A year ago, my husband and I were blessed with our son. When we first became pregnant, I urged my husband to choose our son’s name and he obliged by selecting Osinachi which means “it comes from God” or “gift of the Creator.” Though I knew that our son could possibly look forward to a lifetime of confusion from our fellow American neighbors, it was important to me that our child be constantly reminded that he was Igbo. I wanted our son to know his heritage, to understand that he had a strong and unbroken link to his ancestors—to be confident in the fact that he had a definitive identity and culture of his own built on a centuries-old foundation. I never wanted our son to feel as culturally lost or as broken I did.
American-born, a descendant of kidnapped and enslaved Africans from unknown tribes, I married an Igbo man from the village of Afikpo in Ebonyi State in Nigeria. My husband Tochukwu speaks the Ehugbo dialect of Igbo. And when we visit with my in-laws, I am lost in the sound of their mother tongue. As I sit there in their midst, clueless to the details of their conversation, I clutch at familiar words and phrases, feeling in my soul as if I should know. After all, my last name is literally Igbo, the same name of the people who lovingly refer to me as “our wife.” Shouldn’t I know?
I so badly want a part of me to know and comprehend that which came long before me and resides as an unsolved mystery in my blood.
While carrying Osinachi, I made sure that Tochukwu always took time each day to speak to my belly. "Say it in Igbo," I'd implore Tochukwu. I needed Osinachi to know his own code, the code of his father’s father’s father. I wanted Ehugbo words to be familiar and comforting to him, not odd or exotic. I wanted those words to sing in his soul and perhaps this was and is a selfish thing because I so badly want a part of me to know and comprehend that which came long before me and resides as an unsolved mystery in my blood.
Now that Osinachi is a year old and developing a vocabulary, I have committed myself to learning Igbo alongside him. I have two reasons. The first I have outlined in the first paragraph above. The second is because I want Tochukwu, Osinachi and I to do our part to breathe new life into a language some say will be all but dead by 2025. I say woe to that. The Igbo fraternity and identity is far too strong and vital to let its language go softly into that ridiculous night. In the face of the Igbo language’s extinction I say to all Igbo the first Igbo phrase I ever learned: Jisie Ike.
Jisie Ike, pronounced jih-see-kay as a collective with the inflection placed on the see, is a phrase of encouragement. If you Google the words jisie and ike, jisie (jih-see) translates to “good luck” while ike (ih-kay) means “strength.” (Ike is especially good to remember because it is a word that appears in many other Igbo names and phrases.)
“Good luck strength” doesn’t seem to make sense to English speakers. And honestly, English speakers should beg forgiveness for their language's lack of such depth and dimension. Jisie Ike is a rallying cry, an urging to be of a positive spirit as you gather strength to carry on. No matter the challenge ahead, the circumstances of the day, what you have been told, or what has been predicted for you, keep your faith in the power that lies within you. Know and understand that you have the resilience, brawn, nerve, audacity, toughness to overcome and succeed. Fortify yourself. You are more than a conqueror. Power up and move out.
This is the first of many blogs to come as my son and I learn the Eughbo and central dialects of Igbo. I hope that you enjoy reading and learning along with us.
In all things, Jisie Ike!