‘Our cultural identity is gradually fading away and we need to get it back’
Iniobong Obinna-Onunkwo is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Education For Youths and Little Weavers, a unique African couture brand targeted at infants and teenagers. Over the past years, Iniobong has worked in various capacities in investment banking, engineering, food and beverage industry and currently, in the fashion industry. She has attended various local and international institutions including the Lagos Business School, University of Port Harcourt and Centro Venezuelano Americano. As a daughter to a diplomat father, her travel experiences has helped her engage and interact with diverse people and cultures which has also formed her passion and quest to ensure that cultural values are preserved and cherished. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her concerns on our African rich heritage
What inspired Heritage Education for Youths?
The brand Little Weavers actually inspired the heritage education for youths. We need to come back to our roots, define ourselves and find our cultural identity. I believe we are losing our cultural identity, and we need to get it back. Every individual should sing that African song. So many languages and cultures are being eroded, we only know the major ones, what about the others? Who talks or celebrates them, where are the monuments to sing about our heroes, do we have edifices to commemorate events and even when we do, who is talking about them? When I see these things, I am afraid for the younger generation, a lot of parents are sending their kids out and I am afraid for the younger generation. In 50 years some of our unsung cultures will become extinct as no one is carrying on, every culture needs to be preserved and remembered, it is our history and that’s what keeps me on my toes everyday that I wake up.
What do youths stand to benefit from the foundation?
The objective of the foundation is to empower the minds of the youths about their culture, about the African heritage and of course to educate the global village, to have a change of their perspective about their heritage as well as evolutionalise the entire culture, when it comes to Africa. I mean, it had to take Black Panther almost like a breakthrough for people to believe that there is something called Wakanda, because I did a research and didn’t see any Wakanda anywhere, but its idea is to give people a feeling that Africa has arrived and is here to stay.
How does the foundation aim to achieve its objectives. Are there programmes targeted at this?
We have a list of programmes set up. We have the Mini Me show and the idea is to have educationists come on board, talk to parents about embracing the African heritage not just in line with the perspective of the Nigerian culture. It goes beyond that because in schools we have people that celebrate other African countries and we hear people talking about different costumes like the Zimbabweans, South African, Ghanaians, the Kente and more. So the mini me show is for the mothers and children to wear the same outfit and the kids talk about why they really love Africa, what is so intriguing about Africa, what do they understand about Africa, African presidents, African stories, African history and then the mum should also speak out and say I could be a career mother, a professional in whatever field I am, but I also embrace my cultural heritage, which is why wherever I am, you find a little flavour of something afrocentric around me.
We also have the educational package; my daughter and I already set it up. We travelled last year to Ogbunike caves, located in Anambra State. The idea is to take such trips anytime she’s on holiday around Nigeria and some bordering African countries and, as we have sponsors and finances, we should be able to extend our travels around Africa. The idea is to give people that awareness of setting up tourist places, we have them in Europe and people pay loads of money to visit these tourist areas, what about us here in Africa? Where are the tourist sites that people should erect hotels and commercialise these areas? We are talking about bringing cultural awareness as well as income. Has the government thought of commercialising these tourist areas that they can access easily and with a tour guide. So we have that as an educational package.
Does the Little Weavers brand play any role in this?
Yes, we have a Little Weavers Academy where the children come to. We had something last August, they came in here, parents dropped off their children and they were really impressed, we did a lot of African arts and crafts, simple tailoring and the idea of that is to trickle in entrepreneurship. So when have an idea of it, I can actually harness my potentials, I may not need my mum to put on my button for me, I should be able to do something stylish and then set-up myself. So we expect that parents bring their children and encourage them. So if a child is good at sketching or drawings, he/she should be able to draw or illustrate an outfit, even from four years old and so the idea is to build up and empower the minds of the children.
The final aspect is training the communities; we already had some discussions with the local government council at Shitta and we want to set up a community where the young ones will come together, do some training and then we create a marketplace and encourage people to come and buy their wares. We want to empower the women as well as the youths, gradually I think with little incentive like this it will build back and get back our culture. So imagine if we have that at Shitta, Lekki, Ikeja, not just in Lagos because will spreads to Abuja, Port Harcourt, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Kaduna and then beyond Nigeria to become a pan-African movement. We are at the stage where we are building our content and also sending out our message to people. For us, work is on top gear as we are putting up our educational packages together which we present to schools, including our proposals.
What drives you?
I have travelled and whenever I mix up with other tribes, I am at the point of shedding tears. I have met with a German, Venezuelan among other tribes and the way they talk so well about their culture and when they talk about Nigeria, the only knowledge they have is football and I tell them we have diverse cultures and they are willing to learn about them, that has been my drive. No one is celebrating it, there is more to wearing buba and Aso-Oke and when I talk to foreigners about Nigeria, they look forward to visiting us. I feel there is need for us to address this, it should start from schools, our kids should begin to wear Afrocentric attire (ankara) on denim on Fridays; I started this in two schools where they also make a 10-minute presentation about a particular country or something parents don’t even know. We should start from the roots.