My father recently sent me a lovely photo of himself and his grand-nephew Tamara-Emo-Emi, which means God is to be Praised in Ijaw. As I’ve mentioned before, my name in Ijaw is Tamara-Emi, which means God is Great or God Is.
My father lives with his nephew and his wife, and now their baby. Tamara-Emo-Emi is such a beautiful child. I get to hear him over the phone sometimes when my father calls and he always sounds so happy. I have to admit that I envy him a bit. He will get a chance to grow up with my father when I did not. But I am very happy for my father because he is surrounded by family and people who love him.
On October 1, 1960, Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain. Today marks Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day. Some Nigerians in Nigeria and in Diaspora will be celebrating. Other will be continuing the debate which has raged long before Nigeria gained independence: Is Nigeria a real state or just a geographical expression created by colonialists? Others will be asking a recent but related question; is Nigeria a failed state?
I can’t answer any of these questions. I’ve never even been to Nigeria. But the country has shaped me because that’s where my father lives and where I long to visit and see him.
My father is older than Nigeria. He’s in his sixties. Nigeria’s only 50.
When I think about my father, his potential, and how things fell apart for him I see parallels with Nigeria, all its potential, and how so much of it has been wasted and has left its citizens, including its youth, so bitter and disappointed. But I like to think that my father has made the best of a bad situation. He is loved by his neighbours, who respect him as an elder and call upon him for advice and to mediate disputes. These people took him to the hospital when he had a stroke two years ago, paid his medical bills, and called upon a traditional Ijaw healer to speed up his recovery. I am grateful to them for all this.
Nigeria is its people, who are diverse and divided. But this is only to be expected in a country with possibly about 514 different languages. Nigerians, even the poorest, like my father’s neighbours, know how to make the best out of bad situations. And I believe, although I am only an outsider, that Nigerians can make the most of the bad situation that is the Federal Republic of Nigeria, despite how badly things have fallen apart.
BBC Nigeria Country Profile available online
Nigeria at 50 BBC News Special Report
How Nigeria Has Affected the Rest of Africa (BBC NEWS article available online)
My father calls me on a weekly basis. He asks me if I am alright, then if my mother is alright. He might share news about the progress of the Ijaw, his ethnic group that is seeking a fair share of Nigeria’s oil wealth. My father is very happy that Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijaw, is now Nigeria’s President. It’s kind of like the equivalent of Barack Obama for the Ijaws. They never thought that an ethnic minority from the Niger Delta could become President. My father is grateful that he lived to see this happen. But more than anything, he wants to see me come to Lagos. He was deported when I was just a baby and has only seen me in pictures since.
My father and I speak German. Often, we end our phone calls with German Farewells. My father says Auf Wiedersehen, which means until we see each other again. I say Auf Wiederhoeren which means until we speak to each other again. This is indicative of my ambivalence about meeting my father in person.
Recently, my father contacted the Nigerian High Commission Employee who helped me find him. He was crying and asking her to convince me to visit Nigeria as soon as possible. She called me and demanded to know why I haven’t been saving up for the last six years to go see my father. I explained that my income has been precarious and I have to support my disabled mother, who really can’t be left alone, particularly since she ended up in the hospital at the beginning of this year. The odds seem to be stacked against me ever seeing my father. At this point in time, I cannot afford to buy a plane ticket to Nigeria. I also don’t know who would take care of my mother is I had to go to Nigeria to see my father. But even if these two huge issues were resolved, I still don’t know if I would go.
I want to visit Nigeria but I am really wary. Actually I’m downright terrified. This isn’t simply the fault of Western media. I can blame books, mostly written by Nigerians, like Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria. I can also blame Nigerians and other Africans for telling me horror stories: I have been told that if I go to Nigeria I might catch malaria, be kidnapped and held for ransom by area boys, be kidnapped and sold into slavery, be robbed and killed, be cursed by evil witches, or become a human sacrifice for cult members. This all seems pretty extreme but considering that I don’t know anyone in Nigeria other than my father who is poor by Nigerian standards, I don’t know anyone with the means to guide or protect me if I travelled there. And this is where the troubles of Nigeria directly affect me. I would feel much safer travelling to other African countries. If my father lived in Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, or Ethiopia I wouldn’t be so afraid because these countries regularly receive Western tourists and their citizens don’t have an international reputation for being liars and inherently corrupt.
