(This short piece was first written in 2006, long before I started this column. I am republishing it now because too many of my friends have been asking for it lately; because nothing has changed…)
Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Isanlu, an Okun town in the old Kwara state, my first real contact with the “outside world” – besides European and Canadian Catholic priests, my father’s vast family library, and social studies in primary school – came in the form of settlerist migrancy. There was the sabo area of town, ceded by Kabiyesi to Hausa/Fulani settlers. That was where you bought suya and fura da nono on your way to and from school. There was Kwaku or Mensah, the ambulant Ghanaian shoemaker (sobata) who roamed the village with his wooden box containing assorted tools of his trade held around his waist by a rope slung across his shoulders. Akosua, his wife, sold rice and beans during break at school. Then there was Okoro from Igboland. He’d been part of the village for as long as everyone remembered. He spoke Yagba and standard Yoruba: he was a quintessence of integration other Nigerians hardly ever achieve. Most importantly, Okoro owned the only trading store in town.
No matter what his real name was, he was always Okoro to the village people. He got that name partly because of his cantankerous Igbo namesake in The Village Headmaster, arguably Nigeria’s most famous TV drama of all times, and partly because of Nigeria’s internal dynamic of racism and othering: each of the three major ethnic groups, forced into a party by the British, has unprintable names and degrading stereotypes for the other two. Okoro was the villagers’ sole access to manufactured goods: clothes, maths set, exercise books, whot cards, Ludo boards, kerosene stoves, sardines, geisha, glucose, Wembley 4 soccer balls, skull slip-on shoes for women, candles, asepso, tetramosol, nku cream, elephant blue detergent, tomapep, shelltox, knitting needles, name it! Okoro’s store was the world: miniature globalization in that little corner of Africa before academia hijacked that word noisily!
Okoro’s customers always expected him to have two versions of every item he sold: the original and the fake. Folks believed that the original came from Europe and America. The fake, according to local lore, was manufactured in Igboland by ingenuous folks capable of reproducing any industrial good with the speed of lightening. Welcome to the legend of “Ibo made” in Nigeria’s national imaginary. “Ibo made” came to represent what you bought grudgingly because you couldn’t afford the real deal. It gathered other registers of inferiority along the way, signaling everything that is wrong with the way Nigerians think.
“Ibo made” is the most explicit metaphor for the Nigerian tragedy. It explains why we abandoned mal-development and underdevelopment for zero development. It is an unserious country that expects development by disparaging and killing the industry, inventiveness, and technological savvy of an entire segment of its population, socializing generation after generation of her people into a mental universe where every candle or pencil made in Aba is deemed inferior because it is “Ibo made”. Neither the obtuse rulers at the centre nor the Governors of the respective “Ibo made” states were ever imaginative enough to develop “Ibo made” into a full scale national asset.
Nigeria is truly a funny country. Her ports are permanently congested because she imports everything from wooden tooth picks to wooden rulers. If air could be imported, Nigeria would import it. Yet, half the things clogging her ports used to be made in Aba and other places in the east. Nigeria killed rather than develop those manufacturing potentials. What Nigeria rejected as “Ibo made”, our friends in China took to unimaginable levels. Now, foolish and ostentatious Nigerians who consider buying “Ibo made” an insult buy stuff that are even inferior to “Ibo made” from China! The Chinese, not being as foolish as we are, flood Nigeria with every imaginable fake and pirated product under the sun. Nigerians buy everything from fake Louis Vuitton products to fake tooth picks from China. A good friend of mine, Mazi Ebere, predicts that unless we change course, Nigeria will soon import elubo, efo riro, and pure water from China.
Other Nigerians have received help from the Igbo in terms of the sustenance of condescending attitudes to “Ibo made”. An Igbo friend of mine based in France inspired this piece. He phoned me from Paris the other day fuming. He is building a house in Nigeria and has just discovered that his contractor was billing him for “original material” while using “Ibo made”! When I drew his attention to the irony of an Igbo man fuming over “Ibo made”, he dismissed me impatiently: “Pius, abeg, leave matter jare. When you are ready to build your own house, hire the same contractor and let him use Ibo made material for you!” I changed the topic. Enter any Igbo shop in Lagos, Ibadan, or Kaduna. If you are a regular customer, the Igbo trader is sure to tell you: “oga, those ones outside na Ibo made o. Original dey inside. You know now.” We sure do have a long way to go as a country.
Pius Adesanmi, PhD (UBC, Vancouver)
African Literatures and Cultures
Department of English Language & Literature
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6, Canada.
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