F.C. Ogbalu: Father Of Igbo Language, Literature


For sure, Frederick Chidozie Ogbalu, popularly known and addressed as MaziF.C. Ogbalu while alive, was not the first person to write a book in Igbo language. For instance, there was Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s first Igbo primer, a 17-page booklet containing Igbo alphabet, words, phrases, sentences. Written in Isuama dialect (used by emancipated slaves of Igbo origin who settled in Sierra Leone and Fernando Po in the 1800s), it was published in 1859.

There was J. C. Taylor’s New Testament Bible written in Onitsha dialect of Igbo. Although Taylor, born in Sierra Leone to parents who were Igbo freed slaves, grew up speaking Igbo as his mother tongue, his translation, however, never saw the light of the day, never got published because of the disagreement that arose between him and J. F. Schön, a German CMS (Church Missionary Society) missionary and language expert who felt that the dialect was not a universally accepted one in the then known Igbo world.

There was Archdeacon Henry Johnson’s 1871 Book of Common Prayer as there was Archdeacon Thomas J. Dennis-led Igbo Language Translation Committee’s 1910 and 1913 publication, respectively, of Ije Nke Onye Kraist (the translated version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress), and Igbo Union Version Bible which later became enmeshed in controversy after being rejected by Onitsha Igbo speakers, although much of the work on it was done by Archdeacon Johnson, a Yoruba, who was a highly intelligent and versatile translator, who not only developed an advanced Igbo orthography different from the Isuama dialect but also translated into Igbo the books of Matthew and Mark; Julius Spencer (born in Sierra Leone to a Yoruba father and Igbo mother, he translated the book of Acts) and, David Anyaegbunam (an Igbo who had worked for the CMS as a catechist, he translated the book of Psalms and all of the Pauline epistles).

There was Israel E. Iwekanuno’s 1924 Akuko Ala Obosi (a 262-page historical offering written in Onitsha dialect), as there was the 1932 Pita Nwana’s Omenuko. Originally published in 1933 by Longman, Green and Co. Ltd, London, it is widely acclaimed as the first novel written in the Igbo language. Ogbalu, born in 1927, was six-years-old when this book which tells the life story of Igwegbe Odum, an Aro Igbo businessman/politician, who migrated to Arondizuogu, was published. The book came long before D.N. Achara’s Ala Bingo (written in the 1940s in the old Igbo orthography before being translated into the new in 1963). Tagged akuko aroro aro (fiction), Ala Bingo is about the various experiences of life of a chief who goes to work in one year and returns the next year. Not to forget the 53-page Ije Odumodu Jere. Written by Leopold Bell-Gam and illustrated by Uthman Ibrahim, it was published in 1966 by Longmans.

But, in terms of contribution to the development of Igbo language, culture and literature, Ogbalu towers above them all, not only by dint of his copious Igbo literary offerings but by his1949 founding of Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC), to hasten and re-invigorate the battle for Igbo language. He went to bed dreaming about the development of its language, literature and culture, and he woke up in the morning still thinking about it. He walked as much as he ran, and flew with the ideas he had about its development. And, when he breathed his last in 1990 after a fatal motor accident, he died with the dream. And, looking back at events that unfolded afterward, it will not be out of place to say that he died with the dream and the dream died with him.

Before he and his SPILC stepped in to bring some order and sanity into the chaotic scene that was Igbo orthography and language development, any mathematical figure above 400 was given an amorphous name called nnu kwuru nnu (nnu being the name that Igbo called 400 in numeracy and nnu kwuru nnu, the hundreds/figures above nnu). If a child wants to divulge a secret, he says that his mother is struggling with the door. But by dint of meticulous linguistic research that saw members of the committee traversing the length and breadth of Igboland, they came up with Igbo names for figures beyond hundred, thousand, million and even billion. And, that was how we got, in Igbo numerology, figures like nari (hundred), puku (thousand), njeri/ijeri (million) and nde (billion). They even added, for good measure, words like Mahadum (university) and ekwenti (telephone) to the burgeoning Igbo vocabulary.

At various stages of the enterprise, Mazi Ogbalu sponsored the publication of a number of periodicals in Igbo to provide forums for discussing matters of interest, and outlets for budding writers in the language. They included: Anyanwu (The Sun, the first Igbo newspaper), Onuora (The Voice of the People), Igbo Ga-Adi (Igbo Shall Live), Odenigbo (That which is Famous in Igboland) and Igbo (The Journal of SPILC).

