Around the year 2018, if I remember correctly, I came across a shared Facebook post on how the word Ụ́kàentered the Ìgbò lexicon of Christian usage. The said post was authored by Ozii Baba Anieto. It was an exciting read at the time and I never had to probe further into the content. But recently in 2020 when I was involved in a little research that tangentially dealt with new words that entered the Ìgbò lexicon upon the advent of Christianity in Ìgbòland in the mid-19th century and the colonial conquest in the early 20th century, I came across the same writing by Anieto. It was now published officially on a blog site which can be read here.
While Anieto’s exposition is a commendable effort at attempting the origin of one of the most contentious aspects—(though rarely investigated)—of social and church history in Ìgbòland, it must be established that his writing is fraught with scarce details, little or no historical evidences and a worrisome finality that is limiting and a bit dangerous to scholarship and general Ìgbò historical inquiries.
The subject of the origin of Ụ́kà as the commonest and long-standing Ìgbò translation for such ideas as “Sunday”, “Church”, “Christianity”—basically as imported concepts and practices in Ìgbòland—is more serious than as presented and concluded in Anieto’s treatise. Some scholars and professors of Ìgbò language and studies have questioned and argued the issue without any consensus yet. And that is what Anieto’s submission failed to factor in before drawing authoritative conclusions.
Let me address the contentions accordingly.
The advent of Christianity in Ìgbòland is traced to 1841 in Abọ, today’s Delta State when three missionaries met with Obi Ọsaị to preach to him and his subjects and also discuss the possibility of establishing a station in the area. However, the formal Christianisation of the Ìgbò began with Ọnịcha in today’s Anambra State in July, 1857 when the then Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Mr. John Christopher Taylor arrived with the 1857 Niger Expedition team led by the physician Dr William Balfour Baikie.
Having mentioned Baikie’s name, I am compelled to briefly recall that another word that entered the Ìgbò lexicon during this revolutionary period was “bekee”. Bekee is the Ìgbò corruption of Dr William Baikie’s name. Being the only white man moving about to discuss with the chiefs and kings of the areas visited at the time in the company of Crowther and Taylor who were both blacks and former slaves of Yoruba and Ìgbò descent respectively, Baikie became an alternative reference to “onye ọcha” (white man) by the Ìgbò of Ọnịcha and the neighbours. Consequently, his name became very famous such that anyone or anything European was referred to as “Bekee”.
In fact, Dr Baikie had written in a letter to his superiors in London dated 29th February, 1860: “Owing to the chiefs at Aboh hearing much of me from above but seldom seeing me, they begin to look on me as a kind of mythical being, and to regard me with a certain degree of dread” (Cf p.489 of British Enterprise on the Niger 1830-1869, a PhD Dissertationby Chieka Ifemesia, 1959). Over a long time, it evolved to be the suffix for places and even local foods and items that are considered foreign, ‘white’ or ‘superior’ up till this day, especially in the dialects of today’s Imo/Abia/Rivers areas. Thus, Ala Bekee is still an expression used till this day in reference to overseas countries predominated by the white races. And, “Bekee wụ Agbara” expresses that the ‘Whiteman’s science/technology is superior’, among others.
Back to the issue. In their several annual letters of the 1860s to the CMS headquarters in Salisbury, London, Taylor and Crowther had insisted that “Onitsha is the high way to the Ibo country” and firmly argued that the mission station should remain there. Subsequently, the CMS Ọnịcha remained the only Christian establishment in Ìgbòland for the most part of the mid-19th century before other sects began to make inroads 28 years later. So, it is entirely correct to argue that Ọnịcha is the cradle of foreign religious practices in Ìgbòland, otherwise loosely translated as “Ụ́kà” in Ìgbò language.
