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Is the Igbo Apprenticeship System Alive and Well?

Is the Igbo Apprenticeship System Alive and Well?

Main Market Onitsha e1677153522264

The itinerant nature of Igbo people have led to the continued spread of the apprenticeship system. Wherever there are Igbo people, one can be sure to find Igba Boi and Imu Ahia flourishing…

By Chimezie Chika

The System

Recall the first time you went to the market to buy Christmas clothes, accompanied by your mother, or elder sister, or aunt? You arrive at the section for clothes’ dealers; you enter a shop and you are greeted, not by the owner, but his young apprentices who would ask, “What cloth do you want? We have great dresses and shirts for your child. It will just fit her gem!” Or, if you have never been to the market, you might think of the numerous times you had a service rendered to you; at a barber’s, at a vulcanizer, at a photographer’s. At these places, most times, you are not attended to by the owners of the businesses but by their apprentices. The owner does not emerge unless particular tact or skill is required for a particular service.

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For nearly a century or more, the economy and business model of the Igbo people of Nigeria has been dominated by a distinct apprenticeship system known as Igba Boi. It is not very clear when the system began in Igboland. Some scholars have traced its origins to the period of slave trade and the business fervour that resulted from that inhumane enterprise. In my investigations, it appears that no one knows exactly how it began. The consensus is that Igbo people have always been business-minded. “I cannot remember a time,” says Gregory Agbazu, a sixty year-old shop owner at Building Materials International Market Ogidi, “when Igbo people did not do trading. My father never told of such a thing, neither did his own father. Business is part of us. It is part of our identity.” My research places credulity in the narrative that the Igbo entrepreneurial spirit came alive with the coming of colonial rule. From that point, there seemed to have been an awakening among the Igbo—a naturally upwardly mobile people—to create new structures for economic prosperity as emphasis shifted from the traditional farming economy that has dominated for centuries to the possibilities offered by urbanisation.

igbo apprenticeship-Igba Boi-apprenticeship
Onitsha Main Market
The Practice

In practice, the initial methods of the Igbo apprentice system are simple in its variations. A family approaches an established, usually well-to-do trader to have their son learn the trade from him. There is usually no formal agreement except a sort of gentleman’s understanding, over drinks and kolanut, “to keep the word.” The period of apprenticeship usually lasts between 6-7 years, after which the trader, his Oga, “settles” the apprentice, who has by then become adept in the trade, by sending him off with a sizable sum of money to begin his own trade.

As a young boy vacationing in my maternal hometown of Omogho in Anambra State, I witnessed the beginning of the apprenticeship of an uncle. A rich relative visited the family one Sunday evening and had a long discussion with my grandfather, requesting to take one of his younger sons as an apprentice in his cloth-trading business in Benin City. My grandfather considered the offer and accepted on behalf of his son, my uncle. Today, that uncle owns a big clothing shop in Benin City and has his own apprentices. My uncle’s success mirrors the aspirations and results of Igba Boi in Igboland, whose main motivation is to spur the continuity of collective economic prosperity, which promotes wealth-sharing within communities. In this way, no family is left behind in the rapid march to financial freedom. This is the Igbo concept of Onye Aghala Nwanne Ya: to leave no one behind in the story of success, for there is the belief that a rich man is not truly rich unless he has also helped his neighbours rise. The Igbo word for a wealthy man—Ogaranya—translates to “he who went and gathered and gave.”

In his Oga’s house, an apprentice serves in both domestic and business roles. He is taught how to buy and sell, deal with customers or, if he is learning a craft, he is taught to be skilled in the trade and carry out elaborate duties that make the day-to-day function of the business go smoothly. Ebere Ugochukwu, an old friend who now has a shop at the Building Materials Market in Ogidi admitted that the seven years of apprenticeship are not easy. “You need great patience to see it through. It is not at all easy.”

Onyedikachi Okafor, a young trader at Alaba International Market in Lagos, sighed when I asked him how his apprenticeship period went. “It is not something I can begin to talk about. But the truth is that you don’t expect it to be easy. To learn something that can help your life, you will have to suffer.” With the overtones of hardship during Igba Boi, I became very curious about the impact of these experiences on the apprentices who in turn become their own Oga after achieving success. “The experience of the apprentice is part of the process. It hardens him and makes him less frivolous. To become an astute businessman, you must pay attention to every little thing,” says Gregory Agbazu. “Igba Boi has made me what I am. If you look around you, most prominent Igbo men are products of the system. It has really helped us as Igbo people, especially after the [Civil] War when we had nothing.”

Other Apprenticeship Systems

The Igbo apprenticeship model is now widely studied all over the world as one of the most effective traditional entrepreneurial practices. Markets all over Nigeria and Africa have been sustained by it, and it has been exported, in its various forms, to other parts of Africa. Beyond markets, the system can be found in crafts such as blacksmithing and masonry and in many vocational skills, ranging from the tailor’s shop and the barber’s shop on the street corner to the confectioner’s on a busy road. There is no part of modern entrepreneurship that has not absorbed the system.

Over the years, strands of the system such as Imu Ahia (learning a trade) and Imu Oru (learning a skill) have been developed. Unlike Igba Boi, these two involve the formal payment of a fixed fee in cash and in kind by the apprentice or his family to an Oga, a business owner, in order to learn a trade or skill for a fixed period, usually not more than two or three years. After learning the trade, the apprentice must seek funds on his own to start his own trade. Imu Ahia or Imu Oru are the types that older prospective apprentices usually opt for. Strands of apprenticeship practices in other parts of Africa also mirror elements of Imu Ahia.

