Omonigho: Child Versus Money In Esanland

(Interrogating The Past And Confronting The Present)

The gift of children is a secured future investment that thieves cannot break in and steal, and moth cannot consume. Children are the future of Esanland not money.

By Williams Ehizuwa Orukpe
Dept of History and International Studies University of Benin

Today, there is an apparent ideological shift in the Esan world view of children from Omonigho to Ighonomo as it were: a psychological recognition of the child that has made money as the arguable Omono (real child). However, for a better grasp of this emerging yet silent socio-cultural phenomenon in Esanland, an interrogation of Esan past is germane to enable us to confront the present cankerous cultural disorientation plaguing a people found 85km North-East of Benin City in South-South Nigeria. In pre-colonial Esan, the centrality of children to the political economy of the forest people informed their elevated philosophical world view of children captured in Omonigho meaning “children are better than money”. During the period, the family egbele in Esan language was the key to the sustenance and continuity of the thirty-five communities that make up Esan. Put simply, the family was the pivot on which the entire existence and civilization of the Esan people revolved.

The family was the building block of communalism in pre-colonial Esanland. Esan families during the period were close knit and compact. The strong bond within the Esan family system dovetailed into their communal life to produce strong communities. Hence, economic resources in pre-colonial Esan such as land and other economic forest trees became communal properties held in trust for the people by the Odionwele (oldest man) at the family level and the Onojie (King) at the communal level. Little wonder access to them, use and exploitation of the resources of Esan was communally regulated for the benefit of all. In the circumstance, critical factors of production such as land and labour essentially became family and communal assets. The family supplied labour for farm work and communal projects such as road construction; and manpower for the defence of the territorial integrity of Esanland from external aggression and reproach. And children (youths) were central to the sustenance and continuity of all of these.

Therefore, in pre-colonial Esan, children were valued not only because of the joy having them as gifts from Jehovah brings; but most importantly because of their political and socioeconomic relevance to the continued survival of Esanland. They were the eyes of their parents and elders and the walking stick with which they walk. They were the active force of the Esan gerontocrats (ruling elders) of the Esan communities without whom they were politically invalid. Understandably, it was the pre-colonial Esan world view of children as Omonigho. And economically, this is appropriately so because children are themselves the means through which money is made in pre-colonial Esan. Consequently, before 1906, they were highly revered and valued across Esanland.

The Fall of Benin in 1897 to the British paved the way for Anglo-Esan military relations geared towards the conquest and subjugation of the Esan people. When the dust of the war finally settled in 1906, Esanland stood conquered and a British territory effectively occupied and integrated into the colonial administration as the Esan Division of Benin Province. 

In time, colonialism opened the door for Western civilization to penetrate and filter into the region. With this is the consequent degradation and displacement of Esan traditional world view of children. To the colonial authorities, money and the economic development of the British metropolis were more paramount than the people. Hence, the British valued the output of colonialism (money) more than the input, the means of producing the money. Along this line, the colonial authorities introduced new currencies into Esanland (paper money and coins) and encouraged the pursuit of money through her numerous economic policies such as taxation and the introduction and promotion of cash crop cultivation in Esan. The cumulative effect of this development is the disorientation of the Esan traditional orientation and world view of children. It monetized the consciences and psychology of the peoples of Esan than was the case under the Cowrie system in Esanland: where the child continued to be prioritized over money.

Without doubt, Omonigho as a traditional value system in Esan has changed tremendously since the attainment of independence. In post-colonial Esan, the observable societal reality shows that the child is hardly believed to be more important than money. Neither do Esan children (particularly the youths) believe that they are worth more than money. Not when the Western world view of money has taken strong root in Esanland and money prioritized more than all else. Money is observably viewed as the true source of happiness and security by most Esans like other people in Nigeria. More so, Christendom the dominant religion in Esanland would have the people believe that “money answereth all things”. And a current dominant secular view in Nigeria holds that people who do not have money, regardless of how many children they have, should hide their face. These trends clearly demonstrate the modern attacks to the Esan traditional world view of children.  

Resultantly, the centrality of money above all else in Esanland has fuelled massive rural-urban migration in search for money; and the unending waves of illegal trans-border migration and human trafficking of young Esans through the dangerous Libya and Morocco routes en-route Europe despite its negative demographic and economic implications for Esanland. (Up to 150 feared dead as boats capsize off Libya)

Parents are also increasingly abdicating their parental responsibilities towards their children and prioritizing money over them by encouraging their exodus to Europe, and even sponsoring it in some cases, because they obviously no longer subscribe to the Omonigho philosophy of the pre-colonial Esan socio-cultural value system in the twenty-first century. Omonigho in modern Esan has been reduced to a mere name with no cultural significance and weight. For instance, an Esan man with lots of money easily attracts honour and praise to himself and celebrated; while an average Esan family blessed with but without money is looked down upon and converted into the laughing stock of the society; and used as a warning example to others. The Omonigho philosophy that hitherto encourage large family size has today been clipped by family planning aimed at the effective maximization of the family economy and encourage capital formulation. More so, Omonigho the ideological framework for communalism in pre-colonial Esan has been permanently displaced in post-colonial Esanland by Western individualistic style of living gaining ground in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Accordingly, things are fast falling apart in Esanland socio-culturally speaking because the pivotal traditional philosophical framework and value system such as Omonigho the centre holding marriage and family together in Esan no longer and can no longer hold Esan societies together because of the love of, and preference for money. Hence, we insist that for a complete socio-cultural redemption of Esanland, the value placed on children in pre-colonial Esan should be restored to its proper place in post-colonial Esan. Granted money is needed for the purchase of essential products needed for family sustenance and for the settlement of disputes; but it does equate a child. Therefore, Esans by their thoughts and actions should guard against allowing the love of money to technically and attitudinally replace Omonigho with Ighonomo. Because possessing money in abundance without children begets misery and pain; while the gift of children is a secured future investment that thieves cannot break in and steal, and moth cannot consume. 

Children are the future of Esanland not money. Hence, Esans at home and in the diaspora must work in partnership to promote and defend the interest of the Esan child by prioritizing them over money; and by inculcating in them traditional Esan values that will reboot their self-confidence, identity and dignity as human beings. This will create a new generation of hardworking young Esans determined to stay away from social deviant and anomie; and contribute positively to the development of Esanland and Nigeria in general. And demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that omo’ (children) is indeed better than igho’ (money) as the people above all else are both the means and ends of development in any society.  

Williams Ehizuwa Orukpe
Department of History and International Studies
University of Benin, Nigeria