Before coming out to Nigeria I read Herbert Cole's book on 'Mbari' which he spent three years researching and then he subsequently wrote a lot of articles which l also read in African Arts. This research was very thorough and stood me in good stead for the fieldwork l was to embark upon with Amara - Amara read this too.
I asked Father Okere what he knew of Mbari before we went out into the field and he related the following which was a mixture of conversations about Igbo culture and social history. I found information was sometimes contradictory and not always confirmed by other people, so extrapolating from the information gathered overall, some things remained fairly consistent whilst others were not, sometimes quite fictional but true in the minds of those detailing these things to us.
According to Father Okere, "Ala is the spirit that calls for Mbari - precipitated by a snake running around [unusually] in the homestead or a bee swamp arriving in a certain place. Mbari is social, religious and a form of worship. Mainly females from different families go into [the Mbari] a convent-like place for one and a half years and the village give them everything they need eg.food, etc. If they were going to build it today they would include figures such as Obama and even Al Kieda/Bin Laden as these would be contemporary. Mbari is localised. Mbari is left once it is made, as it is built to appease the gods (Ala). The Missionary movement was very intense. Catholics (Holy Ghost Fathers) had more success than the protestants in conversions because their religion tied in more with the gods and saints in the Catholic religion. In 1913 Arch Deacon Dennis who was a church missionary (protestant) translated the bible into Igbo. The Protestants came to Igboland in 1906 and the Catholics in 1912 (Crowther, who was protestant, first came to Igboland in 1857 and the Catholics not until 1885, who were French Alsatians (Franco-German) - Lutz was the first Catholic missionary to land in Igbo territory. The Irish came in 1905. Father Ferral was the first Catholic priest to come to Owerri area, who preached against polygamy, so his possessions were stolen by the locals, and so he decided to leave! There would be single women who were marriageable in the Mbari and a there would be a master craftsman or head artist. The women however did not necessarily have sexual relations with the men present in the Mbari!
The figures or scenes make some statement to the community. Mgbekenwokpere is the woman depicted with her legs open, the 'shameless woman' of legend who is sexually active. The message here is close your legs because your husband is coming. Copulating was something not to do. The Mbari showed current trends, World War II with England and Germany. Father Okere remembers the War as a child, and how palm kernels produced palm oil to help the war effort in the UK".
When l asked him about Binary Oppositions he said that binary opposition was very much part of Igbo culture in general, even place names - hill/valley, old earth/homestead - Okpu-Ulo.
The habit of moving house/communities a lot is typical of the Igbo (due to religious practice but also practical reasons) - being equatorial forest, the roofs leak and so move particularly after the roof collapses, and possibly again due to famine. The main occupations, which provide sustenance in the area are fish and yam farming, consisting of one area which is flooded and the other the city [maybe here describing water or sea, and earth or land?]. There are always only degrees of stability in the way people take up residence.
A traditional village settlement consists of rectangular houses enclosed within a square walled compound with a gate on two opposing sides. From 1948 the usual type of house was square (called a "4 cornered house") made of earth using 4-5 feet thick walls with a wooden ladder to the second floor (2 storey house). The Northern Igbo have round houses which involves reasons which are always religious. The earth is kneaded by the members of the community, who build the houses which is a test of community spirit. The community provide the food for them. In the Etche area the houses are more sticks and less earth but at home [Norrie] they are built thicker and with red earth, which is burnished (for decorative purposes) with charcoal.
Mbari is both a celebration and a structure, but not shrines. . It is a work of art. It is a time when young girls are brought out, and palm wine contests, to see who could not fall over first. The day chosen to open the Mbari celebration (lasting about 6 months) is usually on a particular market day associated with the place, after about 1 to 2 years of building the Mbari house. Village continuity, which is important, was established by these Mbari celebrations, as they happened frequently in different villages at different times. A lot have not been made since 1960’s in Rev.Ngozi’s village. Father Okere recommended reading ‘The Igbo’s of SE Nigeria’ by Victor C. Ucheudu. The traditional ruler known as an ‘Eze’, (local government) was instigated during Colonial times, although historically the Igbo’s do not have any Kingdoms – ‘The Igbo have no Kings’ because the Igbo are not a homogenous race and have operated as a democratic society of people, although three states have a sacred ruler. But usually age groups take care of village life (moral, and continuity of ancestors), land being inherited from our own parents.
Cosmologically the market days (4) are very important and times this by 2 to get the week, which is 8 days. One day of rest where the young ones go to older members to help them or have a meeting at the oldest persons' place (community meets to discuss these community matters). The market place used to be central.
At funerals they shoot guns about 21 to 200 shots in the air to signify to the community that this is what has happened – like a bell for people to go to church in UK. However the Christian religion said that they should not use guns, and interpreted this practice as the shots meaning the dead person being taken into the ancestor world, but according to Okere this is not true, it is merely to signify a death in the community – otherwise what would they have done before gunpowder was invented? This is merely for communication to the community to tell them this has happened (much as l imagine the village drum (gong) may have done in the past).
Father Okere this evening talked about the history of the colonial period when Nigeria was split into Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo areas – the former two had natural Eze’s or sheiks/rulers and the Oba (Kings in Yorubaland), but the Igbo were more democratic and did not have rulers, so the British found them not so easy to contend with/control. They managed to tax the men but the women were not so passified and so they rioted in 1929, which was a famous event – the British stayed until 1960, which was when Nigeria got independence from England. After this there followed some expeditions to find out more about the Igbo’s, and these were headed mainly by female anthropologists, such as Margaret Green, Silva, and two others. Then came anthropologist Jones/ Talbot etc. after them. Okere also said that anthropologists were a good way of introducing spying/intelligence information and they were often used by governments in this capacity.
Father Okere appreciates his culture and the more we talk the more l realise how embedded the Mbari is in terms of their identity as well as culture and he can picture his history as a young boy in terms of these experiences. He said he has only moved three times from one place to the other but each has its memories of what he saw and understood. He would make a good ‘living archive’, which would be wonderful for his ‘library’ (Whelan library at the Catholic mission in Owerri), which is nearby – l suggested as much to Amara.
The generator is very loud here at the house – but so are the local church’s loudspeakers! The services go on for sometime, two hours is usual.