Appraisal of the Traditional Economic Activities of Aku People and the Challenges of Modernity

Ochendo, Edwin Iyidiobi, a development-oriented economist and topflight public servant, appraises Aku traditional economic activities of yesteryears against the backdrop of the challenges of modernity. First published in The Platform, a development-oriented magazine of Club 13, Aku, Igbo-Etiti local Government of Enugu state, Vol. 1, No. 1, March, 2005, pp. 23-25, the author interfaces the historical evolution of Aku with her economic development, and presents them as inter-dependent variables that define the parameters of the discourse. A take-away from the account is that “Aku had gradually lost out in her erstwhile economic stronghold of Agriculture and commerce due to the irresistible influences of modernization. As a counter, she has to employ the same instruments of modernization to strengthen her economic life line . . .” (last paragraph). Do please enjoy the full details of the story in the link that follows.

 

An Appraisal of the Traditional Economic Activities of Aku People and the Challenges of Modernity

By Ochendo Edwin G. Iyidiobi

 

This topic from the writer’s point of view can be better appreciated with an incursion, even if superficially, into the history of Aku people.

Historical evolution and economic development are twin social variables that are inseparable in the course of any social cum historical discourse such as that under reference because they complement each other.

 

From the dawn of history, Aku people had proudly and most resolutely established themselves in two broad economic areas namely: commerce and farming. The History books are replete with vivid presentations of the exploits of Aku people in the field of commerce within allowable social and geographical limits of interaction in this part of the world from the middle of the 19th century. Aku traders, particularly the women, traversed the entire length and breadth of the old Onitsha province of the former Eastern Region of Nigeria peddling their wares. Among their articles of trade were the famous hand-woven clothing material called “Ajima”. Their trading itineraries carried them to such faraway places as Idah, Ankpa and other adjoining towns located in the present day Kogi State in northern Nigeria. Due to the complete absence of any form of mechanical means of transport and their unfamiliarity with the use of donkeys and camels as means of transportation, they carried their wares on their heads and travelled on foot.

 

Such was the industriousness associated with the Aku trader that comparatively analyzed, Aku towered above other communities within the Nsukka geographical area in the field of commerce. The result of this was a steady rise in the level of economic and educational development. As often happens with most human endeavours, this commercial dominance flourished only for some time. It declined when it could not be sustained any longer due to more pervading external influences which exposed the primitivism of both its contents and methodology and gradually forced it to capitulate to modernity. The fact was that articles of trade such as the hand-woven “ajima” cloth, the home-spun cotton threads, camwoods, herbal dyes, etc. which constituted the bulk of the articles of trade were no more demanded.

They were effectively displaced by better fabrics of European origin. The introduction of modern means of transportation also emboldened the hitherto faint-hearted peripheral trader to venture into more distant markets thereby introducing very effective competition into a market that used to be virtually a monopoly of Aku traders.

 

Thus, modernization ensured the removal of long distance trading from the exclusive preserve of painstaking, courageous and adventurous individuals as typified by the Aku trader of the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

Despite the role played by commerce in the developmental evolution of Aku people, farming and agriculture had always been predominant. Farming is and had been the economic mainstay of the Aku man. It is reasonably regarded as the primary economic activity of Aku people, while trading with all its seeming advantages remained secondary.

 

In the beginning, Aku people practiced homestead farming. This was a situation where farming activities were conducted on farmlands located close and around the homes. Farmer      s did not travel long distances to their farms, as is presently the case. The products from such farmsteads, though usually little, were often enough to satisfy the farmer and his immediate household whose demands were limited to just feeding and a little more. External dependents were equally insignificant as Aku people were averse to depending on others especially on matters of feeding and family upkeep. It was a social slight especially to one who had come of age and who was expected to show his independence. This had been an innate attitude, which might be misinterpreted by a uncomprehending outsider to be arrogance. Gradually, with increasing population and inadequate products due to declining soil fertility and very small farm holdings, Aku farmers were forced to look beyond their borders to farming areas with better possibilities. In response to this compelling demand, the first set of Aku farmers moved over to the present day Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area where there were large expanse of untapped farmlands and virgin forests beckoning on the bold and the courageous. At about 1900AD, the movement to farming areas such as ‘offifiaukwu’, ‘omogomo‘ and ‘ugwuukpata’ was already in progress. Aku farmers descended on these farmlands with gusto, comparable only to the actions of locusts on a vegetable farm. The work rate of the Aku farmer was so compelling and the production so high that the astonished landlord communities were cowed into quiet admiration as they could in no way cope with their work rate.

 

With increased productivity and the absence of any organized market to dispose of such excesses, the need to acquire more social relevance became apparent. The acquisition of ‘ozo’ title for men, ‘loloanyi’, obodo and ‘ogbajiri’ for women became an avenue to show off their wealth and achievements. Whole barns of yams were expended in acquiring these titles.

 

In the 1930s, the farmers began experiencing a decline in the yield of their crops. This obviously was due to the decline in the soil fertility occasioned by their primitive farming methodology. The shifting cultivation system of agricultural practice employed by the farmers led to rapid deterioration of soil fertility. The system exposed the soil to bombardment by agents of denudation. Insufficient fallow periods as were the case did not allow for complete rejuvenation of the already exhausted soil. Within the first forty years of the 20th century, Aku farmers had completely over-ran the farming areas mentioned earlier, leaving them as open grasslands bereft of nutrients or capable of sustaining any meaningful agricultural practice.