But, I would still love to go to Nigeria. Lagos which has a vibrant arts scene. I dream of going to Lagos, seeing my father for the first, and probably last time, and hanging out with musicians, painters, playwrights, poets and novelists while visiting NGOs working on human rights, ecological rehabilitation, and literacy. Nigeria might have a reputation for corruption but it is also one of the most artistically creative nations south of the Sahara. I would love to see this, and be part of this.
The truth is, I think what I fear the most about going to Nigeria is seeing the poverty. I grew up poor by Canadian Urban standards but that doesn’t compare to the poverty my father lives in. I worry about being devastated by guilt. I’m not to blame for my father’s or Nigeria’s poverty. It’s not my fault. But I still can’t get my head around the fact that just because I was born here I have access to so much, clean water, free education, reliable electricity, waste disposal, safe roads, so many things that I take for granted. It’s all so unfair. And if my father had not been deported he would have had access to these things to…and I would have probably gone back to Nigeria long ago, in the company of my father, protected.
If I want to ever see him in person, I need to go soon. I am hardly in a financial situation to go as I support my disabled mother and have no post-secondary education but where there is a will there is a way. If only I could feel safe going and not worry about coming back somehow less than I was when I left. If only I was confident that this would be a positive experience that would not destabilize me but strengthen me.
My Father spoke German. That was one of the very few facts I knew about my father before I actually found him. My mother had told me that he had lived in Germany before coming to Canada and had learned to speak German there.
But my knowledge of my Father’s German proficiency would have an unexpected effect on the trajectory of my own life. In my Grade 10 year, during which I spent mornings attending classes at the now demolished Laurentian High School and afternoons getting visiting teachers because I couldn’t cope with a full day of school because of my overwhelming social anxiety, I decided to do something different, something to engage me intellectually and quench my at that point insatiable thirst for knowledge. I had already attempted taking Philosophy classes which ended up being weird private lessons in theosophy that involved reading the works of the likes of Madame Blavatsky in some European man’s appartment. This would not due.
One day, well scanning the bookshelves at Carlingwood Library, I spotted a poster for German Language Courses. They were offered for free and you could even get high school credits for them, all you had to do was attend classes on Saturday mornings all the way down town at Hopewell Public School. I remembered that my father had spoken German and somehow I felt this was a sign, that I was meant to learn German.
I began at the beginning, a Grade 9 Class for newcomers to German. My teacher was a lovely Austrian woman. We were provided with a textbook which we were free to take home with us. I immediately took a great liking to German. For many people, German is just the language of Nazis and Adolf Hitler, but there was a Germany before the Third Reich. Actually, something like 1 in 4 Americans is of German Ancestry (there was even a possibility that German would have been the official language of the newly independent United States) and at the time of my taking these classes, German was the third most spoken language in Ottawa (now it’s a competition between Chinese-the statistics don’t specify if it is Mandarin or Cantonese-and Arabic). German is also part of my own heritage. My great great mother was German, a Schoeder.
I came to love elements of German Culture as well. I became quite found of Lieder, German songs by composers like Schubert, based on the work of German poets like Goethe. I also developped a fondess for Kurt Weil songs as sung by Ute Lemper. I would never have had the opportunity to develop such obsure tastes had it not been for CBC Radio.
I excelled at German. It made me realize that I was quite gifted at acquiring languages quickly and thoroughly. It gave me a newfound confidence and sense of my own intelligence, something which had been battered down so long during my years of functional illiteracy in elementary school. German also gave me a way out of Laurentian High School. I had been told again and again by teachers and guidance counsellors that I would be better off at a more “academic school” where I would be challenged more intellectually. But to get a transfer out of my home school I would have to be a Music Student (couldn’t read a single note, still can’t), in French Immersion (self-taught French) or be studying an international language that was not offered at my home school-Bingo! Because I had studied German in Grade 10 I was allowed to transfer to Nepean High School for Grade 11 where I could continue my German Studies up to the OAC Level (back when there was Grade 13, boy am I dating myself!).