Thus, we have in our lexicon today: Ụ́kà CMS, Ụ́kà Katọlik, Ụ́kà Methodist, Ụ́kà Cele/Ụ́kà Sabbath (Celestial Church), etc—all in reference to the non-indigenous faiths. From the foregoing, ‘Ụ́kà’ would not have been first used elsewhere for a foreign faith in Ìgbòland if not Ọnịcha where the formal activities of Christianity were first introduced. Suffice it to say that the original and basic meanings of Ụ́kà as a generic word in Ìgbò language span ‘conversation’, ‘talk’, ‘trouble’ (okwu na ụka) or ‘doubt’ (arụm-ụka).
But, in Ọnịcha (the first Christian centre in Ìgbòland) and surrounding dialects of Ìgbò language, there is no evidence of Ụ́kà in their 19th century lexicons which is used to refer to any of the activities or ways of Christianity or foreign faiths. This all-important basic and foundational inquiry is what Anieto left out to arrive at his first unfounded declaration. Read him (in his own words):
But after the acceptance of Christianity, the people of Igbo land started recognizing dual week. One, still remains Izu: 4 days. The second, 7 days, is known as Izu Uka (translated literally as the Week of conversation).
Anieto does not realise that Ízù Ụ́kà is altogether a secondary coinage that came after Ụ́kà had been primarily used for Christianity and its ways; and that in full, it is “Ízù Ndị Ụ́kà” which simply refers to the ‘week of the Christians’ and which counts from Sunday (Mbọsị Ụ́kà/church day/main meeting day of the Christians) through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. This 7-day week contradicts the traditional/indigenous week which is fully referred to as “Ízù Afịa” because it is founded on the 4-market days of the Ìgbò: Èké, Oye, Afọ, Nkwọ. And so, the Ìgbò week is an economic week and not a religious week like that of the Christians.
For emphasis, Anieto’s understanding or translation of Ízù Ụ́kà as “Week of conversation” is unfoundedly wrong as it does not recognise that it is in reference to the Western/European week system introduced to the people through Ụ́kà—Christianity, which came with Western education. Hence, it’s the ‘week of Christians’ or ‘Christian week’ not ‘week of Conversation’. On the other hand, Sunday was not “christened” Ụ́kà; it was rather referred to as “Mbọsị Ụ́kà” which is the main meeting day of the Christians when services are held in the church. (Not to forget is the fact that there were other activities the Christians engaged in within the week). This physical space of theirs called ‘church’ was referred to as “Ụnọ Ụ́kà” or “Ụnọ Ndị Ụ́kà”.
Having seemingly realised that he jumped the base to reach the top, Anieto made to recall that
In the beginning, when CMS came into the eastern region of Nigeria, their evangelism – as expected – was more of conversation with the natives. Reasoning together, which was the strategy used in converting members, is translated as ikparita Uka. The new converts who accepted the new creed and jettisoned the traditional beliefs became – as they still are – ndi Uka. And their worship houses became Ulo Uka (House of Conversation or Reasoning).
To unpack the historical claims afore, first, Anieto did not provide any evidence that suggests that evangelism—whether in the early days or now—was “more of conversation with the natives”. It is important to note that throughout history, conversions, whether to Christianity or Islam, has never been dialogic. Conversion is and has always been imperial—by subtle means or fiat (e.g. Jihad). Scholars of religious studies such as Paul Chalfant, Robert Beckley and Eddie Palmer—in their significant book, Religion in Contemporary Society—have identified the five processes leading up to conversion as: Picking up, Hooking, Encapsulating, Loving and Committing.
These processes, directly and indirectly, are for doctrinal imposition and never dialogue. For this same reason of the imperialistic nature of religious conversion, Boniface Mba, a professor of Ìgbò linguistics at the University of Nigeria, in an interview granted me, completely rules out the possibility of Ụ́kà referring to Anieto’s “Ịkparị Ụ́kà” (holding conversation) as a mode of conversion in the early Christian days.
“The missionaries simply delivered the Christian creed to you”, Prof Mba asserts, “and you are not meant to debate or argue it; you’re simply expected to accept it as true, right and final”.
