Ezigbo Mmadu: an exploration of the Igbo concept of a good person.

Author:Agulanna, Christopher


In this paper, I examine the Igbo concept of a good person (ezigbo mmadu, in the Igbo language). In the discussion, I will consider, among other things, who the Igbo would normally regard as a good person, those special qualities of life that they think qualify an individual to be called a good person. In discussing this theme, some vital questions may be posed as follows: How may a good person be distinguished from a bad person? Is the concept good one that can be defined or characterised? Or is it, as some philosophers are wont to say, a word that is indefinable? These are some of the questions that this paper will seek to provide answers to.

But before I get into the discussion proper, it will be necessary to make a few general remarks about the history and demography of the Igbo. To capture it in form of a query: who are the Igbo, and what place do they occupy in history? A simple answer to the question would be to say that the Igbo constitute one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. The other two groups are the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani.

In terms of the exact number of communities or language groups in the country, no consensus of opinion exists among scholars. However, some have surmised that there are about 370 ethnic communities while others have identified about 250 language groups. But as one informed opinion captures it, from all the suggestions provided, it may be safe to conclude that there are between 248 languages and 374 community groups in Nigeria (see Eluwa et al. 1988, p. xii & Dioka 1977, 55). It is worth remarking that the number of dialects spoken by the assemblage of groups in the country are too numerous to list or catalogue. However, in spite of the diversity of social norms, languages, and traditions among Nigeria's various groups, great effort is constantly being made to blend or unify the disparate groups into an agreeable whole.

Nigeria's population is estimated to be about 140 million. However, many are skeptical concerning the accuracy of this figure. The reason is that census figures have always been contested in Nigeria because they are often manipulated for political advantage. But although Nigerians may disagree about their census figure, what is not a subject of controversy is the fact that it is the largest country in Africa by population, and the tenth among all countries of the world. Going by United Nations projection, Nigeria's population will reach 289 million by the 2050. If this estimation is anything to go by, what it means is that in less than four decades from now, Nigeria will end up as the 8th most populous country on the globe (see http://esa.un.org/unpp/). The only major factor that may greatly hamper this population boom is the rapid spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is rapidly decimating the populations of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nigeria's population growth merely reflects the growth of its different units. With particular reference to the Igbo group, population estimates put their number at a little over 20 million. Again, this figure is a matter of conjecture, as the Igbo, like the other peoples of Nigeria, complain of a deliberate under-estimation of their population figure by Federal estimators in order to place them in a position of disadvantage in the distribution or allocation of resources in the society! Here, we need to remark that as long as the country bases the allocation of resources on population size, Nigerians will never cease crying about the manipulation of such figures. Having said this much, it should be remarked that the issue of Nigeria's demography is not the focus of this paper; neither can the controversy surrounding it be resolved here. I have merely alluded to the issue of population as a background to the work and to provide a basis for the discussions that follow in this paper. The issues I have adumbrated above are preliminary and general in nature. With these remarks made, in what follows below I shall now delve into the main thrust of this paper. But first I begin with a clarification of the key concepts that I employ in the discussion.

Explicatory Note on Key Concepts

The Igbo language contains a variety of words to express approval and disapproval, good and bad, upright and perverse, pleasant and unpleasant, and so on. All these words embody moral connotations. Take, for example, the words aru (pollution) and nma (good): to commit aru (ime aru) is to do that which is morally reprehensible while to do nma (ime nma) is to carry out morally good actions. In the same vein, a man (or woman) may be described as onye aru-rala: literally, one who pollutes or abominates the land. Ajo mmadu is a phrase used to describe a bad man (or woman), where the word ajo means 'bad', that is, the opposite of 'good'. On the other hand, ezigbo mmadu is a phrase used to describe a good person or an individual whose actions or character traits are worthy of emulation. The phrase is also descriptive of one who is equable, unflappable and calm in character and disposition. In the English usage such a person would be said to be level-headed, imperturbable or unflustered. The words convey the same meaning. Aphoristically, a levelheaded person is said to be cool as a cucumber.

