Igbo Farm Village in America marks 1st anniversary this weekend in Virginia; plus, USAfrica Q&A wt Prof. Akuma-Kalu Njoku.
By Chido Nwangwu.
J. Akuma-Kalu Njoku, Ph.D., a diligent and soft-spoken man, is a Professor of Folklore Studies and Anthropology. In many ways, Prof. Njoku’s intimate insights and unique knowledge of Igbo ethno-folkflores and tradition –especially the historical foundations and sites of the Arochukwu/Ohafia/Bende region of the Igbo nation, have set him part, in my view, as the major resource on pre-colonial Igbo life, the slave trade and folklores of south eastern Nigeria. I met Prof. Njoku, born on June 16, 1946, for the first time during his research work on the Arochukwu heritage in 2006 in Houston, Texas.
He is an associate Professor at the Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He recently established the West African Cultural Heritage Education and Training (WACHET) Institute in Bowling Green. The following are excerpts from my September 15, 2011 exclusive interview with him for USAfrica and CLASSmagazine on the Igbo Farm Village project in Staunton in Virginia, which he has championed.
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Chido Nwangwu/USAfrica: Congratulations for your dedication and work on the Igbo Farm Village in Staunton, Virginia. On this first anniversary of the Igbo Farm Village this weekend of September 17, 2011, may I respectfully ask that you share with the readers of USAfrica, USAfricaonline.com and IgboEvents the major significance of this historic project?
Njoku: Thank you very much for this opportunity to share with your broad readership the joy and excitement I feel about the first anniversary of the Igbo Farm Village at Staunton, Virginia. The Igbo Farm Village, it is important to mention, is a part of the American Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia established to acknowledge the contributions of the Old World cultures to the development of the American frontier culture, which began from Virginia.
The American Frontier Culture Museum had already constructed four other farmsteads (in Igbo, that will translate to Ulo Ubi)—the English Farm, the Irish Farm, the German Farm, and a Colonial American Farm—before building the Igbo Farm Village. Therefore, the Igbo Farm Farm Village is a tangible recognition of the African (especially those from West Africa) who, though forced to migrate to the New World, helped to build, prosper, and populate what is now known as the United States of America starting from the 1700s. That, in a nutshell, is the historical significance of the Igbo Farm Village.
What does it mean for the youth of the Igbo nation, and the African-American communities?
The early days of work at the Igbo Farm Village saw the arrival of the first volunteers, a group of Igbo men from the Washington, D.C. area. As the project progressed, the number of volunteers and the level of their support and enthusiasm increased rapidly. The Museum hosted groups of volunteers from the Igbo communities in Chicago; Nashville; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Washington, D.C. and New Jersey. Individuals from cities without large numbers of Igbo residents also came from virtually all over the country. Many came with their children and young adults to volunteer in the construction. Now to Participating in the construction of the Igbo Farm Village provided the Igbo and African American youth a once in lifetime opportunity to get a firsthand experience in the techniques of Igbo traditional architecture. They helped to puddle and knead mud, built adobe walls, helped to smoothen the walls, and indoor mud seats. They also watched their parents construct wooden frames for the thatched roofs. While many were engaged in such activities, others were roasting either yams or corns, or cooking soup and making foo foo and, and in the evenings, occasionally playing moonlit night games.
I do believe that the learning and growth that have come from these firsthand experiences and from the summer cultural immersion classes and weekend institutes that I run in the Igbo Farm Village mean a great deal to Igbo youth and to other peoples of African descent.
In terms of replicating the fundamentals of a typical Igbo village, give anyone who has not visited a picturesque profile.
There are four raffia palm thatched houses enclosed in a semi-circle mud fence also thatched. The first house you see as you enter the Ulo Ubi Igbo (Igbo Farm Village) is the Obi. Directly behind the Obi are the other three houses—a man’s house flanked by two mkpuke (female) houses; those of his two wives. There are, in addition, two outdoor shelters one for cooking / frying (say gari) or processing oil-palm produce, the other a goat shed. There is a space for a yam-barn right behind the man’s house. You know what? Next summer, in anticipation of the Iwa / Ike Ji (Yam Harvest Festival) scheduled precisely for Saturday, September 15, 2012, we shall raise the yam barn.
About 50 days ago, I spoke with Eric Bryan, the Assistant director of the Frontier Culture Museum Foundation. He, in fact, went to Igbo land in Nigeria, as part of the effort to make the best of this village. How would you assess the roles of the Museum and the Virginia communities in making the village a worthy reality?
Yes, I went with Eric Bryan and another Museum staff, Ray Wright to Nigeria. Eric is the administrative brain behind what is going on in the Igbo Farm Village initiative. He understands the vision and strategic plans of the project more than any other person. Regarding the role that Museum has played in making the village a worthy reality, what comes first to mind is that Museum has placed the Igbo on the map the United States, which is a land of enormous ethnic diversity. We are no longer just a homogenous Negroid. And I have no doubt on my mind that the Museum will continue to let us use the exhibit to keep our Igbo community traditions alive in the United States. Of course, the property belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which means continued funding the maintenance of the structure.
USAfrica and IgboEvents networks will like to know the level and scope of funding and financial support your team and the foundation have received from the Igbo leaders/Governors and well-to-do folks from the Igbo communities across the U.S.?
