Celebrating The True Igbo Historians Part 1 - Igwe Israel Iweka
By Iwedi Ojinmah 7 months ago
The history of the Igbo has many versions. It really depends on who you want to listen to. While much is saturated with myth and opinion, thankfully there are also conclusions supported by irrefutable fact. These facts are in turn the end result of a lifetime of dedicated research and information verification by a crop of spectacular Igbo Historians.
This is an attempt by The Awareness to celebrate their contributions towards keeping the Igbo story not just honest and accurate, but showing the world that we are quite capable of telling our own story without outside help. We have entitled it "Celebrating the True Igbo Historians ."
There is no doubt that the first book written by an Igbo was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano written in 1789. It's a fascinating book that depicted that the African was not a savage and as Chinua Achebe, arguably Africa's most astute writer put it :"Many things that Ekweano wrote will touch the hearts of all, but none surpasses the joy he felt when he freed himself from slavery and leaped up, crying, "I am my own master!" two hundred years before Martin Luther King, Jr. cried, "Free at last!" So not to mention Equiano among the true gatekeepers of the Igbo identity would be felonious and wrong.
Yet as good as that gem was, IMHO I believe there is an even more important book. Historically speaking at least. It was written by Igwe Israel Iweka (shown in main photo) in 1922.
Entitled the History of the Igbo (and Obosi) it is of significant importance because it is written in both Igbo and English. To understand this monumental achievement one has to take a quick look at the evolution of the Igbo language itself and why this is so important to Igbo history.
First of all, we will admit that the Igwe Israel Iweka was not a true historian per say, but bore the distinction of being one of the first Civil Engineers of Igbo ancestry. The massive Iweka road in Onitsha bears testimony even till today, of his engineering skills. So while the book in terms of scientific revelations regarding the subject matter may not have been as celebrated as a few others, the timing is what separates it from others
Before the book was published the official Igbo language had been the subject of massive debates and outright quarrel.
In 1766 G. C. A. Oldendorp, a German missionary of the Moravian Brethren, went to their West Indies Caribbean mission. There he interacted with many Igbo slaves and ten years later he published Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean). It contained a few Igbo words, numerals, 13 nouns, and two sentences. Thus he was the first to publish any material in Igbo.
Over the next century, the Igbo language would continue to evolve. Milestones in its journey would include when in 1854 Lepsius, the German philologist, produced the international "Standard Alphabet" for all world languages to use. It was the official blueprint on how diction, pronunciation, and wording should be presented. Needless to say, and typically Igbo where everything is debated, this caused a massive uproar with some adopting it and others not.
No more so than among the churches. The Protestant missions (except for the Methodists), led by the CMS (Anglican) and conservatives, opposed the "new" orthography, while the government, the Roman Catholic and Methodist missions adopted it.
Anyway, the new version wasn't used till 1857 when Bishop Crowther produced the first book in Igbo Isoama-Ibo Primer which had 17 pages, with the Igbo alphabet, words, phrases, sentence patterns, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and translations of the first chapters of Matthew's Gospel.
Therefore Crowther became the first to use the new Lepsius "Standard Alphabet" in Igbo which was given even more authenticity when it was adopted by Rev. Thomas J. Dennis, the founder of Dennis Memorial School, who at his peak was the best, and most prolific student of Igbo and writer of his time.
So it is amidst all this confusion and interference that Igwe Israel Iweka went ahead and published his bi-lingual book thereby singlehandedly doing more for the ability of an Igbo to produce a written narrative independently, and not solely depend on foreign guidance - religious or otherwise.
Furthermore, it ended our dependence on the oral narration and spawned the new beginning of our own documented indigenous record keeping. Again a gargantuan step forward in the telling of the Igbo story.