“I was cupbearer to the King”. [Nehemiah 1: 10c, NIV]
That is the last sentence in the first Chapter of the Bible book of Nehemiah, describing the central character: Nehemiah. But, make no mistake, just as it was an outlier portion of the last of the 10 verses of the opening chapter of the Book, that verse, it’s connotations, can be only be grasped by paying deep attention to all the things that had been written before it about the man Nehemiah.
Understanding those fore-running words about Nehemiah is the key to understanding why the man turned sadness into a legal tender for reversing a bad situation threatening him with perpetual sadness day and night. Ndi-Igbo and indeed every person who belongs to a community in Nigeria would be best served to study the 9 and three quarter verses before “I was Cup-Bearer to the King” – which alone would be the subject of a key part of this series in due time. (Reason? Because we need cupbearers again among Ndi-Igbo’s leadership and Nigeria. [And before you say ‘God forbid’ or tufiakwa, wait till we get there to learn how to steward sadness])
Five things you learn studying the fore-running verses:
1. Nehemiah knew his surname and history.
The opening sentence of verse 1 of the first Chapter of the Book of Nehemiah is pedestrian on the surface yet profound on second look: “The words of Nehemiah son of Hecaliah”.
It is a statement and a declaration. It introduced the man: yet it was the man taking ownership of his own narrative. Fact: he is the son of a named father: Hecaliah. His father may not be popular but he connected and grounded Hezekiah to a genealogy of people who had lived through and owned generational experiences of varying shades: bad, good, great, blessings and curses. Hecaliah, warts and all, was Nehemiah’s passport to history: a sense of personhood and worldview not limited to the present, the recent past, far-flung past or any segment of the past: bad or sad; noble or great.
Contrary to popular teachings in charismatic circles: one’s background and history matters. It helps to anchor the person. Even Jesus the son of God, when he took on flesh took step to graft himself onto the lineage of discernible men and women.
Instead of liability, a good sense of history and lineage – even if your fathers were thieves – can become an asset to a man set on living nobly and godly. Individuals, especially those on legitimate or seized public platforms who have no healthy sense of their ‘father’ are a danger to themselves and those who follow them. They are the ones who are likely to box themselves into the mindless worship of a segment of history, human personality, platform or event – say 1965-1970 Nigeria, Biafra, PDP, APC, APGA, MASSOB, IPOB, Buhari, Odumegwu Ojukwu, etc.
At the point in which Nehemiah wrote, his nation had been conquered and its sovereignty annexed or subsumed into that of another. Instructively, there can be no doubt that his father lived as an anonymous figure in exile [which could mean sacrificial living, a good thing in historical context if you notice the STRONG character, the remarkable man his son became]. So, it was possible for Nehemiah, out of sadness – genuine or contrived – to begin to describe himself in so many ways that people describe themselves today and no doubt described themselves yesterday.
For instance, he could have said: “Nehemiah, the son of conquered people”; or, “Nehemiah, the son of slaves”; or, Nehemiah, the son of a cursed generation [since they were paying the price of God’s anger for the sins of their fathers principally]; or, Nehemiah, the son of Great People in God ordained hibernation [if he was a vain and bombastic revolutionary set on messianic redemption of his people]. Or even “Nehemiah, the right-hand man of the Greatest King in all the Earth” [using a little tweak on his actual role in the Palace of the greatest King on earth – at the point in time – to great effect]
But, he chose to keep it simple, nuanced yet uncomplicated: “The word of Nehemiah son of Hecaliah”. Saying? My word has integrity needing no further embellishments or affirmations beyond the testimony of my character reinforced by my history and genealogy warts and all. If only there were more sons and daughters among Ndi- Igbo with such a mindset! shaking off reflexively the dubious tags, stereotypes or appellation of others.
Ndi-Igbo has an aphorism that parallels Nehemiah’s introductory statement: “Onye o bula za aha nna ya”. In recent times, it has been misused as to mean: To Vote with one’s feet or play the coward when push comes to shove. But properly transliterated with the mindset of nwadialas-in-council in the days when men were men, it meant: “Line up, Chest up, heads up, hands raised – to redeem the history and the integrity and name of your Fathers from stain whatever it may take from you.
“That surely is worth re-affirming again: men and women able to trade with the currency of their name and their fathers in the council of nations – not for a porridge in dark transaction alleys. We need integrity to return to the idea of “Ndi-Igbo. That’s not been on offer for far too long. Not since the civil war. Not during the years of the military. Not in the PDP years – probably explaining why PDP has now retreated to States associated with Igbos historically or even by residency in large numbers. Not in the rank and file of Oha-Na-Eze Ndi-Igbo or MASSOB or the latest, Kanu’s IPOB.
For far too long, men who would take on any name just to fill their stomach and get their face, if not their voice on policy, leadership and public forums have hijacked the mace and gavels of Igboland.
For far too long, the lust after the elusive thighs of power has corrupted conversation that very few remain who can say their name and that of their fathers and their listeners would pay attention to them as persons connected with Ndi-Igbo. That needs to change.
Is it Ndi-Igbo thing alone? No. Every group and demographic in Nigeria has a need for just that change-pill. But does Ndi-Igbo certainly need it to prevent its heartland which harbours the bones and tombs of their fathers and anchorage of the Igbo language transiting from the land of broken walls, dilapidated infrastructure and voluntarily exiled children (factually or mentally) to a by-word in history: a dinosaur in the Museum? Yes. And the time to act is now
Sam Eleanya, Convener of Obi-na-Obi Ndi-Igbo is a justice sector entrepreneur and facilitator of www.LawNigeria.com, Standards & Enterprise Development Center, Nigerian Constitution Hub, Children and Women Law Center and author, We, The Young People [The Constitution of Nigeria Translated for Schools]