e: concepts and
practice of indigenous cultural
heritage management in the Igbo
cultural area of south-
Stanley Jachike Onyemechalu and J. Kelechi Ugwuanyi
Department of Archaeology and Tourism, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria
Purpose –This study explored an alternative understanding of heritage through the lens of the Igbo
cultural group in Nigeria. It used the Igbo concept of “Ihe Nketa”or “Oke”to examine the complex
relationship between indigeneity, attachment and sustainability in the context of heritage management and
Design/methodology/approach –A qualitative approach was used, and ethnographic methods of data
collection that include interviews and focus-group discussions (FGD) applied. The interview participants
included village chiefs and the elderly (men and women), and the FGD comprised village elders (men and
women) and youths. The interview guide contained demographic questions to determine age and occupation,
followed by interactive open-ended questions stemming from the study’s objectives. The interviews were
conducted in the language most preferred by the respondents such as the Igbo language, Nigerian Pidgin
English and the English language. The evidence generated was thematically analysed in a descriptive and
Findings –The study found that while the Igbo understanding of heritage have related meaning with the
definitions offered by the United Nations, their approach to heritage conservation takes a different turn
through the concepts of “Ihe Nketa”or “Oke,”which recognises the ephemerality of tangible heritage
resources with particular focus on the preservation of intangible heritage–knowledge over objects. The
Igbo approach describes the framework for the acquisition, use and transfer of heritage resources in the
Originality/value –This study contributes to the understanding of the concept of heritage through the lens of
the Igbo of Nigeria. Against the centralised national management approach to heritage, this paper argues that
achieving sustainable heritage management in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria requires the recognition of
the principles that conserve(d) and manage(d) heritage among the indigenous/local peoples.
Keywords Igbo, Heritage management, Indigenous heritage practice, Culture, Nigeria
Paper type Research paper
The global heritage discourse is currently targeted at finding the inclusive and sustainable
approach to conserving, preserving, promoting and presenting both natural and cultural
heritage resources. Many researchers have suggested a host of approaches that will best
address these issues without achieving the desired goals. Mire (2007) suggested “knowledge
over objects”to heritage preservation and the integration of local people in heritage
management. Hodder (2010) considered the evaluation of heritage in terms of social justice
and well-being. Klesmith (2014) made the case for the protection and repatriation of cultural
heritage within the frames of international law. Applying a pure natural science method,
Ellwood (2018) used quantum physics to measure cultural heritage value to attempt a
conclusion on their usefulness to everyone. Armenta (2018) explored the proactive and
reactive approaches to prevent heritage destruction in times of war. Subsequent literature
that considers the merger of indigenous and Western principles for sustainable preservation
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 16 December 2020
Revised 20 March 2021
Accepted 6 June 2021
Journal of Cultural Heritage
Management and Sustainable
© Emerald PublishingLimited
and protection of cultural heritage included the “in-use”paradigm (Ugwuanyi, 2018),
thoughts on the “utility”of heritage (Ugwuanyi, 2019), and many such theorisations. Yet, the
problem of heritage loss, destruction and theft/trafficking continues to rear its head,
especially in the area under study.
TheUnitedNationsanditsagencies have also been at the forefront in the search for new
meanings and sustainable cultural heritage management alternatives. Initiatives such as
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the World
Decade of Cultural Development (1988–1997), the World Commission on Culture and
Development (1992), the Agenda 21 for Culture (2002), the Convention on the Diversity of
Cultural Expressions (2005), the United Nation’s Declaration on Indigenous Peoples Rights
(2007) and UNECSO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2011) are laudable
initiatives that have attempted to properly contextualise heritage. Many of these initiatives
include projects in Africa such as UNESCO’s“National Liberation Movements Heritage
Programme”being implemented by the Southern African Development Community; the
“Youth.Heritage.Africa”program by the International Centre for the Study of the
Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the African World Heritage
Fund and the “African Heritage Program”by the Mandela Institute for Development
Studies (MINDS). However, these efforts are mainly deepening state possession of heritage
against local ownership and knowledge that conserve and manage heritage among many
indigenous/local communities across the globe. Smith (2006) called such state approach
“Authorised Heritage Discourse”(AHD). Relying on the 21st century paradigm shift that
introduced Critical Heritage Studies (CHS), which aims at understanding heritage from
every perspective including that of the silenced, minority, excluded, isolated or
marginalised groups, Smith (2006) argued that heritage is a “cultural and social process”.
