Published On: Sat, Jul 23rd, 2016

The Demolition Of Mbari Shrine – By Onwuasoanya FCC Jones


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Mbari Shrine

Mbari Shrine

A people are mostly known not just by the name they are given, but by the history of that name, and the culture they uphold. How did the Igbos become Igbos? This question cannot be answered without a good understanding of the traditions and cultures of the Igbo people. It is not just about the history we read, but about the practices, the religion, the totems and the art that are Igbo. Mbari is central to understanding the Igbo identity, industry, religion, education and creativity.
I was about writing something else for the week, before my phone beeped and it was a message from a good friend and one of the finest voices on radio, Maximus Agbaegbu who reminded me of the tragedy that the Governor of Imo State has meted on our culture, history and even future. I knew of this, but hadn’t gathered enough facts to write about it.of late, I have begun to deliberately ignore news about our Governor and his curious policies and programs. But the new about Mbari demolition was too strong for me to really think about, as I never believed it could happen. As much as I do not like Governor Okorocha’s leadership styles, I still had my doubts that he could actually order his bulldozers to destroy the Mbari Shrine. I know he demolished some shops within the Mbari Cultural Center, but didn’t know and could hardly believe that the Governor would destroy one of the most sensitive totems of the Igbo.
The morning after my chat with Maximus, I had to drive down to Mbari Cultural Center, the building that houses the Imo State Council for Arts and Culture. True to Maximus’ report, the Mbari shrine has been reduced to rubbles and all the totems and murals distorted. One thing that immediately flashed to my mind is: “He who the gods want to kill, they first make mad”. This is not in anyway upholding or even expressing the belief that the gods drawn and sculpted at Mbari have any capacity to visit those who destroyed them with anger, but in amazement that anyone in his right mind could destroy history.
One of Africa’s best writers, Chinua Achebe was one of those at the forefront of promoting the Mbari heritage of the Igbos and by extension Africans. He was one of the pioneer members of the Mbari Club and is credited with suggesting the name Mbari at the formation of the club, because of Mbari’s concept of creation. The Mbari Club which was founded by an expatriate, Ulli Beier, played a fundamental role in honing the literary skills and talents of great some of those who eventually turned out to be some of the world’s greatest and most celebrated artistes, including the Nobel Laurette, Wole Soyinka. The afro-music pioneer and activist also had his debut as a bandleader in the makeshift Arts Center situated in a market place, where the Mbari Club members used as their meeting place and rehearsal ground.
Mbari is one of the biggest cultural exports of the Igbo people. it had so much impact in the literary and general artistic life of Nigeria, especially the Yoruba, that they had to yorubanize or adapt the name in a Yoruba form, when a group of Yoruba literati founded a new group which they called, Mbari Mbayo. Even thoug this new name has a meaning in Yoruba language, there is no argument that its coining was inspired by the original Mbari name, which has lots of significance to every Igbo person, especially, those of Owerri part of Igboland.
I cannot sincerely put my brain to any reason that could have led my Governor to destroy this very important museum of Igbo Culture. If it is in extension of his vendetta to against the Owerri people, then, it is not only misplaced, but also puerile. It is certainly not for road expansion which is the reason he has given for demolishing many structures across Owerri, because the shrine is built far away from where any road can get to. If it is because my Governor wants to build a fresh Mbari shrine anywhere else, then, it is also needless.
At a time when the Governor and those in his government are singing about making Imo a tourism and hospitality hub, I do not know if there is anything that attracts tourists more than historical artifacts, like the one the Mbari shrine represented. What better thing could have attracted people from across the world than a museum that many students of visual arts across the world must come in contact with in the course of their studies?
No country develops by destroying its history and artefacts. Some of the most enlightened countries in the world, have kept their artefacts and preserved their historically relevant sites for millennia and these have in turn become major sources of revenue for such countries.
The Mbari shrine could have been to the Igbos and indeed Imo State, what the Diorama Bethlehem is to Switzerland. The Diorama Bethlehem is noted as one of the world’s largest nativity displays, boasting of about 450 hand carved figures. Also attractive to tourists is the giant circular painting called the Panorama Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The Mbari which is originally constructed with mud, sculptural representations of different animals and gods of the Igbo pantheon are fully represented. Among these sculptures are; the Nguma, which the Igbo traditional religion sees as the Chief Secuirty officer of the god, Amadioha. Tigers, snakes, water mermaids, gongs and other sculptures and murals deemed significant to the worship of the earth god, Ala, are well represented.
It could not also be that our Governor was being protective of the Christian faith, because the Mbari shrine does not stand in the way of anybody’s Christian faith. No one goes to that Mbari to pour libations, neither is there any Dibia invoking Amadioha from that shrine. The shrine was simply a historical monument to celebrate and of course project the rich Igbo culture and artistry.
Some of the world’s most Christian countries retain some artefacts and monuments that they know are relevant to their history as a people and those that have potentials to attract tourists to their countries. For instance, in the same Jerusalem, where Christians prefer as their destination for spiritual pilgrimages, lies the third most important Muslim place of prayer, called the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Also in that same Israel, we find the most important place of worship for the adherents of the Bahai faith. Located in Acre, Israel, this site is believed to house the tomb of the founder of the Bah’ai faith, Baha’Allah, hence it has turned to a big tourist site for the adherents of this faith. Those who may come up to defend Governor Okorocha’s demolition of this very important artefact cannot tell me that some of these tourists centers scattered across the world do not stand in the way of building more roads. What a reasonable government that thinks of the future of its citizens would do is to design such roads in such a way that such important sites do not have to be pulled down.
No matter what is eventually written or said in defense of this rape on a peoples’ cultural heritage and pride, it will go down in history that a certain Governor meted one of the worst injustices and insults to indigenous arts of not just the Igbo people, but the entire Africa. The demolition of Mbari is one of the greatest tragedies that have befallen the arts sector.
I do not want to hear the excuse of a certain Bongo Center, as a replacement for the Mbari Cultural Center. I am one of those who believe that the building of that Bongo Center by the Rochas Okorocha administration is one of the evidences of waste that have come to define this government. The land space housing the Mbari Cultural Center can comfortably contain whatever the Governor wanted to build as a Bong Center, but the Governor rather chose to build that somewhere else and is now talking of relocating the entire cultural center to that place, while no serious plan is in place on what will become of the original Cultural Center.
I join thousands of arts lovers and practitioners across Nigeria and Africa to call on the Governor of Imo State, to stop the massive onslaught against the development of the arts. At a time, when everybody is talking of looking for alternative means of generating revenue, especially as oil prices continue its slump, arts and the entire creative industry are veritable alternatives for any government that is really desirous of tapping into it.

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