I had been warned that Nepean High School as very posh and very snobby. I would be Black White Trash in an ocean of silver-spoon-fed WASPs. That was an understatement. The school was something out of a John Hughes film-Think Pretty in Pink! But, the standard of education was amazing. We were being educated to go on to university as that was what all our teachers expected us to do. It was during my first year at Nepean High School that I learned how the socio-economic class of the students who attended a school shaped the standard of education at that school and the expectations teachers had about their students, even before getting to know them. This reality made me very angry. It also compelled me to excel. And this I did, with a vengence.
My first year at Nepean High School I came top of my class in German and went on to win the annual regional German Language Contest and the annual provincial German Language Contest. I was an Academic Star. I even landed a half-page write-up in the City Section of the Ottawa Citizen (a few weeks after my grandmother was convicted and the Citizen Court reporter wrote that my family was one of the most dysfunctional families he had ever written about).
My prize for my win at the provincial level was an all expenses paid 4-week trip to Germany! I had never been anywhere outside of Canada other than Ogdensburg, New York with my grandparents in their RV. I would be flying on a plane! I would be staying away from my mother for 4 whole weeks! I had never done this before unless she was in the hospital, at which time I would stay with my grandparents. No grandparents this time-just total strangers in a strange land.
Needless to say, my trip to Germany was a life-changing experience. My mother was not happy to see me leave and actually wanted me to cancel the trip but I went without her blessing. My time in Germany really helped me gain confidence as an individual without my mother (who at that time was my one and only friend) and helped me overcome my social anxiety. I got to meet other teenagers from across Canada (BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) and from around the world (Uganda, Kenya, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Slovakia, Mauritius). We travelled all across Germany, visiting cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, and of course Berlin.
I knew that my father had lived for some time in Munich, which was the last city we stayed in before we returned to Canada. This seemed fitting. I wandered the streets of Munich thinking that I was looking at the same buildings my father had seen, maybe even walking down some of the same streets my father had walked down.
When I finally found my father I would learned that he had lived in Munich while building the Olympic Tower (Olympia Turm) for the 1972 Munich Olympics. This was the first Summer Olympics held in Germany since the infamous 1936 Olympics that had been held under the watchful eye of the Fuhrer (which means leader by the way). The Germans were eager to paint themselves in a more positive light, to show the whole world that they had overcome their Nazi past and were happy, hopeful and open to diversity. This included a Cultural Olympics that showcased artistic talent from around the world, including Nigeria.
Nigerian composer Akin Euba premiered his piece Dirges at the University of Ife Theatre at the 1972 Olympics. This piece is a unique synthesis of African and Western musical influences. Euba also studied Lieder. In his essay “Text Setting in African Composition“, Euba writes:
The strength of German Lieder (art songs) in the nineteenth century rested partly on the gifts of the poets who provided composers with the texts that they set to music. It occurred to me early in my composition career (in the mid 1960s) that African composers might equally look to African poets for the texts of their songs.
One of Euba’s earliest settings was of a poem by J. P. Clark, “Abiku”, first as a dance-drama then as a song with a three-part chorus with five Nigerian instruments.
But the showcasing of African Classical music on an international stage is not the sort of thing most people remember about the 1972 Munich Olympics. What most people remember is the Israeli Olympic team being held hostage and then massacred by terrorists. This event is the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. My father was actually present in the Olympic Village when this all went down.
Learning German provided me with countless opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. But I never would have considered learning the language if I had not had this strange attraction to it because of my association with it and my father.
Growing up, I thought I was like most of my friends and neighbours, a child of a single parent, whose father was off somewhere, not at all interested in being involved in my life. Fathers were rare figures in my community. Fathers were not considered very important in the world of my childhood.
However, I was aware that if it had not been for my father, I would not be Black. My skin was a constant reminder of his existence.
I think most children who grow up without their fathers are often curious to learn something about these mystery men. I began asking my mother about my father around the age of three. I was told that my father came from Africa, had been a bad man who cheated on my mother, didn’t want me because I was a girl and he had wanted a boy because he came from a sexist culture, was lazy and didn’t work. My mother had left him because of his laziness and cheating and he had eventually been deported while I was still an infant. I also learned that he had tried to commit suicide and had threatened to kill me before being deported. So, basically, I was told that my father was something of a loser and it was best that he was out of my life.
