Ukara cloth

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

Wednesday 30 August 2017

‘Voice of the tortoise’, Èyòngó nèwèn

Tortoise 'nèwèn' on the center post of the Ékpè (Mgbè) hall,
Mgbè Àfànghá, of Ègbékàw village, Mamfe, Cameroon. I. Miller photo
In the Kenyang language of the Bayangi people, Nèwèn ‘tortoise’ is an instrument of the Mgbè society, related to the grade Békúndí. The role of Békúndí is to communicate between the living and dead members. Depending upon the context, the Békúndí communicates through these instruments: a drum ‘nkah’ or ‘ekpiri’ [derived from ekpri 'small' in Èfịk], a tortoise shell ‘nèwèn’, iron gongs ‘èbòghò’, or ‘clappers’, called ‘mbíák’. In some lodges, ‘mbíák’ is the rhythmic engine for processions.
    When a chief initiated into Békúndí dies, the Békúndí goes to receive the corpse, evoking his spirit, communicating with him, because the belief is that he has not died, but merely transited to the spirit world.
    When the Békúndí plays the tortoise shell, all are silent in the lodge. Only the Seseku responds to the tonal language of the Békúndí, even if others may understand the conversation.
    In the following videos, the Békúndí uses the nèwèn to evoke the ancestors, to alert them that the living members are thinking of them and sharing with them. The Békúndí calls on the spirits to enable the living to have prosperity, food, money, children and long life.

— Mr. Ebot Dickson Arrey, from Ègbékàw, of Mgbè Èchòkó, Ègbékàw village, Mamfe, plays the nèwèn ‘tortoise’ in the hall. See video here!

— 'Seseku' Takor Zacheus Besong, of Mgbè Èchòkó, plays the nèwèn ‘tortoise’ in the hall. See video here! See video here!
      (Profound thanks to Seseku Agbor Benson Besong of Mgbè Àfànghá, of Ègbékàw, the Secretary General of Mgbè Manyu, for sponsoring this event).

The tortoise is a universal symbol of the Mgbè society, extending to the historically related Abakuá society of Cuba, where turtles are used because they are more prevalent. The tortoise is a forest reptile, while the turtle dwells in the water. The tortoise has a life-span of 80-150 years, much longer than the turtle, making it a symbol of wisdom. In Cuba, Lydia Cabrera reported that,
     "many lodges display turtle shells during celebrations or sometimes have a live turtle in their Fambá [lodge hall] with the sign of Mokongo. These turtles wander around all the corners of the Fambá, going out to the patio and returning to the Foekue [inner sanctum]. 'They know what they are doing and fulfill their mission like a person. I left one in the Iriongo, and saw it go out to the patio, arrive to where the music was playing and then return to the Iriongo. That turtle is returned alive to the river as well as part of the offerings'." (Cabrera, La lengua sagrada, 1988: 86).

In "Los Pocitos", an Abakuá stronghold in Havana, ‘Naldo’, holds an Abakuá ‘suit’ in process, including a ‘small hat’ with a turtle shell, 2017. I. Miller photo
In Havana, the turtle shell continues as a symbol of the Abakuá society in the artistry of tailors such as Reinaldo Verrier Govín ‘Naldo’, who makes an Íreme 'body-suit' with a turtle shell on the back.