Self-representation and the construction of the Igbo world among Igbo students in a public university in Nigeria.

Author:Ukpokolo, Chinyere


As an undergraduate student at Roseville University (pseudonym), Nigeria, between 1988 and 1992, I had the opportunity to serve as the treasurer of Anambra State Students' Association (1988-1989), and later as the Vice-President of the association (1989-1990). My position as an executive member of the association offered me an opportunity to understand, from the insider's perspective, the vision and workings of Igbo ethnic-based students' associations in higher education institutions (HEIs), and how they participate in ethnic identity construction. Although it has been almost two decades since I left the institution as a student, I rely on memories and ethnographic methods to explore how ethnic-based students' associations in the university recreate and re-enact group identity.

For the Igbo students at Roseville University, located in southwest Nigeria, the construction of uwa Ndi-Igbo (the Igbo world) is pertinent, bearing in mind that Roseville is situated in the southwest, far removed from the south-eastern region, the homeland of the Igbo. Roseville, like other universities in Africa, has been affected by dwindling government subventions to HEIs, which dates back to the 1980s following the economic depression that marked the period. During that same period of time, the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), as recommended by the World Bank, aimed at addressing the nation's economic challenges, never abated the problem of "brain drain" that affected academic staff enrollment in universities in Africa from the 1990s. Besides "intellectual flight," the presence of foreign students in the institution declined so rapidly that by the 2010-2011 session the number of foreign students at Roseville was 35 out of an approximate student population of 20,000, a consequence of the declining standard of our universities in recent decades. Indeed, Niyi Osundare, a scholar-poet, in his Valedictory Lecture, bemoans the situation in the Nigerian premier university and argues that it is losing its "universe" (Osundare 2005, 2). Notably, whatever the condition of the university in Nigeria as an institution of "ideological production" (Pereira 2007, 27) may be, Igbo students are part of the student population from numerous ethnic groups in the country studying at Roseville University. Much like students from many of these ethnic groups, Igbo students (re) create the Igbo world within the university space for various reasons ranging from cultural nostalgia to cultural identity construction.

Construction of a distinctive cultural identity in a heterogeneous community like the university entails employing cultural symbols to portray a group's peculiarity. Igbo students at Roseville University re-enact the Igbo world, using diverse cultural forms, ceremonials and symbols. This study employs empirical evidence to explore how the Igbo world is (re)produced within the territoriality of the university through this process. The translocalisation of the Igbo world is part of the processes through which "local contents" are incorporated into the "universality" in the University. The questions are: how do the Igbo students in public universities in Nigeria (re)construct uwa Ndi-Igbo (the Igbo world) in the university space, using cultural symbols and ceremonials? In what ways does this representation interact with the university's macro culture and contribute to the generation of "local contents" and translocalisation of the Igbo world in the university? In what forms do the conferred, in the case of the igwe (the traditional leader) of the Igbo students' association for instance, connect with the larger university community as a symbol of the "self" and the "collective," reflecting group distinctiveness and contributing to the sustenance of uwa Ndi-Igbo in the university community? In answering these questions, the study first identifies some of the cultural forms, ceremonials, and symbols associated with the Igbo people, and how the students employ them to construct the Igbo identity on campus; second, it explores how other student communities perceive Igbo students and their sociocultural "architectures" on campus. Finally, the article explores the igwe as a symbol of the "self" and the "collective" in the university space. This article is a contribution to the current debate on the future of Igbo culture in the face of Westernisation and globalisation.