 

Consequently, by the middle of the 20th century, Aku farmers moved further inland in search of viable farmlands. This led them to places such as ‘Opanda’, ‘Ngeneukwu’, ‘Ugwu Onyishi’, ‘Adani, ‘Obina’, etc. All located within Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area. At this period, the payment of annual rent, though rudimentary was introduced by the landlord communities. This token payment then was more or less introduced to establish ownership by landlords rather than as compensation for the use of the land. These token rents had dramatically changed lately. It had become exorbitant and the use of farmlands by farmers had become subject to protracted negotiation with land lord communities. Aku farmers prospered, and firmly established themselves as leaders in their chosen profession. In all these years, the same system of shifting cultivation was employed with the same disastrous consequences as was previously observed. The yields declined and the farmers were faced with the grim choice of further migration.

 

Having virtually ‘exhausted all the available cultivable areas within Uzo Uwani Area, Aku farmers were again forced by low crop yield to move further inland and northwards into the forest reserve area of Kogi State. As should be expected, only the very able bodied and adventurous moved over to the reserves. While a few remained to scratch around the low yielding soil, the rest returned home to Aku in ‘retirement’. The latter had remained virtually unemployed. From observation, the migration of Aku farmers into the ‘reserve’ of Kogi State had been going on without any noticeable restriction and they had been carrying on with great enthusiasm. This enthusiasm, we must realize, would be short­ lived. This is predicated on the fact that the entry and cultivation of a government reserved area, using the primitive system of shifting cultivation, is tainted with illegality. From enquiries made, it had been revealed that Aku farmers had been making rent payments to illegal landlords/tricksters from Kogi State who fraudulently present themselves as owners of the area.

 

The euphoria accompanying bountiful crop yield may blind the farmers against imminent dangers lying ahead. In the near future, either of two things were bound to happen – they would either be ejected when their presence gets to the notice of the appropriate government agency or they would run through the forest with their usual system of shifting cultivation with its attendant consequences. What would be of paramount concern at this point in time would be the fate of the Aku farming population when they are left with no more arable lands on which to continue their age-long profession. As a matter of fact, that is the essence of this write­ up.

 

The social consequences of high rate of unemployment in a very populous community like Aku are frightening. Idle ingenious minds could become perfect tools for the devil’s machinations. From early times, Aku people had been rarely associated with larceny or criminality occasioned by idleness. They were always busy and that probably accounted for their inability to produce many professional politicians who have no other jobs. However, these hitherto rare negative qualities are beginning to manifest themselves among Aku youths. Armed robbery, house-breaking, and other ills of every description have become commonplace. Social vices like rape, indolence and examination malpractices are on the increase. Some liberal minded persons may want to excuse such misdeeds as the expected consequences of interaction with external cultures. Fine, but it must be realized that Aku was never at any time a closed society where foreign influences were locked out when such vices were completely absent.

 

The point being made here is that the much-cherished culture of industriousness that characterizes the average Aku indigene is being gradually eroded. This might be due to a combination of some debilitating factors principal among which is the growing insufficiency of arable lands within their immediate reach for sustained farming activities. The inability of Aku people, especially the women to maintain the tempo of their erstwhile trading prowess was another. They allowed themselves to be intimidated into ineffectiveness by modernity instead of maximally harnessing its innumerable advantages. The aggregate consequences of these developments would naturally be a gradual slide into indolence and poverty.  To arrest these calamitous expectations, it is imperative to create awareness among the people, thereby enlightening them on the dangers looming ahead. It is equally necessary to educate them on other available economic possibilities within reach, upon which they could build their sustenance. In view of this, one can rightly posit that the Aku Diewa Community Bank Limited had been divinely positioned to play a leading role in this expected economic re-orientation of Aku people. It could serve as the fulcrum upon which the industrialization of Aku could be shaped. These can be achieved through:

 

  1. The establishment of small and medium scale industries to generate employment for Aku youths.

 

  1. Encouraging the establishment of various kinds of industries by individuals or groups through granting of soft loans to them.

 

iii.     Organizing occasional seminars and symposia for the benefit of Aku people. They would be able to update their knowledge of contemporary economic/business matters, and be informed about existing business opportunities and possibilities.

 

  1. Using their various networks to educate farmers on modern farming techniques.

 

  1. Offering of professional advice to individuals or groups embarking on any form of business ventures.

 

  1. Encouraging the formation of partnership and co-operative societies among members of Aku community.

 

While Aku Diewa Community Bank Limited is expected to provide leadership in this direction because of its obvious vantage position, prominent Aku sons and daughters in the Diaspora should embrace the think-home philosophy which should enable them invest in their home land. On the whole, Aku people should as a matter of necessity begin to think about total industrialization. The success of these ventures would translate into the provision of improved commercial and other ancillary services. Aku could begin to emulate Nnewi, a town in Anambra State renowned for its numerous small and medium scale industries established wholly by their indigenes. Nnewi was saddled with the problem of scarcity of arable lands just as it is with Aku. But Nnewi had been able to overcome these shortcomings by taking advantage of industrialization. They realized their limitations in respect of land and agriculture early enough and opted for the present alternative. Aku is in a similar position. Our potential for achieving meaningful economic growth, using agriculture as we are used to, had been hampered by land limitation. We must therefore embrace the alternative to ensure the continued engagement of Aku people in productive ventures.

 

Conclusion

 

Without doubt, it has become obvious to every discerning mind that Aku had gradually lost out in her erstwhile economic stronghold of agriculture and commerce due to the irresistible influences of modernization. As a counter, she has to employ these same instruments of modernization to strengthen her economic lifeline by resorting to the ingenuity of her people using the Aku Diewa Community Bank Limited as a pathfinder. Through it and by it, Aku can harness to the maximum the various options, techniques and advantages available to modern

day entrepreneurs for economic development.

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