How Apprenticeship Has Worked Wonders for the Igbo

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How Apprenticeship Has Worked Wonders for the Igbo

By Azuka Onwuka

I was in a bank last week and noticed that the person before me on the short queue was a boy of about 12 years old. As he completed his transaction and left, a conversation started between the teller and me. As our chat progressed, the bank teller said that in spite of the boy’s size, he came to deposit N150,000. He exclaimed: “Igbo boys!”

I laughed and told him that soon the boy would be taking a million naira or more from one point to another either to buy goods or to deposit into an account. I observed that some 15 years ago when online and real-time banking were not in existence, these Igbo boys moved such huge amount of cash from Nnewi/Onitsha/Aba to Lagos and vice versa, from Kano to Lagos or to Onitsha and vice versa, in buses, with all the attendant risk of armed robbery and road accidents.

One wonders why a 12-year-old boy should be trusted to go to a bank and deposit N150,000? What if he loses it? What if it is taken from him? What if he corners it and claims that it was stolen on his way? That is part of the training of an Igbo apprentice. Before he can be trusted to handle N150,000, he may have taken N20,000 to the bank. As he stepped out of the shop with the N150,000, the master might have sent a more senior apprentice to shadow him secretly to ensure that he went into the bank.

The result is that the boy of 12 years old matures financially faster than his mates even from wealthy homes. He understands how money comes in and how money goes out. He understands not just how to spend money but how to make money and how to save money. He understands how one can carry huge sums of money and go unnoticed. By the time he is 18 or 20, while his age mates are still asking for pocket money, he has started giving pocket money to his siblings or parents or paying the school fees of his siblings and supporting his parents financially.

This apprenticeship is what has helped to spread wealth from the rich to the poor among the Igbo. It helped the Igbo to recover fast after the devastation of the Nigerian Civil War in which they lost virtually all their wealth and got the £20 ex gratia irrespective of their deposits in the banks. It helped to spread the art of trading and money management among the Igbo. It helped to teach Igbo how to fish rather than giving them fish.

How does it work? A man starts a motor spare parts business in Nnewi, Lagos or Kano. After a year or two, he goes home and takes a boy from a poor home to be his apprentice. He chooses from a poor family because a poor family may have about eight children that the parents cannot effectively cater for. Such families are more willing to release their sons. The boy may have just finished primary 6 or junior secondary school or even secondary school education and does not have any hope of someone paying for his university education or is not academically sound enough to make good scores to gain admission into the university. The boy may also be the first son from a poor family and believes that if he continues to the university, he may not be financially dependent in time to pay the school fees of his younger ones and support his parents. So he goes early into apprenticeship as a sacrifice for the family.

Depending on his age and academic qualification, the apprenticeship period will be agreed upon to last from five to seven years. While with his master, he just does not mind only business issues. He is a servant to his master. If his master is a bachelor, he enjoys his stay more. He tidies up the home, washes clothes, cooks, etc. If his master is based in a town that is semi-urban, he may join in farming early in the morning or in the evening. He may hew wood or go to the stream to fetch water. He gets to the shop first, opens it, and closes last. He goes around the market to look for prospective buyers. After the customer is done buying, he packs the goods in cartons or bags for him, and if it is a big and regular customer, he may help the customer to carry the goods or get a cart pusher to take the goods to somewhere close-by where the customer can arrange for how to transport the goods to his location.

Part of the training is that he will be able to endure all sorts of indignities from his master, his wife, his children and his relatives. If his skin is not tough, he may give up midway and leave. But if he endures, by the time he has spent about three or four years, he becomes a senior apprentice or “manager”. Even the master and his wife will treat him with more respect at this stage. His master may have brought in another apprentice. He may have been taught how to drive, so that he can take goods or the other apprentices in the company’s bus to and from the shop. Every two years, he may be allowed to travel home for Christmas and New Year to spend about two weeks with his own family. Some people can have up to eight apprentices at the same time.

At the end of the agreed period, the man takes his apprentice home to meet his parents. He then “settles” him by giving him any amount of money that he deems fit and prays for him. What the master gives to his boy during settlement matters but is not critical. It is what is learnt during those years of apprenticeship that matters. The apprentice learns the trade and all the intricacies involved as well as self discipline and the management of customers. He gets to know customers that may become his soon after his freedom. Most times, once he opens his own shop, customers of his master, who liked the way he took care of them, would shift to him. If he gains their trust, they may even send him cash from Kano or Accra or Yaounde with a list of the goods they want and he will send the goods to them. One or two years after becoming his own boss, he goes home to get a boy to be his apprentice, and the cycle continues.

There is a different type of apprenticeship. It is done by people whose parents have the wherewithal to give them the capital to start off. They live with their parents but go to the shop of a man to learn the trade for a period of six months or one year. At the end of that period, they start their business. But the rate of success of such people is much lower than those who spent about six years under the roof of a master.

Many of the rich men in Igbo land like Mr Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson Motors, Mr Cosmas Maduka of Coscharis Motors, Chief Chidi Anyaegbu of Chisco Motors, Chief Alex Chika Okafor of A-Z Petroleum, etc, went through this apprenticeship scheme. Many of today’s rich Igbo men came from very poor families. This apprenticeship scheme gave then the foothold to rise to wealth, for their parents would have not been able to pay their school fees or give them the money required to start a business that has prospect.

The Igbo apprentice is not seen as a “servant” forever. Because of the inherent benefits in the apprenticeship scheme, Igbo families prefer it to having their children paid a weekly or monthly wage. Once the apprentice completes his apprenticeship and starts his own business, he becomes a “friend” to his former master. Anytime he visits his “Oga”, he sits down with him in his sitting room to share a drink. He may even marry his master’s daughter. If his master is doing a burial, he comes as a special guest with a cow. When he is having his event, his master also comes as a special guest. If he becomes successful in business, his master uses him to boast and tells other apprentices to strive to emulate him. Some even later turn around to help their masters financially when they have become very rich and their master’s fortunes have dwindled.

Later in life when they have become financially successful, some decide to acquire that education they cut short earlier by getting a degree. But even those who don’t have any degree ensure that they marry women that have degrees, so as to help in the education of the children and take care of any issue that requires “long grammar.”

This is one of the things that make people say that the Igbo have links with the Jews. For even though they have lived with other ethnic groups in Nigeria for centuries, this practice is peculiar to them. In the Bible, Jacob serves his uncle Laban for seven years and helps him to expand his flock. Laban gives him his daughter Leah after the seven-year agreement and he serves for another seven years to get his choice Rachel. Jacob becomes rich by the time he completes his apprenticeship.

There may be drawbacks in this scheme like abuse of children and other issues, but the Igbo apprenticeship tradition is a unique scheme that has benefited the Igbo a lot. It is a scheme that should be the subject of case studies for the sake of fine-tuning and emulation.


One Comment

  1. Ajegena Immanuel July 26, 2016 Reply

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