Anthropology Magazine
Poem / Expressions

A Tree’s Tongue

A Nigerian poet-anthropologist witnesses the powerful rising up of ancestors through the revival of a tree in the Igbo village of Ogbodu.
A photograph features a large tree fully topped with green leaves along the side of a dirt road and in front of an iron and concrete fence that encloses green grass. A car is partially visible in the foreground, and beige buildings lie in the background.

The Ogbodu tree of the Ficus genus.

Chukwudi Onuigbo/Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka

“A Tree’s Tongue” is part of the collection Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human. Read the introduction to the collection here.

Chorus of our forebears
In the ground
Speaking with one voice through the Ogbodu tree [1] Ogbodu is a village in the Eha-Alumona clan of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. In October 2020, there was the news that a tree that had previously fallen and a large portion of its trunk sawed off rose again without any human effort. The tree is a short drive from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I work. One of the graduate students in the sociology and anthropology department who hails from the town took me to the site of the event. I interviewed the oldest man in the community who, in this gerontocratic system, is at once the priest and leader in customary matters. I also interviewed eyewitnesses and took photographs. At a later date, when the community held a feast on the event, they invited me, and I went with some of my graduate students. The tree is of the populous Ficus genus and is called ọjẹ [ɔ̀dʒɛ̀] in the dialect of Igbo language spoken in Ogbodu. I sought the help of botanists at the university, but they have not been able to identify this particular species that can grow to an impressive size.
Using a writing coded in action nem. con. [2] Nem. con. is short for nemine contradicente, a Latin fixed phrase meaning “no one contradicting.”
Bidding those who are literate
In their sacred song: “Tell them,
‘We sure shall rise again;
As Mzee spake,
We shall rise again.’” [3] Mzee is Swahili for the “old man,” but Kenyans use the term to reverently refer to their former president, Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta, also a social anthropologist, had in his magnum opus on his Native Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) written, in anticipation of the African traditional religious rebound, “[T]he dead, the living, and the unborn will unite to rebuild the destroyed shrines.”

Peter-Jazzy Ezeh is a professor of anthropology and the head of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has published widely and has a passion for qualitative fieldwork. With archaeologist Pat Uche Okpoko, he published the book Methods in Qualitative Research (University of Nigeria Press), which is now in its third edition. Follow him on Twitter @phyphenj.

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