Three years ago, on a drizzly night in Atlanta, several hundred Nigerian immigrants strode into a motel ballroom looking as if they belonged at a party on Mount Olympus. The men wore skullcaps and long, gleaming robes of brocade. The women looked even grander. Swathed in lapis, coral, or golden silk, they balanced huge whorled turbans that towered several feet above their heads.
These revelers, most of them U.S. citizens, were members of the Ibo tribe. And they had gathered, as they did each year, to decide on the next way they could improve life for their village back in Nigeria.
I’d come to the motel to learn about their inspiration for this work: a distinctly Ibo concept for community service called an ogbo. A sort of lifelong team, an ogbo – sometimes translated as “age grade” – doesn’t treat service as a chore, or even much of a choice. Instead, members of an ogbo approach it as a social habit, one cultivated from babyhood that’s as fundamental to full personhood as friendship, education, or work.
Foreign as ogbos may seem, the idea of service as a social skill could deepen America’s own traditions of volunteerism. In the United States, mutual aid societies historically channeled the ethnic bonds of minorities and immigrants into assistance for individuals within those groups. Today, Americans of all ethnicities join service organizations focused on the whole community: Junior League, college fraternities and sororities, church missions, and clubs for professionals, such as Rotary.
In 2010, 63 million Americans volunteered across the country, according to the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. But people in the United States are ambivalent about service. On the one hand, they don’t want anyone to coerce them into helping others. On the other hand, with all the options to fit their pet causes, social priorities, and spiritual beliefs, choosing how to get involved can be overwhelming.
That’s why ogbos are so striking. To the Nigerian Americans in Atlanta, the whys and hows of public service needed no explanation: They’d each been volunteering since childhood. Absorbing the volunteer habit had required little more of them than being born.
In these immigrants’ hometown of Agulu, as in most Ibo villages, anyone born in 1949 automatically joined the 1949 age grade. Born in 1964? Welcome to the 1964 age grade. And if you were born in 1985, from the moment you drew breath, you were part of the 1985 ogbo.
From early on, each ogbo sets to work on specific tasks for the community. Ten-year-olds sweep the village square. Teenage boys build huts for those who can’t shelter themselves. Young women clear leaves from the stream and guard the fields. While the custom varies a bit among villages – in some, the age groupings span three or five years – it is consistent in one respect: Service is part of the life cycle.
“Fat or thin, rich or poor, it does not matter,” Ifeoma Onyefulu says in her photo book Ogbo. “Everyone has a friend; no one is born alone.” Throughout their lives, regardless of their social status, all ogbo members sit on the floor during meetings. Each gets one vote. And each performs the same community service as all the others in that ogbo.
The system gets even more interesting as members mature. No matter how far they’ve roamed from their ancestral fields, expatriates like the ones I met in Atlanta still work together to serve their home villages – but now they do it with scholarships, clinics, and roads. And while the Ibo people pride themselves on individualism, these projects continue throughout their lives as group efforts. A wealthy American executive might give her town a clinic with her name on it; a rich ogbo member would do the same in the name of his age grade.
It might sound impossibly egalitarian. Who makes a major gift on behalf of others who may not have given a cent? But charity, as Americans usually define it, doesn’t have much to do with the ogbo sensibility, says Sampson Oli, a professor at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University and a member of the Ibo tribe.
What fuels ogbos, for 10-year-olds as well as 40-year-olds, is the joy of being on a team. And team is the operative word. From childhood on, age grades vie with one another to help their villages, as if community service were another World Cup. The prize is prestige – the knowledge that your age grade eclipsed all its rivals by its contribution to village life.
After a lifetime of working alongside the others in your age grade, that prestige feels sweeter because it’s shared. Though he has attained the status of department chair at a U.S. university, Oli credits his ogbo with his greatest accomplishment: raising money for and installing an electric generator in his village 50 years ago. The motive wasn’t charity, he said, so much as lifelong pride.
It’s a notion of service that’s more sustainable and less crisis-oriented than what many of us are used to. It’s not just about solving the latest problem; it’s about an ongoing sense of making communities better. And while Americans often talk about charity, ogbos operate on a principle of reciprocity: High or humble, everyone in a village has something to give. And, high or humble, everyone benefits from this giving by gaining a better place to live and the social connections to last a lifetime.
Ogbos are designed to acknowledge life’s phases, and the right place for service in all of them. Four-year-olds may do nothing more than play with others in their age group. Young men, however, provide communal security. Elders resolve disputes and guide younger age grades; when an elder dies, schoolchildren are responsible for playing drums in their honor.
How this might translate to American life isn’t obvious. Like the intricate gowns I saw in Atlanta, the ogbo system belongs to another place and culture. But the core idea – service as part of the life cycle – already exists in the United States, in places such as the Peace4Kids project in South Los Angeles.
Cofounded by activist Zaid Gayle, Peace4Kids enlists a whole community of adults, rather than individuals, to mentor foster children from preschool through adulthood. Once the young people near maturity, their roles begin to change. Many guide the younger children and help create Peace4Kids policy. And like members of an ogbo, participants are organized from childhood into fiercely bonded cohorts, and continue to regard one another as brothers and sisters long after the program ends.
When I told Gayle about the similarities to African age grades, he wasn’t entirely surprised; Gayle’s father had studied and admired Nigerian culture for years. Yet the Peace4Kids structure had formed independently, in response to the needs of Los Angeles foster kids. It just made sense, Gayle said. To prepare for a healthy future, young people need a community of guides, a lifelong team of allies – and the expectation that to thrive, we all need to both give and receive.