Ethnographic Research Paper Life History (Rites of Passage)

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ANTH 102-02

Porterville College – Fall 2018

Instructor: Robert Simpkins


Ethnographic Research Paper: Life History (Rites of Passage)


Ethnography of an individual involves the study of a person’s life as well as their culture from the past according to his perspective. Therefore, to gain an entire view of the person’s life experiences as well as their background, individual interviews are necessary to make it possible to dig out more information based on the subject. The paper is an interview conducted with an Igbo man who is 65 years of age. The main reason as to why I chose to interview the person is because he has his origins in Africa, the land of the black people and to whom are known to hold a rich cultural background. The reason for doing the interview with an old man is that they act as the gatekeepers of their cultural traditions and also that they have experienced more in their lives in relation to their culture. Thus an old person will have more to tell based on their personal experiences with the culture than a young adult from the same tribe or even the same community.

Being born in America, I have very little knowledge concerning the culture of the African people, but I get to understand that they have a rich tradition more than that of the American people. It is due to this that I decided to shift my focus on Africa and sourcing a credible source of the African culture specifically from the western regions of Africa. Among some of the information that I wanted to dig out include their cultural rites since birth to death as well as the important life events that the people of the Igbo community take seriously in their lives. I also wanted to know more about the role of the old people and how they are treated in the community, whether it is different from the American version of welcoming and treating the old.


Since most of the cultural information in ethnography can only be obtained through dialogues and observations, it was not different in my case. Face to face conversations that involved key informant interview was used to obtain relevant information about the Igbo community through direct conversations with Ucho, a 65-year-old man who departed African 25 years ago. Apart from the key informant interview, direct observation was also incorporated as I had to observe his manner of responding to the questions as well as his dressing code. The interview took place in different occasions, and I had the privilege of meeting with him three times as I was also keen not to spend too much of his time. The interview took place in a hotel in a private setting to which was more comfortable for both of us due to privacy and had less interference.

During the interview, there were various challenges though understandable as the person I was dealing with was of age and therefore some of the circumstances just popped out. One of the main challenges I had is to convince the old man to provide the information I wanted, and this is because he had not been used to such interviews and he had not done any before. Building the trust between us was one of the difficult things and therefore to prove that I wasn’t the kind he thought of, I had had to bring over some gifts to lure him so that I get the story. After building the trust, we had a very nice time and even offered more information that I had not planned for prior to our interview. The other challenge was time, some of the time Uchu was late, and I had to be patient waiting for him to arrive. It is not only his part that had failed us but also, the hotel place that we had book virtually some of the times were occupied, and I had to explain to the people what I was doing.


The Igbo tribe has its origin from the southwestern part of Nigeria residing in a place famously the Igboland. The rites of passage that is birth, marriage and burial are among the most significant family life events in the Igbo culture. Apart from the three, there are others that are significant as well. “We the Igbo people have a rich tradition that I believe no other ethnic community in America do have” The old man would proudly say that as he is aware that most of the American communities have abandoned their culture and have turned to modernization. He talks of his community’s tradition of pride implying that he is proud to be part of the community believing in its tradition and everything that it has to offer to its people.

“Igbankwu is highly appreciated in my community, as it is the beginning of procreation.” “My community believes that for it to survive, we must marry, not only one wife but many” “We strongly believe in polygamy and many children.” According to Uchu, marriage in their community is a revered aspect of their culture. Therefore, it implies that procreation and survival of the tribe are based on the institution of marriage. Procreation, before marriage is uncalled for in the tribe “Getting a child before being married, is a taboo and is unacceptable.” Therefore, for a person to be called a mother or a father, they have to be legally married in accordance to the Igbo traditions. “Marriage is so important and respected to us.” Marriage in the Igbo tribe allows for polygamy as Uchu says that “Marrying many women is a sign of being rich and wealthy, a man who has one wife is considered to be poor” It is evident that during the early times in Igbo land, polygamous was a measurement of wealth as the more wives a man married, the more children he had and the wealthier he was considered to be in the days. The culture of the Igbo, especially that of measuring wealth through the number of wives a man has slowly diminished as “People in our culture nowadays no longer marry many wives and as the economy has been tough to us; there is no more land and money has come to replace such possessions.” When he opens his mouth towards this, he sounds so sad and when I asked why he said that, “Am afraid that our culture will finally be gone due to your influence to our people.” Uchu referred to us the whites that we have dominated the African countries, and this has tremendously affected their culture due to westernization.