By cultural and social process, it has direct relationship with identity and place, and
because identity situates people in their place, heritage is expressed through the values and
attachment of members of the indigenous/local community. The question of
“indigenousness”or “indigeneity”is for the purpose of this paper understood as people’s
relationship to land and place (see Dei, 2016) prior to colonisation and formation of modern
nation states (see also Shaw et al., 2006;Merlan, 2009). Indigenous peoples are
those which have a historical continuity with preinvasion and precolonial societies that developed on
their territories, consider themselves as distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in
those territories ...and are determined to preserve and transmit to future generations their ancestral
territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples. (Cobo, 1986,
In Africa where the Igbo belong, it could refer to either the “autochthons”,“first arrival”or
“sons of the soil”(see Trigger and Dalley, 2010;Dunn, 2009). In any case, this paper used the
Igbo concept of “Ihe Nketa”or “Oke”to examine the complex relationship between
indigeneity, attachment and sustainability in the context of heritage conservation and
management. It deployed the Igbo concept to argue that to achieve sustainability in a
multi-ethnic country like Nigeria requires the recognition of the principles that conserve(d)
and manage(d) heritage among the indigenous peoples.
Some studies in Africa have enquired into how indigenous/local perspectives can enhance
heritage management. Mire (2007) used the distinctive views of the Somali people to argue for
the preservation of heritage knowledge and not objects. The study suggested that
appropriate theoretical framework for heritage management and archaeological research can
only be achieved if local approach is taken into consideration and integrated. The research
showed that previous approaches that have been pursued lacked “dialogue and incorporation
of local views of heritage practice”(p. 11), leading to the failure of the preservation of Somali
cultural heritage. Mire’s study demonstrated how Somali indigenous perspectives, like oral
traditions, are concurring and contributing to heritage management and archaeological
research methods in a self-representation and sustainable manner. Examining inclusiveness
and sustainability in the 2003 UNESCO convention, Bortolotto (2007) argued that the main
innovation suggested by the new heritage proposed by UNESCO as “intangible cultural
heritage”does not rest on the intangibility of cultural expressions, but rather on its support of
the idea that they are to be understood in terms of time or process and usage, not just for
aesthetic contemplation. The approach his study contemplates conceives heritage as a
symbolic and living space to be appropriated by local communities who are the bearers of a
collective memory and also as a consecrated masterpiece of the past to be venerated and
preserved. He further argued that the heritage label is globally enveloping all tangible and
intangible aspects of life, and heritage lists create an ever-increasing inventory of
essentialised samples of “cultural diversities”(p. 29). These essentialised samples of
cultural diversities, we argue in this paper, tries to delink people (like the Igbo) from their
particularized heritage with which they have attachment.
Ugwuanyi (2021) explored heritage ontologies in the Nsukka area of Igboland and how
heritage knowledge is built around time-space discourses. In that study, Ugwuanyi explained
the Igbo view of heritage as various traditions, norms and cultural practices collectively held
by a group of people over a certain period of time, which is tied or connected to a space-land –
Ala (the Igbo Earth Goddess). He further contends that for the decolonisation of heritage in
Africa to occur, “a good knowledge of intergenerational ‘dwelling perspectives’from different
loci of enunciation”must emerge (p. 17). This position refocuses our attention to the central
idea of indigeneity, attachment and sustainability. What is interesting about Ugwuanyi’s
work is his ability to interrogate the ontological mechanisms that manage and sustain
cultural knowledge through generations. Our study expands Ugwuanyi’s findings, it seeks to
understand what constitutes heritage, how heritage is acquired, conserved/preserved and
managed, and the ways that heritage resources can be sold or transferred to non-family or
non-community members. It also interrogates gender roles in the Igbo heritage management
practice and how it makes a stratified but collective contribution towards a sustainable
approach. Through the understanding of the concept of “ihe nketa”or “oke”in connection to
indigeneity, attachment and sustainability, the study shows the difference between one who
sees (Igbo) heritage as his inheritance and the other that see it as “fascinating”and so,
appreciates it mainly for its aesthetic or economic value. The particular ways in which the
Igbo people value, care for, relate to, define ownership of, and uphold heritage continuity are
all examined. The paper argues for adoption of indigenous conservation and management
principles that has strong sense of care, gender balance and sustainability of cultural heritage
The Igbo people of South-eastern Nigeria
South-eastern Nigeria is largely made up of the Igbo people, who speak Igbo, a language of
the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger–Congo language family (Obayemi, 1980;McIntosh,
1999). The Igbo live in the states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo with a land area
of 4106.2 square kilometres (McIntosh, 1999). The Igbo language has many dialects spoken
amongst the various Igbo sub-cultural groups, but they all share very strong cultural affinity.
The Igbo culture area has been described by Onwuejeogwu as “an area enclosed by an
imaginary line running outside of the settlements of Agbor, Kwalle (West Niger Igbo),
Ahoada, Diobu, Umuaboyi (Port Harcourt), Arochukwu, Afikpo, Isiagu (Abakaliki area),
Enugu Ezike (Nsukka area) and Ebu (West Niger Igbo)”(Onwuejeogwu, 1981: 3). The Igbo
society is largely patriarchal, and they live in patrilineages called “U
patrilineages, which vary in size and origin, make up independent villages, groups of villages/
towns or communities within which the knowledge of heritage is transmitted from one
generation to another through the family and/or group affinity.
