Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Trees in Igbo Society

Photo: Bread Fruit Tree Ikorofiong, Calabar, Nigeria, ca. 1900-1910, Unknown photographer.

Trees are important in Igbo spirituality as symbols of life and channels to the earth force. Trees are symbols of life and channels to the earth force and are often at the centre of shrines.

In Igbo tradition, a child’s umbilical cord is buried with a newly planted fruit tree (ili alo); this becomes the child’s tree of life (nkwu alo) which secures lands, confirms the child’s blood relation to the patrilineage, and forms a bond between the child and the Earth Mother, Ala. Many settlements were named after plants and trees, such as achara (bamboo), uga (Anacystrophyllum opacum), and ahiara (giant leaf grass), many of these settlements started at the base of large trees or with some of these plants as their main natural feature. There are so many trees with ritual symbolism in the Igbo area, the ogirisi often used for the deceased, the abosi, the ngwu tree which is a symbol of wisdom (where the term okongwu comes from) and from which okpesi ancestor statues are sometimes carved, the agba tree, the ogbu (fig tree) often used for the living, and so on.


Akpu is a sacred silk-cotton tree which is a way to the unseen world of ancestors and spirits, it is where spirits of children stay and sitting under this tree is said to increase the chances of pregnancy. This is different from cassava which was introduced by Europeans from the Americas in the last 500 years, the akpu’s leaves resemble cassava leaves, so it’s possible the name was loaned to cassava when it was imported.


Oji, most commonly known by the Yoruba name Iroko, is a very large tree considered to have mystical powers like many trees. The oji was planted near shrines to give the same impression as a cathedral. Oji also stands as a metaphor for strength, nobility, and resilience. Its wood is used for titled men’s stools, compound doors/gates, and large ikoro slit drums, as well as other important ritual items.


The achi is noted for its size and the amount of shade it provides, it has similar symbolism to the oji (iroko) tree in terms of spirituality and ritual, but it is mostly prized for its fruit. Like many large trees, it houses spirits and is a portal for the ancestors. It is a symbol of resilience, strength and virility.


Uburu, or ubulu, is a totemic tree which was central to many Igbo settlements and has lent its name to several such as Ubulu-Uku (Igbo: ’the big ubulu’) in p.d. Delta State where the tree is revered and the original one which the town is named after still stands in the middle of this town from where the first families spread out from hundreds of years ago.


The ofo is the tree from which the staff of justice of the same name is hewn from, it is generally forbidden to cut or place a knife against a living ofo tree or use its branches for firewood, so the ofo branches had to naturally fall off in order to be used as a staff of justice, such sticks would have to be consecrated through a ritual known as isa ofo. The ofo serves as a connection between the living and the ancestors and the spirit world. A family’s ofo staff is entrusted in the care of a first son of the family whose father has transitioned, additionally there are ofo for organisations and deities. These trees also serve as shrines.

Other crops and trees that were introduced in the last 500 years in addition to cassava (yuca) are maize (corn), plantains, potatoes, pineapples, tobacco, papaya (pawpaw), most of these from the Americas.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Ishi Nwa Njọkụ

Photo: Shrine with human skull at Obieni, in today's Cross River State, probably the revered head-pieces of deceased family heads, from Charles Partridge (1905). Cross River Natives. p. 64.
Around [the yam title, by the yam title society Ndi Eze Ji] is the theory that certain male and female children called Njoku and Mmaji respectively, may be born only to members of this society. ... As the human representatives of the yam deity, Njoku and Mmaji are entitled to privileges. They have a right to any yam they may demand from the Oba [yam barn].
Wherever they occur, Njoku claims the bride-wealth of Mmaji no matter who the mother may be. ... Mmaji must be the first wife of her husband [and] the only [Mmaji].
Their heads may not touch the ground at death. At burial, there is a raised platform to which a solid receiver is attached ... in order to collect the head as it falls out after decay. The head is then ritually dug out, washed, put away in a box which is placed on a raised platform for the purpose.
Njoku or Mmaji heads ... are loved as "status objects" but hated for the problems they create on their death. ... No member of the family may eat yam until they are ritually buried; a very costly affair. A Njoku or Mmaji ... must find a female or male opposite to marry.

– Victor C. Uchendu (1964). "The Status Implications of Igbo Religious Beliefs." The Nigerian Field. vol. 69. p. 32.

