Days before a performance, Amarachi Attamah stands in front of a mirror in her room and rehearses: she recites the poem she has written, sifting for the right tonality that will launch the message in the words into the hearts of the audience; she dances, carefully learning each move, and committing them to memory.
On the day of the performance, she is clad in traditional wear, her face decorated with chalk, cowries shining in her hair, donning beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets, and holding a feathered hand fan. In front of the audience, Attamah does not stand in one place. She moves toward them, chanting her poem, dancing, staring into their eyes like an old friend, with a smile on her face.
“I do not like staying far from the audience,” Attamah says. “Because of the type of my art, I like that closeness. Every line in my chant means something; there is a message in every line. So I go close, I lay the emphasis. I allow people to get goosebumps and cry and laugh and try to touch me.”
Amarachi Attamah is a chant performance poet who performs in her native dialect of Nsukka. She is also an Igbo language translator and executive director of Nwadioramma Concept, which houses her creative business concepts like Nwadioramma TV.
In 2019, she was a finalist on The People’s Hero, a reality TV show promoting the African/Igbo cultures. She left for the UK before the show ended on an invitation by the Royal National Theatre in London to work on a theatre production, Three Sisters, an Inua Ellams adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play of the same title. Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, showed in fifty-two theatre productions.
Amarachi Attamah grew up doing public engagement events like dancing, debating, drama acting, and speaking. She also wrote poetry, fiction and drama. She moved with her family from Bauchi, where she was born, to Benue and Abuja before settling in her home state of Enugu in southeastern Nigeria.
In Enugu, she made a discovery: many children could not speak the Igbo language. The discovery threw her off because, in Bauchi, which is northern Nigeria, the kids spoke mostly in their native dialect.
“I didn’t understand the rationale behind a child not speaking the parents’ language,” Attamah says, “and then you see a scenario where the parents spoke the language but then they turn to the child and start speaking English language, very terrible English language.”
Attamah, who holds a BSc and an M.A. in Mass Communication from the Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT) and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) respectively, yearned to do something about the situation.
In 2007, at the age of 19, she published Tomorrow’s Twist, a novella written in English. At the book presentation ceremony, Attamah met Professor Anezi Okoro who encouraged her to do something with the Igbo language. She admits that at that time she was not very fluent with the Igbo language but decided she would push herself.
A year earlier, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) predicted that the Igbo language and other languages in the world would go extinct in 50 years. The prediction worried Attamah.
“I want to see Igbo children speaking their language as it ought to be. Culture is what identifies a people; language is the wheels on which cultural heritage ride,” she told Lagos City Reporters.
On the first event to which she was invited to read a story to children, Attamah took a detour: she made the story into a play. With the help of some students, she performed the play. In intervals where there were folk songs, she sang them.
“From that event, somebody else said, ‘Oh, I have an event next week, would you come and perform for the children? Just the way you did it, it’s so amazing.’” Attamah recalls. “I would write and [ask myself] ‘How do I present this so people will love it?’ Gradually I saw myself going to events.
“At some point, there was nobody calling me, I had to start begging at events for people to allow me [to] perform. Then, the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it and I just saw myself engrossed in the whole thing. I usually say my art chose me, I didn’t choose my art.”
Soon, Attamah embraced the Igbo style of dressing. But at the start of her career as a performer, she faced a lot of discouragement. People mocked her, saying she left the university and chose to become an mgbeke, a derogatory term for an unrefined and naïve girl. Some accused her of practising voodoo. On the other hand, Attamah’s parents believed in her. Their belief was an act she appreciates because it helped her then and is still helping her.
“Writing for [the] page is different from performing,” Attamah says. “When you write for [performance], there are some emphasis and repetition and stretches and exclamation that you act that when you are writing for [the] page, they are just excesses.
“When you write for [the] page, you have to put into consideration the person that will be reading. You want the person to read and understand it so it doesn’t give you that liberty to play around like you will do when you are performing.”
In 2014, as a panacea to the unease that followed her, Attamah published Akụkọ Ifo Nnemochie Kọọrọ m (Folktales My Grandmother Told Me), a collection of four short stories written in the Igbo language. That year, she also published Making a Difference, a collection of essays written in English. In 2011, she published an English-written novel My Broad Daydream. She has an Igbo-language poem “Anya M” in Praxis Magazine.