Nnebedum (2018, p. 199) noted that the heritage of the Igbo people “depicts the
fundamental understanding and belief of the Igbo when it comes to matters like birth, life,
death, spirit, dignity, existence, power, mystery etc.”He also explained the sacredness of life
as some kind of intangible “heritage of honour...[that] sees life from three but unified points
of view-the bond with the ancestors who are dead; the brotherhood among those living; and
the extension of hope for those unborn, who will continue the tradition”(2018, p. 199). The
knowledge systems that connect the dead ancestors, the living and the unborn within a
known space testifies to the Igbo indigeneity, attachment and sustainability of their culture
and heritage that this paper engages. Possibly, the best description of the Igbo people is given
by Vincent Chiekezie Uchendu, who wrote thus:
Generally, the Igbo people share a common basic culture centred on a common language, common
institutions and common religious and cosmological beliefs. This type of unity within a variable
cultural complex had full expression in the area as in the kola-nut and white chalk customs, the
vigour in Igbo music and dance movements, their highly developed arts of wall decoration and
delicate body paintings, their pottery designs, weaving, folklore, oral literature, “mmuo”dances and
drama and traditional games and pastimes such as wrestling, acrobatics, archery and fencing.
The map (Figure 1) gives a geographical perspective into the location of the Igbo people
within Nigeria. For global context, Nigeria is in the Western region of Africa. Note that the
map is of present-day south-eastern Nigeria and the state boundaries shown were created by
the colonial and post-colonial governments in Nigeria. However, pre-colonial Igbo lived in
independent villages, and there are group of villages that extended into other areas that are
located outside the region represented in this map. There are Igbo villages/towns in Delta,
Rivers and Akwaibom states.
This study was conducted in Aku, Ede-Oballa and Nrobo communities of Enugu state,
south-eastern Nigeria. Ethnographic approach comprising interviews and Focus-Group
Discussions (FGD) are used for collection of qualitative data. Participants in the interview
included village chiefs and the elderly. The interviews examined the opinions of those who
have been deemed by the researcher to be very knowledgeable on the subject; due to their age
(>50) and status (e.g. village chief). The interview process had a total number of 22
respondents –14 men and 8 women. Each FGD panel comprised the village elders (men and
women) and the youths. One FGD was held in each of the village arenas/halls in the
communities, and there was a disaggregated sitting arrangement, where women sat on one
side different from the men–according to custom. In each village, the FGD was organised in
two sessions divided by a 20-minute refreshment break. A panel constitutes 54 participants
with 20 women and 34 men. The 20 women were all elderly (between 50 and 80 years of age),
but the men included 14 young persons (between 22 and 35 years of age) and 20 elderly
persons (between 50 and 85 years of age). The choice of the age range was informed by our
desire to interact with respondents from the villages that are experienced and have good
knowledge of the culture and heritage management practices.
The interview questions included demographic questions to determine age and
occupation, followed by interactive open-ended questions stemming from the study’s
objectives. Both the FGD and the interviews were conducted in the language most preferred
by the respondents, which was also within the linguistic range of the researcher, including the
Igbo language, Nigerian Pidgin English and the English language. Interviews conducted in
Igbo were translated into English during the transcription. The results were descriptively
and interpretively analysed in a thematic approach.
adirectly translates to “proceeds of inheritance”and
aderives from two Igbo words,
a(inheritance). On the other hand,
eis one Igbo word that means “share.”In some
eare used interchangeably to mean “inheritance”or “birth right.”
erefer to both natural and man-made phenomena that one possesses
and has authority over –by inheritance, transfer or purchase. Both terms talk about things
e) that are “inherited”or “bequeathed”(
a), and “shared”(
e), may be, among kin or a
group of kin. These terms agree with the indigeneity, attachment and sustainability
narratives that this article pursues. For the Igbo,
reasoning that they have particularised rights/authority to something (indigeneity), their
authority/rights are tied to it by birth, transfer or purchase (attachment), and they shall take
care of it to be able to pass it on to their children (sustainability).
The location of the Igbo
people of south-eastern
These words are used in other combinations like
a m (my
em(my share). Applied in a plural sense to capture collective heritage of a
family/lineage/community, one will begin to see terms like
e anyi (our thing),
(our inheritance/heritage), or
e anyi (our share). These goes with a pride in the ownership
and authority over something that will one day be handed down to future generations
through family/lineage/community affinity.
a anyi, specifically
implies that this thing has been bequeathed to me or us respectively, and it immediately
conveys a sense of custody and responsibility for care and inter-generational transfer; hence,
the attachment. Unlike the ontological Ala trilogy (Omenala, Odinala and Ntonala) that
describe the Igbo ontologies of heritage and its connection to land and people in the context of
time-space discourses (see Ugwauanyi, 2021),
eencapsulates all that is
shared, acquired and inherited.
During our study, we asked participants what heritage means in Igbo language. At first,
many did not understand the question because there is no one Igbo word to directly convey
what was asked. Many of the respondents gave varying answers. To some, heritage was
“anything owned by our people”(M. Onah, personal communication, 22 November 2019).
