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The Origin Of Omu Aro by Uche Ohia

Of all the symbols of Aro Heritage which the people of Arondizuogu take pride in putting on display and which effectively distinguishes them as the literal chip off the old block – an elite group with a rich historical and cultural heritage in South East Nigeria – none is as remarkable or as recognizable as the Omu Aro.

What is Omu Aro? How did this unique and innocuous symbol originate and how did it evolve to become such an important element in Arondizuogu culture and, on a wider level, the centerpiece of Aro unity and solidarity? To appreciate the symbolism of Omu Aro, it is necessary to understand, first, the significance of “omu” in Igbo tradition.

‘OMU’ IN IGBO TRADITION

Among the Igbo people of South East Nigeria, “omu” is of great cultural significance. Omu, the frond of the palm tree, is regarded as the sign of the life-force: to tell whether a young palm tree is alive or dead one needs only to look for the greenish-yellow off-shoot known as ‘omu nkwu’. In Igbo land, omu is recognized as a sacred symbol and used accordingly in various situations:

• To mark property/land in dispute and prohibit entry.

• To serve as Prohibition Notice on economic trees

• To mark out prohibited boundaries during traditional ceremonies

• To pinpoint dangerous masquerades and powerful herbalists

• To designate ‘holy grounds’ around shrines, deities and oracles

• To consecrate initiates/inductees during induction ceremonies

• To mark sacred trees, objects during sacrifices and rituals

• To identify emissaries/messengers during civil conflicts

• As a symbol or gesture of peace and non-violence

• To mark dangerous spots or objects (death traps, projectiles, falling trees, collapsing structures)

• Etc

‘OMU’ IN ARO TRADITION

Among the Aro people, the palm frond (omu), traditionally, serves as a Royal Writ of Summons. When the Eze Aro-in-Council receives a formal complaint against anyone, a knotted omu is sent to invite such a person to come on a fixed date to hear the charges against him and to present his defense. The omu is also extended to Aro settlements and, before the Aro Expedition of 1902, to the whole of Igboland and beyond. Any recipient of the omu was duty bound to honour the summons or face dire consequences. Thus, Omu Aro was both a symbol of power and authority and a symbol of peace and order. To the average Aro person, Omu is the symbol of Aro dignity and royalty – the ultimate symbol of honour and prestige. For the younger generations of Aro people, Omu Aro refers simply to the George cloth on which “Omu Arochukwu” is embroidered in living colours. However, although this cloth won by Aro men and women as traditional attire is generally referred to as “Omu Aro”, the Omu Aro is actually the crest embroidered on it from which it derives it’s name.

ORIGIN OF OMU ARO

The Omu Aro as we know it today or the transformation of omu from a mere royal summons to the virtual Aro Coat-of-Arms that it has become is attributed to the ingenuity of Mazi Timothy Kanu Utchay, the late Aro patriot who designed the “Omu Aro Oke Ibo” (Omu Aro Okeigbo) in 1925. From what has been written about him, Mazi T. K. Utchay who hailed from Ujari Arochukwu was a man of multiple talents. He was an educationist, author, printer and publisher. He was a pioneer school proprietor and was the first to establish a private school in his area. A budding philosopher of his time, he dedicated considerable time and resources to acquiring knowledge through a wide variety of classical and philosophical books and was known to have quoted easily from Socrates, Horace, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc.

T.K. Utchay’s design contained the knotted palm frond (omu) in the centre of what looks like a rectangular shield with one hand on each side (one giving and the other receiving). On top of the shield he placed an eagle (ugo) with outstretched wings and on either side of the shield, he placed two crowns. To complete the unique design, a sword and a gun are placed across each other behind the shield with the hilt of the sword and the stock of the gun showing on one side and the blade and the barrel showing on the other.

On his motivation for the invention, Mazi T.K. Utchay provided an explanation along the following lines:

• To devise a means of rallying the Aro people scattered in various settlements all over the South Eastern areas of Nigeria

• To create a befitting seal/coat-of-arms as a symbol of the power and authority” of the ancient Aro Empire

• To provide a common symbol for all Aro people in Diaspora to which they could feel a common sense of affinity and solidarity

• To produce a sacred symbol/official seal of authority that would that would command the same prestige, honour and prompt obedience that the Omu commanded in Igboland.

After making and printing the design, T.K. Utchay is said to have handed it over to Mazi W.W. Okereke, another Aro patriot and merchant from Amuvi, Arochukwu but resident in Port Harcourt at the time. It was Mazi W.W. Okereke that used his connection with Asian merchants to negotiate with the textile firm overseas that used the design block in producing the unique George cloth known and adored today in the Aro commonwealth as “Omu Aro”.

Does Omu Aro hold any secret explanations of the Aro heritage? Does it contain any cryptic code? Did T.K. Utchay even follow the ancient rules of heraldry or gallantry? Was the placing of Omu (a sacred symbol of peace) on a shield behind a gun and a sword (weapons of war) merely intended for artistic display or was there a deeper meaning? Is the eagle with outstretched wings atop the shield landing or taking off? Is there any relationship between Omu Aro and the paradoxical statement recorded by Prof. Elizabeth Isichei in “History of Igbo People” that “Izuogu came into Igboland with peace and sword”?

There are many things that we may never know about Omu Aro for the same reason that E. H. Carr reached the following conclusion about historical documents: “No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought: what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen or, perhaps, only what he wanted others to think he thought or even only what he himself thought he thought.”

All said, Omu Aro remains the Coat of Arms, seal, crest, and a highly regarded symbol among Aro groups wherever they may be domiciled. The symbology of Omu Aro seems to confirm the notion that in any given situation, Aro people are as much prepared for peace (symbolized by the palm frond) as they are prepared for war (symbolized by the weapons and the shield). Many writers have looked and, for generations to come, will continue to look at this remarkable symbol of Aro identity and supremacy from different dimensions and to wonder about the audacity of it’s symbolism.

See photos below:

{C} Uche Ohia

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