Ögbü Compound

Ögbü (Awgbu), p.d. Anambra State, what was described as a store house by Northcote Thomas, tower in the background, May 1911. Part of Thomas’ British colonial government backed anthropological tour of the north-central Igbo-speaking area.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Men and Mask

Masquerades from different cultural regions of the Igbo area photographed by G. I. Jones in the 1930s.

Masquerades representing fierce animals and mythological beasts, and often a mixture of human and animal traits, emphasise humanity’s connection with the animal and natural world which also serves to tap into the primal animal energy existing within people. The imitation of women also serves a similar purpose as both a way to tap into a specific personal trait and to police and monitor that particular section of society and nature. By appropriating the virtuous aspects of animals, the masker defines the bounds and limits of the manifestation of animal energy in the community and in people, the masks work to have that energy directed to where and when it may be useful like in times of warfare, or to prevent animal attacks. By representing women, men enforce the power to channel female energy as they feel appropriate, at the same time acting out on curiosity and out of admiration of women all while being hidden behind a mask.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Isuochi man

A man who may possibly be from Isuochi (as the album was labelled). Photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930s.

Isuochi people

People who may be from Isuochi (as the album was labelled). Photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930s.

The ùrì body art of women who may be from Isuochi (as the album was labelled) [cropped].

Isuochi man

A man who may possibly be from Isuochi (as the album was labelled). Photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930s.

Ifogu Nkporo

"Ogu wooden face mask," part of the Nkporo people's Ifogu masquerade at Elugu Nkporo in p.d. Abia State, photographed by G. I. Jones in the 1930s.

Nkporo initiates

Young male Nkporo initiates dancing masks with tall fibre extensions, eastern Igbo area (p.d. Abia State), 1930s. Photo: G.I. Jones.

Igbo male hairstyles

Igbo male hairstyles from the northern area and one (bottom left) from Igbuzo. The photos were taken by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11, and G. T. Basden before 1921.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Okpu Agha

An Igbo elder of Öka (Awka) wearing an okpu agha, or "war hat" as noted here by Northcote Thomas, 1910-11. Northcote Thomas' album, MAA Cambridge.

As a defence against ... weapons the Ibo had devised fibre 'crash' helmets or okpu agha. Those ... are entirely plaited out of the coarse fibre in the stems of Colocasia antiquorum. Dalziel remarks: 'The Ibos use caps or helmets and a kind of armour woven from the fibre got from the petioles.'

– M. D. W. Jeffreys (1956). "Ibo Warfare." Man, Vol. 56 (June, 1956). p. 78.

Agulu Igbo man

North Thomas' notes on an Igbo man from Agulu: "Side fringe[?], man. 1910-11. " This style appears on a number of Igbo men and may have some significance.

Northcote Thomas' album, MAA Cambridge.

History and Origin of Igbo Israel

Flag and government ensign of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria* (1914–1952). Digitised by Benchill on Wikimedia.

Many Westernised Africans before the 20th century regarded West African history and culture as inadequate for countering the Western narrative of African inferiority. European imperial powers relied on the bible as a historic and scientific source and drew from it the Hamitic theory, the theory of conquering Asiatic white people (the branch in Africa being 'Hamites') who left their traces among ‘darker races,’ in order to legitimise their conquest. Europeans at the time searched for any tenuous links that could be made between African cultures and the Levant to find ‘Judaic influence’ in a particular area, without any evidence from indigenous history itself. Sometimes certain ethnic groups or sections of a colonised area of Africa were elevated in the colonial order as a 'ruling' or elite class of Africans.

The Hamitic theory, in the minds of Westernised Africans, proved to be a literal redemption for Africans and their history. The newly Christianised black people, living during and after the abolishment of slavery in Britain, looked towards the ‘racial uplift’ of black people in order to challenge the characterisation of black people as a savage race without a history. Many people who followed this movement adopted the Hamitic theory and in line with European perceptions, they regarded contemporary Africans as existing in a degraded state, contrasting with their past glory in Asia. Olaudah Equiano alluded to this in “The Interesting Narrative… ,” an 18th century slave narrative and abolitionist piece, when he compared the ‘Eboe’ (Igbo) to the Jews. He writes on page 7 of “The Interesting Narrative…” of 1794 “[a]s to the difference of colour between the Eboan Africans and the modern Jews, I shall not presume to account for it. It is a subject which has engaged the pens of men of both genius and learning, and is far above my strength.” As can be gleaned from his last statement, his comparison of the Jews and ‘Eboans’ came from a source which was likely connected to Western scholarship at the time. Olaudah Equiano’s views on Igbo Israel could not be articulated from the little Igbo folklore that he managed to salvage, for example.