Others described heritage as “what we received from our ancestors that we will also give our
children”(U. Ugwu, personal communication, 22 November 2019). After many interactions, it
was perceived that the people’s understanding of heritage revolves around the idea of a
collective inheritance of a people; one that they take immense pride in, have attachment to and
have built affinity around it over a period of time. The respondents were further asked if they
understand the difference between Omenala or Odinala or Ntonala and
their responses, many were able to distinguish the terms. They described Omenala or Odinala
or Ntonala as a set of practices and traditions laid down by ancestors of a particular
community over a period of time. On the other hand,
e, they explained is used
to refer to a material and non-material “inheritances”of an individual, lineage or community,
which they have authority, responsibility and custody over. An explanation offered by U.
Okeke (personal communication, 23 November 2019) is that:
the act of celebrating the New Yam with an elaborate festival is a traditional practice that we
inherited from our ancestors and take pride in. That can be called our
a. But the step-by-step
process by which we celebrate this festival is our Omenala, and this could differ from one Igbo village
or town to another.
OnecandeducefromtheabovethattheAla trilogy is part of
concepts help us to understand how the Igbo show attachment to inheritance/heritage by
virtue of their indigeneity and how they show responsibility as they use/re-use or reify
these inheritances for the sake of their children. Relying on these epistemological and
ontological submissions on
e, we shall go on to further understand
heritage from the global literature.
ein the discourse of heritage
Heritage is an ever-changing mesh of the past and the present, not only composed of tangible
evidence but also intangible assets (Armenta, 2018). However, not everything found within a
people’s boundary necessarily constitutes their heritage; there must be a sense of ownership
and attachment (Goldewijk et al., 2011). Cultural heritage adds a distinctive character and
gives a sense of history and memory of a place across time (Khan, 2013). Wangkeo (2003)
grouped the importance of cultural heritage resources into four “values”: association/
symbolism, information, aesthetics and economics. Explaining these values further, he
argued that “association/symbolism”refers to the tangible link that cultural heritage
provides for the past, which the present connect to because of the need for historical
continuity and social identity. On the “information value”, heritage provide information about
past civilisations and knowledge for future users. The “aesthetic value “speaks to the artistic
qualities of cultural property, which provide enjoyment to the viewer”(Wangkeo, 2003,
p. 190). And the “economic value”of cultural heritage refers to adaptive reuse, cultural
tourism and antiquities trade. These values conspicuously reflect the character of rootedness
(indigeneity), attachment and sustainability. In this sense, the particularised
intergenerational paternality of heritage highlights its indigeneity and convey reasons for
attachment and continuity.
Again, Schofield (2008, p. 18) pointed out that heritage as a concept is closely related to
inheritance. It is often perceived as something gained from the past, with benefit for today
and the future. The term “cultural heritage”, on the other hand, relates to inherited resources
which perform in the present to express shared culture, values and identities (Schofield, 2008;
Trigger, 2006). Here, a pattern that links heritage to a people with affinitive duty of care and
continuity have continued to emerge. The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the
Value of Cultural Heritage for Society defined heritage as:
...a group of resources inherited from the past which people identify, independently of ownership, as
a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It
includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places
through time. (Council of Europe, 2005,p.3)
A closely related definition is given by English Heritage (2013d), describing heritage as
comprising “all inherited resources which people value for reasons beyond mere utility”.
Heritage according to the English heritage (2013e) could also mean “inherited assets which
people identify and value as a reflection and expression of their evolving knowledge, beliefs
and traditions, and of their understanding of the beliefs and traditions of others”.
These definitions framed mostly by the global North does not categorically embrace all
the realities of many communities in the global south. Like in our case study, many languages
and cultures do not have a word that directly convey heritage meaning; there is no outright
word for “heritage”among the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria. Much like in the global
discourse, the Igbo perceive “heritage”as an inheritance-Ihe Nketa-that binds a people or a
group together. Ihe nketa is an Igbo word that loosely translates into “inheritance”or “birth
right”. It often refers to both natural and man-made phenomena that one possesses either by
inheritance or purchase. For the Igbo people, any “heritage”must have tangible and
intangible manifestations, must have a generational custodian (or custodians), must be tied or
connected to place or land (space) and must have some elements of ephemerality. These
characteristics have been summarised under the time-space discourse in many different
heritage literatures (Ingold, 1993;Harrison, 2013;Ugwuanyi, 2021). Important point to note
from Ugwuanyi’s study is that the past is not separated from the present in Igbo cosmology
(for different cases on this position in Africa, see Schmidt and Mrozowski, 2013). The
processes of transferring Ihe Nketa and Oke bridges the gap between (dead) ancestors, the
living and the unborn children, therefore, highlighting the role of time-space in Igbo heritage
Also, there is no distinct demarcation between the “tangible”and “intangible”as regards
the Igbo heritage, in that the intangibles are made manifest in the tangibles. For example, the
knowledge of cooking Abacha  is made manifest in the food itself when it is cooked, and so
without the knowledge, there will be no food. Likewise, for natural heritage resources like
caves and lakes; the Igbo belief systems agree on the existence of an unseen creator from
whom everything was made. That belief system (intangible heritage) is, again, made manifest
in those lakes and caves (tangible heritage), there is not one without the other (see Munjeri,
2004;Ugwuanyi and Schofield, 2018). Hence, we may give the Igbo definition of heritage as
various traditions, norms and cultural practices collectively held by a group of people (related
by birth or ancestry) over a certain period of time, and that is tied or connected to a place of
origin or settlement. Simply put, Igbo people see heritage as a sustainable, renewable and
inclusive process that gives them identity, pride and unity. It is sustainable because it is cared
for and passed from one generation to another; it is renewable because it is derived from their
collective interactions with their environment; and it is inclusive because it involves both
male and female, the old and the young.
