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Apprenticeship: Igbo sense in market place

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IN A world of wolves, a lone sheep would be silly, very stupid, not to know he is prey even if no wolf calls him foe and he owns an art of mind-reading that assures him he is among friends. This was my observation earlier this week when I learnt that the national youth employment agency wants to adopt the Igbo apprenticeship system as a model across country.

I further observed to the colleague who sought my view on the matter that the success or failure of the proposed scheme would largely depend on the drivers and implementers of it knowing the philosophy. This would enable them understand their issue and what makes it work for a given society.

The Igbo apprenticeship system (also known as ‘igba boyi’ or ‘imu ahia’ in social Igbo parlance) is an informal but formal system of mentorship or trainee-and-trainer relationship that borrows directly from Igbo worldview. It is a positive off-shoot of the social trait called ‘Igbo sense’ which, in some parts of Nigeria are regarded with derision but held in awe and glee in some other areas.

It feeds largely from some basic nuggets of the people’s understanding of life after several collective experiences that forced a collective sense of social and economic protection down their throat. It could pass as wisdom but it is more of a smart, practical response to a society that offers indications to a section that their options are very few as they either had to swim or sink.

Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, there is an age-long folktale about Nwaebuleako (the smart, wise lamb). The narrative is about a lone, poor lamb from an indigent home and marginalised quarter who won the mandate from his parents and elder kinsmen to go and represent them in an affluent land of unsparing strangers.

The lamb got the nod of his kins because they were convinced that he was alert, smart and sagacious. The greyed, wise ones of the community put the lamb and some others to several tests and found out that Nwaebuleako was imbued with wit, foresight and deft application of bravery. More so, he takes only one stab or just a sense of it, to know his adversary.

That is why the tale, told mostly to children at night, goes with the repeated refrain: Nwaebuleako, a ga-eme gi one imara one?… (Nwaebuleako, how many times will things happen to you before you learn your lesson?)

To the question, the audience (children) would reply in chorus:

Ofu ugboro! (once).

Adept storytellers, mostly grannies, would repeat the refrain and the children would reply in chorus until it lulls them to sleep.

The main message in the tale is: Be alert, on your guards always and smart, especially, when out of home.

The Igbo people of eastern Nigeria also say that ofu osisi adi adu mmadu n’anya ugboro abuo (a human being will not be blinded by the same twig twice).

Not long ago, and to some extent, among ndi Igbo of current time, these encapsulate the wisdom that pilot the community. Joined to these are the maxims: onye aghana nwanne ya (let no one leave his brother/sister/folk behind); ihe kwulu ihe akwudebe ya (life never allows anything to stand without a companion);

gidi-gidi bu ugwu eze (teaming followership aides the leader’s might and respect), aka weta, aka weta, o ju onu (solution comes in collective contribution) and aku rue uno, o too ato (you consolidate your wealth with investment/treasure at home).

These ideologies that have been with the Igbo people through ages were pushed to the fore more forcefully in contemporary Nigeria. After events in the country’s history within the last 100 years have made them note that given their cultural and political traits which make them naturally republican and too impatient for monarchy, gerontocracy and bureaucracy their fate is in expressing those philosophies in commerce and economic matters.

Nigeria’s pre-independence and early post-independence politics made Igbo note that politics requires a lot of swallowing your opinion and echoing ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’; working as groups just to feather the nest of one so called divinely ordained lord; meeting upon meetings to still arrive at one opinion; supressing one’s business and enterprises to belong to folds that earn paycheques from public till, among other acts that are not in the habit of the Igbo person.

The Igbo person whose natural tendency for freedom of expression and association led his ancestors to resist slavery and suppression even in such foreign lands as The Solomon Islands, Haiti, England and North America, whose grannies resisted colonial gunshots in Aba Women Riot and Enugu Coal Miners Revolt still tried to follow.

They subsumed their creativity which early Europeans in Igbo land and described as outstanding and the avant-garde innovativeness that gave birth to such metal smith guilds as in Awka, Orlu and high art troves as found in Igbo Ukwu to participate in the necessary politics of a new nation.

Killing the unbridled try-your-luck enterprise (ikenga onye na chi ya) that make them Igbo, the people tried to ape the trend of politics that building a newly independent nation requires.

Then, they got their nose bloodied when the Nigerian civil war broke out in July 1967. For three years, the failed Biafra nation which entire Igbo backed was pummelled, destabilised and destroyed. Igbo nearly got exterminated with all their reaches cut or blocked. Upon coming out of the war in January 1970, the people had nothing. They lost the war and were treated as pariah across country.