I think my mother had hoped that this would nip any further interest in learning about my father in the bud; it didn’t. I also think she felt that if I thought my father was a loser, I would not feel that I had lost anything by not knowing him. She was wrong about this as well. Knowing at such an early age that my father had been a bad person while at the same time drawing my own conclusions that my mother’s family was abusive and dysfunctional and my mother was powerless to protect me from it, I grew up feeling that I was doomed to be a basket-case and a failure because I was genetically-loaded for this fate on both sides.
As I grew older, I asked more questions and my mother was able to provide me with more details about my father. I learned that he was from a country in Africa called Nigeria. I learned that he was studying languages, such as German and Spanish, at Carleton University and had been supported to do so by the German Lutheran Church on Preston Street. I learned that he had worked for a pizzeria while my parents were together. I learned that my father’s brother had also lived in Ottawa and had children here. I learned that his last name was Oniyemofe and that the name I had been given by my father when I was born was Tamara-Emi. The only possessions of my father I had were a red long-tooth comb and an Intermediate Spanish Text book with his name written inside the cover. My mother had destroyed all her pictures of him. Or so she thought. When I was eight years old, while playing with an old typewriter at my grandmother’s home in Aylmer, I discovered a Polaroid of my father that had been taken in Nigeria stuffed in the back of the typewriter, underneath the keys. My mother had no memory of putting it there.
As I learned more about Nigeria, most significantly from reading a memoir by Adewale Maja-Pearce, a man who also had a White mother and Nigerian father, I wanted to learn what ethnic group my father came from. My mother could not help me with this one. She recommended that I contact the Nigerian High Commission. However, at this time, relations between Canada and Nigeria had deteriorated over the planned execution of Ogoni Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and going to make inquiries at the Nigerian High Commission didn’t seem that easy a task.
A few years later, I was walking down Metcalfe Street and realized that I had passed the Nigerian High Commission. I didn’t immediately go in but instead decided to call and make inquiries about the ethnic origin of the name Oniyemofe. After being passed to several people, I eventually spoke with a Cultural Attaché who informed me that the name was of Yoruba origin. But he also told me that the name sounded familiar and that I should come to the High Commission to discuss this further. I went to the High Commission and met with the Cultural Attaché who introduced me to another High Commission Staff Member , Mrs. Abiola Agoro, who said that she had known my uncle. She told me that he and his family had moved to Britain and that he now worked for the Nigerian High Commission in London. She said that she would make inquiries and try to relay a message to him that I was looking for my father. She asked for my contact information so that she could get in touch with me if she had any news. She also told me that “My father was all over my face.” I wasn’t sure what this meant but I guess she was simply making the observation that many other Nigerians have made subsequently that I have very strong West African facial features despite being of mixed race.
Mrs. Agoro kept to her word and a few months later she called me at home to relay the disappointing news that my uncle had passed away and that no one could get in touch with his widow or children. I thanked Mrs. Agoro and left that the search was at an end. At least I now knew I was of Yoruba descent, which was great news as the Yoruba have a rich history and religious traditions both in West African and the diaspora in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.
When I discovered Google, I decided to search the name Oniyemofe just for fun. I came upon the name Agnes Oniyemofe who lived in Britain. I wondered if this could be a relation of my uncle who had worked for the Nigerian High Commission in Britain. I called the operator in the UK and asked to look up the name Agnes Oniyemofe but I was told that no phone numbers were registered under that name. Another dead-end.
While I was a University Student at Carleton, I ran into a Nigerian who said that he would help me find my father. He said he had worked with a man who had spent a lot of time in Ottawa around the same time as my father and might have known him. I kept in touch with this man for a few years, but after I converted to Islam tensions arose as he wanted me to become a Christian and seemed to be romantically interested in me. I subsequently cut off all contact with him.
In early 2003, I received a phone call from Mrs. Agoro, who I had kept in touch which in an effort to learn more about the Nigerian community in Ottawa. He told me that she had a guest staying with her named Labi who knew my father and that I should come over and meet him. It ended up that this man was the same man who the Nigerian man I had met at Carleton University had worked with. Labi told me that he had last seen my father ten years ago in Lagos. He had been working as a security guard at a bank there. Labi, who worked as a petroleum engineer, was planning to go back to Nigeria soon and promised to make inquiries about my father. He took my contact information, including my e-mail, and a photograph of me.
