In a previous write up, titled Bagamoyo 2012: Historic 20th General Chapter, I rhetorically asked, “Can anything good come out of Bagamoyo?” I did answer in the affirmative. My position remains the same: positively affirmative. One more reason though has consolidated my profound joyful excitement of this landmark General Chapter of our beloved Congregation of the Holy Spirit. That reason is encapsulated in the name Bede Uchechukwu UKWUIJE CSSp. From the moment his name came up as the ‘special one’ to moderate Bagamoyo 2012, I knew more good things will emerge from Bagamoyo. I envisioned a Synagogue-like General Chapter with a Rabbi unfolding and reading from the Spiritan scroll.
Many years ago, as a teenage junior student in Holy Ghost Juniorate, Ihiala (Anambra State, Nigeria), I heard the name “Rabbi” for the very first time in my life. Back then, I knew not the meaning but I knew the bearer, in the person of Bede Uchechukwu Ukwuije. Interestingly, however, what grasped my attention and keen interest in him was not just the nickname ‘Rabbi’ but more importantly his surname “UKWUIJE”. Now, his role as Chapter moderator and his subsequent election as General Councillor cum Second Assistant to the Superior General have given me the long-awaited opportunity to express my “feelings” about the name “UKWUIJE”.
My exegesis of this name “UKWUIJE” will help reveal the personality of one who was called Rabbi by his high school mates even before he truly became a Rabbi. His Rabbinic prowess, prophesied years ago, has just been “fulfilled” and the real Rabbi has “arrived” his rightful destination, which is the ‘Spiritan White House’ in 195 Clivo Di Cinna, Rome. I am convinced that this ‘journey’ from Juniorate to Generalate is possible because of the power of the name, UKWUIJE.
UKWUIJE…The ‘Walking Feet’ in Igbo Experience
The Igbo people of Southeast Nigeria are great adventurers. Like many traditional cultures of Africa and the world, the Igbo passion for adventure knows no boundaries. Hence, the saying that the Igbo are ubiquitous, that is, found everywhere. It is also said that “Igbo bu aja” meaning that the Igbo are like sand (found everywhere and too many to be counted). They are travellers and sojourners, always on the move, always journeying. Thus, in the Igbo worldview, a person who is on a journey, irrespective how frequent and diversified the journey may be, is called “onye ije” (a walker, a traveller, one whose feet are always in motion). From here, then, the expression “Ukwuije” is derived.
Within the Igbo linguistic purview, “Ukwuije” is composed of two words: “ukwu” (leg or feet) and “ije” (journey or walk). Literally, therefore, “ukwuije” means “the walking feet”, the journeying feet, the feet that journeys. Journey and feet are, naturally speaking, inseparable since journeying entails the movement of the feet from one point or place to another. In Igbo traditional culture, the feet of one who is about to embark on a journey are “washed and blessed” in a simple ritual called “igo ukwu ije” (blessing the journeying feet) to wish one safe journey, with the ritual incantation, “ukwu ije akpola gi” (may no harm befall your walking feet; may you never hit your feet against a stone; may you journey safely). Simply put, it is a prayer for safe and smooth journey, because like the Igbo say, “e jee a naa bu isi-ije” (journeying safely to and fro is the essence of adventure). Furthermore, when a child goes to the river or makes a distant walk for the first time, his/her feet are “blessed” in a simple ritual of “irio ukwu” (thanking the feet). When the child returns safely, his feet are “washed” with a life chicken! This ritual empowers the child to make more safe journeys (“Ijeoma” or “ije awele”) in his/her life’s journey (“ije uwa” or “ije enu uwa”).UKWUIJE…The Rabbi’s Road to Wisdom
To associate the feet (ukwu) and journey (ije) comes down to emphasizing “Ukwuije” as the resourcefulness and possession of diplomatic ability in adventure. The feet are empowered through libation, sacrifices and invocations in view of successful returns and accomplishments. The “walking feet” is so revered because of its vastness of experience and wisdom. The “elder in knowledge” is revered more than the “elder in years”. One needs to ‘move around’ to gather a wider picture of what reality is all about. The more you travel and traverse people and cultures, the more you know, the more experience you acquire, the more “enwisdomized” you become and then the Rabbi in you progresses in a crescendo. This is the power of UKWU IJE.
