Why cultural change is so difficult.

Author:Wambu, Onyekachi

Ideas shape peoples and nations; and nations change only when the ideas that supported them also change. But as the case of the Igbo declaration shows, resistance to change remains as powerful as ever.

Peoples and their nations are essentially ideas--ideas about who they think they are, and how best to organise their societies, including the roles and status of different people within them: leaders, workers and in some cases, even slaves.

Despite claims of eternalness and divine intervention, ultimately these ideas are traceable to key historic moments or individuals, who unleash revolutionary change. New ways of thinking lodge themselves, a new people/nation emerges, gradually these new ideas, their systems and resulting cosmologies are codified and ritualised within religious, legal or other folkloric systems, until the next change.

Last September, an announcement via social media suddenly brought some of these processes to a head amongst my people--the 35-40m Igbo speakers of Nigeria.

A statement, supposedly emanating from Eze Nri, the historic spiritual head of Igbos, declared that at the end of December, there would be a cleansing and forgiveness ceremony to abolish the discriminatory Osu caste system and others that conferred low status (slavery even) to particular groups. Continuing such practices would henceforth be considered an abomination.

Alongside this declaration of human and spiritual equality, the ceremony also aimed at reconciliation, reaching out to Igbos globally, who had in the past suffered such discrimination, in a bid to wipe the slate clean.

The announcement was important for a number of reasons. First, it acknowledged the fact that despite the 50-plus years of legal abolition, such discriminatory practices had quietly continued socially and culturally --echoes of which are still evident in the treatment of domestic staff and the poor.

Second, it acknowledged the influence of such caste systems in the creation of a global Igbo diaspora, especially during the period of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when many Igbos, like the celebrated writer and anti-slavery activist, Olaudah Equiano, were captured and sold initially by other Igbos.

The outreach to the descendants of such Igbos was interesting, as the statement noted that Eze Nri wanted to engage in 'educating all on the history, origin and consequent abolition of the obnoxious practices'.

Third, that the statement was coming from the current Eze Nri was of...

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