Odoje Village and “African Internal Frontiers”

Above:  A Guesswork Map of proto-Colonial Odoje Village, from Henderson 1972:99

 

  1.  Some Introductory comments

For many years I have wondered about the organization of the village of Odoje, or Odojele (Lit., I think, “Place of many palm trees”)  in Onitsha, but have never found the time to explore my very extensive fieldnotes in a way that would enable me to make the strongest and clearest estimates of its history and social organization.  Today I have decided simply to present a diagram-summary that I developed after reading through an Onitsha court case brought in 1938 and involving Umera, the Ozi of Onitsha, against a fellow chief of Odoje, Mbanefo Odu. In his testimony, the Ozi provided the most detailed and formal outline of the structure of that village that I have ever seen, though I never managed to explore its claims while in the field.   (I have added to the diagram a few points of opinion provided to me by Onitsha men in 1960-61.)

At this moment I do not have time to develop this page further (though I have begun that process regarding the likely histories of villages like Odoje in Section 3 here, below,  where I will discuss in a much more generalizing way the migration-model developed by Igor Kopytoff et al, and hopefully will be able to pursue these historical problems further down what has been my long and rather rutty road.  I do this so that fellow Odoje buffs may find Ozi‘s presentation useful.  (And I would love to see some of them provide me with elaborations, corrections, etc., so that I can enlarge and improve the page, of course giving them credit for any contributions they may make.)  But see also below in Section 2 here some observations that were published in The King in Every Man way back in the  Dark Ages of 1972.

2.  Odoje Village as Outlined by Umera Ozi (Dick Henderson’s formal interpretation)

 

Odoje after Umera Ozi 1938

Note that I have placed Iyi-Awu in this scheme, although in 1960 Iyi-awu people by then were strongly affiliating with Umu-Asele, much less with members of what is now Odoje.  Their earlier history suggests fairly recent (nineteenth-century) attachments with another direction (toward Isiokwe), and that Odoje itself as we have seen it in mid-twentieth century may have been recently re-constructed, though it definitely existed in the consciousness of Ndi-Onicha by 1857 when its dominant chief, Nwabufo Ogene (“Wabuvo”in the journals), reportedly led this village in “war” against the fellow Onitsha village of Umu-Dei in a dispute over local land.   See Henderson 1972:366, where “Wabuvo” was said to have stolen “the large drum of Umude”,  and had occupied land apparently claimed by the latter, and again where Wabuvo, now having taken the Eze Idi title, thus relinquishing his Ogene title, appeared to declare his autonomy in relation to Onitsha hegemony more strongly. 1

It may help us grasp what has happened over time in this village and village-group by briefly departing the details on the ground and looking much more widely at the long-term history of the broader regions in which Onitsha has long been embedded.

 3.  West African History:  Oral Traditions and “Identity-affirming Fantasies”

To venture briefly even more widely:  In a remarkable recent essay about museums in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the New York Times’s cultural critic Edward Rothstein2 draws a sharp contrast:  On the one hand,  in Oaxaca strong historical shadows are cast by the substantial and well-preserved archaeological features that are still present  in the landscape of that state (including many large stone buildings, for example), and by local oral traditions and other research resources  (which enable serious students to build realistically measurable pictures of the past); on the other hand, in the United States only much blurrier visions are available for research about most Native American cultures, because overall the archaeological record is much less evident and the original populations became drastically decimated or scattered during times of colonial invasion.  As a result, museums in the United States today are bent into the task of constructing largely imaginative accounts of the past, “in many cases relying mainly on frayed strands of traumatically disrupted oral traditions”, where cultures have disappeared,

“leaving behind neither oral traditions nor written records.  And forced migrations and centuries of warfare so disrupted native traditions that the past now seems little more than an identity-affirming fantasy.”

I cite these comments because the essay rang  a bell in my head concerning my own research in West Africa, pursued sporadically from 1960 to the present  and focused around historical relationships among Onitsha people (Ndi-Onicha) and their neighbors living in the southern parts of Nigeria.  Not that Onitsha people and their neighbors lack oral traditions or were generally as “traumatically disrupted” as were the lives of most Native Americans in their colonial experience (though centuries of slave trend left its toll, and since 1966 the inhabitants of southern Nigeria did fall victims to very serious disruptions),  but certainly if we look at recent historical research in Nigeria we can see that to a considerable extent the past has become to some extent (and especially for some of our historians)  a series of competing “identity-affirming fantasies”.