The revered Chinua Achebe, in his all-time classic novel, Things Fall Apart, equally delivered a very good spectre of the imperialistic nature of conversion to Christianity which, even though it allows questionings, does not tolerate established arguments or even doubts as part of their engagement with potential converts. One of such scenes in chapter 16 of the novel mirrors the conversion encounter in details and I’d prefer to reproduce it at length for better understanding:
The interpreter spoke to the white man and he immediately gave his answer. “All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us.”
“If we leave our gods and follow your god,” asked another man, “who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?”
“Your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm,” replied the white man. “They are pieces of wood and stone.”
When this was interpreted to the men of Mbanta they broke into derisive laughter. These men must be mad, they said to themselves. How else could they say that Ani and Amadiora were harmless? And Idemili and Ogwugwu too? And some of them began to go away.
Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man. The interpreter explained each verse to the audience, some of whom now stood enthralled. It was a story of brothers who lived in darkness and in fear, ignorant of the love of God. It told of one sheep out on the hills, away from the gates of God and from the tender shepherd’s care.
After the singing the interpreter spoke about the Son of God whose name was Jesu Kristi. Okonkwo, who only stayed in the hope that it might come to chasing the men out of the village or whipping them, now said “You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk about his son. He must have a wife, then.” The crowd agreed.
“I did not say He had a wife,” said the interpreter, somewhat lamely.
“Your buttocks said he had a son,” said the joker. “So, he must have a wife and all of them must have buttocks.”
The missionary ignored him and went on to talk about the Holy Trinity. At the end of it Okonkwo was fully convinced that the man was mad. He shrugged his shoulders and went away to tap his afternoon palm-wine. (p.103)
The idea of ‘conversation’ does not apply in the conversion process, contrary to Anieto’s thesis. Conversion requires subtle or coercive indoctrination and not logical engagement. And that was the Ìgbò experience as Prof. Chinua Achebe and church historians like Prof. Felix K. Ekechi have shown, and as some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ reports and letters of the missionaries in Ìgbòland showed too.
On the whole, there are four basic speculations from many Ìgbò scholars and non-scholars on how Sunday was christened“Ụ́kà” in Ìgbò language as a dominant and earliest expression for Christianity and its baggage. They are:
- Ụ́kà—to refer to ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’ as a mode of conversion or meeting in the church. (Ndị na-akparịta ụka)
- Ụ́kà—to refer to the early Christian converts who were often overzealous and constantly in conflict with the rest of the unconverted community as ‘the troublesome’ (Ndi Ókwú na Ụ́kà)
- Ụ́kà—to refer to the early Christians and their missionaries who doubted and waved off the beliefs of the people as wrong while asserting that theirs were right and authentic. (Ndị na-arụ ụka)
- Ụ́kà—to refer to the root of the word itself which is “kà” and which, according to Professor Boniface Mba, is an old Ìgbò verb for “to reveal”; and which also refers to the missionaries’ penchant to ‘reveal’ such unknown and strange ideas to the Ìgbò cosmology such as heaven, coming of Christ, God’s judgment, hellfire, etc, making them the centre of their preaching and using them to instil fear and curiosity in the potential converts. Suffice it to say that up till this moment, the Nsụka people of the northern Ìgbòland still use “kà” in reference to ‘reveal’; thus “e kàle ihe mụ n’egụ kwuru” means “don’t reveal what we have discussed” in Nsụka dialect.
On the number one speculation: Returning to the earlier issue of dialect, there are no traces that Ọnịcha people and their neighbours like Asaba, Obosi, Ògídí, Mkpọọ, Ọba, Agụleri who were the first converts to Christianity ever used “Ịkparị Ụ́kà” or “Mkparịtaụka” for ‘conversation’ as at the 19th century when Christianity first came to them. Instead, they used “Ịkpa Nkata”. The use of “Mkparịtaụka” or “Ikwu Ụ́kà” in reference to ‘conversation’, ‘talking’, ‘telling’ or ‘speaking’ is largely the preserve of the Imo/Abia/Rivers areas of today’s Ìgbòland, both in the past and in the present and never Ọnịcha.
