BY CHRISTIANA NWAOGU
Across Igbo land, August Meeting, the annual mothers’ congresses held in the month of August, usually witnesses massive home-coming of ‘Igbo women’ to their marital rural hometowns, where they unite with their rural-based colleagues for community development purposes. Despite negative commentaries about hosting or attending these meetings, the buzz is still as loud today as it was many years ago, CHRISTIANA NWAOGU writes.
The ‘August Meeting’ has a critical mandate in Igbo political affairs and represents the socio-economic and cultural development initiative of women. Indeed, this feast truly has typified the rise of women as a social force and their conscious pursuit of development.
The annual event has been entrenched in the calendar of Igbo women and they always look forward to it. It has become customary for most women who are civil servants to fix their annual leave in August to enable them interact with their fellow women in the rural areas without having to worry about their offices during the period.
The yearly reunion , which began over 21 years ago, and is currently celebrated by women in all the Igbo states including Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and Abia, is a yearly ritual that invites Igbo women living at home and abroad to return home in what is considered a desperate move to complement the efforts of the men in providing essential amenities such as roads, health centres, electricity and churches among others, in their communities.
The ‘August Meeting’ is indeed, a powerful and purposeful sociopolitical symbol and strategy for the exercise of power and maintenance of identity among the Igbo, affecting all realms of life and ‘restoring’ the once strong political voice of the womenfolk in traditional communities.
In other words, through this annual home-coming congress, Igbo women hold some socio-political influence and have become active actors and agents in the Igbo public sphere.
In the pre-colonial era, however, Igbo women had direct involvement and considerable influence in the public sphere, which was defined through institutional provisions as the socio-political arena, the advent of colonialism, however, introduced some policies which put women and their activities down, and considerably diminished women’s status and agency in Igboland.
In the years that followed, the Women August Meeting evolved from an offhand annual gathering into a dynamic platform for the empowerment, reorientation and mobilisation of women for community building and political participation.
In some states for instance, the association has governors’ wives to thank for that. Since most of them took the decision to become host of the meeting, each edition of the yearly event has identified challenges facing women in their state and taken the pain to offer solution.
Take Imo state for instance, in 2011 when it started, the theme was ‘Women: the Home Builders,’ in 2012, it was ‘Women: The Vessels for Transformation,’ in 2013, it was ‘Managing Stress and Unity of Purpose,’ in 2014, the theme was ‘Imo Women: Making a Difference through Involvement and Commitment’ and in 2015, the theme was ‘Women: Dare to Dream,’ with an accompanying slogan, ‘it is possible.’
In 2016 there was a visible paradigm shift in the theme and focus of the August Meeting. The title was ‘Looking at the Next Generation of Mothers’ and the accompanying slogan was ‘we cannot afford to fail.’ This peculiar edition was a wakeup call for women to inculcate the right values in their children who are the next generation of mothers and fathers.
In 2017 the theme was ‘Women: Building Bridges of Friendship Across the Niger,’ it was a clarion call on women to deploy their inherent talent to promote unity, peace, friendship, justice, equity and love not only in the Igbo nation but in Nigeria at large.
Then the 2018 edition had the theme, ‘Sharing our Common Cultural Values’ which was intended to turn the country’s diverse culture into a tool of national integration and society development.
Apart from this, the 2019 edition of the August Meeting is profoundly special because among other things, it was the first edition for the wife of the current governor of Imo State and some first-time lawmakers.
The organisation, attendance, performances and emotions that are usually showcased at this time, proves beyond doubt, that the Imo and the south east August Meeting has bonded the women, irrespective of status, class, creed, politics and religion.
This annual reunion also gives opportunity for the wives of governors to present gifts to women for their love and support in the saddle and mostly for their husbands.
The crowd at various venues where August Meetings are held is usually beautiful to behold as these places are usually filled to capacity with women from across the local government areas of the state who sleep over at the stadium preparing for the D-Day.
As it is done, after a circular announcing the date has been sent out to women leaders at the various local government councils and a time table of various events has been rolled out.
At this point, the host, who is mostly the governor’s wife, in an uncommon display of charity, which has sustained in the last years through her pet project and non-governmental organisation, gives out three, sometimes between two- three bedroom fully furnished bungalows to three indigent widows and mini-buses, a fully stocked fabric shop, as well as thousands of expensive gift items including refrigerators, gas cookers, motorcycles, generators, household items, thousands of bags of rice and other food items, kitchen wares, clothing and cash to deserving winners of various competitions.
