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HomeCommunity‘Igbo philosophy can answer our modern-day questions,’ says Derby’s first Nigerian councillor

‘Igbo philosophy can answer our modern-day questions,’ says Derby’s first Nigerian councillor

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We speak to councillor and poet Ndukwe Onuoha about how he’s using the art, culture and language of Nigeria’s indigenous Igbo people to solve problems in his local community…

Tell me a bit more about yourself and the origins of the Nsibidi Project.

Almost everything goes back to me being a poet in some way or another. I started writing poetry when I was about 13, because I loved reading poetry books at home. After university, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and a friend mentioned that, since I was a poet, copywriting might be a good choice. 16 years later, I’m still a copywriter, and in 2020 I got endorsed by Arts Council England for my work as spoken word poet, and moved to the UK with my family in 2021. In 2023, I got elected as a councillor, so it’s interesting to see how poetry runs through all of that. 

I’m from Abia State in the southeast of Nigeria, which is where the origins of the Igbo people are. Nsibidi is a system of writing that’s indigenous to the Igbo – it’s almost like Egyptian hieroglyphics, and conveys ideas rather than just words with pictures. The Nsibidi Project was set up to promote Igbo culture and heritage because, over time, there’s been some erasure of our history, identity, art and the Igbo language.

What would you say are some of the defining characteristics of Igbo culture?

Sometimes it’s a good characteristic, but sometimes it can be used as a slur: the hustle spirit of ‘never say never’. There’s a joke that, wherever you go on the Earth, if there’s no Igbo person there, then you should run, because it must be bad. [laughs] Igbo are even in Alaska of all places. There’s an Igbo saying, onye kwe, chi ya ekwe, which means if you agree to something, your God does too. It’s that idea of ‘can do’ that defines the Igbo spirit. 

To turn that question on its head, what would you say are things that are overlooked about Igbo culture that you’d like to shed more light on?

It’s not necessarily overlooked, but the difference between the Igbo community in Nigeria and in the UK is that, for lack of a better phrase, I’d say it’s every person for themselves here because the grind is so much. There’s a support system back home where we say that it takes a village to raise a child, so what we want to do is to remind people that, no matter where you are, don’t let the nuances of your new environment rob you of that communal spirit.

“we’re a global village, all coming together to create a beautiful cultural tapestry”

Ndukwe Onuoha, The Nsibidi Project

How do you plan on making a difference through this project?

Right now, we’re self-funding an art exhibition running from 16th March to 20th April at the Small Print Company, where we’re bringing together a few artists to explore the Igbo worldview through art and poetry. The exhibition is titled Ójé Mbà, meaning ‘the traveller’, which comes from the Igbo philosophy ójé mbà enwee iro – ‘the traveller makes no enemies’. 

We’re hoping to get some funds to explore more about how we can take the Igbo philosophy and use it to answer some modern-day questions, such as mental health awareness, especially among men. If we were to replicate a semblance of the group activities that we have back home, that could make it easier for men to sit and talk.

We’re also trying to explore how we can promote physical fitness through traditional Igbo games. There are a lot of fun games that are played in Igbo societies, so if we can get children involved in this, then that’s just another avenue to take on the issue of physical fitness – from a different philosophy, but still reaching towards the same goal. 

What’s your experience connecting with people of Igbo descent who were born and raised here in the UK?

Something that should be known about Nigerian communities is that we try as much as we can to keep that link with home alive. The good thing about the advancement of technology these days is that you don’t need to be in a place to experience that place. When people travel and come over here, they come with those practices. Something as little as being together and reminiscing keeps home fresh in people’s minds. 

How can people support the Nsibidi Project?

Once we’ve put the structure in place, with funding available, we will need volunteers to come and lend their skill sets to us. We have someone who’s already willing to provide Igbo language classes, and we also need people who are storytellers to remind us of some of the folklore we had growing up. We need people who have a deep connection with that culture and who would love to share it.

Let’s use Igbo art as much as we can to engage the local community, to teach as much as we learn, and to give as much as we take. It all ties back, again, to that concept of ‘it takes a village’. We’re not individuals – we’re a global village made up of not just Igbo or Nigerians, but of people with different histories and cultures, all coming together to create a beautiful cultural tapestry.

Follow @thensibidiproject on Instagram to find out more

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