In 2010 when the Igbo Village was built in the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, it became the only museum-quality replica of an Igbo farm village in the U.S. and the only structure of its kind worldwide.
The Igbo were among the first enslaved men and women brought to Virginia in the 1740s to work in the tobacco plantations and in time helped in building America. The Village was thus established to highlight their contributions and to help their descendants reclaim their past.
But its construction may not have been possible without the work of Akuma-Kalu Njoku, Ph.D., a Professor of Folklore Studies and Anthropology. Njoku had come to the U.S. in 1983 from Nigeria to pursue advanced degrees in musicology. He would complete a bachelor’s degree in musicology from Michigan State University before enrolling at Indiana University where he earned a Ph.D. degree in ethnomusicology and folklore along with minors in African Studies and Cultural Anthropology.
Since 1992, the man who has taught courses at Western Kentucky University in world music, folklore, ethnomusicology and peoples and cultures of Africa has become a “fountain of knowledge to the Nigerian people in the U.S. in general and the Igbo community in particular,” according to a report.
It is therefore not surprising that in 2003, the staff of the Frontier Culture Museum contacted him when they decided on a West African exhibit to complement the English Farm, Irish Farm, German Farm, and the American Colonial Farm already in existence at the Museum.
To tell the story of early immigrants and their American descendants, the Museum had created examples of traditional rural buildings from England, Germany, Ireland, and America. It was considering one from West Africa when it heard of a work by Njoku who had then been researching and writing about the forced transatlantic journeys of the Igbo people.
In 2004, Njoku became the principal consultant for the Igbo Farm Village project, which today “provides a context very close to the Igbo cultural environment for experiencing and learning Igbo culture in America,” the Nigerian professor said in an interview with USAfrica.
Events such as the World Igbo Festival of Arts and Culture and the Igbo Family Reunion at the Village have enabled the Igbo and African-American youth to learn more about the Igbo traditions and to connect to their childhood and their family history. Other visitors have had their DNA tested there and have been pleased to find out where they belonged.
“It’s almost like a spiritual awakening that happens,” Denver Beaulieu-Hains told WHSV3 in 2018. “Now I realize that when I have grandchildren, I’ll actually be able to tell my grandchildren where we come from.”
Beaulieu-Hains’ comments came on the back of that year’s Igbo Family Reunion which attracted Nigerian kings and chiefs to the Igbo Village to celebrate the importance of the Igbo culture and heritage in America and the world as a whole.
With walls built with mud and interiors finished with clay plaster, rooms at the Igbo Village “are adorned with clay pots, thatch mats and other artifacts – all imported from Nigeria,” a report noted. For almost a decade now, people come from far and wide to have a feel of the attractions of the Igbo Village and Igbo culture as a whole.
Njoku however admitted that construction of the Village was tough. “Initial attempts to get builders from Igboland to construct an Igbo farm village that will be faithful to Igbo traditional architecture failed,” Njoku told USAfrica in 2015. “The American Embassy in Nigeria refused to grant them visa. I asked Reverend Dr. Maduawuchukwu Ogbonna, a member of the Igbo Studies Association and a Holy Ghost priest with a surpassing talent and practical experience in Igbo vernacular architecture to help.
“Fr. Ogbonna came to our rescue. And with the able assistance of Dr. Kanayo K. Odeluga I got in touch with Igbo hometown associations in the United States to recruit volunteers.”
At the end of the day, Igbo people responded in large numbers and helped to build the farm village, he said. There were also volunteers from Chicago; Nashville; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Washington, D.C. and New Jersey. With the goal to create a life-size replica of an Igbo village, a team at the American Frontier Culture Museum even traveled to Nigeria and worked with the staff of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to gain information on traditional Igbo architecture.
Today, Njoku believes that the American Frontier Culture Museum “has placed the Igbo on the map of the United States, which is a land of enormous ethnic diversity.”
“We are no longer just a homogenous Negroid,” said the great researcher. “And I have no doubt on my mind that the Museum will continue to let us use the exhibit to keep our Igbo community traditions alive in the United States.”