Acquisition, ownership and transfer
Among the Igbo people, heritage has been and can be acquired by birth-right, knowledge
transfer, purchase, loans or other such arrangements. The very phrase “ihe nketa”implies
something that can be shared with others. Intangible aspects of the Igbo heritage, especially
indigenous knowledge practices like traditional healthcare, rain making or blacksmithing are
acquired and transferred through learning and sometimes, through an inexplicable talent or
“gift of nature”. This learning process is usually in the form of an informal apprenticeship,
where the master shares and transfers the knowledge to the apprentice. Participants in this
study argue that most of such apprenticeships are paid for while a few are done based on
familiarity. Using the examples of his children, T. Obiorah (personal communication, 22
November 2019) explained:
I cannot forget that I paid nothing to send my son to go and learn Blacksmithing. The Blacksmith,
“Papa Igwe”(Father of Iron) is my friend and he agreed to teach my son how to forge metal for free. I
think he was even happy that a young man was willing to learn his soon-to-be-obsolete skill. He said
his own sons have refused to stay with him to learn the skill.
It was presented that local expertise knowledge (which belong to the intangible heritage) are
transferred from parents to children. But our findings above show that it could also be
transferred to younger generation through apprenticeship. Tangible aspects of the Igbo
heritage, on the other hand, like shared cultural spaces, lands and other cultural properties are
acquired or transferred through birth-right, purchase, loans or other such arrangements. In
the case of a shared cultural space, the custodian(s) must seek and get the consent of the other
members of the community before such purchase is allowed to go through. That is to say that
they are the custodians of the cultural heritage, but they do not possess the right to single-
handedly decide on the sale or transfer of the said cultural property. Describing how
collective heritage is managed by the custodians on behalf of the people, V. Onyishi (personal
communication, 20 December 2019) narrate that:
In Ede-Oballa here, and even around the entire communities in Nsukka, we have those we call the
Onyishi. They are the eldest person in particular kindred, clan, village or even town. They are the
custodians of the people’s tradition, knowledge systems and other heritage elements. My father was
the immediate past Onyishi of Ede-Oballa town, and he died at the age of 112 years. During his time
as Onyishi, if a communal land was to be sold or loaned out, he would call for a meeting for a collective
agreement to be reached. I recall that my father was highly respected, but he never acted unilaterally
whenever it came to a public asset.
This is instructive about the rights of every member of a family/lineage/community in the
management of a collective
e. It also shows that the Igbo are not opposed to
sharing their heritage with others, so long as they are agreed, properly acknowledged and
referenced in any future “usage”. Non-family or non-community members of a particular
heritage can learn (intangible), purchase or loan (tangible) heritage resources in Igboland. As
one participant put it, “we are always happy to hear that in faraway Abia state, an ikorodo
dance group acknowledge the fact that they learnt the dance from Nsukka in Enugu state”
(A. Ugwu, personal communication, 24 October 2019) (see Plate 1).
Interestingly, even though attaching economic value to heritage is a controversial issue
among heritage scholars (Ellwood, 2018), the Igbo often regard their heritage as an asset and
as one of the yardsticks for socio-economic status. Hence, in being the custodian of any such
Igbo heritage, like a dibia (native doctor) or attamah (chief priest), one joins the top social class
of the Igbo society. As explained by Sara Longwe (1997), ownership occupies a high place
close to empowerment not only because it entails access and control, but also because it
extends to include the ability to appropriate the resource. Therefore, the owner or custodian of
a heritage resource has access to the resource and makes decisions about its use or not. The
ownership of heritage resources in Igboland is quite similar to what has been described
elsewhere by Apusigah (2011, p. 6) thus:
The concept of ownership takes on similar meaning in the family... Here, the family head owns
people by virtue of his or her responsibilities toward their welfare. Like the land priest or priestess, it
is his or her duty to ensure that the material, physical and spiritual needs of all those under his or her
care are met. He or she watches over everyone and is responsible for managing collectively generated
resources on behalf of the group.