Later that year, while I was going through a very troubling time personally, I received an e-mail from Labi while he was in Lagos. He told me that he had went to the bank where he had seen my father 10 years earlier and had learned that my father no longer worked there. Another dead-end. Or so it seemed. A few days later, Labi e-mailed me to tell me that someone who worked at the bank often ran into my father in the city and would try to contact him. A few days after this, I received an e-mail from Labi saying that he had found my father and was planning to meet him.
The next day, I received my first e-mail from my father:
Dear Daughter, this is the first time i’m calling someone my Daughter.I’m an Ijaw man one of the most powerful tribes in ngeria and oil producing area .in Ijaw language your name is Tamara–Emi which means there is God and really there is God.it is only God that has made it possible for us to meet again in this world. I want you to come to nigeria very soon to know your origin ‘cos you have an interesting origin.
Like father like daughter.i speak up to fourteen languages . ijaw, english, french, german, italian, spanish, yoruba, hausa, igbo, urobo, benin, calabar, idoma and arabic. i’m a security guard earning a very small salary.
I had found my father.
It is, of course, a matter of some debate whether I truly am the First Arogbo Ijaw Canadian of mixed heritage. My father is convinced of this fact. Actually, he considers the siring of the first “half-White” Arobgo Ijaw Canadian to be one, if not the, greatest accomplishment of his life.
I have written earlier about the Ijaw concept of destiny or fate. I wonder if in some way my father tried to defy his destiny by coming to Canada and so, although granted his wish of having a half-White child, something he had dreamed of doing since he was nine years old and had seen his first White man, a Lutheran missionary, he was not allowed to stay here. The circumstances of my father’s deportation and my subsequent disconnection from him seem to be the stuff of Ijaw tragedy.
But I was not only conceived by one person. There is also my mother and her fate.
You see, just as if I was to be born to my father I was destined to be half-White, if I was to be born to my mother I was destined to be half-Black.
My mother only dated Black men since she was a teenager. She felt safer with Black men, due to the abuse she experienced in her home and in early relationships with White men, she had come to fear them. But Black people, Black men in particular, had always struck her as “safe” and kind. I think she watched too many Sidney Poitier movies growing up. I wonder how many mixed race folks owe their existence to the aura of Sidney Poitier?
My mother had grown up watching Black people on television-dignified and great men like Poitier and Martin Luther King, Jr. She first met Black people in the flesh during a trip to Windsor, Ontario, when she was about eight. She had wandered away from her mother and found herself in front of a Black Baptist Church. She heard the singing of the choir and was drawn in. She thought this church was far more entertaining than the ones in Alymer, Quebec. The congregation welcomed her and she felt the warmth of their community. My grandmother eventually found her and was furious. I believe from that moment, I was destined to be my mother’s daughter.
But I must say, I have been a disappointment. I have never exuded the level of warmth my mother expected to radiate from me due to my African heritage. My mother made the mistake of confusing culture with genetics. She expected that African American Gospel Culture would run in my veins. From an early age my mother was horrified in my taste in music. Although she was raising me on the rhythms of Motown, as a child I prefered the angst ridden lyrics of pasty, emaciated White boys like Morrissey (Note: If your child is listening to Morrissey before the age of 15 you really should seek out medical help). When I turned 11 I got into Nirvana and the whole Grunge Movement. In my teens, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was my favourite album. This was not what my mother had hoped for.
And in the end, my father was not what my mother had hoped for either. He was no Sidney Poitier. He couldn’t save her in all the ways she wanted to be saved (If she had been really paying attention to the words they were singing in the Baptist Church she would have known that only Jesus could do this). I believe this disappointment was one of the many reasons why she decided to revoke her sponsorship of my father, inevitably leading to his deportation. She would later regret this and tried to say that she wanted to sponsor him again but she kept changing her mind each time she had a falling out with him and so the courts didn’t believe her.
So in the end, neither of my parents really got what they wanted but their longing led to my creation. I was destined to have them as my parents.
When I was born the name on my birth certificate wasn’t name I have now. My father’s last name was Oniyemofe. When I was 5 years old, after my parents’ divorce and my father’s deportation, I was issued a new birth certificate with a new name, my mother’s.
My mother’s divorce documents as well as an intermediate Spanish textbook had my father’s name, Oniyemofe, on them so I was always aware that this name had once been mine.
