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Nsibidi: The Long Lost Ekoi Writing

By Njideka Agbo 23 March 2018   |   12:00 pm

Long before the Europeans and what is today known as the western civilization came to West Africa, the Ekoi (Ejagham) people in present-day Nigeria had developed the art of writing.
The ideographic writing was called Nsibidi.

Although historian and Rev J.K McGregor stated in his work, Some Notes On Nsibidi, say it was handed to humans by baboons, this theory has been discarded by historians who say that the Nsibidi originated from the Ekoi people, neighbours of the Efik and Ibibio ethnic groups in Nigeria before it was adopted by the Igbos.

Nsibidi. Pinterest

Although there is no generally accepted date, scholars say it has been in use in Ekoi for as long as 400 CE. Nsibidi was used to decorate the skin, calabashes, sculptures, and clothing items, as well as to communicate messages on houses.

Like the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, 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, were often seen to wear a particular clothing during formal events. This cloth is known as the Ukara Ekpe.

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.

Ukara Ekpe Clothing. Photo credit: Pinterest

According to a book, The Foundation of Igbo Studies by Nnamdi Oraka, in 1766 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 Equaino) 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.
Fortunately, those who were taken as slaves to the Caribbean islands still use this writing. In Cuba, it is known as Anaforuna writings of the Akabua.

Making an ukara Ekpe cloth: an Ezillo Igbo man draws a grid for nsibidi designs resist dyed with indigo, Ezillo, Ebonyi State, Nigeria. Photo: Eli Bentor. Several Igbo groups have hands in the steps of the making of ukara. The nsibidi signs can be ordered by the commissioner. pic.twitter.com/xIBCOKsA42

See pictures below:

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