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Nneka – “Mother is Supreme”

Nneka – “Mother is Supreme”

Great LinkedIn comments on the piece explaining some elements in Igbo culture (Nigeria). Let me drop these lines from Things Fall Apart where Chinua Achebe explained, at deeper level, the meaning of Nneka.

The following day, Uchendu gathers together his entire family, including Okonkwo. He points out that one of the most common names they give is Nneka, meaning “Mother is Supreme”—a man belongs to his fatherland and stays there when life is good, but he seeks refuge in his motherland when life is bitter and harsh.

Of course, with the positive comments coming from the piece, I will surely like to give a talk in UN Women titled Nneka, explaining how ancestral Africa had recognized women before colonialism through indirect rule redesigned that fabric. In the days of Okonkwo Unoka (Things Fall Apart), mothers were supreme but in the days of Obi Okonkwo, a descendant of Unoka and Western educated, in No Longer at Ease (Umuofia had fallen to foreign powers), that was gone.

When a young boy arrives at his mother’s birthplace, he automatically assumes rights over most. If you check, as elders break kola nuts and drink palm wine, they first ask “do we have nwaada here?” If there happens to be nwaada, they will acknowledge him, and once after taking the palm wine, they will give him, over the sons of the soil. The idea is this: no matter what brought you to your mother’s birthplace, you are welcome! We will feed you before we eat. You are protected from any harm.

While Africa cultures certainly were not gender-neutral on many areas especially on property rights, there are many contradictions. A stubborn man would better face elders (men) in the village than face Umu Ada-nwanyi (married out women from a community) who typically come back to resolve serious issues.

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The irony is this: the women’s fathers might not have given them properties like lands but they technically have real influence in their fathers’ lands. They are those women that levy fines and expect everyone to pay, right from their husbands’ houses. They gather once in a while to make sure their fathers’ domains are functioning. And any woman married into their fathers’ communities that do not behave well will get into trouble with them.

Largely, if you study many African cultures, you will see extremely efficient systems which served their purposes. Of course, there is no denial that women were not treated well but looking deeper you would understand that many things happened due to lack of wisdom.

As a village boy, I asked my grandmother why the fishes in the local stream could not be killed while the big waters’ fishes could. She simply explained that harvesting fishes in our local stream would make it nearly undrinkable as the current was not efficient enough to clean the fishing induced-perturbation process. But in the big streams, the current was large to bring equilibrium to any perturbation fishing process could cause.

Yet, to make people adhere to respecting that, elders would make it illegal to do so. With the religion of the time, it was associated to one god but technically it was not really about any god – they just want to have a decent stream to use for home needs and using a god will scare people from polluting it. That is why people who “test” deities (after becoming born-again Christians), by killing those fishes are missing the point: you are not fighting any god, you are simply destroying an equilibrium for good drinking water in a community.

If you check, the decision to make people not to fish in that small stream came out of deep observations that the body of water was critical for the survival of the village. And for generations, they honored that tenet to survive because water sustains life. The rascality of looking for one small fish, in a small stream, endangering lives of villages, can only be stopped by telling everyone that one deity owns the fishes. Practically, the fishes are free, but man in ancestral Africa feared gods, and everything was associated with gods to maintain order!

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“That is why people who “test” deities (after becoming born-again Christians), by killing those fishes are missing the point: you are not fighting any god, you are simply destroying an equilibrium for good drinking water in a community.” Actually, we had a system that worked, but in our quest to “modernise’ and ‘conform’ to what our newest headmasters like, we ended up losing our identity, and now suffering identity crisis.

The Umu-Ada will bend you, that you are stubborn is not really for them, you must behave. When they gather during ceremonies: waste time in bringing their food, then you are going to eat all the food yourself; and make one ‘irresponsible’ comment while the food is out there, you won’t only apologise with all the energy in you, you also need to pay ‘fine’, for you to be forgiven.

Most times, when we shout “gender equality”, we miss the point. We have a better system in Africa, which only needs few tweaks and upgrading, but somehow the slavemasters convinced us to toss everything and embrace confusion.

I think we have so much to teach the West, rather than them lecturing us; maybe we teach them how to raise kids that can respect their elders, and also – how to run peaceful families. Some business there.

Saving That Kingdom


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