Great Question! The Frontier Culture Museum has yet to get the kind of financial support that is expected of Igbo leaders / Governors. Mr. John Avoli and I went to Nigeria to meet the Igbo Governors and stakeholders in Delta states. I know that sometimes the political imperatives of governance in Nigeria do not allow the Igbo leaders to be the Igbo we anticipate, but I cannot begin to tell how extremely important it is for the Igbo leaders / Governors to commit funds to the Igbo Village in Staunton, VA. The Igbo Village needs all the funding it can get, especially now that attention of the Board of Trustees and Board Directors of Frontier Culture Museum and the American Culture Foundation is shifting from the Igbo project to the Native American Farm. Some well well-to-do members of the Igbo communities in the United States have made substantial donations and sacrifices. Two of them spend their own monies traveling to Board of Trustees and Board of Directors meetings. I do not want to mention them by names. The Frontier Culture Museum has the records—just in case.
What are your hopes and projection for the Igbo Farm village in Virginia and possibly elsewhere. What about Louisiana?
The Igbo Farm Village, being an outdoor museum exhibit provides a context very close to the Igbo cultural environment for experiencing and learning Igbo culture in America. Although my presentations at the Igbo Farm Village are Igbo-centered, I also draw from my 20 years’ experience in teaching cultural diversity in the United States to anchor them (my presentations) within the greater American multiethnic and multicultural heritage. Because the Igbo Farm Village is in the midst of English, Irish, and German Farms that also showcase Old World Cultures, there could not be a better location in the United States for achieving my goals.
What about Louisiana? Of course an Igbo Village could be built there, but it probably will not be as good as the one that is surrounded by the existence of four other farms—English, Irish, and German farmsteads. Quite frankly, I would like to see a Congo Farm Village in Louisiana. How about building one where the Place Congo / Congo Square used to stand or at least close by that almost invisible historical marker commemorating that historic the former Congo Square.
What does this village need?
The roofs are leaking. Therefore, there is an urgent need to get fresh raffia palm mats from Igboland for fix the leaks. It will cost far less to do this than any other alternative that has been so far considered from the United States. The Village needs traditional tools and decorative objects. We need to decorate the walls with Uli. The village also needs more and more Igbo communities to come and use the compound.
Tell us about your scholarship and works.Why and how did you get involved in the project?
My broad research interest is the folklore of forced historical population movements resulting from the depletion of farmlands, the Atlantic slave trade together with the issues of forced relocations and settlement patterns, and reestablishment of community traditions on both sides of the Atlantic, and genocide and war in the affairs of Ndi Igbo. Since 1999, I have been researching and writing about the forced transatlantic journeys of the Igbo people.
Specifically, I am working on the slave journeys from the hinterland villages and towns in Igboland to Virginia and, through the Underground Railroad, to freedom in the United States. While on sabbatical and doing fieldwork in 2002, I was allowed to enter an ancient cave temple complex the Ovia Chukwu in Arochukwu which was a secret slave dealing location and a definite starting point of numerous Igbo slave journeys from the hinterland to the coastal towns of Calabar and Bonny. That isbefore the Middle Passage. In addition to the Arochukwu cave, I found cave outlets in Ututu, and another that provided safe haven for the people of Alayi and Igbere or Igbo ereghi (those who were never sold by the Aro Oke Igbo).
I presented my findings at the annual conference of the American Folklore Society in 2003, and Professor John Vlach, a distinguished American folklorist, after hearing my paper recommended me to American Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia.
At the time, the Museum was planning a West African exhibit to complement the English Farm, Irish Farm, German Farm, and the American Colonial Farm already in existence. I became a member of the advisory board and later, since 2004, the principal consultant for the Igbo Farm Village project.
Initial attempts to get builders from Igboland to construct an Igbo farm village that will be faithful to Igbo traditional architecture failed. The American Embassy in Nigeria refused to grant them visa. I asked Reverend Dr. Maduawuchukwu Ogbonna, a member of the Igbo Studies Association and a Holy Ghost priest with a surpassing talent and practical experience in Igbo vernacular architecture to help. Fr. Ogbonna came to our rescue. And with the able assistance of Dr. Kanayo K. Odeluga I got in touch with Igbo hometown associations in the United States to recruit volunteers. Igbo people responded in large numbers and helped to build the farm village. Reverend Dr. Ogbonna directed the building process, and in the process, trained Museum staff and volunteers in traditional Igbo building methods and techniques.
What next for the Igbo diaspora?
Since my research has led to the construction of an Igbo Farm Village (Ulo Ubi Igbo) at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia and to establishment annual reconnection program for the peoples of African descent long separated by the forced transatlantic migration, it is now time to take the research one more step further. I have self-consciously established a Freedom to Freedom Trail for pilgrimages from Virginia to Arochukwu and the greater Igboland.
It is hoped that peoples of African descent in the United States that celebrate the long journey from slavery to freedom in the month of February will be journeying from Freedom to Freedom. This will be a symbolic journey from the state of freedom won in the United States back to the state of freedom that was in Africa before the Atlantic slave trade started. The experience of this ritual quest, I can tell you from my journeying back, can be overwhelming and the story bitter. But it will be the experience of a shared memory of pain and the truth that must be told in order to begin to make a physical reconnection with Africa—the ancestral home. It is the truth that will help to heal the deep-seated wounds of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.
I also wish the Igbo people in the United States will help support the TICHA (Teaching Igbo Cultural Heritage Education in the Americas) Fund Drive that I will announce during the celebration of the anniversary on Saturday September 17, 2011. The TICHA fund will help me to continue proving the summer Igbo cultural immersion class and weekend institutes. We need to continue to reacquaint with ourselves with our culture so that we can effectively pass them on to our American born children. © copyright USAfrica 2011. • Dr. Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; recipient of several journalism and public policy awards, was recently profiled by the CNN International for his pioneering works on multimedia/news/public policy projects for Africans and Americans. http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2010/07/29/mpa.african.media.bk.a.cnn
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