Various scholars of Igbo studies have expressed fears of threats to Igbo language and culture in contemporary times. Obviously, a look at reports emanating from both theoretically and empirically based research, and international organisations such as UNESCO, suggests that Igbo language and culture is at the risk of going into extinction in the near future, if nothing is done to check the current trend (Ejiofo 2011). Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the dialectical processes that constitute part of the ingredients of globalisation in view of what Igbo people bring to the market place of ideas and cultures in the process of the construction of their identity as exemplified in different places and spaces where the Igbo world is being (re)created. No matter how negligible these contributions may seem, we cannot but appreciate such "marginal" contributions made at micro levels to promote Igbo culture. I contend that while Igbo culture is obviously threatened, there are spaces beyond Igbo land where Igbo cultural values and identities are being (re)enacted. In the university space, and outside of it, both within Nigeria and in the diaspora, translocalisation of the Igbo lifeways contributes to the sustenance of the Igbo traditions and values. An Igbo cultural renaissance can and does emanate from spaces beyond Igbo land. Further, I argue that the translocalisation of Igbo culture at the university space deconstructs the universality that characterises the University, a key instrument of Westernisation; that peculiarity marks out the "University" as a distinct entity. The presence of the "local" in the University, however, is a manifestation of the utilisation of freedom, which is one of the main ideologies of the University. Yet the reality of mixture of varieties as exemplified in the Igbo language spoken by students-participants in this study is a challenge to the achievement of an authentic Igbo cultural identity reconstruction in a globalising world.

Review of Literature

Research on ethnic-based organisations is not a novel thing in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Associational life remains an adaptive mechanism in indigenous African societies. In a study of ethnic-based organisations in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria, Eghosa Osaghae, a political scientist, in his work, Trends in Migrant Political Organizations in Nigeria: The Igbo in Kano (1994), argues that both the Igbo and the Yoruba in northern city of Kano, Nigeria, developed "supra-ethnic associations," with institutionalisation of kingship known as eze Ndi-Igbo ("king" of the Igbo people) and Oba among the Igbo and Yoruba peoples respectively, which, according to him, is meant to create "home away from home" and provide an avenue for the children born outside their parents' ethnic homeland to be acculturated into the culture of their parents. In the article "Power of Space, Space of Power: The Socio-Cultural Dynamics in the Institutionalization of Ezeship in Non-Igbo States in Nigeria," Ukpokolo (2012a) argues that the institutionalisation of ezeship in non-Igbo states in Nigeria has engendered socio-cultural complexities both at the home town and the non-Igbo states where "supra-ethnic associations" and kingship institutions have developed, as space in both places have become contested arenas, a consequence of transgression of boundaries. In any case, in "Hometown Associations as a Means of Governance in Nigeria," Honey and Okafor (1998) contend that hometown associations in urban Nigeria are of importance in the development of corresponding home communities.

The university is increasingly attracting attention in discussions on socio-political and economic development of nations, as well as issues about a people and their world, which significantly borders on ethnic identity. In higher education institutions (HEIs), students belong to multiple groups, some of which are compulsory while others are optional (see Fig. 1). For instance, membership of departmental/faculty associations is compulsory whereas it is optional for religious groups, social clubs, ethnic-based organisations and similar cases. Group membership contributes to the development of collegiate students. In a study titled "Bridging Gaps, Creating Spaces: University of Ibadan Female Undergraduate Students in Intercultural Encounter," Ukpokolo (2012b) notes that the undergraduates in HEIs need psycho-social support and they obtain this from peers in the informal circles where they interact through the process of informal mentoring. Similarly, John A. Axelson, a professor of counselling, in his book, Counselling and Development in a Multicultural Society (1995), contends that different group activities that the students are involved in give them a sense of security and belonging and help in the fulfilment of human gregariousness.

Students in HEIs often encounter diverse challenges in their attempt to be integrated into the culture of their institution. The gap created by the cultural differences between their home culture and the culture of their university is bridged by various means, including associational life. In the article, "Ethnic Communities within the University: An Examination of Factors Influencing the Personal Adjustment of International Students" (1998), Al-Sharideh and Goe contend that in the United States participation in ethnic organisations helps international students to develop strong ties with the co-culturals, providing a soft-landing for them and a space to learn how to cope with the...

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