For emphasis, the penetration of Christianity in Owere areas of today’s Imo only began when Archdeacon Thomas Dennis and Mr Alfonso Onyeabo (later bishop) went to establish a CMS station in Egbu, few miles away from Owere town. That was in 1905—48 years after the existence of Ụ́kà (Christianity) in Ọnịcha! In other words, the word, Ụ́kà for church, Christianity or its activities, was never invented in/by the Imo/Abia/Rivers areas even though it’s abundantly used in their dialect to refer to “conversation” or “reasoning” which Anieto authoritatively claims is the origin of its use in reference to Christianity and church.
An emeritus professor of Ìgbò language and literature, Inno Ụzọma Nwadike agreed with me when I raised this point (of Ọnịcha not using Ụ́kà in its old and recent dialect as Imo areas would) in my quest to untie the knots following an interview he granted me. The old man was honest to say he has no immediate answers beyond the popular speculation of ‘conversation’. Taken together, it was not in the dialectical lexicon of the area of the first missionary work in Ìgbòland to use Ụ́kà for ‘conversation’ or ‘reasoning’, and so, the number one speculation has no strong basis to stand, pending when hard evidences are provided.
On the number two speculation: If we give the less weighty “troublesome” speculation some attention, we must recognise that the Ìgbò people barely refer to a troublesome and quarrelsome person as “Onye Ụ́kà” leaving out “Ókwú”. In fact, the principal translation for ‘quarrelling’ is “ịchọ-ókwú/achọm-ókwú”. Adding “ụka” to it to arrive at “Ókwú na Ụ́kà” is rather to complement for the principle of duality in Ìgbò worldview—Ókwú (monologue) and Ụ́kà (dialogue). On the other hand, majority of the early Christian converts in Ọnịcha as at the 19th century were not quarrelsome and fanatical. In fact, it was until about the 1870s—nearly 20 years after—that their first major conflicts with the native people began to emerge.
On the number three speculation: One has to note that in the recent times, Ọnịcha and their neighbours use “Ịlụ Ụ́kà” to mean ‘doubting’ but the older expression for that (particularly in Ọnịcha) was “Isi Ngọ”. So, if we are to go by the presumption that the early missionaries and Christians engaged in mutual doubts with the native people and that that was how ‘Ụ́kà’ entered the lexicon, then, it’s clear it is baseless and cannot stand because Ọnịcha, the first port of call for Christianity, used “Ngọ” for doubt and never ‘Ụ́kà’.
On the number four speculation: The underlying argument here is that the Ìgbò language evolves, either by conscious efforts or unconscious organic changes, just as other languages. It’s further argued that it is possible Ọnịcha used “kà” as the translation of ‘to reveal’ as at the 19th century, in reference to the missionaries’ and early Christians’ appetite for telling their prospective converts unknown tales of what will happen in future to convince them. Prof. Mba assumes that the natives must have called them “ndị na-akà ife ga-eme eme”, which is shortened as “Ndị Ụ́kà”.
Unfortunately, some Ọnịcha people say they can’t remember such expressions in their old dialect and that if it existed, they could have remembered it just like other recallable expressions used in the same 19th century that have largely gone extinct in the present day. Going by the technical details of Ìgbò linguistics, Prof. Mba’s professional take is striking and scientific. But that is as far as there’s an archaeological or archival proof that Ọnịcha ever used “kà” in the 19th century in reference to ‘to reveal’, and in the context of Christianity. The missionary records and historical analyses consulted so far on that early period do not give any pieces of evidence either.
Curiously, in the Ìgbò dialect of the Izii (Izzi) people and some of their neighbours in today’s Ebonyi State, “Ụ́kà” is used to refer to ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’. Thus, ‘liars’ could be referred to as “Ndị Ụ́kà”, going by that! Perhaps, we may begin to wonder if the dialect of the Izii crossed its boundaries as at the 19th century such that a word from it became universalised just like we borrow words from each other’s dialects today, especially for slangs. But no one can tell at the moment, urging carefulness in addressing cultural issues.
