In Conversation With: Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Ọpata
Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Ọpata is a 76-year-old traditionalist, as well as a retired Professor of English and Literary Studies in the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Writing about him in the book “Coloniality of Knowledge in Africa: Essays in Honour of Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Ọpata”, Professor Chielozona Eze, a Professor of Africana Studies Northeastern Illinois University said, “Professor Damian Opata is one of Africa’s homegrown theorists who remind us of the structures of European theories about Africa. He alerted us in his own unique way that what the European colonizers foisted on Africans is only the European view of the world… Professor Opata is a theorist of coloniality.”
In this interview, Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Ọpata offers his in-depth insight of the Igbo Traditional Religion (and by extension, the generic African Traditional Religion); and culture as a practitioner himself, and as an intellectual who never viewed his people and his existence from the lens offered by the colonial master. We talk about what it means to give as an Igbo man, and perhaps by extension as an African traditionalist, and how African philanthropy differs from the Western forms of giving that we still closely attribute to the umbrella term ‘philanthropy’.
Ugochukwu Anadi: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term philanthropy?
Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Ọpata: Philanthropy is the act of free will donation. It especially involves rich individuals donating for the welfare of the society. To me, there are three conditions for such: the presence of wealth and being in a position to give; having a cause to give to and; having something to benefit from it. It may be spiritual or physical.
Q: How do you see philanthropy as it is being practiced today, especially when it involves the West helping the so-called poor African countries?
A: Is the West really helping any country? I doubt. It is normally said that there is no free lunch. I doubt if the West helping us in terms of their donations can be considered help. Well, it is help in a certain sense. If I need money and I borrow it from a money lender, it is help to me. It doesn’t matter if I am to pay back with an interest or not. The fact that I was able to get the money from the lender and solve my problem can be considered helpful or an intervention. But that philanthropy has its own consequences. It is not altruistic philanthropy. It is given with an intention of benefiting the donor. They call it philanthropy but it is some type of business investment. They give it to take something out of the receiving countries. It doesn’t necessarily need to be material resources; it can just be by giving conditions for the use of the money given. I don’t know whether we can really call that philanthropy.
Q: So you think that there is a hidden agenda to Philanthropy of the West?
A: Most of them have hidden agenda. Generally, humans have hidden agenda as it concerns giving. For example, when politicians give you money, they expect allegiance from you. So, most times, when people give, they expect something in return. It may be something material, or something like social recognition and image enhancement, or even Divine blessings. Like I said earlier, there is no free lunch.
Q: What does philanthropy mean to the ancient Igbo man?
A: I can’t call the ancient man’s idea of community help philanthropy. We must always be concerned about how we translate ourselves. The closest thing to philanthropy as we see it today in the traditional Igbo land is better translated as Individual/Community Self-Help. The Igbo man understands that no individual is sufficient onto himself. If a person is in need, the other members of the community rally round to help them. Each person gives as much as they can afford. Skilled people offer their services for free. And tomorrow the helped may become the helper, while the donor may be donated to. Anyone can be in need at any time.
During the war [the Nigeria-Biafra war], I was having a discussion with my grandmother whose picture you see over there [points a picture hanging on the wall]. I can’t remember what we were discussing but I remember that she closed her right palm, forming a fist and said to me: Demy, if any person has closed fists, nothing enters the palms, but if it is open, something can enter.
To the ancient Igbo man, giving is a way of inviting benevolence to oneself. That is not to say that our ancestors had a contractual sense of giving. No, it was viewed in terms of complementarity. This notion of complementarity is epitomized in Isusu. In the Isusu system, a group of people come together to contribute a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, usually a year. At the end of the year, whatever is realized is given to one person and like that it rotates getting to all the contributing members. It is a way of people coming together to help one another. You must also note that our ancestors never viewed giving as something only the rich can do. The poor palmwine tapper can offer a gourd of palmwine. Everybody has something to offer.
Q: Did the ancient Igbo man view giving as something spiritual?
A: Yes. The ancient Igbo man believes that God helps not only those who help themselves but also those who help others. In fact, the ancient Igbo man believes that God helps those who like strive to be more of the giver rather than the receiver.
Q: What do you think is different about how the ancient Igbo man and the contemporary Igbo person view giving?
A: As a young man, I once travelled to my village and my dad said to me, “Demy, o nwere ụtụ akara ma kenye m ego ole ekenyere ndị ọgaranya. E jighị m ego mana ebe ọbụ n’obodo ahụtaghị m dịka ogbenye, aga a m atụ ya.” So, you see, levies were needed for a community project and everyone was levied based on the community’s perception of each person’s financial status. My dad who was not rich was perceived rich and was levied the same amount as was the rich. He said: “since the community doesn’t see me as poor, I will pay.” That is one striking difference between our ancestors and those of our time. We always want to receive and receive, but never give. Sometimes, we are ready to go to all lengths to evade our legal tax.
In the olden days, you give to the poor without expecting anything in return. It is an affirmation of your nobility. But if you give to someone who is not well to do and expect the person to become subservient to you, the person will tell you to come and collect what you’d given him. We had this very poor but gifted orator then from my maternal side. It was a common saying that no matter what you give Osholo, Osholo will still say his mind. You may give him lots of things expecting him to speak in your favor as a mediating orator, but he will always say things as he sees them.
It is different from the dependency syndrome we have today. Today giving-receiving implies a master-servant relationship. Giving now connotes a formal sense of dependence, not only in our daily life, but in how Africa relates to the West. Dependency and dominance are major parts in the contemporary philanthropy of the West. They give to dominate. They give to decide your policies for you and this is why we must avoid their aids as much as we can.
Q: But we accept these aids because we have real needs for them. Was the ancient Igbo man able to sustain without such aids?
A: Of course they did! Our ancestors never had much interaction with the West and so didn’t rely on them. Our ancestors had a great sense of self-worth. In fact, you can even say an arrogant sense of self-worth. During the war, in spite of the hardships and hunger, the statement, “e si m be gị ala be m?” was popular. It’s like saying I do not have food but I have my own house; I cannot be going through yours to mine so as to be fed. That sense of independence was strong then. Now, Western Capitalism has destroyed it and people now fall prey to all manners of giving.
Our ancestors looked inward to solve our problems. They only go to their neighbors when they couldn’t solve the problem themselves and they do not go to the table as beggars. They come as equals – partners. So that if the Akwaete people are going to the blacksmiths of Awka to get farming implements, they are going with their handwoven Akwaete clothings. In that setting, no one is indebted to the other’s benevolence.
Q: What advice do you have for the contemporary Igbo person as he does his philanthropy?
A: Give for the sake of giving. Give because you have. Give because you can give. Give because benevolence is noble. Give without expecting anything in return. Don’t keep records of those you help. That also includes the records we now keep during funerals so as to know who donated money and how much so as to know how to contribute during the person’s difficult time. That is not needed. Does it mean we cannot help strangers?
Help to help- not to massage your ego. Not to demean the dignity of the helped. You should never reduce people to worthlessness because you are gifting them money. Do not give just to show off. Do not give to dominate.