Ukara cloth

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

Saturday 7 May 2016

The Transition of a Calabar Traditional Leader

Poster announcing the calendar of events required to mark the demise of a Calabar Traditional Leader.
According to indigenous tradition in the Cross River region of Nigeria and Cameroon, when a traditional community leader dies, his body is quickly dressed in Mgbè traditional attire and buried in a secret location in his compound, while the community is informed that he is 'traditionally ill'. The physical death is not announced until much later, when the community is prepared for the full schedule of 'traditional rites' to honor their leader's legacy, to guide his spirit to the realm of the ancestors, and to invest the next leader of the community to the royal throne.

As seen in the above announcement, 'traditional rites' comprise a series of events in which the fundamental cultural displays of the royal families are performed; this is to ensure the continuity of the community's cultural heritage, and also to inform the ancestors that an important person is joining them. Also seen in the announcement is the term 'Qua' for the 'Kúọ̀' communities of Calabar, who are ancestrally and culturally related to the Éjághám-speaking groups of the borderlands of Nigeria and Cameroon. While 'Qua' is the colonial spelling, 'Kúọ̀' is the phonetic spelling (the dot under the 'o' denotes it as an open vowel, or 'aw').

In the current case of H.R.H. 'Ntoe' Lawrence Ekong Etagbo IV of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan of Calabar, his physical death occurred on February 8, 2015, but was not announced to the public officially until April 16, 2016, through the "Iyuk" wooden gong played with two sticks to reproduce human speech. At dawn, the gong was placed on the roof of the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall) of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' community  to awaken the community to the news. Immediately after this began the "Eku Otung" (Public Cry), a procession of the Daughters and Sons of the Royal Families. The Daughters move in a procession through the town carrying staffs of office; when they reach the home of a deceased Royal Father or Mother, they will stop, point their staffs to the compound in memory of the ancestors of that family, and sing songs of praise to them.

A procession of Royal Daughters during the 'traditional rites' for the late Ntoe of Nkonib (Ikot Ansa), Calabar, April 2008. At left, the First Daughter of the Ntoe leads them, shaking a rattle, with a necklace of palm frond, to which is tied a small chick, a symbol of rebirth. I. Miller photo.

Meanwhile the leaders of the Mgbè 'leopard' society gather at the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall/ Town Hall) to prepare for the afternoon Mgbè displays. Suddenly, the Mystical Mgbè disappears from the Town Hall in reaction to the gunshot that announces of the loss of the Ntoe 'Clan Head'. In response to the loss of the Mystical Mgbè, the primary symbol of authority of the community's independence, the town's people must remain quiet, in mourning, and on guard. Spontaneous drumming or quarreling in the township is taboo; transgressors will be fined.

The next major event occurs Friday night, April 22, when the Mgbè members of the community begin to search for the Mystical Mgbè in order to capture and return it to the Osam Mgbè. Once it is finally caged in the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush), the next day all the Ntoes of the 'Kúọ̀' Clans of Calabar prepare their musicians, dancers, masquerades and chiefs in their Osam Mgbè. Pictured below is the team at Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan Town Hall.

The Ntoe of Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan (Ntoe Ito Nyong Orok) raises his staff in the center, while Okom Mgbè masquerades and an Iké Mgbè dancer (with bow and arrow) surround him. I. Miller photo.

Once each team is gathered and libations are poured, they move in procession to towards Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan area to show their support. Below, the Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan team begins to move out to the accompaniment of percussion and song.

The Mgbè group of the Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan moves in procession towards the Akim Clan area. I. Miller photo.

As the Mgbè group of each 'Kúọ̀' Clan enters the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush) of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan community, they assemble as a coordinated 'Kúọ̀' nation group. Below, one of the young Iké dancer arrives.

A young boy dressed as Iké Mgbè (Ékpè tail) enters the path to the sacred Ékpè bush of Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan. The red parrot feather in his mouth symbolizes the discretion required of Mgbè members when involved in the spiritual aspects of Mgbè. One does not talk. I. Miller photo.
The Mgbè delegations of each Clan leave the main road for the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush). I. Miller photo.

Once all the Clan representatives are gathered, they leave in a coordinated procession from the bush to the Osam Mgbè of Akim Clan.

The participants of each Clan gathered, they move along the main road to the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan Osam Mgbè. The front of the procession has the masquerade dancers: Okom Mgbè, Ebongo Mgbè, and Iké Mgbè. These symbolize the presence of the community ancestors and pave the way for the cage of Mystic Mgbè to carry on towards the Mgbè hall. I. Miller photo.

A 'bush spirit' masquerade moves in the procession, wearing dried plantain leaves with a civet cat skin (representing a leopard skin) attached to its back. I. Miller photo.
After the masquerades, the highest traditional authority of each Clan moves with staffs raised. The man with the black bowler, a red parrot feather in his mouth, carries the 'mmonyo', the staff of highest Mgbè authority, to which is tied a live rooster, a 'traditional fee' for the privilege of carrying the staff. I. Miller photo.
After the chiefs come the community youths, who surround the Mystic Mgbè in its cage, protecting it from all harm. It is covered with Ùkárá cloth and a leopard-skin. After them come the percussionists and singers who keep the procession moving at a lively pace. I. Miller photo.
Once the Mystic Leopard is inside the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall), the members gather there to enjoy feasting and entertainment with Mgbè dance and songs.  Six pieces of Ùkárá cloth are sewn together to signal the presence of Mgbè, and to stop non-initiates from entering the hall while Mgbè is in session. Once the Mystyic Mgbè is returned to the hall, the community can return to its normal life. I. Miller photo.

Thanks to Dr. Abu Edet of Ikpai 'Kuọ̀' Clan, and the Department of History and International Studies, University of Calabar.