Even though the ownership of a collective heritage in Igboland is attributable to one
individual, like the Onyishi in this sense, its management is subjected to checks and balances
by all those related to the heritage by affinity. However, the custodian has right to obtain
economic gains on the people’s behalf provided he/she did not sale it or transfer the ownership
without approval. But whose responsibility is it to preserve such heritage?
The Igbo approach to heritage preservation centres mostly on the intangibles than the
tangibles. For them, knowledge matter more than objects. The concept of “museum”as a
place where objects are displayed for education and preservation is alien to the Igbo. The
equivalent is the village arena, where cultural materials are kept, and performances of all
kinds take place (see Ugwuanyi, 2018,2019). Even oral tradition and memory preservation
are personalised in clan elders, Onyishi,dibias and other such custodians of culture, and they
are shared in the village arena. A. Nwako (personal communication, 21 December 2019),
explained this personalisation of heritage knowledge thus:
We do not keep objects for people to come and watch like is done in the Unity Museum, Enugu. Daily,
our children learn about their past and their heritage from their parents and any elder around them.
Our young ones also use available cultural materials for cultural purposes under the guide of elders
and would solicit further information on their usefulness from those elders. In the event of a gap in
A blacksmith in his
workshop in Ede-
recollection or disputed memories, we go to our Onyishi to seek clarifications and explanations. If the
matter is female-related, we go to the Onyishi-Umunwunye (eldest woman in the clan or village). He or
she can request for time to consult with the ancestors to give feedback at a later date. Their
pronouncements are regarded as final because we believe that by virtue of their age, they are closer
to our ancestors.
This means that the Onyishi or Onyishi-Umunwunye serve as the eyes, ears and mouth of the
ancestors that watch, guide and correct the ways that younger generation learn and use
heritage. They are entrusted with the conservation of the material evidence of the culture
(Ugwuanyi, 2018). But each generation is at liberty to shape their lifestyle towards solving
their own needs with the inherited heritage resources, while giving the next generation a
chance to do so as well. This approach highlights the meaning of “Ihe Nketa”that embody
sustainable heritage management practice. V. Onyishi (personal communication, 20
December, 2019) corroborated Nwako’s comments above when he explained that:
Whenever there is a report of loss of a cultural symbol or object, either due to theft or destruction, the
Onyishi in conjunction with other traditional stakeholders will begin a process of recovery or
re-installation (when recovered) of the item. Where it becomes impossible to recover, they will
immediately seek to re-construct, replace or re-make the object, using the knowledge and
descriptions offered by the Onyishi or any person very knowledgeable about the issue at hand.They
know which Blacksmith or wood sculptor made what, and from what type of stone or tree the object
was made from. In some cases, ancestors or deities are consulted through the Afa divination to offer
The above explanation shows that the physical disappearance (loss or theft) of a cultural
object does not necessarily lead to the end of a cultural practice associated with an object.
Such occurrence may only cause a delay or a mild interruption, but the cultural continuum of
the Igbo is largely dependent on the knowledge processes, conveyed through oral traditions
and preserved in people’s memories. In a similar submission by E. Oragwu (personal
communication, 19 November 2019), physical destruction to a cultural space or object cause
only but a minimal hitches in the cultural continuum. She explained that:
Some overzealous Christians engage in the destruction of certain physical places of worship (village
shrines) around our town, many times without proper consultation. They do not understand that
doing so does not end worship of the deity because worshippers can always build themselves
another effigy or another shrine. It is only when the worshippers themselves have a collective
agreement to renounce and revoke the deity (iju arusi), that the worship can end; whether or not the
shrine continues to exist physically will have no consequence again.
Igbo people do not regard the idea of keeping cultural materials as a way of preserving them,
rather, they uphold the embedded knowledge, which is transferred from elders to children
through generations. Most of such cultural knowledge are preserved in oral narratives,
myths, songs and proverbs or folklores; and landscape holds the testimonies (for similar
cases in other parts of Africa, see Sinamai, 2020;Apoh and Gavua, 2016;Chirikure and Pwiti,
2008). Through these processes, the Igbo memorialise their experiences with natural and
cultural environment, as well as leave clues to their creative process. From the study, one
observes that the primary instrument or driver for heritage management in Igboland is the
family unit, then, lineage and community. Parents share stories of family or lineage history
and experience with their children. Through this process, the history and knowledge are
passed on from one generation to another. In the case where the family unit is disrupted,
e.g. due to strife, illness or a major upheaval, there are other agents that can fill this void and
serve as collective repositories of cultural knowledge or skills for the next generation. These
include extended family members, members of a kindred or clan. Interestingly, the Igbo
people raise(d) their children especially in the past through a collective effort involving
members of the extended family, other relatives, even, members of the village at large. This
practice is revealed in the Igbo proverb, “ora na azu nwa”(translation: “a child is raised by the
community”). This way, the Igbos preserve the intrigues of the past and the dynamics of the
present for future generations.