Meanwhile, the Ozii Anieto conclusion that the early Christians’ “worship houses became Ulo Uka (House of Conversation or Reasoning)” based on his earlier claims is further vanquished by the fact that there are variant expressions for ‘worship houses’ in some Ìgbò areas beyond just Ụlọ/Ụnọ Ụ́kà. Today’s Imo/Abia areas often say “Chọọchị” (Ìgbònisation of ‘Church’) in place of ‘Ụlọ Ụ́kà’. In fact, some old Imo/Abia men and women born around this time last century up to the early 1950s still use “Mishọnụ” (Ìgbònisation of ‘mission’) in place of ‘Ụlọ Ụ́kà’.
The Catholic Church in Ìgbòland, over the years, has even stealthily taught her members to say “Maasị” (Ìgbònisation of ‘Mass’) in place of “Ụ́kà”, hence one hears “maasị dị asọ” for ‘holy mass’ and never “Ụ́kà dị asọ”. The point is that the use of Ụ́kà to refer to missionaries, missions, Christians, etc was never universal among the Ìgbò both in the early and later days of Christianity in Ìgbòland.
In concluding this discourse, it must be learned that the missionary and colonial experiences of the Ìgbò in the 19th and 20th centuries are huge, complex and far-reaching, and the impacts—good or gory—are still being felt till today, contributing entirely to the shaping of the Ìgbò life and world. And so, before anyone makes certain claims on how Sunday was christened“Ụ́kà” in Ìgbò language or other pronouncements bordering on that period, he must be armed with a lot of facts and information to avoid misinforming the packs of young Ìgbò persons who honestly seek to understand the great past of our ancestors.
The very issue in context—the question of the origin of Ụ́kà in reference to the Christian religion in Ìgbò language—is akin to the contention of the exact place Olaudah Equiano described he came from in his autobiography. While the late Professors Chinua Achebe and Catherine Achọlọnụ, in the late 1980s, believed Equiano must have come from Iseke in today’s Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, Mr. I. B. Onyema, in 1991, provided a more researched investigation which favoured Usaka, a village in today’s Abia State, and which scholars like Prof. S. Ogude equally agreed to.
Till today, the exact place of Olaudah Equiano, as he described in his autobiography, is yet to be decisively resolved. Indeed, the true and indisputable origin of the use of the word Ụ́kà for Christianity and its ways in Ọnịcha has to be traced down to the very first missionaries who evangelized Ìgbòland and whose principal was John C. Taylor—a freed slave of Ìgbò origin from Sierra Leone who headed the missionary team in Ọnịcha for twelve years (1857—1869) before he left. It was in his time and charge that the very first foreign faith began to permeate the Ìgbò.
In addition, it has to be noted that the very first Ìgbò Christian community that ever existed on earth was not in Ìgbòland but in Sierra Leone! It was from among that community that John Taylor, Simon Jonas, Augustine Radillo and other missionaries who were descendants of Ìgbò freed slaves came. Perhaps, the questions to ask are: Could it be that the word Ụ́kà was first used for Christian fellowship among this Ìgbò Christian community in Sierra Leone long before it came to Ọnịcha in 1857? And if so, how did it come to be so? This means that a search has to be done in Sierra Leone too!
Surely, it is not enough to assume or presume these things without exhausting the possible details as Ozii Anieto did. As long as there is a big history—like the missionary one—behind such issues as How Sunday Was Christened Ụ́kà” in Ìgbò Language, it is wrong and dangerous to sit down in one’s comfort and address the matter so simplistically and so presumptuously. Be that as it may, Anieto is appreciated for raising the discourse in recent times, which, in turn, has induced me and other persons reading this to learn more and better in the process.