Philip S. Zachernuk writes: “The Hamitic model was attractive because it was authorized by imperial writing, and because it could support an historical identity acceptable to an aspirant colonial élite. … [Africanus] Horton [or James Beale, a medical surgeon of the British Army from a prominent Krio family of Igbo descent in Freetown, Sierra Leone] squares off against … proponents of … African inferiority, … he argues that the Igbos' religion showed clearly that they were one of Israel's lost tribes. This fact vouched for their potential. …”

Westernised Africans used Western and Asian cultures as a barometer for success and potential, African cultures’ value in their minds was not based on an evaluation of their ethics and achievements, but by their proximity to civilisations held in high esteem by Westerners. The view of African cultures on their own however, Philip S. Zachernuk writes: “... like his African-American and European peers, Horton believes that West Africa's history added little to his defence of his race. … West Africans [according to Africanus Horton] had until recent European contact lived generally in a state of 'utter darkness' and 'barbarism'. They had no history since their migration because without a written language 'events once out of sight are for ever lost; they pass away like spectres in a phantasmagoria, leaving no other trace behind them than a dreamy collection of some distant circumstances that had taken place’."

What is often overlooked in these sources proposing an Igbo-Israel link is the extreme racism and stereotypes that are often the core beliefs of the writers, whether Westernised-black or white. This includes the allusion to Igbo culture being a ‘negrofied’ and, hence, degraded version of Hebraic customs. Some contemporary proponents of the Igbo-Israel link accept these racist views and point out that ‘barbaric’ customs that link the Igbo people with their neighbours is as a result of the original (white) Hebrews ’soiling’ themselves, their customs and their heritage by intermingling with Africans and borrowing their customs, and therefore breaking a covenant with the Hebrew supreme deity which has led to the misfortunes (slavery, war) that has befallen the Igbo people.

Anthropologists and missionaries who alluded to a supposed Jewish link with the Igbo people were going along with the prevailing European colonial narrative at the time, Britain and other European nations were happy to see evidence of past ‘Eurasian’ influence on ‘darker peoples’ because it validated and reaffirmed their presence as part of an ancient rule of conquering white people from Eurasia. Philip S. Zachernuk:

G. T. Basden, writing as a missionary who 'enjoyed the privilege' of the Igbos' 'intimate confidence and friendship', … suggested like Horton that their favoured groups had racial affinities with ancient Hebrews … insisting that their West African groups were not remote primitives but vestiges of a higher culture.

The flag of colonial Nigeria notably has a hexagram similar to the Star of David which may be a hint to the Hamitic theory of civilising white Asiatics. The area that is now Nigeria has been under this speculation by Europeans for centuries, in a 1710 map by Herman Moll, the annotation for Guinea, which today is the area between Ivory Coast and Cameroon, reads: “I am credibly informed, that ye Country about hundred Leagues North of the Coast of Guinea is inhabited by white Men, or at least a different kind of People from the Blacks, who wear Cloaths, and they have ye use of Letters, make Silk, & that some of them keep the Christian Sabbath.”

1710 map by Herman Moll with description of "White men" in West Africa who "keep the Sabbath."

The work of Olaudah Equiano, Horton and so on were, at their time, with their understanding, their way of improving the image of African people, an image which at the time of Equiano meant the difference between the continuity of the emptying out of Africa of people for European colonial plantations, or abolition. For Horton, his separation from his parents culture and his patriclan and the lack of any material countering Eurocentric views no doubt influenced his view about Africans; Igbo society, for example, is structured and therefore dependent on not only the knowledge of generations of ancestors, but also the history of how each family came to be in the community which in turn affects their standing as a voice in the community. Today there is enough evidence from different sources including Africans living in their culture today to show that West African cultures, including the Igbo culture, are capable of standing on their own as a testament to African ingenuity, sophistication, and humanity.