As I grew older and learned more about Nigeria I became curious to know what ethnic group my father came from. I realized that the name Oniyemofe (which I had grown up pronouncing as O-nee-ya-moff but I would later learn should be pronouced as O-nee-yay-mo-fay) was the key to answering this question. So, I ask any Nigerian I ran into what the meaning of Oniyemofe was.
The first Nigerians I met in Ottawa were all Yoruba. This was a good thing as it ended up that Oniyemofe was a Yoruba name. However, finding out that my father was most likely as Yoruba if his last name was Oniyemofe just ended up leading to more questions…this time posed by the Yoruba themselves. You see Oniyemofe is not a real Yoruba family name. It is actually a sentence. I remember one Yoruba remarked accusatorily that Oniyemofe was a name created in order to sound like my family was royalty. I had to explain that as I had no real memory of my father and no contact with him or his family it obviously followed that I had absolutely no knowledge of the Yoruba language and therefore would not be able to fabricate a royal sounding Yoruba family name if my life depended on it.
The strangeness of the name Oniyemofe is what eventually led to me being able to find my father. The only Oniyemofes in the world are my father’s relatives. When I went to the Nigerian High Commission in my mid-twenties in order to see if I could find any documents relating to my father there the staff immediately recognized the name. It ends up my uncle Simeon was a career diplomat and so many other Nigerian diplomats knew of him and remembered this name. To make a very long story short, any Nigerians who had met an Oniyemofe remembered as it is such a peculiar name and eventually I was led to my father.
It ended up that my father wasn’t Yoruba at all although he did grow up in the predominantly Yoruba state of Ondo. But his family was from the Arogbo Ijaw community. So why does he have a Yoruba last name?
It ends up that my great grandmother was Yoruba. She was purchased by my great great grandfather as a slave when she was still a small child. She was inherited by my grandfather and became his concubine. One of her sons, my grandfather, used to be called Oniyemofe by her as a pet name. Oniyemofe means “The person I love” in the Ijebu Yoruba dialect. Eventually, when my grandfather was an adult he helped his mother trace her origins to the Yoruba town of Imakun near Ijebu-Ode. My grandfather chose to take the name Oniyemofe as his family name out of the love and respect he had for his mother.
And that is the story of the name Oniyemofe.
A few months ago, my father took the body of his elder brother back to the village of Arogbo in Ondo State, Nigeria to be buried. When my father dies, he too will return to Arogbo to be laid to rest. I wonder if my father hopes that I also would wish to be buried there. My father tells me that the people of Arogbo are my people.
A few years ago, when my father tried to convince me to visit him in Nigeria, the people of Arogbo built me a hut and a canoe in expectation of my return. The idea was that I would be returning to Arogbo because this was the place I always belonged, even if I had never been there before in my life. I can’t use a canoe to save my life. Here in Canada, canoeing is actually a very popular pastime. But as a child I was too poor to go to camp and learn to canoe. The canoe was an invention of the indigenous peoples of this land. Canoes were used by early European explorers in order to navigate the vast territory that is now called Canada, a word that means village in Iroquois. Canada became the property of kings and queens thousands of nautical miles away who would never stoop to sit in a canoe. The Ijaws have a reputation for being experts at navigating the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta with their canoes.
My father’s people have a close relationship with this landscape. The pollution caused by oil drilling in the region has destroyed the livilihood of many of my father’s people, as well as sending toxins into the drinking water which have resulted in an increase in cases of cancer and other maladies.
It was only when I found my father that I learned of the Ijaws. I’ve spent the majority of my life not knowing that such an ethnic group even existed. So what can my relationship to them possibly be? When I learned that my father was an Ijaw I immediately tried to get my hands on anything written about them. I was lucky to find Alagoa’s “A History of the Niger Delta” which really should be called the history of the Ijaw because it gives detailed chronologies of each Ijaw sub-group in the Niger Delta region.
It was from this book that I learned that the Ijaw were broken down into sub-groups. I asked my father which sub-group he belonged to and he said we were Arogbo. Of course, “we” were Arogbo, not just him. Arogbo roughly translated means canoe-maker’s camp in Ijaw (aru-canoe, obgo-forest). The Arogbo are further divided into three groups. My father belongs to the group Erubiri, from which the Agadagba, the king of the Arogbo, is chosen.
The following passages are taken from “A History of the Niger Delta: An Historical Interpretation of Ijo Oral Tradition” by Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, Onyoma Research Publications 2005.