From his prolific pen flowed out many Igbo publications, ranging from novels to poetry books, folktales/fantasy books, textbooks and journals. They include the popular Mbediogu (1975), Nza Na Obu, Dimkpa Taa Aku A hu Ichere Ya (1972), Ebube Dike (1974), Obiefula, Uwaezuoke (1976), Nmoo Nmoo, Igbo Mbu (1-6), Ilu Igbo, Omenala Igbo (1974), Ndu Ndi Igbo, Onu Ogugu Igbo (1981), Okowa Okwu (Igbo Dictionary), Junior Omenala Igbo, Ayoro (Poem for) Umuaka, Abu Umuaka (1979), Junior Igbo Course, Igbo Institutions and Culture, Okwu Ntuhi (A Book of Igbo Riddles, 1973), Mbem and Egwu Igbo (1977), Edemede Igbo, The New Practical Igbo Grammar, School Certificate Igbo (1974), Onu Ogugu Igbo, Igbo Idioms (1966), Uyoko Mbem Igbo (Anthology of Igbo Poems, 1984), Mbido Maka Umuaka Nta Akara (1977), Akwukwo Ogugu Igbo (1972).

In all, he published about 100 books, but his first child and daughter, Dr. Mrs. Elizabeth Ijeoma Jidenma, Managing Partner, Leading Edge Consulting, contends that they are probably more than that. “While he was alive, he himself did not know the number of books he wrote,” she said. “In fact, there were books he wrote that others drew his attention to after he had forgotten all about them. And, he would only remember them whenever they were mentioned, simply because he did not keep records of their publication.”

“F. Chidozie Ogbalu sometimes called the “father” of Igbo language and culture, was a lifelong teacher and champion of his Igbo heritage,” Prof. Frances Pritchett of Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, observed in the introduction of her 2003 posthumous interpretation of Ogbalu’s Ilu Igbo, the Book of Igbo Proverbs into English: “He … took a great interest in the Igbo-related controversies of his time. These controversies revolved around efforts to standardise the writing and spelling of Igbo language, and to improve its numeral system.” If the two-tailed lizard is not killed, one with three tails will emerge. All lizards lie on their stomachs, so we cannot tell which has a stomach-ache. But, then, one should not use the fact that craw-craw itches to scratch himself into blindness.

Wherever a crying child points his finger, if his mother is not there, his father is. Towards resolving the controversy, Ogbalu published two seminal works,An Introduction to Official Igbo Orthography and An Investigation into the New Igbo Orthography. He also founded and developed SPILC to spearhead the fight for an appropriate Igbo orthography. It was in the course of the fight that he took the title, Mazi, in place of Mr. and ever after was to be addressed as Mazi Ogbalu. The monkey said that his eyebrows almost spoiled his beauty.

Prichett opined that the SPILC (in which Ogbalu later became its first Executive Chairman) had lofty aims, such as promoting the study and knowledge of Igbo language, sponsoring lectures, conferences, and teaching materials, encouraging young writers; and raising the consciousness of the Igbo people so that so that they would not lose sight of their cultural heritage. If someone you hate has a rash, you call it leprosy. She recalled that the SPILC seminars, “one of which I was privileged to attend in 1979” were influential in the establishment of a Department of Igbo Language and Linguistics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “Dr. Ogbalu was able to bring together people who shared his aims, and many of them are striving to keep SPILC alive now that it has lost its great leader. In the course of his all-too-brief life, Dr. Ogbalu published a remarkable number of works that gathered and preserved Igbo oral literature.”

Ogbalu himself stated as much in his paper entitled “Problems and Prospects of Publishing in an Indigenous Language: The Igbo Experience,” presented at the 1986 conference held at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), on the development of Igbo language, culture and literature. That was seven years after the one Prof. Pritchett attended and four years before he was killed in an automobile accident.

“The story of how I got involved in publishing might throw some light on the problems and prospects of publishing in Nigerian language,” he remarked at the beginning of the presentation. “… In 1948, I remember, Rev. T.T Solaru was appointed the first Nigerian publisher (or is it manager?) in the then Oxford University Press based at Ibadan. He came to Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, where I was serving as a tutor and delivered a lecture in which he outlined his work in that enterprise. After listening to him, I felt that the way had been opened for me to meet the challenge which my principal, Rev. E.D.C Clark, had thrown at me when I wrote a militant article in the Nigerian Spokesman on the Igbo orthography controversy.

“Rev. Clark had frowned on the article, because it was loaded with the nationalist feelings of the time, and coincided with the meeting of the Synod of the Diocese on the Niger (July 1948). He concluded his reprimand by saying that what I should have done was to produce books in Igbo to vindicate the claim that the Old (Union) Igbo Orthography was better than the New (Adam-Ward) Orthography which I had attacked strongly, rather than my getting involved in writing a newspaper article.

“There were no books in print written in Igbo except the Bible, the Hymn/Prayer Books, Azu Ndu and two or three other primers each hardly up to twelve pages: all these were in the new orthography. It is true that books like Omenuko, a translated version of John Buyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, (Ije Nke Onye Kraist), R.E. Iwekanuno’s Akuko Ala Obosi, all in Igbo, as well as Ibo Grammar and Ibo Dictionary by Rev. T.J. Spencer had been published, but they were all out of print. At least, with the exception of Pita Nwana’s Omenuko, I had not at that time come across any of them. One could see my problem as a teacher of Igbo language and why the outburst referred to above was justified.