To some degree of course, all histories contain identity-affirming fantasies, and in this page I propose to explore one particular array of historical self-identifications within the old community of Onitsha, that composing the Onitsha Village of Odoje (or Odo-ojele, “place of plentiful palm trees”).  I want to do this through a distinctive analytical lens for African history, developed by the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff  and his associates:  the notion of the “Internal African Frontier”.3

3.l.  Kopytoff on “The Internal African Frontier”

Note:  what follows below are merely scattered sketches of material I want to develop to say more about  what I see about the history of village formation and change in Onitsha.  Read further at your own risk, and please don’t hold me accountable for it.  I’m just thinking out loud, (and only beginning to do so) here below.

on such frontiers   most African polities and societies have been constructed out of the bits and pieces (human and cultural) of existing societies.

The “tribal model” (4) arose out of 19th-century self-conscious nations of a new Europe constructing a “tribe” as a uniform “breed”, unity of physique, custom, politic, language, mind, group identity (“ethnicity”, we now call this); this was the embryo of the nation: an ancient charter for nationalism, rooted in common descent/blood/character.  It fit the realities of European history poorly, and fits African societies even less well:  in Africa the “tribe” in this sense is a rarity.  Its implicit meaning—“an ethnic germ, its beginnings lost in the mists of the past, growing through time, retaining its essential character, and becoming a people…a nation.”

What is the reality that applies best to Africa:  Ethnically ambiguous marginal societies:  some are more glaringly so, e.g. “a society.. (that) represents a mishmash of regional cultural traits”, that does not quite hang together, usually small, not much time-depth. Its legitimacy often questioned by polities nearby. (5)
Such a society may construct a unitary “official” history, but it is “belied by the individual histories of its separate kin groups that show their ancestors coming from different areas and at different periods”  (refugees from war/famine; losers in succession struggles, etc;); members may maintain relations with relatives from other places, and within the group there may differences in customs and language. (There may be a dominant “public” language, but also private in-group language forms.)  These are societies that have emerged out of a local frontier. People become disgruntled and leave, go into the bush (the local frontier); this may merely become another village in a group,  or an expansion of a metropole, or may become a diaspora (hausa, swahilis, Fulani), or on the other hand a new hamlet that grows into a village, etc.  We see these in societal mythologies (a hunter founds it), but also in fact.

