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Of Umuada in Diaspora:
A Response to the Umunne and Umunna Question

Patrick Iroegbu

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 women’s 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 woman’s 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 daughter’s obligation to her father’s 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), women’s perspective of the household and family helps them to deal with the prerogatives of kinship such that men’s and women’s 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: writer’s – 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 people’s 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 mother’s 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 husband’s 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 name-retention.
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 women’s 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:, 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 “Ms”—a 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.

Selected References

Kendall, L. 1985. Women in Korean Ritual Life (Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
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, 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.


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