I spoke with an aide to a governor (Nigeria) today on the possibility of developing a framework on the Igbo Apprenticeship System. People forwarded the TED video piece and this one to His Excellency. They reached out. If this is something you would like to work on, please email my community manager here. I will be in Nigeria in February 2019 specifically for this courtesy of the governor’s office. I did note that the best roadmap would be to have a university level research because the processes involved are convoluted. With that level of research, it would be easier to make sense of the elements which make Igbo apprenticeship system function.
The Challenge in this System
To be honest here, I have no credible idea on how what they do in southeast Nigeria could be institutionalized. Giving out your 13 year old son to someone, to live and serve, with no absolute enforceable promise seems strange to my over-education.
Sure, I wrote about how Nigeria could learn from the apprenticeship system to fix our unemployment issues. But making it work in an institutionalized way should not be trivialized. The trust that goes into that cannot be replicated on any piece of document. The parents have to believe on the boy’s future master. The boy has to work for years (10 years is typical) for no pay on the promise that one day the master will settle him. He serves the master at home and office and practically becomes his son. And most times, the deal is kept, without any document.
I watched the scene live as a boy that grew in the village. As I was going to secondary school after primary school, some of my classmates went for trading. They went to cities for that, returning to the village during Christmas. Their parents’ homes became secondary; they made tents in the masters’. And the master would not even distinguish between his own sons and them. I am not sure there is any paper contract in this world that could capture that level of bond.
Getting to the Papers
Igbos are Africans; we did business for centuries without any written documentation. Yes, if they have figured out that lack of paper documentation was a problem, someone would have invented writing! But they did not [get me right, I am not saying that your contract with the bank is not good. My point is that some African institutions cannot be catapulted overnight]. Yet, someone has to try in our largely inventive societies.
As I had noted in my preliminary chat with the aide, one roadmap is evident to me: Go to a university system and fund one to make sense of the system. UNN or any state university in the east could lead this. That level of research will help everyone understand the different components before anyone can talk of formalization and institutionalization. I do not expect a 6-month consultancy to offer any useful insight; something long-term would be critical.
Yes, despite investing in a long-term research, the outcome cannot be guaranteed. You need to enter this work with humility because they are many players here. In February, I will make that case as we explore models. We can work out a process on how that engagement with universities would be structured to get the best results. It was evident that the governor’s office was looking for practical recommendation over an academic one. But here, there needs to be a fusion of theory and practice.
A Boy-Master Play
Let me give a stage on what happens when a boy, usually around 13 years is asked to live home for apprenticeship.
For a boy to leave his parents to move to city where he would live with a master, many things happen. These things have worked smoothly without lawyers and paper contracts. And if you bring those papers and lawyers, you may change the equilibrium point. First, the parents many not like to sign your papers if you are coming from government to “assist” to protect the boy. Secondly, the masters may not sign. Igbos largely do not really see governments as extremely necessary on their personal issues. In most villages, when there are erosion or local road problems, they call their sons and not government for help. Typically, the sons send money to village elders to fix the problems. The entrepreneurial individualism may make bringing government into the apprenticeship harder.
Sure, there used to be a time when banking was done without papers. Of course today we have modern banking in Nigeria. So, any system can evolve including the Igbo apprenticeship system. For that to happen, this play, which largely depicts what happens must not introduce frictions that could stop the deal – the boy going to Aba the next day.
(Urum is the master; Uche is the boy’s father, Obidiya is the boy’s mother and Ike is the name of the boy.)
Urum: Mazi Uche, who is that boy?
Uche: That is my first son. He just finished primary school.
Urum: I need a boy in my shop in Aba. Can he follow me to Aba tomorrow?
Uche: Ike, come here (Ike comes). Tomorrow, you are going to Aba with Uncle Urum. He would be your master. Obey and listen to him. Anything you cannot do for him, do not do for me. And anything you can do for me, do for him. Give me your hand (the man spits on the boy’s hands): I offer my blessings to you. You would cross oceans and rivers. And you would come back to this land to bless your kindred. Your wealth will come home and not wasted in cities. Our ancestors, famous traders, will guide you. Virgin Mary and our Lord Jesus will bless you.
(Then turns to Urum (the Master): This is your son. Take good care of him.
Urum: Ike, come here. You have grown. I could not even recognize you (Urum holds Ike)
Uche: (He calls his wife): Obidiya, Obidiya. Come.
(The wife arrives) Ike will be going to Aba tomorrow with Urum. Please go and bring more ugbaa for us.
Obidiya: (Kneeling down, thanks Urum) May God bless you.
Urum: Ikochim (my kinsman wife), thank you for taking good care of my brother Uche.
That is the contract. In 10 years, that boy is settled with all possible support in the world. Then, one day, he looks for boys to do same. But as he does that, he remembers his home.
Many of you have written privately to me suggesting that you could develop a strategic document to institutionalize and formalize the Igbo Apprenticeship System. I would note that I think it is time. If you have interest, let us see what can be done to formalize it.
Nice scenario Ndubuisi, but in Nnewi, it is not just the nuclear family of Uche that will be involved. Uche will summon a meeting of his umunna who will probably come the next day.
During that meeting, Ikem will be handed over to Urum in the presence of everyone. Urum on the other hand will give an indication of roughly how long Ikem will be his boy (pronounced boyi), this is usually for a six year period. Everyone one gives their blessings and the matter ends there.
Nothing is written, everything is done on trust. But the presence of the umunna is a form of check and not only do they serve as witnesses (at the end of the six year period, they would usually congregate again for the settlement), it lends weight to the saying in igbo land that a child is the child of the community. So the Urum is not expected to make such an important decision on the boy’s future without the umunna. After all if things go wrong (and they do) the ummuna will also be involved in any dispute resolution.