In most cases, all the women that attend the August Meeting go home with a gift item.
There is usually a colorful, rich and intriguing display of culture from across the country including dance, food, agriculture and other attributes that underscore the country’s cultural identity.
Dance troupes from various states including some from South-south states such as Delta, Cross River and Edo perform to the admiration of the surging crowd.
Other various side attractions include a parade by women from various local governments of the state celebrating, comic competitions like the ‘osu mmiri,’ dancing competition by senior citizens, beauty parade and raffle draws. All these add colour to the event.
For a regular participant of the event, Madam Evelyn Nwaogu, the meeting helps preserve the Igbo culture. “Our culture is our way of life and we should hold tenaciously to it and must not let it go into extinction.
“The achievements of the August Meeting in the past years has shown that when mobilised, women can be consistent in piloting and championing developmental projects in communities.
“I have personally realised that the potentials embedded in Imo, my state of origin through August Meeting, especially from the angle of women empowerment, family consolidation and unity, as well as the community development, has really revolutionised August Meeting into a historic event, effectively packaged to actualise its potentials.
“Our leaders, past and present, have introduced events like arts and culture, agricultural products and food exhibition, thereby enhancing the discovery of talents and potential in women in view of their roles as home builders and agents of positive change, strengthening their collaboration and participation in meaningful societal development.”
According to Madam Nwaogu, some women who are in the politics in Imo State were discovered during August Meetings as a result of how they participated and carried out their responsibilities.
Nwaogu, who went down memory lane also said that the issue of attire almost marred the essence of August Meeting after attendance began to drop in many communities. “In those days, some women would package three different attires for the three-day meeting and the topic shifted from discussing community matters discussing the trending wrappers in town.
She said, the issue also began to cause dispute in some families as wives began to mount undue pressure on their husbands to buy expensive wrappers for them, a development which she said separated different marriages.
Speaking on the family disputes caused by August Meeting, another participant of the annual meeting, Mrs Esther Nwachukwu Uhah said adopting a uniform attire for all the women was what saved the day. “There was a big relief when a decision was taken that women should appear in uniform during August Meetings to end the competition on quality of wrappers women wore to the meeting.
According to Nwachukwu, since the era of wearing uniform at the meeting, attendance has increased tremendously and the friction in many families over what is worn to the meeting has ended.’’
Usually, August Meeting is broken into three segments. The first is organised at the village level, then at the community level and finally, at the church level during which the women offer thanksgiving in their various churches to formally end the meeting.
Mr Okpo Uzorhuo who dislikes the forum said, August Meetings have broken many homes and ruined marriages and businesses.
A lawyer of Igbo descent, Barrister Ogorna, opined that most women engage in untoward acts during this period just to go with the bandwagon. ‘‘You know how vain some women are, every woman likes to meet up with others. Nobody wishes to be intimidated by other women. Both the poor and the rich wish to meet up with the fashion of the time. And for them, they must meet up.
“As we are aware, women care about their looks and if their husbands cannot provide for what they want, some will start to look elsewhere just to satisfy themselves, thereby causing problems in the house. Many of them would go to the extent of stealing, prostituting, and doing all sorts of evil, just to meet up with others. Many borrow money, clothes, some other things in the bid to meet up, and thereby disgrace their husbands.
“During August Meetings, women compete with each other to know who wears the best clothes, handbags, shoes, earrings, necklace and so on. Women don’t joke with this and that is very bad.
Another Respondent Mrs Confidence Ikechukwu stated that the August Meeting, an annual gathering of women, has evolved into massive platform for the empowerment and reorientation of the women.
She noted that through the August Meeting, most women in the region have abandoned unproductive lives and assumed the roles of home and society building.
“With determination and unity of purpose, dangerous routes like laziness, gossip, insubordination, antagonism and rancor, have been closed while, with wisdom we widened many parts that lead to development, bearing in mind that success of one Imo woman is the success of all Imo women.
“Indeed, we have rekindled the light of positivism and togetherness and by so doing, have removed the primordial barriers of zonal sentimentalism, creed, social status and others that do no one any good, she added.”
The truth remains that married women among the Igbos, through their annual ‘August Meeting’, are moving into the public sphere, which was hitherto largely considered the exclusive domain of men.
Though the dates and time of the meeting vary from community to community, the important thing is that it falls within the month of August. And it is customarily binding on women to attend the August Meeting because not attending attracts a surcharge by the leadership of the women organisation. Fundraising and execution of projects usually forms the crux of the meeting and that is why projects funded by women dot many communities.