A Response to the Umunne and Umunna Question
Not too long ago, I was asked to explain the Igbo concept of
umunne (children of the same mother) and umunna (children of
the same father) in addition to elucidating why the Igbo are
fond of naming or characterizing their associations or community
ethos using male-referent terms. It may seem that such an explanation
would be simple; in reality, however, it is not nearly as straightforward
as it may seem. In this communication, I am going to attempt
to provide that explanation and show how it relates to the articulation
of the burning gender issue from the Igbo cosmological mindset
and social and cultural point of view.
In one Igbo cultural association's general meeting (held
in Feb. 2002) I attended and presided over, a lady, who
spoke on behalf of the umuada (daughters of the clan), raised
concern over the use of umunna in naming the association,
thereby excluding umunne or umuada in the name. This concern
led not only to outright oral explanations, but also to the
writing of an email intended to substantiate the complexity
of umunne and umunna notions in Igboland.
Since that show of assertive concern to balance the way
in which the Igbo include or exclude gendered terms in their
associational naming and affairs, I have lived with that concern
hoping to provide an explanatory cultural and philosophical
valued reflection. In a short e-mail directed to the questioner
in the said meeting, I had stated inter alia that it seemed
to me the question you raised today (Feb. 2002) has been long
ignored in expressive literary communication and cultural argumentation.
It also touches very strongly on the critical feminism and gender
issues among the Igbo. As I recall, the question
was briefly answered during that meeting, but I now realize
that there was not enough reflection put into the debate
namely on the critical meaning such a gender sensitivity might
have embodied as at then and for years to come. It is not a
cultural tautology to have taken it to heart that many of us
who have been away (from Igboland) for a long time are loosing
our grip on certain relational and positional Igbo (collective)
concepts and meanings. One of the main goals of such
Igbo Cultural Associations will always be to assist one another
in recapturing our roots and in explaining ourselves and ideas
more effectively in ways that relate to Igbo life and culture.
I am using this opportunity as a concerned columnist on Igbo
issues to further explain the much multilayered senses underlying
the uses of umunna and umunne in Igbo lifeway. In doing so,
I hope to offer some insights with which to relate and position
the gender question of why Igbo people favour using umunna over
umunne being touched on.
Firstly, umunna is a collective word formed from "umu"
and "nna." It means "children of one father
or ancestral consanguine," bloodline or root. The Igbo
appear to be a male-dominant culture despite Igbo
womens unique and pronounced participation in, and contribution
to, public affairs. The Igbo lineage system is traced to the
male ancestor or deity. Even though Igboland is given a worshipful
"mother-earth" rite, that earth is said to be owned
and appropriated by the male force-of-the-land rite. The idea
of the mother-earth rite is to purify the mother-earth, whose
defilement erupts in episodes of famine, illness, and catastrophes.
That is, sins against mother-earth, as a source of life and
sustenance, result in threats to survival and a quality life
until mother-earth is properly calmed down, placated, or appeased.
Igbo cosmology (Nwoga 1984, Iroegbu 2007) is explained through
the intertwining of ancestral, land, and spirit forces.
As such, the female representation, such as in the mother earth
(ala), serves the purpose of enhancing the forces of the
gendered world. The Igbo see the land as a gift to man
and, in that respect, appear to dominate and domesticate it
in appropriate ways designed to please themselves and their
gods. What then can we do? They also structured their
society in such a way that the man becomes the custodian of
the land. While men stay behind in the natal homes of their
father, women are married outside and move to their husbands
natal homes. In other words, wives who marry in and sisters
and daughters who marry out juxtapose and provide a connecting
diffuse bilateral kin building (Kendall 1985:163). A man is
required to go outside of his home area only to bring home
a woman to help him in his role of keeping custody of the land.
Thereafter, he engages in productive and reproductive activities.
This largely also entails rearing children with his wife, as
well as practicing economic and political activities that sustain
his custody of the inherited land. He also socializes
with outside peoples and cultures, which help him, shape his
cultural values and understand his ethnic cosmology and identity.
Notwithstanding the reason, a woman who fails to marry or returns
home after marriage to rejoin her patrilineage, is viewed as
a subversion of the male privilege and hegemony as well as an
accretion of misfortune. Such a womans role, life correctness
and identity are brought to question her authority in her community
as a troubled nwada (single daughter) in light of umuada (a
team of daughters) more on this folk terminology later.
Nevertheless, a married daughters obligation to her fathers
home is critical to the foundation and reinforcement of Igbo
social philosophy and cultural theory of dominance. To the exclusion
that bearing children will be legitimate and culturally appropriate
in a married state of life; women are faced with the preoccupation
of sustaining a married home where conception and rearing of
healthy children, their first source of security in their husbands
home and their last source of security in old age, is grandly
valorized. In an enduring Igbo village (Green 1963; Isichei
1977), womens perspective of the household and family
helps them to deal with the prerogatives of kinship such that
mens and womens contrasting social experiences are
reflected in the embodiment and use of minimal umunne and maximal
umunna social registers of Igbo components of community organizations.
