Saturday, 10 March 2018

''NSIBIDI'' —by Ceejay Ojong

10 March 2018 

Nsibidi (also known as nsibiri, nchibiddi or nchibiddy) is a system of symbols indigenous to the peoples of what is now south-easterly parts of Nigeria and South-western Cameroun - the Ekoi/Ejaghams, the Efiks and a few Ibo communities. 

Nsibidi is apparently ideographic, though there have been suggestions that it includes logographic elements, and its symbols are at least several centuries old. 

Early forms appeared on excavated pottery as well as what are most likely ceramic stools and headrests from the Calabar region, with a range of dates between 400 and 1400 CE. 

The origin of Nsibidi is most commonly attributed to the Ejagham/Ekoi people of the upper Cross River region in the southern easterly part of Nigeria and south-west parts of Cameroun. 

Colonial administrators found the largest and most diverse nsibidi among the Ejagham/Ekoi people. In Ejagham/Ekoiloid languages nsibidi means "cruel letters", reflecting the harsh laws of the secret societies  - Ngbe/Ekpe that hold nsibidi knowledge.

Nsibidi spread over time and mixed with other cultures and art forms throughout most of the south easterly region and a few parts the Ibo speaking eastern region of Nigeria especially those areas found around and abutting the Cross River region of Nigeria. 

In Calabar and among the Efiks, nsibidi became mostly associated with men's leopard societies such as Ekpe. The leopard societies were a legislative, judicial, and executive power before colonisation, especially among the Efiks.

There are thousands of nsibidi symbols, of which over 500 have been recorded. They were once taught in a school to children. Many of the signs deal with love affairs; those that deal with warfare and the sacred are kept secret. 

Nsibidi is used on wall designs, calabashes, metals (such as bronze), leaves, swords, and tattoos. It is primarily used by the Ekpe leopard secret society (also known as Ngbe or Egbo), which is found across Cross River among the Ekoi, Efik and other nearby peoples including a few of the Ibo stock.

Outside knowledge of nsibidi came in 1904 when T.D. Maxwell noticed the symbols. Before the British colonisation of the area, nsibidi was divided into a sacred version and a public, more decorative version which could be used by women. 

Aspects of colonisation such as Western education and Christian doctrine drastically reduced the number of nsibidi-literate people, leaving the secret society members as some of the last literate in the symbols. 

Nsibidi was and is still a means of transmitting Ekpe/Ngbe symbolism. It was transported to Cuba and Haiti via the Atlantic slave trade, where it developed into the anaforuana and veve symbols.

Finally, nisidi is intricately linked and contemporaneously with the Ngbe/Ekpe society from the Ejagham/Ekoi people and the Efiks. At a personal level, I once asked a late grand sage of the Ngbe society of its originators. He answered by putting very succinctly and rhetorically that the ''Ejagham/Ekoi people called Ngbe/Ekpe from the bush while the Efiks dressed Ekpe''. That is also supported by the fact that the Ngbe/Ekpe stone found in every lodge and the houses of very high-ranking members is still being mined in the Ejagham/Ekoi areas.

Nonetheless, it is now held as a common heritage to both the Ejagham/Ekoi of the South-Eastern Nigeria and South-West Cameroun and the Efiks, as well as a few other peoples around South-Eastern and Cross River region of Nigeria who have adopted and institutionalised Ngbe/Ekpe and the nsibidi symbols. Ngbe is actually non-discriminatory in admission of its membership from qualified and eligible persons.   

Ceejay Ojong writes from Abuja - Nigeria

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