……………………………………………

Kopytoff, Igor, ed.,  1987, The African Frontier:  The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana UP
(3) Introduction:  Igor Kopytoff:  The Internal African Frontier:  The Making of African Political Culture
The idea:  that a recently-formed African society has started on a “frontier”:  still shows signs of its heterogeneous origins. Warren d’Azavedo’s work emphasized frontier-like conditions – “internal frontiers”.  Frederick Turner saw the frontier as a force shaping American political character, but for Africa we see it as a force for cultural-historical continuity and conservatism.:  the local frontier, lying at the fringes of numerous established societies.  It is on such frontiers that most African polities and societies have been constructed out of the bits and pieces (human and cultural) of existing societies.  This view is the opposite of the evolutionary theories seeing small polities arising out of hypothetical “bands”.
The “tribal model” (4) arose out of 19th-century self-conscious nations of a new Europe constructing a “tribe” as a uniform “breed”, unity of physique, custom, politic, language, mind, group identity (“ethnicity”, we now call this); this was the embryo of the nation: an ancient charter for nationalism, rooted in common descent/blood/character.  It fit the realities of European history poorly, and fits African societies even less well:  in Africa the “tribe” in this sense is a rarity.  Its implicit meaning—“an ethnic germ, its beginnings lost in the mists of the past, growing through time, retaining its essential character, and becoming a people…a nation.”
What is the reality that applies best to Africa:  Ethnically ambiguous marginal societies:  some are more glaringly so, e.g. “a society.. (that) represents a mishmash of regional cultural traits”, that does not quite hang together, usually small, not much time-depth. Its legitimacy often questioned by polities nearby. (5)
Such a society may construct a unitary “official” history, but it is “belied by the individual histories of its separate kin groups that show their ancestors coming from different areas and at different periods”  (refugees from war/famine; losers in succession struggles, etc;); members may maintain relations with relatives from other places, and within the group there may differences in customs and language. (There may be a dominant “public” language, but also private in-group language forms.)  These are societies that have emerged out of a local frontier. People become disgruntled and leave, go into the bush (the local frontier); this may merely become another village in a group,  or an expansion of a metropole, or may become a diaspora (hausa, swahilis, Fulani), or on the other hand a new hamlet that grows into a village, etc.  We see these in societal mythologies (a hunter founds it), but also in fact.
(7) This is the opposite from the primordial homunculus tribe, rather a magnet that grows by attracting to itself the ethnic and cultural detritus produced by the routine workings of other societies.  Unlike “the tribe”, it lacks historical depth more than a few centuries.  It is another indicator of the general fluidity of ethnic identity in Africa.
The African Frontier thesis:
Sub-Saharan African history is one of ceaseless flux of populations that are relatively recent occupants of their present habitat.  Some of this has involved dramatic dispersions, but much has been innumerable local movments to local frontiers; our thesis:  many, indeed most African societies were formed around initial core groups developed in local frontiers.  Continuously recreated frontiers, and this has maintained an African frontier-conditioned ideology in the political consciousness of African metropolitan societies. (8)
We focus here on the early stages of the processes that forge fundamental principles of polity.
What sort of frontier is it?  Frederick Turner:  a succession of waves, a “tidal” frontier.  In Africa this applies mainly to external intrusions.
(9) The term conflates two meanings:  of a region, and of a boundary; here we focus on “politically open areas nestling between organized societies but ‘internal’ to the larger regions in which they are found”, hence “internal frontier”.
Historically:  (using sources from the 1960s-70s) from 5,000BC to 2500 BC or so, most  populations ancestral to those presently occupying sub-Saharan Africa were concentrated “in the now-barren but then fertile Saharan-Sahelian band that spans the continent from east to west.”.  This is the area where “the ‘incubation’ of the ancestral pan-African culture patterns took place, often under frontier conditions….”
“From this ancestral ‘hearth’ of African culture, after the onset of dessication of the Saharan-Sahelian belt sometime around 2500 B.C.E, a population tide crept slowly southward, out of the expanding Saharan  desert and into the savannas, even while the savannas (10) themselves expanded southward at the expense of the equatorial forest.
Point here:  the ancestral African population was relatively concentrated in the past, an “ecumene” , a region of persistent cultural interaction and exchange, a broad “culture area”.  This occupation is comparatively recent – the initial tidal frontier; hence sub-Saharan Africa shows striking cultural unity.  However, this was a sparsely populated continent, with large tracts of available settlement open; wide networks of local frontiers.
Two distinctive features of these frontiers:  (11) they were unpoliced; (2) usually, the frontiersmen were not advance agents of metropole expansion.  Hence they could become stages for new polities.  These frontiers are political definitions of geographical space. (12) And they shift, reform, disappear, reassemble over time.

