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Saturday, October 16, 2021
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NSIBIDI: THE LONG-LOST NIGERIAN WRITING

The Ekoi (Ejagham) people in present-day Nigeria had developed a unique form of ideographic writing called Nsibidi, long before the Europeans came to West Africa with their western civilization.

 

Nsibidi originated from the Ekoi people, neighbours of the Efik and Ibibio ethnic groups in Nigeria before it was adopted by the Igbos.

There is really no generally accepted date, scholars say it has been in use in Ekoi for as long as 400 CE. Its oldest archaeological evidence dates back to 2000 B.C.

Nsibidi is a kind of primitive secret writing which was communicated on, cut or painted on split palm stems. It was used to decorate the skin, calabashes, sculptures, and clothing items, as well as to communicate messages on houses.

 

Nsibidi was taught to select secret groups that exuded power and authority. They were largely in control of the arms of government, hence its exclusivity. Among them is the Ekpe Leopard Secret Society. The Ekpe, still found in present-day Abia, are often seen wearing a particular clothing during formal events. This cloth is known as the Ukara Ekpe.

In those times, Ukara Ekpe was woven in Abakiliki and inscribed with the Nsibidi logographic in some Igbo-speaking towns such as Arochukwu and Ohafia in Abia State. The impressions on the Ukara have different meanings. Asides the power symbol, some communicate wealth status.

 

The Igbos witnessed a gradual replacement of the Nsibidi with the Isuama Igbo Alphabet (from Isu in Nkwerre, Imo state and made popular by Olaudah Equiano, the slave who bought his way out of slavery) with the Union Igbo Alphabets made popular by the Anglican cleric, Rev. Thomas Dennis in 1900. This later morphed into the Central Igbo Alphabets started by Catholic priests in 1929, before its further transformation into the present-day Onwu Alphabets approved by Mazi Onwu alongside other Igbo scholars in 1961.

It was not until 1904 that Nsibidi caught the attention of the outside world after T.D Maxwell noticed that it was being used in pottery and body art.

The transatlantic slave trade also saw Nsibidi being exported to the Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela and Haiti.

Not many Igbos and the Ekoi are aware of the Nsibidi. Unfortunately, the advent of western education reduced the rate of Nsibidi literates leaving a few to have little or no knowledge about this once-scared language. Asides this, much of Nsibidi is attributed to witchcraft hence its abandonment in these areas.

While Anaforuana meaning “they took away our land” in the Igbo language is still embraced by the Igbo Cubans, Haiti tells a different tale. Vévé, a religious symbol is now rejected by many Haiti Christians because of what many fears to be (voodoo) connotations especially as it is used as a representation of Loa (the Haitian Spirit) who acts as an intermediary between the Supreme Creator and humanity.

Despite these, arguments have arisen that rather than neglect our cultural roots, what Renaissance art is to Christians is what Nsibidi should be to Africans.

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