*According to Nigeria Magazine, 1949:
The following is an extract from a letter written on 3rd April, 1940, by the late Lord Lugard.
The design of the interlaced triangles is I think commonly called "Solomon's Seal." I do not know if and when it was adopted as the seal of Islam, but it was found on the lid of a very handsome goblet or jug of brass and copper covered with designs and with the serpent's head as a mouthpiece, which was captured by the troops when the Emir of Kontagora, the principal slave-raider in N. Nigeria, was defeated. I thought It an appropriate badge for Northern Nigeria, and as far as I can remember it was my own suggestion. On amalgamation of North and South it was adopted as the emblem of united Nigeria. The despatch recommending it to the Secretary of State must be in the archives of the Nigerian Secretariat.
See: Philip S. Zachernuk (1994). Of Origins and Colonial Order: Southern Nigerian Historians and the 'Hamitic Hypothesis' C. 1870-1970. pp. 444, 436, 453.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Agukwu Nri

A woman and child from Agukwu Nri, photographed by Northcote Thomas, 1910-11. Colourised Ukpuru 2018.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Azu Anya Mmuo

Photo by Northcote Thomas in Öka (Awka), 1910-11. MAA Cambridge.

Azụ anya mmụọ, the 'eyes of the spirits,' a wooden openwork panel that stays in the shrine area in front of an obi in the north-central Igbo area. The panels represent the presence and protection of ancestral forces. They can be seen outside from the front of an obi facing the compound entrance from which the spirits protect against and ward off any encroaching evil. In turn, the spirits on the altar in front of the azụ anya mmụọ gain access to the outside world through the holes in the panels.

The rest of the buildings and the walls of the compound elaborate on the designs of the obi. In front of the azụ anya mmụọ, in the interior of obi, lay religious objects such as ọfọ, okpesi ancestral memorial statues, Ikenga, title-staffs of ancestors such as ngwụ agịlịga and alọ, and carefully packaged horse skulls and other sacrificed animals, these animals may also include those specially sacrificed by an ancestor, for instance, in a title-taking ceremony.

The obi as the main abode and meeting place of the patriarch of the compound is the site of the main ancestral shrine, the handling of such shrines throughout the Igbo area, regardless of the presence or absence of azụ anya mmụọ, is the exclusive right of patriarchs whose fathers have passed away and are therefore in the spiritual world, before then a son usually relies on a patriarch who is the direct son, and subsequently the closest male descendant to the ancestors, to handle ancestral work.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Ten Circular Structures at Ugwu Uto, Nsude

A together, ten pyramid-like structure photographed by G. I. Jones in 1935. MAA Cambridge.
In the neighbourhood of Ngwo, Nsude and Agbaja [Ọwa] in the Udi Division, at intervals, the people construct quaint circular pyramids. Clay is used for the purpose. The bases are about sixty feet in circumference and two to three feet in height. Then another section is laid about forty-five feet in circumference and so on until the pinnacle is reached. They are erected to the honour of Ala and to indicate ownership of land.
G. I. Jones in front of the structure, 1935. MAA Cambridge.
Two rows of five are built parallel to one another which means that 'Ala' gives children with the right hand and the left. The god (or goddess) dwells in the pinnacle and, thus, is in a position to detect any person committing evil. Such a person will be caught by the god and secured with shackles; these are represented by small sticks inserted in the clay near the tops of the pyramids.

— G. T. Basden (1912). Among the Ibos of Nigeria. p. 109.

[There were other pyramids, sometimes larger, in other areas of Igboland such as around the Abam. The ten Ugwu Uto pyramids no longer stand, although it seems as though their original site is known.]

If you look closely at the shape of these mounds, they look somewhat like stylised breasts with prominent nipples at the top. It is also interesting to note that the ten mounds were aligned five-by-five in two rows, so each was paired up. There is an established Igbo tradition of using mounds to represent feminine divinities like Akwali of Öka, could these pyramids actually be elaborations on the mound, along with the other supposed pyramids in other Igbo areas?

"Two rows of five are built parallel to one another which means that 'Ala' gives children with the right hand and the left."

Mgbe Worker

[An Igbo] spirit worker painting the walls of an mbari nearing completion. Note the double Mami Wata images at left. Photo 1930s, [Near Owere]. - Herbert Cole, 1988.