Frontier Dynamics:
Turner’s thesis, too deterministic, holds for America in that the frontier provided an institutional vacuum where people could construct a viable social order.  They came there with a mental model (13) of a good society, (Enlightenment-era) people unusually literate for that time; freed from feudal residues of the eastern seaboard.
So: basic features:  frontier provides a vacuum for social unfoldings;  it varies with the metropole in degree of independence of it; it varies with the nature of the model carried into it; (14) it varies in degrees of freedom to express the model brought;  it may become a conservative contrast to the metropole (sharp contrast with Turner here).
(15) The tribal-evolutionary model attributes widespread cultural patterns to ancient common origins, while a diffusionist model assumes permeable, changing ethnic boundaries; similarities due mostly to continued communication within some deeper ancient sharing.  Our position:  common origins, diffusion, common functionalities all equally relevant to historical shaping of societies in Africa. The result has been an easy spread of local elaborations of common pan-African traits, with most established societies themselves the products of the frontier (an ethic embedded in the metropole). (16)  As metropoles prefigured frontier societies, so frontier societies prefigured metropoles.
The Frontier Process:
1) Production of frontiersmen:  social dynamic in African societies periodically ejected people; some became frontiersmen; {African societies consistently tend to divide, segment; even in centralized systems, local conflicts left alone by center; local life organized by age-dominance, versus equality of kin group – “equal potentiality” (18),“The King in Every Man!” problem.  But breaks (19) tend not to be total, relationships tend to linger, in various forms, sometimes in token (potential) ways. This an adaptive strategy; spatial withdrawal but not total. Succession rules ambiguity generated splits; African polities often disregarded much internal violence; detachment by juniors seeking greater things common;}
2) Movement in groups, typically; {(23) The individual is a symbol of the group; African societies largely structured in corporate groups;(24-5)}
3) Institutional vacuum: metropole defined peripheral area as open to legitimate intrusion; (settlers saw it thus, though usually other organized groups were already there, posed part of the situation); {25- ) intruders see a vacuum; they are “free” to build; but those already present posed problems.  (28) Southall’s Alur: entering chiefs accepted because their organizational superiority was recognized; on the other hand, limits to power at a distance led to “circle of subordinate allies” (29)}
4) Pre-existing social models: (17) some of the immigrants constructed a new social order, brought from the metropole; {(33) usually impulse is conservative: to replicate the old in more favorable situation.  (34) Construction is the key; quite conscious effort.  (35)LeVine’s (1976) superb summation of African personality patterns has not been paralleled in cultural systems; “Cultural baggage”:  hierarchy – assumptions are not egalitarian; within-group relations are hierarchical, between-group relationships may be “egalitarian”; (balance of power rules);  hence removal from office, demotion, very difficult to do; (37) corporate unity in relations without; use of kinship idiom (38) in political relationships:  old ritual chief is “the king’s wife”.  Free Binis are all “slaves” to the Oba.  (39) do business with friends (separating exchange from emotion very un-African);
5) Adherents incorporated as kinsmen: since power on frontier lay in numbers, attracting/retaining adherents and dependents was important; kinship used. {{(40) Basic orientation to expanding mutually valuable relationships;  (41) shortage of people “Corporate kin group” a basic pattern. Because people greatly valued, (43) elaborate systems of rights in persons, modeled as kinship but could be highly diverse. (46) African “slavery” was part of this elaborate larger system. (48) But this system tended to involve highly diffuse, “primordial” allegiances, rather than as in Europe contractual, functionally specific.  Slaves sometimes become masters and vice versa.}}
6) Adherents as subjects: if emergent polity grew, it moved from kinship-model to patrimonial one; ideology of founders versus that of subjects (who viewed rulers as their creation); this ideological duality gave rise to “divine kingship” model. (((49) If a group consolidated, one of its languages would become dominant (facilitated by Africa’s widespread multilingualism, see Warnier 1980 – in French);
two plots for consolidating: rulers: newcomers expel/coopt their hosts (issues: petty, but point to visible symbols of priority); (50) they bring in superior tactics, new technology, organization to disorganized  groups; subjects’ version:  we were autochthons or anyway there first; others came, used new means to gain power.  New model emerges: solidarity based on political contract.  Rulers now become selective in receiving outsiders; (51) newcomers lower in the pyramid. Rulers gradually raised higher as more layers of immigrants; (52) if kingdom shrank, rulers were demoted into elders. There was continuity between large-scale and small-scale organization, fostering transfer of political culture from metropole to frontier.
Firstcomers retained authority over latecomers (53); long-resident kin group had more local rights; so potential rival with more local connections; firstcomers might claim their ascriptive titles more important than later-comers’ achieved ones.  In Africa, the principle of precedence is intimately linked with legitimacy of authority; more potent authorities must accommodate to this in some ways.  (54)  Firstcomer holds a special ritual position in the local scheme of things; this constrains the legitimacy of latecomers; there is a paradox here; newcomers could either claim to have displaced them, or redefine their precedence (55);  — “providers of special services;” (outcast blacksmith groups eg) ritual pygmy performers among Bantu; “owners of land” versus “owners of people”; commonly:  newcomers seek to co-opt mystical powers in land.(56) “They introduced order, new crops, new shrines; (57) predecessors accepted these because their priority was recognized. They could continue rituals that kept their now-dormant hopes alive.  (58)  See the BaShu case: several ethnic layers:   first group:  we opened the land; next:  we cleared the forest; next: we introduced civilized food crops; last: we installed a “real” political system.  “Seniority” had multiple meanings;(59)(60) one seeks to accumulate symptoms of seniority; creating a tradition. (61)
7) Inter-dependence ideology developed in royal ritual;
(62) Patrimonialism and African sacred kingship:  shift to the “solidarity of contractual inter-dependence between rulers and ruled” introduced two paradigmatic stories/myths about foundation:  Bradbury on Benin:  central tenet: king has right to rule, but kingship was created by the will of the subjects.  This duality is rooted in the “far more modest embryonic polity of the frontier.”
[Bradbury, RE, 1971, Patrimonialism and Gerontocracy in Benin… Man in Africa, Douglass/Kaberry eds]
Standard African myth:  rulers’ view:  they entered frontier, met locals, instituted new system; subjects’ view:  rulers were latecomers, subjects accepted them. {{Note Onitsha does not fit this well, does it? Well:  within newcomers, trickery won out, others accepted. “Ebo itenani” implies mixture.}}  Rulers’ view: subjects were squatters, “slaves” even; we showed them civilized space.  But they must be attracted to stay (hence “medicines” to attract them;)
(63) rulers’ view:  polity founded earlier, with their arrival (or departure from previous polity, Eze-Chima); subjects: founded when new rulers installed; these two might involve a considerable gap of time; this was sometimes handled by a “two-founders” pattern:  a mythical founder, even a leopard, followed by an outstanding successor (consolidator).    Rulers:  patrimonial founding (extension of ruler’s household);  (64) fate of kingdom bound up with ruler’s; equation made: “sacred kingship”.  (65) ruler potentially dangerous, ritually potent; led people to seek one.  They bring internal peace (at a cost of freedom). (66)  When misfortune struck, rulers then are blamed, could be deposed.   Taboos, hemmed in personage followed potency; (67) this was just exaggeration of all authority:  priests in some sense; ritual duties, responsibilities; performance crucial, motives less impt.  Among the Rukuba of the Nigerian Jos Plateau, king was divine, but also a  “scapegoat king”(Muller 1980, in French).
In the highly specialized (68) type, king’s sacredness entirely detached, secluded, politically powerless, utterly ritual figure {{Nri type!!}}.
Ruler-subject interdependence and Polity integration:
Ruler-subjects relation might become formally frozen:  Yako of Forde 1961:  fixed balance of power between chief and secret societies; or endless oscillation between chief and subjects (Geary 1976, the We of western Cameroon).
But in real kingdoms, a single theory:  (69) mature polities show many subjects linked very strongly with rulers, while some branches of ruling group ally with commoners.   Integrative function shown in ritual:  symbolic representatives of the king admonish him of his subjection to the will of the people; but power once in, in theory “absolute”.
Next step in the evolution of frontier-become-kingdom: expansion through conquest and frank domination of peripheral areas (70) where an outer circle was controlled by force rather than by symbolic means. {{(Benin and Igboland)}}
(here he provides a set of stages in the evolution of kingdoms)
8) Regional legitimacy sought;
(71) The Regional context:  validating charters – of the group to itself, and of the group to other regional polities; the first was met by sacrifice to royal ancestors, (sometimes with ones extremely distant and dubious); (73) chiefs might send token tribute to a remote kingdom (or claim to have done so); association with a strong remote power might give a local advantage, but it also opened a way to a remote response. (74) Polities’ charters could be contradictory:  claiming both links and independence with/from others.   Emphasis on regional relationships diminished any relevance for “local priority”. (75) This back-and-forth movement of ideas, symbols etc ensured considerable continuity through time of cultural forms.
Reproduction of Societies and the African Frontier:
(76) This approach has emphasized pan-African cultural Unity – a crucial reality which must be recognized.  The developmental scheme for the frontier must not be viewed as deterministic:  (78) trends toward collapse, decay, disappearance have also occurred.   States and stateless societies here have coexisted for millennia!
9) Expansion (or disintegration/absorption by other polities).  [end Kopytoff]

