Cultural Overview

Igbo-speaking people are the third-largest ethnic group in Nigeria, numbering approximately 20 million. Perhaps not surprising given the large population, forms of social organization and cultural patterns vary widely across Igbo communities. Inevitably, any attempt to sketch an overview will oversimplify this variation and may appear, from the perspective of particular sections of Igboland, to be inaccurate. With this qualification, a number of cultural features are common and very significant across much of Igbo society.

Prior to British colonization, Igboland was characterized primarily by a large number of self-governing village groups. Though some of these village groups were loosely tied through trade, marriage, and alliance in warfare, in precolonial times Igboland was largely decentralized and each Igbo village group was an independent political entity. Indeed, consensus in the historical literature is that the notion of a pan-Igbo identity emerged only in the context of colonialism (Isichei, 1976). The sense of Igbos as one people was further solidified shortly after independence by the Biafran War (1967-70), during which the predominately Igbo-speaking southeast sought unsuccessfully to secede from Nigeria. A number of scholars have argued that women's political role was greater in precolonial times and that the legacy of the colonial system has continued to have negative consequences for women's status in post-independence Nigeria (Amadiume, 1987; van Allen, 1976).

In the wider Nigerian collective imagination and in scholarly literature, Igbos are perceived to be economically resourceful and successful and highly entrepreneurial (Green, 1947; Isichei, 1976). Much has been written about the Igbos' entrepreneurial spirit, their economic acumen, and their domination of certain sectors of the marketplace across Nigeria. The idea that Igbo culture is "individualistic" and achievement oriented pervades discourse among other groups in Nigeria, and is reproduced and explored in anthropology (Henderson, 1972; Ottenberg, 1971). Individual achievement is certainly highly rewarded in Igbo culture, but characterizing the society as "individualistic" misrepresents the degree to which personal success is valued most as a fulfillment of group expectations that wealth should be shared, with extended family and community of origin being the most important groups for most Igbo people.

Involvement in trade, ranging from large-scale importation of industrial commodities to the sale of goods in informal petty businesses, has contributed to a huge volume of rural-urban migration in Igbo society. At present, most Igbo communities, indeed the vast majority of Igbo households, have members who have migrated to cities and towns across Nigeria. But one of the most significant features of Igbo migration and of social organization in rural Igbo villages is the continuing tie of migrants to their communities of origin and their kinship groups (Smith, 2001a). Rural and urban Igbo communities are interdependent, with migrants and those who reside in rural villages connected to each other politically, economically, socially, and culturally. Most rural households rely on a combination of subsistence agricultural, small-scale trade, and often some wage labor and employment. In addition, many households depend on their migrant members for remittances, but also for social connections that facilitate access to resources such as education, jobs, business contracts, and government services (Smith, 2001a). Kinship in most of Igboland is reckoned patrilineally, though Igbo groups that are matrilineal and that practice double descent are well documented in the literature (Nseugbe, 1974). Even among patrilineal groups, the importance of women as daughters, wives, and mothers, and the strong ties to lineages other than an individual's own patrilineage are central to understanding the cultural construction of sex and gender in traditional Igbo society and in the present.

The proliferation of formal education, the almost universal conversion of Igbos to Christianity, and the increasing urban influence on people's lives in both rural and urban areas have had significant effects on the organization and meaning of sex and gender. Yet, perhaps obviously, contemporary trajectories of ideas and practices are very much shaped and informed by the past. The Igbo sex/gender system is complex, with gender roles often being more flexible than they appear (Amadiume, 1987), with the statuses of daughter, mother, and wife, for example, entailing quite different meanings for the same gender, and with continuous social change reorganizing the context in which beliefs and behaviors occur and are transformed.

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