This is why the Igbo say, “onye ije ka onye isi-awo ama ihe” (the versed or seasoned traveller is wiser than the grey-haired elder who sits at home). In this case, the feet have supremacy over the head! Akin to the Igbo position, the Yoruba sage muses, “ori lomo nibi ti ese n gbe e rin” (it is only the head that knows where the leg is going). In other words, though it is the head that does the deciding, yet the movement to and fro the decided destination depends on the feet. Simply put, the head does the “thinking” while the feet do the “working cum walking”. Your feet has the power to colour your world; for it is through this art and act of continuous journeying that one acquires highly diversified knowledge and Solomonic wisdom; and then deserves to be called “Rabbi” (Wise Master). This is the power of UKWUIJE!
UKWUIJE….The Missionary Feet We Need
The missionary life, by nature, is peripatetic. It entails a lot of journeying.
The Igbo cultural ritual of “igo ukwu ije” (blessing of the feet) can be likened to Jesus’ washing of the feet of his disciples, which is also a ritual of “blessing” the feet in order to “sanctify” the whole human person as one embarks on the peripatetic mission of “going to proclaim the Good News to the whole world.” Therefore, Bede UKWUIJE, as a true son of his ancestor UKWUIJE and as a Spiritan missionary, have gotten where he is today after a very long journey through long and winding roads of life. His legs deserve more “washing” or spiritual recharging so that he will successfully make more life’s journeys. Definitely, it was not an easy journey. But thanks to God’s will (“Uchechukwu”) his feet (“ukwu”) carried him through the vicissitudes of life’s journey (“ije”).
Thus, “UKWUIJE” becomes an embodiment of a “fervent Spirit” in action, fully ready for mission and fortified to “trample upon snakes and scorpions” unharmed. Little wonder the Scripture says, “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…”(Isaiah 52:7). God calls our feet “beautiful” because he has sent us to proclaim this message (cf. Romans 10:14-15). God has made many beautiful things but I do not think any of us would include our feet (UKWU) in the top ten. But to God, our missionary feet are sacred since mission is about “journeying with and for Christ”. Hence, as long as we embrace the ‘Ukwuije Spirit’ our feet cannot but be “beautiful” when we journey (“ije”) to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, our Spiritan life is a “feet-to-mountain” experience of bringing the good news, proclaiming peace, bringing good tidings and proclaiming salvation to the poorest of the poor. This consequently gives us the rare privilege to happily leave prints of our “beautiful feet” on the Spiritan “mountains” (missions) all over the world. This is what God has in mind for our feet. Whenever our feet go into the world of God’s people with the message of good news and peace with God, God calls them beautiful. If the beauty of feet (“ukwu”) lies in the ability of our feet to journey (“ije”) up to the mountain, then the name “UKWUIJE” remains our watchword.
Though our beloved confrere Bede Uchechukwu UKWUIJE was honoured with the title “Rabbi” (Wise Master) since high school days, yet it is now that the title befits him very perfectly. As “onye ije” (‘traveller’), an experienced one for that matter, his fountain of knowledge and arsenal of wisdom have expanded tremendously. Therefore, he is more a Rabbi today than he was years ago in the Juniorate. A true Rabbi is a true “onye ije”. The more the Rabbi journeys the more Rabbi he becomes.
Should it surprise anyone then that someone whose name is UKWUIJE scored a “hat-trick” in Bagamoyo 2012. He moderated the General Chapter, was elected a General Councillor and, as if that was not enough, the same person was elected Second Assistant to the Superior General. All in one sitting! This is the power of UKWUIJE – the life force that transforms a Rabbi into an Odysseus and empowers him to graciously journey from Juniorate to Generalate!
Fr. Bede Uchechukwu UKWUIJE CSSp, as you serve the global Spiritan Family with your “Rabbinic” flare and flame, may you never hit your feet against any stone. May your feet remain “beautiful” and your journey peaceful (“UKWU IJE AKPOLA GI”). Following the footsteps of our Great Founders Claude Poullart Des Places and Francis Liberman, may your feet (“ukwu”) remain strong as you make more journeys (“ije”) up the Spiritan “mountains” in the service of God and humanity.