populations have remained in place but missions and education…..

415-1860 village populations

Some historical evidence:  Nwabufo Igwe of Odo-Ojele; question of his relations with other Onitsha

Ethnographic efforts to comprehend the grouping

Ozi’s court cases, and other sources on heterogeneity

Igor Kopytoff’s historical synthesis:  internal frontiers….

See Calendrical file:  01 October to Dec 1960:  end of Oct, early Nov: much on Odoje by various informants.

Folder Interregnum No. 5, #100: much on  Obio, including locations

Diagram of Ozi’s house is in the old Chieftaincy folder — use that along with architect’s model to show the house, together with its photographs.  (Also:  part of the Odu vs Ozi case is in that old folder.

Court case between Odu and Ozi is in Funeral folders; brings out Eze Idi role

Byron’s experiences (and mine with him): Nsugbe King;  his own ambiguities of membership;

 

  1. Ibid.:475-6.  Both of these examples were drawn from Crowther & Taylor 1859; see The King in Every Man for these sources. Curiously, Reverend Taylor seems to mis-date his journals as starting in 1856. See “The Gospel…”, page 241, [Return ↩]
  2. Rothstein 2012 [Return ↩]
  3. Kopytoff 1978.  This writer, one of the outstanding masters of African cultural history, died in 2013. [Return ↩]