Following the type of clarification made in the paragraph above, I now undertake an analysis of some contrastive Igbo words or expressions as follows: ihe ojo (a bad action or thing) and ihe oma (good action or thing). Consider also, ajo okwu (a bad utterance or speech) and okwu oma (a good utterance or speech), etc. The first words in the pair (i.e., ihe ojo and ajo okwu) are words of disapproval while the second pair (i.e., ihe oma and okwu oma) is used to express a sense of approval. What is shown in the foregoing analysis is the fact that ethical notions such as good and bad, right and wrong, duty and obligation, justice and injustice, etc., are common to Igbo language and social life. The pursuance of ethical ideals, the hankering after a life of rectitude and the desire to live virtuously were ideals greatly cherished and approved by the Igbo, particularly in the traditional or classical setting. It is important to mention that ethical norms or moral values help ensure a condition of peace and social order in the human community. However, this is not only true of antique history but of modern society as well. Indeed, morality is a pre-condition for social amity and progress in the human community. The reason is that it contributes to social stability and advances human solidarity or the camaraderie feeling that is so necessary for mutual human achievement.

The Yoruba equivalent of ezigbo mmadu is omoluabi or eniyan rere. But as I have indicated above, the expression ezigbo mmadu--and by extension its Yoruba equivalent, omoluabi--is not merely descriptive of a person's character but also of the person as an atomic individual or human entity. Following this clarification, in this paper I shall not merely be concerned with examining the Igbo notion of a "good person" as with those qualities of life and character, which the Igbo see in a person before describing him/her as ezigbo mmadu. To give this paper perspective, I have decided to classify the Igbo social order into two broad categories as follows: the pre-modern world and the post-modern world. This classificatory scheme will help us come to a good assessment of how the Igbo have fared in the present day world order or society. More importantly, with the assessment, we shall be enabled to make prescriptive suggestions on ways the Igbo can be let go from their present psycho-social morass and loss of direction in a world order which is in a state of flux. But first, I undertake a more detailed analysis of the key concepts in this paper.

Ezigbo Mmadu Versus Ajo Mmadu: A Contrasting Elucidatory Approach

Earlier in this paper, I explained that the term ajo mmadu is the phrase the Igbo use to describe a man or woman who is seen as a bad person; or one who possesses a bad character trait. Ezigbo mmadu, on the other hand is descriptive of a good person whose character traits are good and worthy of emulation. But the phrases usually do more than these: ajo mmadu can also be used to describe a person who is evil by nature, not merely one whose actions are bad. In the same vein, ezigbo mmadu could refer to a good person, not merely a person whose conduct and actions are good or virtuous. By way of juxtaposition, the English equivalent of the Igbo expression ezigbo mmadu would be the phrase good person. And just as the opposite of ezigbo mmadu is ajoo mmadu, the phrase bad person is the opposite of the expression good person. Having made these clarifications, I should point out, however, that some confusion may arise or ensue from the type of analysis I have made here--confusion that may also engender some questions: What does it actually mean to say of a person that he or she is a "good" or a "bad" person? Do the value words good and bad merely refer to a person's conduct and character or to something much more? And is it not character (what the Igbo call agwa) that makes an individual either a good or a bad person? In posing these questions here, I do not pretend that I am going to provide final, definitive answers to them all. However, the failure to provide pat answers to the questions need not enervate or debilitate us. The reason is that in philosophy, the opinion is rife that questions and not answers are what create knowledge. Without intending to be bogged down with the veracity or otherwise of this philosophical claim, the much that is important here is to say that whatever conflict may arise in the use of the value terms discussed above may be resolved when we realise that to the Igbo it is character (i.e., conduct) that makes a man/woman what he or she is. An Igbo saying captures this idea succinctly: agwa bu mmadu (it is character that defines who an individual...

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