The preservation of heritage through oral tradition usually told by elders have been
reported in other societies (see Apusigah, 2011;Mire, 2007). Commenting on the efficacy of
this approach, Apusigah noted that:
Their collective responsibility includes socializing the young into age-old family and community
traditions and values as well as conserving and expanding resources for generational transfers.
Older generations commit themselves to teaching their traditions and values to the young and in
acquiring resources that can be passed on to their next generation. By that virtue, indigenous
wisdom upholds the values of inter- and intra-generational sustainability in their dealings in the
environment. (Apusigah, 2011)
Oral tradition, apprenticeship, taboos, sanctions, cults, rituals and totemism  make up the
ways the Igbo protect and preserve their heritage resources. For example, the Igbo use taboos
and sanctions mainly from a conservationist perspective to promote stability and longevity
of their heritage resources through restricted access, moral rectitude, and the fear of
retribution. Those methods serve their purpose of preserving heritage resources until the
younger ones are able to acquire and manage them. As pointed out by Mire (2007), since
tangible heritage resources essentially are first conceived in the mind of the creators, then
preserving the mind and knowledge processes behind those tangible objects is just as
important as the current global fixation on the preservation and conservation of material
culture. In other words, since material culture is tangible evidence of human knowledge, this
knowledge is also a “tangible”existence in the mind that can, at any point, be turned into a
tangible object. The problem with this approach is the ephemerality and uncertainty of
human existence; the custodian of any such knowledge could die without having transferred
their knowledge to the next generation, or without even expressing such knowledge through
tangible objects. It is pertinent to note, therefore, that the Igbo method of heritage
preservation is not perfect, in that it could contribute greatly to the neglect of tangible
heritage resources. However, it is worthy of consideration in the global efforts towards an
integrated sustainable heritage management solution because of the intergenerational
connectivity of knowledge sharing. Additionally, the Igbo approach is inclusive because of
the ways it allows every gender to play a role.
Gender roles in Igbo heritage management
Like in many African societies, the men are in charge and are made to become the custodians
of many heritage resources (Apusigah, 2011, p. 8). For the Igbo, it happen because many
heritage resources are inherited through patrilineal links. But this does not in any way
prevent the women from having access to the resources, nor does it relegate them to the
unseen background. As a matter of fact, there have been prominent queens and even a female
king in Igbo land (Achebe, 2011). In the communities we studied, the women had their own
socio-cultural institutions that also contributed equitably to the general wellbeing of shared
heritage resources. There is also the prevalence of female deities and shrines in these
communities, many of which are more dreaded than their male counterparts. Such female
deities like Api-Opi in Enugu state re-enforce the characteristic industriousness and strategic
roles played by the Igbo woman towards the sustainability of family and community heritage
(see Amadiume, 1987;Korieh, 2007).
As noted by Vanallen (1972, p. 171), the Igbo socio-political and cultural systems featured
“diffused authority, fluid and informal leadership, shared rights of enforcement, and a more
or less stable balance of male and female power”. Perhaps, a more succinct description of
gender realities in Igboland was made by Kirk Arden Hoppe in her review of Amadiume’s
book, Male Daughters, Female Husbands thus:
It was not unusual or irregular in the nineteenth century for Igbo daughters to technically become (in
terms of lineage position and control over property) sons (male daughters), and for married and
widowed women to also occupy the economic and social position of husbands by marrying other
women (female husbands). The Igbo and other communities in Africa had and continue to have
separate, stable yet flexible gender spheres that are not biologically determined at least in one
direction. (Hoppe, 2016, p. 499)
Bringing the above position into the management of heritage resources, we found that Igbo
people base their general gender roles on two main factors, the physical and biological
requirements of a particular task or activity (see Plate 2).
A participant, F. Ugo (personal communication, 23 December 2019) explained that:
For everything we do, we have the male and female custodians. For example, we have the Onyishi
(eldest male in the clan or village) and the Onyishi-Umunwunye (eldest female in the clan or village).
We also have male and female chief priests in our town, as well as male and female title holders.
People who think that women are “taken for granted”in this our culture have not taken their time to
look into every aspect of it. In some aspects, women take the charge and in some others, the men take
charge. One needs to also understand the distinct responsibilities between our Umuada and
What Ugo is saying essentially is that every moment or event in the Igbo culture has a
mutually agreed balance of gender requirements and responsibilities. Men and women are
allowed to participate, directly or indirectly, and at varying proportions, in the management
of their shared heritage resources. Even among gender-exclusive groups, like the male-
exclusive Mmanwu (mask cults), or the female-exclusive Umuada , the “other”gender does
perform subtle functions in the background towards the greater good. These functions may
include mask weaving, singing, drumming, basket making, or something as essential as
security. In the three sites studied, it is said that women are the ones that buy materials used
by the Omabe masked spirits. Also, during religious activities or festivals, the men do the
rituals, consult the oracles and pour libations, while the women sing, dance and are concerned
with the painting and beautifying of these cultural spaces (Agbogu and Igbokwe, 2015). In
this manner, heritage management and preservation among the Igbo is a responsibility
shared by men and women. Therefore, their practice is inclusive and sustainable.