During the 1920s, when the Igbo began to emigrate to the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, they met a highly developed Hausa trade culture that has been in place for long. Big time groundnut merchants and farmers in the North had a system that was slightly different from that of the Igbo. Northern traders usually have apprentices from their families or Jammat that serve them over a period of time. “When you are an apprentice it is not a must that you will be involved in the master’s domestic affairs,” says Mohammed, a provisions trader in Onitsha who had served his master in Kano, many years before. “You can come to the shop from your house. The master has no obligation to pay or set you up after serving him. If he does, it is out of his own kindness.” The Hausa system has both elements of Igba Boi and Imu Ahia. In the case of Nigeria’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, as the story goes, his uncle, Sanusi Dantata, a wealthy Kano merchant was able to offer him a sizeable seed money to begin his own business operations.

The idea of apprenticeship is as old as the development of organised trades and markets. In ancient Greece and Rome apprentice craftsmen were known to have flourished. Apprenticeship properly took off in the Middle Ages in Europe when strong craft guilds were formed to regulate the indenture of young apprentices. In Africa, among the nomadic Berbers and the Nilotic peoples of Northern Sudan and the Sahel regions, the apprenticeship system is usually a father-son-uncle relationship. A young boy of between seven and ten begins careful training under his father or uncle in shepherding sheep flocks and cattle herds. In the intervening years, he is either given his own herd or takes over the animal holding of his old father. This particular form of apprenticeship is a constant feature of stories from the Christian Bible.

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How Igbos Are Exporting Igba Boi

After becoming frustrated in my efforts to speak to Kenyan and Zimbabwean Facebook friends, I was able to make contact with Uche Nwankwo, a distant relation of my mother’s, through my mother’s efforts. Uche lives in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where he is popularly known as Uche Rings—a reference to his trade in piston and rings. “I came here in the early two-thousands,” he tells me over the phone. “I came to serve my Oga, who is from Agulu. I served him for eight years before he settled me and I began my own trade.”

He would go on to tell me that he has over the years established a successful business with three shops and many apprentices. “There are many Igbo people here in Maputo. But the Mozambican people here are also starting to imitate us because that is the fastest way to uplift your people. I have two Mozambicans serving me.” Uche Rings could not answer all my questions, being somewhat reticent on issues concerning the details of his business. “He is very rich,” my mother said. “Many of us did not know this until he came home to bury his father. His father’s burial was one of the best I have seen. At the time, he didn’t have a house in the village. During the burial his Mozambican friends came and were saying that they don’t believe that he didn’t have a house in his village. They said he owned many properties in Mozambique.” Uche Rings would later build the house after his father’s burial.

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The itinerant nature of Igbo people have led to the continued spread of the apprenticeship system. Wherever there are Igbo people, one can be sure to find Igba Boi and Imu Ahia flourishing. A friend told me that when her family was living in Limbe, Cameroon, in the 1990s—where her father was involved in the trading of ironware—her father had both Igbo and Cameroonian apprentices. Some Cameroonian traders, she said, who did not have apprentices previously began to take in some of their own.

There is the story of a strong Igbo community in Equatorial Guinea. The story is that they began to migrate there in the 19th century to engage in cheap trade in the former Portuguese colony, which was widely called Panya during the peak of Igbo migrations to the country between the 1930s and 1960s. Though I was not able to contact any Igbo living in Equatorial Guinea directly, a woman whose brother had lived there told me that he used to send for fresh apprentices from her village.

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The Decline

To go on extolling the merits of Igbo apprenticeship system would be dishonest, for over the past few years there has been a visible decline in the system. The decline has coincided with the rise of unemployment and poverty. Markets and shops are no longer full of apprentices as they used to. Curious to know why such a self-sustaining economic system has declined in Igboland at least, I asked Gregory Agbazu what he thought was the issue. “Greed and lack of patience,” he said in a voice filled with suppressed anger. “Our young people want it fast these days. They have become too stubborn for their own good. They don’t want to follow the hard way.” A cousin of mine I spoke to, who had gone to Igba Boi twice and returned, complained that his master was too strict. “Every slightest mistake, he would flog you to stupor. His wife refused to do anything again. I would cook, clean, fetch water and still go to the shop. It was too much for me. What I suffered there is beyond words.”

Agbazu was dismissive when I told him about my cousin. “It is not enough reason not to endure. Some of us passed through worse. But look at us today. You do what you have to do. This generation just lacks patience.” Ebere Ugochukwu agreed that the stories of maltreatment has affected the apprenticeship but also pointed fingers at the rise of Internet fraud. “Yahoo-Yahoo is a problem. It has made our young boys greedy. No one wants to work anymore. When they see money being thrown around the way we see it today, they just lose their minds.” We were standing before a rickety old Daihatsu truck that had just brought a consignment of steel head-pans, shovels, trowels, and wheelbarrows to his shop. “I will also blame those Oga who refuse to settle their apprentices. A boy cannot give you seven or eight years of his life and you refuse to settle him. Stories like this do not help us, but it is becoming too frequent.”

Is the Igbo apprenticeship truly declining? The answer is relative. My investigations show that there is some reduction in Igba Boi in Igboland, but there is not much to prove that it is on a progressive march to decline. What it needs are innovative business strategies and props to hold it up. People are still learning trades and crafts every day. And in a shop in Onitsha Main Market, one out of four times, you are likely to be attended to by a young apprentice.


Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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