While the day of the ceremony is important and memorable, the preceding periods of preparation are just as enlightening and vital. Traditionally in Igbo land, on the night before this public event, the young girls (the celebrants) would gather to learn private lessons of life from older women. In this gathering, young ladies learn personal grooming, among other values. Their hair would be plaited and their body polished with ufie (red cam wood) and adorned with uli designs. Songs, storytelling, and dancing would permeate the night. Mothers would layout the facts of life and what it meant to be beautiful.
On the day of the festivities, mothers would cook and send the young girls off for a day of fun at the designated Village Square. Here, the girls would dance, wrestle, trade tips, share meals, and simply have a great time. Meanwhile, eligible bachelors would watch from the periphery. At the end of the day, the initiates would head home. Soon after, marriage would be in order.
It is heartbreaking to say that most of this tradition is almost destroyed by colonialism and misunderstanding of the role of Christianity in our society. However, the members of my Igbo organization, Otu Umunne Cultural Organization, feel compelled to preserve this element of our culture. Therefore, Otu Umunne has adapted these rituals into a ceremony to enable our Igbo-American children to experience this element of Igbo history and culture. With our extended families spread throughout the country and the world, the coming of age celebration is also an opportunity for families, friends and the community to reunite and spend time together. We are very proud to have had been involved in this celebration and plan to be actively involved in many celebrations in the years ahead.
On the night before this year's “Coming of Age” initiation, the male initiates spent the night with the Otu Umunne fathers at a designated location, while the female initiates did the same with the Otu Umunne mothers at a chosen place. The young people learned through empowerment instead of through fear what the Igbo community would expect from them, which includes teamwork, leadership, values, and responsibilities. They understand that they are to make sound moral decisions; they are free to pursue their dreams; and that they have been endowed with a wonderful heritage.
We now send them into the world of freedom with the light of God. As we light the candles (reminiscent of
uli mmu or mpanaka- i.e. oil lamps), we ask the Almighty Chukwu (God) to guide and protect our young ones
as they venture into the world. The only gifts we can offer them are our love and support. Their response is their pledge to conduct themselves in such a manner that will command respect for them, their families abroad and in Igbo land, Nigeria, and to the American community in which they are a part. Most importantly, they pledge to conduct themselves in such a manner that gives glory to God.
Contributed by Mrs. Queen Nneka Agu, Mrs. Chi Ezekwueche & Mrs. Ego Ndukwe
on behalf of the Otu Umunne Members, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.
Edited by Dele Chinwe Ukwu
11/2002. Last updated: 10/03.