Women in Nrobo
making pots with clay
while their children
We have seen in the preceding pages how the Igbo concepts of Ihe Nketa and Oke
communicate heritage management and conservation in a manner that link up the
theorisations of indigeneity, attachment and sustainability. Merlan (2009, p. 304) argued that
indigeneity “connotes belonging and originariness and deeply felt processes of attachment
and identification, and thus it distinguishes ‘natives’from another”. At another level,
indigeneity means “peoples who have great moral claims on nation-states and on
international society, often because of inhumane, unequal, and exclusionary treatment”
(p. 304). Whereas the latter may not actually have any bearing to the ways that the Igbo
concepts of Ihe Nketa and Oke explains indigeneity, the former summarises its tenets that
focus on rootedness and belonging and how they are expressed at individual/family levels
and at village/town levels respectively. Of course, the separation of “natives”from the “other”
is expressive of one’s ability to inherit or partake in sharing something-heritage in this sense.
If all heritage is someone’s heritage, and someone determine that they exist (Tunbridge
and Ashworth, 1996), then, one cannot but understand that the Igbo principles recognises
heritage as patrimony. And patrimonial heritage is a property “heirloom”which parents
handed on to their children. You can either partake in it by affinity or by way of creating new
meaning around it through imaginative attachment in form of “gaze”. In this manner,
Merlan’s essentialised division of “native”and the “other”stands because the natives are
attached to heritage through kinship affinity. Thus, separating the natives from the “other”
who would become attached through “tourist gaze”(see Urry, 2002). Heritage sites are great
“resources for locality building because of the linkage between people and the soil”which is
“considered to be the essence of naiveness and belonging”(Byrne, 2002, p. 138). At this point,
the principles of indigeneity and attachment is inevitable, if not the only option towards an
inclusive and sustainable management of heritage. Therefore, the Igbo concepts of Ihe Nketa
and Oke is useful here because of the ways they give opportunity for inclusion of the “other”
through transfer of heritage knowledge by apprenticeship and exchange. This agrees with
Okpoko’s (2006) position that development actions become sustainable if they are
environmentally compatible, socially acceptable, and economically beneficial to all
stakeholders. Consequently, heritage development action is sustainable if it appeals to the
psychological and cultural needs of the public especially members of the indigenous local
communities that live and experience heritage in their cultural places (Ugwuanyi, 2018).
For management and conservation purposes, Abungu (2005) has argued that national
museums have potentials for revitalising interests in local cultural traditions. On this note, we
think that the application of heritage management and conservation principles that has great
sense of care, gender balance, and sustainability is required. As a result, the Igbo principles
should be embraced especially in a multi-cultural country like Nigeria, where indigenous/
local peoples value their heritage more than they do to “national”heritage that in their
sensibility, belong to everyone but to no specific person(s). A heritage with such vague
ownership faces problem of sustainability. In fact, it is detached from the people that would
supposedly care for it as their Ihe Nketa or Oke. As a result, it would hardly survive into the
future because it has been alienated from the kinship genealogical line that gives it “life”and
meaning. Of course, it may survive because of the attached values created through the
imaginative “gaze”but having be disconnected from those that would do anything possible to
keep it alive as their Ihe Nketa or Oke, one would begin to wonder the extent to which such
heritage can survive into the future.
This paper provides new perspectives on heritage management practices from a specific
cultural group–the Igbo of Nigeria. In particular, it explored how the Igbo concept of Ihe Nketa
and Oke connects with indigeneity, attachment and sustainability in a manner that preserves
cultural heritage. Despite a plethora of challenges, many sub-Saharan African societies,
especially the Igbo have beenable to preserve and conserve their heritage resources within their
space across time. The concept of Ihe Nketa and Oke recognises the ephemerality of tangible
heritage resources and so, puts more focus on the preservation of intangible heritage–
knowledge over objects. It also describes the framework for the acquisition, use, transfer and
disposal of heritage resources in the Igbo society. Therefore, highlighting the roles it plays in
establishing indigeneity, yet, reflecting how people are attached to a particular heritage.
In light of global discussions on the best approach to sustainable heritage management,
this study contributes to the critical heritage studies’understanding that heritage is a
“cultural and social process”(Smith, 2006). Heritage professionals may note what similarities,
differences and insights they can draw from the Igbo principles of heritage management and
conservation that rely on Ihe Nketa and Oke towards achieving integrated model that address
sustainable approach. As the quest for the best method of management and conservation of
heritage continues, it is helpful that heritage professionals look towards the knowledge
systems of the indigenous/local communities around the world for solutions. This is because
these societies have been able to manage cultural heritage that are rooted in their knowledge-
based systems. We present in this paper, therefore, the Igbo principles which in our
understanding would contribute to finding solutions to an inclusive and sustainable ways of
managing and conserving heritage.
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