all about dances. It is the people’s way of life and their shared interests. Igbere Welfare Union is our tradition and culture, how far have we supported it and its ideas? How are we preserving these cultural heritages for our children? The only university that teaches Igbere traditional and cultural values is Igbere Welfare Union meetings. Are you a part of it?”

 

It has not been all rosy. Igbere has had its share of upheavals common in most human societies. In 1998 a crisis that shook the community to its very foundation engulfed it but thankfully did not consume it. It emerged from the crisis stronger.

 

Udeogu said: “History is replete with gory stories of wars and enslavement. Igbere was never conquered by the slave raiders hence the name Igbere which means ‘Indomitable people or as some will say Igbo eri which means the impenetrable fortress of Eri the son of Manasseh the son of Jacob Israel”.

 

He, however, lamented that the rich history has been tainted with tales of burglaries, drug trafficking and armed robbery and challenged the Uke ji Ogo and Uke chegha Ogo (the community vigilance age grade) to rise to the new challenge.

 

The Chairman of the third day, Gordy Uche, SAN, noted that more than any other time, the issue of community development has become non-negotiable now that government has reneged on all its responsibilities to the people. Uche challenged the people to put the community first in their development agendum.

 

He said: “The Igbere Secondary School was so dilapidated that the students and teachers left. It is age grade and associations in Igbere that are now renovating the school with funds raised in this festival. The erosion menace in the community has been tackled with funds raised on this ground.

 

Former Governor of Abia State and prominent son of Igbere, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, described the event as a triennial celebration for sons and daughters from all walks of life to return home.

 

He said: “Our people from all walks of life are here. We are one community; we celebrate within our limit. You can see we are doing things to testify our common ancestry. It was at the same Ezumezu that President Muhammadu Buhari was given title here in 2003. So you can see we have a very fair minded developmental community who knows what we want.”

 

The President General of Igbere Welfare Union, Elder Uwakwe Okoronkwo, explained that “we do it to ensure absolute peace. Since three days ago we have been commissioning projects.”

 

The Chairman, Planning Committee of the 2017 Ezumezu festival, Dr. Uche Daniel Eke, said: “We use it to retire the aged age grade and to usher in an incoming age grade to take over their position. We also use the opportunity to raise fund for the development of the community.”

 

Deacon Ijoma Abara Abara, a retired permanent secretary, and a member of the retiring Oganihu age grade, said that the unique feature of the event and the community is the unity that pervades the 13 villages that make up the clan.

 

He said: “The unity that is pervading in Igbere is not easy to find in other places. There may be disagreement but the moment it comes to the Igbere general movement, there is no disagreement. That is why everybody is here. This happens every three years to formally come together and thank the age grade for what they have done and then formally retire them.”

 

From then onwards they are exempted from community levies, taxes, contributions and all of that.

 

But Abara advised his peers not to abandon the community on the basis of retirement since they are still strong and successful.

 

He added: “We built the doctors’ quarters which we handed over on December 25.”

Iyke Ekeoma was the Chief Press Secretary and Media Adviser to then Governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu. He is a member of the Omezi Ebiri the age grade that has taken over the mantle of leadership. He is excited about the event because it has provided the platform for periodic get together and development of the community. The biggest event of the Ezumezu, according to him, is the retirement of the oldest age grade.

 

He said: “When you retire it doesn’t mean you are tired out, it only means that within the community nobody will ask you to pay anything.”

 

The ceremony confers on one the honour of being an elder in the community. Ekeoma said the strong age grade system was responsible for the success and progress the community has achieved.

 

“Here everyone identifies with his or her age grade no matter your status. The age grades are the ones that build and maintain this community and have done so since the existence of this community. For instance, this secondary school that you’re looking at was built by an age grade and every aspect of the school project was undertaken by the age grade.

 

“Another agency for community development is the development union; anywhere we are in Nigeria we have the Igbere Development Union there. For that reason things happen. For instance, the Igbere Development Union in America came together and rebuilt this school, that is what makes it unique and the reason you see everybody here,” he added.

 

Ogwo Ekeoma Ojum, a medical doctor and retired permanent secretary, belongs to the Omezi Ebiri age grade that has taken over the mantle. He said an age grade was formed within a three year range.

 

Those born within three years form an age grade and the retirement of the oldest ushers in the youngest to maintain the status quo of the number of age grades active in the community at a particular time.

 

He said: “As the next age grade to take over the mantle we built the market, we will renovate it and hand over in 2020.”

 

Also Igbere has what he called communal integration, with the motto Onyeaghala Nwanneya, which means “do not leave your brother behind”.

He added: “It might interest you to know that Igbere has produced three governors, Amadi Ikwechegh, who was the first, followed by Ukaegbu who was an administrator in Enugu State and then Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu who was governor from 1999 to 2007. And these governors were always looking inwards. The age grade will always pull him back to look in and develop our place, so that is why we are so developed.”

 

Mr. Ekwuribe Ugochukwu, the principal of Igbere Secondary School, the beneficiary of both the renovation and ICT centre saw it as a fulfilment of a life-long dream though it happened a few months to his retirement.

 

He said: “It is a fund from the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) that sponsored the school knowledge centre. It was funded by the Universal Service Provision fund and it was erected by Zinox Technologies. But the person that attracted it to Igbere happens to be Dr Iboko Imo Iboko of the Federal Character Commission.”

 

The ultra-modern centre has 40 brand new computer sets.

His Majesty Eze Uwakwe Onwubike Ukaegbu, Ofufe 11 of Amaofufe Igbere, a traditional ruler and a member of the retiring age grade, said “Ezumezu is a ceremony that helps Igbere community to develop itself. We have 13 villages and we have 13 age grades. We use it to help ourselves as a community. We have built bridge, road, which Ekeoma has built up to Ozuitem and rehabilitated the roads around the community.

“The Oganiru, my age grade, has 280 persons. I am the only traditional ruler in our age grade. We built health centre and doctors’ quarters in Igbere with borehole. The Igwu River Orji Uzor built for us used to be a death trap. In those days we used to go there everyone with stone to fill it to make it motorable when it was Bailey bridge. Evidence of God’s blessing/favour abounds in the community.

“For instance, in 1993 when I lit the unity torch and in 1996 I lit the second one, by 1999 my younger brother, Orji Uzor, was made governor of Abia State, in 2003, Emmanuel Ukaegbu was made Governor of Anambra State while Amadi Ikwechegh had been the governor of Imo State. So each time I pray it happens. God blesses us because we put God first in everything we do. We don’t consult mediums or sorcerers; what we know is the Bible and each time we read it God blesses us beyond our expectations. He fights our battles. There was an incident that would have torn Igbere apart, but God fought for us and restored peace. Today there is peace in Igbere.”

 

Chief Jerry Okechukwunyerem Kalu, a businessman and politician, and a member of the retiring age grade, described Ezumezu as “a time we exhibit our cultural heritage. It’s also a time when new laws/resolutions are made for the people to adopt. Igbere is unique in development and progress because we don’t discriminate the education of our children on the basis of gender. We give everyone equal opportunity because we believe that progress can come through anyone. It started from our forefathers, who were serious in everything they did including training their children.

 

“Also in the age grade system we try to help each other so that we grow together. We try to love each other, this is what we preach; we preach progress. If you forget your car key or phone here somebody will keep it for you, you don’t lose it. This is what we do and train our children to continue that way.”

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