The vibrant world of Igbo culture, often heralded as Nigeria’s commercial nucleus, through an enthralling virtual exhibition entitled “Uwa Bu Ahia.” This compelling display unveils the intricate tapestry of Igbo trade, casting a luminous spotlight on the pivotal role of markets as the pulsating heart of community life, commerce, and social exchange in Igbo heritage.
At the helm of this remarkable exhibition is the youthful curator, Soluna Ajene, a sixteen-year-old scholar hailing from Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, whose remarkable talents have breathed life into this cultural treasure.
Markets: The Essence of Igbo Life
For the Igbo community, life unfurls in the bustling embrace of the marketplace. Beyond mere transactions, these vibrant markets serve as the epicenter of communal existence, nurturing social bonds, cultural dialogues, and economic pursuits.
With a populace exceeding forty million, the Igbo people have made an indelible mark not only within Nigeria’s southeastern confines but also across the nation. Fueled by their entrepreneurial spirit and a shared language, their history traces back to involvement in trade during the 15th-century slave trade.
Diverging from the experiences of many other African communities, Igbo slaves weren’t merely exposed to entrepreneurship; they often thrived under its tutelage, sowing the seeds for their enterprising nature. Preceding the Civil War, over ninety percent of urban Igbos were entwined with trade. Today, this indomitable spirit propels them to amass wealth and influence through myriad entrepreneurial ventures.
Soluna Ajene eloquently expresses, “In Igbo culture, life and commerce orbit around the marketplace. It stands as the nucleus of community, commerce, and all social interactions in Igbo land. We’ve yet to encounter another culture where the market assumes such a captivating central role in the worldview, underscoring the prominence of Igbo markets.”
Origins and the Evolution of Igbo Economic Life
Our earliest glimpses into Igbo economic life materialize from archaeological discoveries in Igbo-Ukwu. These findings, ranging from textiles to salt, beads, and metalwork, bear testimony to a thriving local and regional marketplace during the Igbo-Ukwu era, with tendrils reaching far beyond their borders.
Prior to the 1800s, Igbo commerce flourished in the exchange of salt, beads, metalwork, and an array of commodities. As far back as the 1500s, the Aboh people mastered the art of bead export, while Awka’s skilled blacksmiths forged bronze bells, iron, and brass bars.
Nevertheless, the early 19th century marked a significant juncture characterized by the slave trade and palm oil commerce. European demand for palm oil paved the way for British trading posts in Igbo territories, infusing fresh vitality into trade and economic prosperity. By the 1900s, trade currents meandered among diverse trading states, with the River Niger serving as a vital conduit of commerce.