In 2015, during a school tour in Enugu, Attamah found out most schools did not accord any regard to the Igbo language. In some schools, the Igbo language was an optional subject; in others, there were no Igbo language teachers, and even the schools that had Igbo language teachers didn’t treat the teachers well.
“The teachers were like appendages,” Attamah says. “Whoever is the Igbo language teacher is seen as lesser than other teachers. Some of the students and teachers were also complaining that every competition [they went] to [was] in the English language and everything good comes with the English language.”
Spotting the need for space where students and teachers of the Igbo language can feel seen, Attamah started the ỌJA Cultural Festival, which she organizes under the auspices of the ỌJA Cultural Development Initiative. The festival, a celebration of the Igbo culture and identity, invites students and young people to showcase their talents with Igbo poetry, cultural dances, wrestling matches, folklores, among others.
The festival has been held since 2015 in Enugu, except in 2019 and 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Attamah hopes that the festival can be held this year. For the first edition, she reveals that she and her team were expecting just five students from three or four schools but they ended up having more than two thousand students in attendance. “It was like they were looking for where to express themselves,” she says.
According to Attamah, funding has been a concern. “ỌJA festival has been successful through crowdfunding,” she says. “People from all over the world who already accept this and want to be part of it. They contribute money and just like they say, drop by drop an ocean is made.”
“We need corporate sponsorship,” she adds. “It’s very difficult to get corporate companies to sponsor such events because we tried. I went as far as Lagos. I went to a whole lot of companies in Lagos but we didn’t get responses.”
Attamah hopes that soon she gets support from the government and corporate bodies, as well as more acceptances from parents, schools, churches, leaders, among others.
One of the topics in Attamah’s performances that she holds close to the heart is the Nigerian-Biafran war. She has four videos on the war. NCHETA (2019) and Ọ̀NYỊ̀RỊ̀Ọ́NWỤ́ (2020) are about the resilience of the Igbo people. BỊAFỤRỤ (2018), which translates as Come and See, is a retelling of the gory details of the war through clips and first-person narration from survivors. OGBUNIGWE: Voices of Biafra Wounded Veterans (2020) documents the war through the experiences of the Biafran soldiers, many of whom are physically handicapped.
“I don’t think a war that took more than three million people is something that we should just forget just like that, especially since those things that caused the war we still see them today,” Attamah says. “I don’t think we have done justice, even as Igbo people, to honour the memories of those millions. I think the world needs to understand that the generational trauma is something that we need time to heal [from] and that healing comes from justice.”
Another project Attamah is on that echoes the Nigerian-Biafran war is the Andy Amadi-Okoroafor-directed film 20-Pound Dream (2019). After the war in 1970, the Nigerian government gave every Igbo person £20 to restart their life, regardless of how much they owned before the war. Attamah was not in the original script but the director made sure to create a role for her. In the film, she plays the role of a mystical chant poet.
Amarachi Attamah is excited about the future of Igbo chant performance poetry. Younger Igbo chant poetry performers—Ada Egara Nsukka, Ginikachi Otitodirichukwu Anyaobasi, Ogbuoja Ndigbo, Igwe Credo—are blossoming and many of them have worked with Attamah. “I shared elements of my motivation and inspiration and courage and story with them,” she says. “Telling them how I started and how I was able to pass through all the voices of discouragement and got to where I am today.”
Personally, Attamah’s goal is to place the Igbo language and art in the same pool as other widely recognized languages and art forms.
“I am not stopping anytime soon,” she says. “I don’t even think I will ever stop, whether people accept it [Igbo chant performance poetry] or not, I do not know but then the goal is to make people accept it, to make it sellable.”
She adds, “I will continue to do my bit and pray that the universe, in its kindness, blesses my movement and that of many other younger persons, and even older persons who are opening themselves to embrace this art and talent. So that at the end of the day the result will be beauty. It will be something we will look at and smile [at] that at least we didn’t really solve the problem or change the narrative totally but we created a little bit of impact.”
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.