Arogbo lies in the middle of trade routes traversing this part of the Niger Delta. Accordingly, it is the only Ijo sub-group for which direct references can be found or inferred in the European records. It also had contacts with the Ijebu (Yoruba) traders in the delta to the west and with Itsekiri on the Benin River to the east. This history of varied contacts is shown now in the bilingualism of the Arogbo (in Ijo and Yoruba). They have retained their Ijo dialect and cultures intact because of their delta location south of the Apoi (another Ijo sub-group), and because of their Egbema Ijo neighbours to the south-east. In addition, Arogbo traditions are in the mainstream of Ijo traditions of origin and migration from the Central to the Western delta.p. 32
Perebienmo who led the Arogbo out of the Central Delta is said to have been the son of a previous pere (The religious head of an Ijo sub-group serving its national god as High Priest) Ogbonu, but his authority was largely based on the fact that he was priest of the gods Egbesu (The Ijo God of War and Retribution)… The connection with Egbesu is specially preserved in the coronation of the Agadagba of Arogbo. The ceremonies are rounded off at the shrine of Egbesu. He is told that he derives his power from Egbesu and must serve Egbesu. And finally, that he must pray daily at the shrine for the welfare of all three quarters of Arogbo-Aguobiri, Egbesubiri, and Erubiri. p. 33
The sense of unity and continuity is again evident in the position of Agadagba of Egbesu, the priest/king of the Arogbo. In the coronation, it is the head of Egbesubiri who shows the pere elect from Erubiri to the people, and it is the head of Aguobiri who marks him with the chalk of office. The traditional regalia too show little influence from outside: a staff of multiple iron bells, and armband made of leopard’s teeth (the animal sacred to Egbesu) and coral beads, an eagle feather, and a crown made of beads. Arogbo traditions claim a trading area extending westwards to Lagos and eastwards to the Itsekiri country. Slaves were mentioned as a prime article of sale, and piracy is implied as a means of procuring slaves. These claims seem supported by early nineteenth-century accounts of trade in this portion of the Niger Delta. The Ijebu slave, Osifekunde, had been captured by Ijo pirates, who could have been Arogbo, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Osifekunde had been following Ijebu trade routes in the delta covering the same area claimed by the Arogbo…p. 34
A second early nineteen-century source identifies Arogbo even more specifically. One of Koelle’s slave informants at Freetown (Sierra Leone) on African languages was Okoro who supplied a word list of Edso (clearly Ijo). This Ijo dialect has been identified as Arogbo; and Okoro belonged to the Egbesubiri ward of Arogbo. He had known Ijebu and had been sold into slavery at the Itsekiri port of Bobi on the Benin River. (FGH: He had been convicted of adultery and sold by his fellow Ijaw). The goods listed by the Arogbo as traded by their ancestors are similar to lists in early European accounts of the Benin River. They included slaves, carvings, ivory and birds such as parrots……p. 35
There are still in Arogbo several relics of the trans-Atlantic trade, including old cannon, and collections of porcelain and china ornaments. And when in 1885, the British came to erect posts of sanctuary for slaves in this part of the delta, Arogbo was one of the places chosen. The Arogbo date the planting of this okpo, or freedom pole, in the reign of Aga (circa 1885). p.36
How am I supposed to react to that? What responsibility do I carry for this? What degree of guilt should I feel?
You might say that I’m making too much of a big deal out of this. So, my ancestors sold slaves. Also, my ancestors were enslaved too by rival African ethnic groups. There is evidence of Ijaws in places like Cuba and Guyana. My ancestors didn’t really benefit from the trade. Just look at the sorry state of the Ijaw today! Africa is so incredibly underdeveloped. White people made all the real profits. This is true but I do have one privilege that the descendants of the Africans my ancestors sold don’t have: I know my origins.
African Americans are paying thousands of dollars to have their maternal DNA tested in the hopes of tracing just where their ancestors might have originated from in Africa. One of the most serious traumas caused by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the breaking of kinship ties. People no longer know their origins. Even if I don’t know what it means to me to be Ijaw, I know that I am part Ijaw. My father is from Arogbo and he is of the Erubiri. Whether I want to or not, I can choose to go home again and be buried in the soil with the bones of my ancestors.