Left without money, robbed of the little cash and property they had, ndi Igbo had their back clearly set to the wall. There was nowhere to go but to reach inward, exhume the inner mind that make them Igbo, and fight back without the use of physical warfare munitions.

This led to the forceful resurgence of the Igbo mentality of rebuilding the land’s economy from collective cohesion, mentorship and the think-home wealth creation. The young Igbo people that survived the war that killed almost three million spread out to towns across Africa with almost no money but with these their native mindset.

Within one decade there were scores of millionaires in the war ravaged region where only a few years earlier, almost every family was rocked by malnourished young ones suffering from kwashiorkor, beriberi and all manner of hunger and hygiene caused diseases.

Arguably, it was not money that made all the present day millionaires and billionaires that rose from the ashes of the Nigerian civil war because they had none. It was the mindset; call it Igbo sense. But it could better be described as a kind of system-building collective thought pattern enshrined in the Igbo worldview which adversity energises.

Through that ideological mould and the belief that young ones from backwaters can be groomed and nurtured to become great entrepreneurs who would in turn, train and mentor younger ones, the society has sustained an unbroken lineage of successful businessmen and businesses.

The system has become so ingenuous and novel that business schools around the world are now doing a lot of studies on it. The apprenticeship model has become so successful that it has been described as the “the largest business incubation system in the world.”

Popular American television anchor man, Robert Neuwirth (TED Talk) recently visited the Igbo built and operated Alaba International Electronics Market in Lagos to unravel how Igbo people run the largest business inculcation and self-financing hub in the world.  Video of that edition of the TED broadcast has ever since gone viral.

The journalist noted how the Igbo folks in the market run one of the oldest venture capital industries in the world. The TED Talk report underlines how the system thrives on a quiet support system that has “better banks, without CBN wahala.”

“The interesting thing,” Neuwirth noted, “is that this mutual aid economy still exists, and we can find examples of it in the strangest places… (such as) Alaba International Market… the largest electronics market in West Africa. Its 10,000 merchants, they do about four billion dollars of turnover every year. And they say they are ardent apostles of Adam Smith: competition is great, we’re all in it individually, and government doesn’t help us.”

According to Neuwirth, the interesting reality is the behind-the-scenes principle that enables the market to grow, “this market is governed by a sharing principle. Every merchant, when you ask them, “How did you get started in global trade?” they say, “Well, when my master settled me.”

And when I finally got it into my head to ask, “What is this ‘settling?’” it turns out that when you’ve done your apprenticeship with someone you work for, they are required — required — to set you up in business. That means paying your rent for two or three years and giving you a cash infusion so you can go out in the world and start trading. That’s locally generated venture capital. Right?

And I can say with almost certainty that the Igbo apprenticeship system that governs Alaba International Market is the largest business incubator platform in the world.”

The ‘settling’ which raises Neuwirth’s hairs is what many would marvel at in the Igbo apprenticeship system because it will always intrigue people who are not Igbo. But that is a peculiar trait of real Igbo society.

The people live on trust and it is believed that when someone rises in a community, his goes back home to take young ones from among his relations to train them and establish them. From Nnewi, to Ihiala, Ihioma, Agulu, Arochukwu, Ohafia, Orsumenyi et al this trend is alive.

Through such trend of mentoring, entrepreneurs share knowledge and young ones who ordinarily are from indigent homes get funded. This explains why there are clusters and clans of people in specific lines of business who hail from particular towns or neighbouring communities.

However, the tradition of apprenticeship that produced the typical Igbo trader-millionaire is currently being challenged. The trend of paid sales girls an inexplicable fad that the combined oddity of hostile house wives, culture-killing pastors of new-age churches, some shameless masters who renege in settling mentees and especially, the get-rich-quick greed of many young ones are among the rockers of the system but it still thrives in good measure for those who want to study it.

One worry I have with the Igbo apprentice system that is now being touted for adoption by the federal youth employment agency is how the scheme will operate to encompass the spirit behind the original one. It has to be done so. If not, I doubt if it will succeed.

I also worry that the news may just be sloganeering to have an Igbo buzz that may suit Nigerian politics of now. If so, it is not necessary.

One prays the government infusion would not taint or destroy the very native system that thrives on trust and informality or has someone hatched a plan to kill it?  God forbid because such a plot will shake the nation’s economy badly.

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