Culturally interlocked is a full range of relationships consisting
of autonomous lineages, households, agnatic families, and a
more diffused bilateral kindred (cf. Kendall 1985:169) of umunne
and umunna. In Igbo family and kindred system, the two cults
of umunne and umunna blend but at the same time present a clash
of recognition of male and female kinship interests and strategies.
As shown by Odinamadu (in: writers blog.bifranigeriaworld.com
retrieved Feb 8, 2009), the extended family and kindred
system comprises the umunne na umunna congregations of as many
Ezi Na Uno or nuclear, conjugal families as there are in that
lineage. These include the brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces,
uncles, aunties and cousins, extending to as many generations
as could be traced and connected, who have their origins from
the same ancestral father and mother, as well as the in-laws.
The above context shows that a man in Igboland is quite
expansive. A collection of fathers or families is described
as "umunna." Generally, umunna is an endogenous address
register for a maximal village or community of families
or men. That is, an androcentric, or male-focused, condition
for relating and positioning affairs in society. Umunna is a
culture-specific name that the Igbo often use to refer to a
village or community of Igbo people, including those in diaspora
-- therefore, ourselves here in Edmonton and elsewhere. Given
the Igbo peoples community sense of belongingness, umunna,
as a specific term of address, refers to both men and women.
Secondly, whereas umunna (nnaji) refers to a sense
of community associated with one father or line of fathers or
a kin-population, umunne (nneji) does not. That is, the
address term itself does not add up to the complete sense of
a patriarchal essence or community through common fatherhood. Umunne
(nneji), which is also, formed from "umu" and nne,"
means the children of one mother who is married
to the father of the children. Particularly, umunne portrays
and refers to a household (nkpuke, nneji) composed of a mother
and her children. It is the minimal family of a maximal fatherhood
family of community. In other words, it substantiates the
component or segment of matriarchy subsumed in the larger community
of the patriarchy. The purpose here is to show how the
Igbo use different kinship terms to explain their family
structure on the one hand, and the lineage/community system
on the other hand. The umunne term of address depicts the component
units of a poly-family or plural feminized household units.
It is a mother-focused-homestead, as opposed to the increasing
phenomenon of the single-mom-household being promoted by the
so-called industrial lifestyle challenges, urbanity, and feminist
movements that promote individual human rights and individualism.
Gender-wise, there is no straightforward explanation that
says that umunne refers to women and umunna refers to men. To
conceive of the notion in that way is naive, limited, and fundamentally
wrong. What is more accurate is the fact that umunna depicts
a community of Igbo people men, women, and children.
Likewise, umunne refers to a household composed of a mother
and her children from their father as a segment of the overall
unity. There are several Igbo proverbs and idioms
in daily use that appropriate these kinship terms in social,
cultural, economic, and political activities. Igbo politics,
it must be recognized, is based on umunna politics (Iroegbu
1996) of an expansive nature.
On the contrary, the umunne talk and solidarity is framed
on keeping the secrecy of those who sucked of the same breast
milk. Folklore has it that "igba izu ka mma na nneji"
(secret talks are best done with those of the same mother).
The identity of motherhood is expressed with the mothers
breast milk and blood, but this preferred identification level
in sharing secrecy for the sake of unity and survival is empowered
and fostered by that of the fatherhood, or umunna, in the community.
That is why in Igboland they ask, "Onye muru gi? Nna gi,
o bu onye?" These curious questions literally mean, Who
fathered you? Who is your father? The fact is that women
in Igbo lose their name of birth when they marry, and a household
formed by umunne is credited to the male rather than the female
in the kinship setting. Observable today are instances where
some women append their surname before marriage to that of their
husbands after marriage. Would their children ultimately
follow in this appending of surnames, or stay with the family
name of their father? With this pursuit for equality in society,
there is an identity dilemma in practicing of name-giving and
How is that?
Addressed along the same lines as the umunne and umunna questions
are the following critical questions:
· Should a name-retention public bill be
promoted and passed in the legislature and, if so, how can culture
be sensitized and assessed in that action?
· In cases where a man refuses to allow his wife to attach
her family name before marriage to his, which by cultural convention
a woman may not be entitled to uphold, what should the woman
do in the umunna question?
The answer to these questions is clear in the sense that, in
Igbo, the pride of womanhood after marriage is governed by the
Mrs. Who that one adopts. Is a woman the Mrs.