Uchu can’t forget about the other rite, and that is childbirth and naming. “Omumu na igu Aha is unforgettable, it is one of the colorful ceremonies that we the people of Igbo are proud of.” The significance of the rite is to “bring forth a soul through childbirth and to make the child distinguishable and distinct from the other members of the family through assigning him or her a different name” According to Uchu any of the names given to the newborns are significant and carries a different meaning. “A name given to a child in my community has a deep meaning behind it” The naming system of the Igbo people corresponds to that of most of the African communities of having a naming system that corresponds with the intended meaning. Uchu says that “Traditionally, a child’s first name in the culture of the Igbo people has to reflect the activities, experiences and hope to which occurred during the time of their birth” The naming system is unique compared to most of the European naming system.

Chieftaincy title taking is another rite that the old man recalls. The culture is known as ‘Echimechi.’ In the land of Igbo, “Echimechi is one of the ways that we allow members of our communities know that they have succeeded in various areas of life, and therefore are now competent of making decisions by themselves and at the same time partake decision making in the community.” They are now entitled to make decisions that concern the communal issues in their respective communities. In the Igbo culture, a title that reflects the particular area to which an individual has succeeded is chosen and borne by one who has the desire to be a titled chief. Uchu says that “Titled chiefs are the only individuals who are expected in the community to wear red caps and thus must be respected by all and sundry.”

In the rites of passage, death is inevitable, and most of the communities have their ways of celebrating the dead. In the Igbo community, their culture allows these celebrations. ‘Akwamozu’ or the funeral rites is strongly believed in the Igbo land. “We the Igbo community believe in life after the physical death and Akwamozu is the way that we tend to express the strong belief” It is through this funeral rite that the Igbo community that the dead is prepared for the afterlife, facilitating a smooth transition of the departed soul into the next life beyond the physical senses.

There exist sacred entities within the Igbo land, and these are the ‘mmanwus’ which are highly respected and revered. According to Uchu, “We consider the mmanwus the visitors from the ethereal world.” The mmanwus are regarded as visitors from the land beyond their physical senses visiting the dead, and this could be the spirits. Uchu claims that “We don’t allow women and all those individuals who have not undergone the traditional initiations into mmanwu society in Igbo land to get too close to a mmanwu.” He does not only say that they are prohibited from getting very close to the mmanwus but also states that these individuals are barred from discussing the mmanwu in public. “No one is expected to fight an mmanwu in our land as well as trespass any land, tree or any property that is occupied by the mmanwus either for the purposes of ritual or worship.” The Igbo community thus have a rich cultural diversity beginning from the time of birth until the time a person dies and heads for an afterlife. Uchu is very proud of this cultural and he misses to go back home.


The Igbo culture is very diverse and rich. During my interview, I concentrated my questions on the rights of passage in the Igbo community. The rite of passage begins from the time of birth until death. In the Igbo community, they also have the same rites but celebrate them in a different manner compared to ours. They incorporate different occasions in different rites of passage with each of them being named according to what it involves. Terminologies are the key distinguishing characteristics of the culture in that they have different names such as mmunwu, igbankwu, omumu na igu aha, echimechi as well as akwamozu. The Igbo people were previously polygamous and therefore married many women as a depiction of wealth and as well for the purposes of creation. In the Igbo land, it was prohibited to have a child before marriage, and this implies that they took the institution of marriage very serious just like any other of the African communities.


Culture is essential in the life of an individual as it provides a sense of belonging especially if your community has a rich and diverse culture. It makes one proud of their people as I could see in Uchu during our interviews. I have learned that staying and believing in the traditions of my culture are the essential determinants of whom I am and who I will be in future. Culture models a person’s behavior and as well as shapes the life of a person in fitting in the society. Cultural heritage is the greatest achievement that a generation can be proud of through passing it to the next generation and this helps in keeping cultural values in transit and the veins of the descendants.