Ukara cloth

Ukara cloth
Ukara cloth detail, Etara community, Cross River State, Nigeria

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Professor Eskor Toyo (1929-2015)

Professor Eskor Toyo in Agoi-Ibami community with members of the Ǹsìbìdì grade of the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society, after Toyo’s initiation into Nsìbìdì, 2011. Second to left in white shirt is Honorable Akpama Arekam Andong (the Vice Chair of Yakurr L.G.A. 2004-2007), our host in the community), Prof. Toyo with a red cap, and Ivor Miller with a white cap. The board in the center has Nsìbìdì coded signs used to test the knowledge of initiates.

Professor Eskor Toyo was a Nigerian Labor Organizer and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calabar. I learned about him while conducting research on Ékpè songs, which he loved to sing and interpret. From 2010-2012 I recorded a series of interviews with Toyo, whose knowledge of economic history was remarkable. Toyo helped me understand the development of a merchant class in Calabar through the trans-Atlantic trade, and how they transformed the traditional hierarchies and institutions like the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society. Among his memorable quotes are this one:

“I have met people who are not inquisitive at all! They just accept what ever they are told and ask no questions! But I have tendency to query everything until I’ve satisfied myself, I won’t accept anything at face value! Thank God that we have the inquisitive ones; but I’ve found that it’s dangerous in society to be inquisitive; whichever society it is, either the traditional one, or the so-called modern one. If they don’t kill you, they leave you alone to die poor. I have survived by avoiding them and doing my thing, I’m not ambitious to be anything in their society, so they leave me alone!”

Professor Toyo was interested in the Cross River region phenomenon called Ǹsìbìdì, a communication through codes unique to the area. Here are his thoughts on its development:

“After some reflection, I have come to believe that the Ǹsìbìdì sign language was created through the process of group hunting. I have seen it when I was young. It’s not one hunter that goes out to hunt. Hunters in a community can go together. Well, you don’t go and make noise while hunting. So if they are hunting any kind of animal, they need to do it quietly, and they will make signs to communicate with one another. And if they expect some hunters to arrive late, they will make signs on the ground, or on a tree, to guide them. I think that this is a reasonable way to think that Ǹsìbìdì arose. And since they have some symbols for things of the forest in the Ǹsìbìdì branch of Ékpè in Agoi-Ibami, it must be that they were trying to guide one another in the forest.
This Ǹsìbìdì, people regard it as a secret, something mystical. Well, that’s what pre-literate people do. In that way they are not different from any other people. Writing just started as a way of communicating, and people made it secret, made it special. In China for centuries, only a few people knew how to write. The same for the traders in the Mediterranean. People try to mystify writing to maintain privilege and attach mystique and high respect.”

Because of his curiosity, and because he was a title-holder in the Ékpè society of Órón community, when Toyo learned of the Ǹsìbìdì club within the Ékpè society of the Agoi-Ibami community in the forest region to the north, he followed me there to be initiated. At 82 years of age, with failing eyesight, Toyo ignored the perils of driving two hours from Calabar north towards Ikom, and then riding a motorcycle two more hours into the hills on a rocky pathway. Agoi-Ibami is a rural community in the Middle Cross River region, in Yakurr Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria.
           Once amongst the Agoi-Ibami community, he spoke to the Ékpè members, who are elder males, and the Idut ‘rainbow’ society members, who are elder females, about the importance of these traditional organizations for the defense of justice in the community.

Here are three video clips from Eskor Toyo’s conversations with the Agoi-Ibami community in 2011 (thanks to Camille Park).