Who of her own father or of her own husband? Pet names
that Igbo husbands use for their wives are indicative of the
fact that upon marriage a woman transits from the love and ascriptions
of her father to the love and ascriptions of her husband as
a continuum of the relational and positional principle of genderhood.
As the concept of gender is not fixed, globalization is seemingly
adding to the forces of change from the tradition of changing
of name to the retention of name as a new form of identity and
construction of personhood.
Lastly, umuada is a totally different social institution
of empowerment. Other terms used here are "ndi ngboto,"
" omuru n'ulo, luo na mba," and "ada bi
na mba" (see. Iroegbu 2007). Umuada refers to daughters
married outside of their village community; their role
in Igbo community affairs is well known. This is purely a female
gender principle of organization that consists in married
daughters and constitutes, in some way, a part of the expansive
notion of umunna. Yet, this group of married women, if they
should find themselves married in the same outside community,
may address themselves as umunne. Here of course, the sense
connotes married daughters from the same community, like it
would for umunna at home in the case of a mixed-gender circle
of males and females. Within the womens folk circle, umunne
is appropriated, but this is again swallowed up if there are
men to be identified in the setting. In other words, umunne
characterizes the female side of society and umunna takes on
both male and female principles in one community of fatherland
involving men, women, and children as a continuum.
According to Ene (see The Concept of Umuada;
in: www.kwenu.com, June, 2007) women in traditional Igbo societies
are a force in political, legal, and social issues. Long before
the colonists arrived in Africa, and even during and after colonialism,
women have been a powerful part of the Igbo society. Women have
fora designed to present and protect their interests. The most
important of these female fora is um?ada.
Etymologically speaking, umuada as Ene conceptualized
it is a compound, collective noun formed from ?m?
and ada. Ada means daughter; ?m? is
a generic plural prefix that conveys the sense of many.
Most naturally, every Igbo woman is ada (a daughter)
of a certain community and is recognized as such for all the
days of her life. Although it is used often in referring to
the first daughter of a family (adaobi), ada generally
means a female child. Viewed with a modern cultural lens, ada
is the origin of the politically correct term Msa
non-distinguishing title for women and probably the English
equivalent of ada. Thus, umuada connotes
many daughters in a social group.
This writer, Ene, further sated that umuada means native
daughters, the daughters of a common male ancestor or daughters
of the soil. They are also called umuokpu (in parts of
Anambra State) or ndi mgboto (in parts of Imo State as I have
said earlier). In other words, umuada is a collective of all
daughters of a particular clan, village, town, or state
whether old, young, single, married, separated, or divorced.
It is the inalienable right of every daughter of a particular
place, without exception whatsoever, to belong to otu umuada,
the society of ama or clan or native daughters. As a collective,
otu umuada is a powerful sociopolitical setup in Igbo culture,
a functional forum for females.
What comes out clear from the explanation of umuada is that
Igbo women have historically asserted themselves into Igbo life
and culture with exciting gendered roles and identities for
meaningful development to appreciate feminism in a world building
of masculinism. Umuada is therefore a register of collective
feminism through which umunne and umunna can symbolically form
a binary human centered cultural ally and solidarity.
With this entry, I hope I have been able to offer useful clarification
regarding the gender notion of the umunne and umunna argument.
I also hope that by thinking with umuada and linking the concept
to the gender question in this exercise, it can be found that
the explanations provided are helpful and culturally illuminating.
If any umuada would but have other concerns, please feel free
to address them at and to this chapter and column.
Kendall, L. 1985. Women in Korean Ritual Life (Shamans, Housewives,
and Other Restless Spirits). Honolulu: University of Hawaii
Nwoga, D. I. 1984. Igbo Cosmology: Nka na Nzere. Ahiajoku Lecture.
Owerri: Culture Division.
Green, M. M. 1964. Igbo Village Affairs. London: Frank Cass
and Co. Ltd.
Iroegbu, O. P. 1996. The Kpim of Politics: Communalism. Owerri:
International Universities Press.
Iroegbu, E, P. 2007. Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender
and Bridewealth Power in an African Society The Igbo
of Nigeria. BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing.
Ene, M.O. 2007. Feature article in the inauguration souvenir
journal of Umuada Enugu State, New Jersey, June 30, 2007. See
also www.kwenu.com, June 30, 2007, retrieved Feb. 6, 2009.
Isichei, E. 1977. Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories
and Historical Descriptions. London, England: MacMillan.
Odinamadu, E.O. (Mrs.). A Rejoinder and Commentary on some Issues
Observed from Newspaper Reports of the 2004 Aka Ikenga-Ohanaeze
Retreat at Asaba: Part 2 of 6: Leadership and Followership in
Igbo Society: The Umunna System as Against the Warrant Chief
System. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2009.