“I decided to produce manuscripts for the publication of books that could meet my students’ needs. Unfortunately, neither Rev. Solaru’s O.U.P. nor any other publishing house would accept manuscripts in Igbo, not even Thomas Nelson and Sons, which now publishes a number of my works. In the fifties and sixties, publishers discriminated against Igbo, even though they were publishing freely in Hausa and Yoruba. As a leading official of the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture, which I founded in 1949, I did not spare them in my speeches, newspaper releases and articles. That was why, when the first publisher to appoint an Igbo editor to his staff did so, he had to write, appealing to me to minimize my attacks. The point I am making here is that because publishers (almost all of them Ibadan-based) discriminated against Igbo, I was forced into publishing.

“In 1957, I established my own printing press, the Varsity Press, in Onitsha. I was compelled to do this because of the immense delays I suffered at the hands of printers. There were also many disagreements over quality of paper and binding, typefaces (most of which were battered), outright suspension or cancellation of works already in progress without notice and regard to the fact that the deposits I paid were eked out of my meagre salary.

“The Varsity Press contributed a great deal in paving the way for me, because I could influence the quality of paper and work done and time of delivery. In fact, that printing press could have probably grown into one of Nigeria’s biggest book manufacturing and printing presses were it not that it was completely burnt and razed to the ground during the Nigerian Civil War. Woodpecker says that after his parents die he will break off the trunk of the apü tree, but after they have died, a boil grows in his mouth. It was resuscitated with a hand Adana purchased without rollers from a printer who had, before fleeing as a refugee, hidden it in the ground at Amawbia.”

The reason one chews a chewing stick is so that the ear can begin to dance. The press provided outlets for many Igbo writers who, otherwise, might have remained unpublished and unknown. In fact, some of the most successful Igbo books in different genres came out of the press. They include works like Ude Odilora’s moralist novel, Okpa Aku Eri Eri; E. Obike’s longest published Igbo epic poem, Eke Une, J. Munonye’s picaresque novel, Aghirigha, and several others. If the hand holds the spoon, the mouth is overjoyed. Tortoise says that his brothers did something good when they sewed him a coat of iron.

Born on July 20, 1927, to Michael Obiefuna Ogbalu and Elizabeth Nwamgbogo Ogbalu of Adagbe, Abagana, in Njikoka Local Government Area, Anambra State, Fred, as he was fondly called by his childhood friends, had his primary education at St. Peter’s Central School, Abagana, where he obtained the First School Leaving Certificate with distinction in 1940. Early the next year, he proceeded to Dennis Memorial Grammar School (D.M.G.S) Onitsha where, in addition to his studies, he joined the Society for Promoting African Culture (S.P.A.C), founded by a perceptive and far-sighted teacher, National Ohiaeri. It was this society which gave him some stimulating glimpses of the significance and meaning of African culture, and particularly of Igbo culture.

He later displayed a brilliant performance at the then Senior Cambridge School Certificate Examination held in November-December, 1944, where he passed in Grade 1 with what was then known as exemption from London Matriculation. That is to say, he passed at a sitting, a prescribed combination of subjects at the level required for direct admission into London University or to any other British University. The pear says that he caused the rich man to eat ashes.

On leaving the secondary school, he entered the Teaching Training College at Awka, where he obtained the Higher Elementary (Grade ID Teachers’ Certificate with a number of merits in 1946). In 1953, he obtained the then Nigerian Senior Teachers’ Certificate in Geography and History. The following year (1954), he achieved a degree of the University of London in Economics as a private candidate.

After leaving the teacher training college, he was posted to teach at Ubulukwu in present-day Delta State in 1947, later to his Alma Mater, DMGS (1948) and much later to St Augustine’s Grammar School (S.A.G.S), where in 1949, he and his friends and colleagues founded the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC). One whose house is burning does not hunt rats. The Society was to be one veritable instrument with which he was to register most of his achievements for the language and culture of the Igbo people for the rest of his life.

“Anybody with the least acquaintance with Igbo literary history in the twentieth century will agree that from the forties up to now, and perhaps for some time to come, a huge, pervasive and perhaps infectious Ogbalu factor runs through the period,” Prof. ‘Nolue Emenanjo, remarked. For Prof. Ernest E,enyonu, “Mazi F.C. Ogbalu sowed the seeds of Igbo Language and cultural studies, and they fell on good soil.”

The corpse in the ground told the flute player that he heard him, but the clay soil would not let him get up, so wrote Ogbalu in Ilu Igbo.