Ukara cloth

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

Friday 15 June 2018

Cross River Monoliths: Living Heritage Stones

Monolith custodian evokes ancestors through the capped stone, Òwòm community. I. Miller photo, 2016

Research on the carved “Akwanshi” monoliths of Cross River State, Nigeria, has led to the question: “How do contemporary inhabitants of the region relate to these centuries-old stones?” Thanks to concerned community members, we found some answers in a rural village at the bank of the upper Cross River.
In Calabar, Prophetess Justina Odey, whose spiritual name is Hebzibah, told me about her calling as a herbalist and healer. She is president of Shiloh Deliverance Ministry, which she describes as a Pentecostal church with over fifty members, but others may describe as a “healing center.” In an interview with Dr. Abu Edet of the University of Calabar and me, she reported being inspired by her great-aunt, a healer in the Bakor region famous for its “Akwanshi” carved monoliths, these days a five hour drive north from Calabar along the tortuous federal Calabar-Ikom highway.
Prophetess Justina Odey during interview, Calabar, 2016. I. Miller photo
Prophetess Odey's father Vincent Tawo told us his daughter received the spirit that guides her from his mother’s sister. His aunt was a healer, initiated through a 14 day solo retreat in the local forest, who ever after used her powers to protect villagers. A career police officer, Mr. Tawo felt his aunt’s powers protected him from the dangers of his job:
“My aunt said I will work and be retired but no harm will come to me. In fact, the group that joined the police force with me have all died, but I am still alive.“
Mr. Vincent Tawo during interview, Calabar, 2016. I. Miller photo
Mr. Tawo also told me about the living power of a monolith in the village:
“There in our village the stone was brought by our forefathers; the stone is respected and they believed the power of the street is controlled by the stone. The stone inside the village and the one outside is almost the same; that is why it is respected and the stone is carved with a face, hands, and so on. The stone is in the village square, and anything done in the village is being done by the stone.”
Tawo described a relationship between the monolith in the village, another carved one nearby, and the belief system of his community. In his pioneering report, Allison documented “A recently carved stone near the village” of Òwòm, indicating a relationship between earlier carved monoliths and more recent ones (Allison 1968: 41). Mr. Tawo also reported attempts to traffic the monolith for sale:
“There was a time when some people came to the village and met a chief to sell the stone to them; I was annoyed and told them the stone was our ancestors, that he doesn’t have any right to sell the stone.”

Allison 1968 map of monolith sites, with Iyala and Nkum at bottom, and Òwòm village marked as "33" and Nkum Akpambe as “32”
In 2016, these intriguing narratives led me to visit the village, called Òwòm, guided by Prophetess Hebzibah Odey, as she likes to be known. Upon arrival, the Clan Head, the custodian of the monolith, and several other key figures in the village were extraordinarily helpful. First the Clan Head poured libations with palm wine, alerting all that guests had arrived, requesting a peaceful visit.
HRH Ogaba Joseph Okojan, Clan Head, Iyala-Nkum, pours palm wine libation. I. Miller photo, 2016
The Clan Head presented a small monolith held inside a sculpted wooden vessel, with an iron spear and an iron symbol of royalty (known as íkà in Efik), that served as a community shrine.
Long round stone inside a carved wooden figure, with iron symbol. I. Miller photo, 2016

The Clan Head explained:
“The stone I showed to you is ancient and from my forefather Odioga; they use it to sacrifice to the ancestors of Òwòm village. They will call the ancestors to come and eat in the village; both men and women will be there and we cook pounded yam properly with palm wine. They will throw it on the ground and sacrifice it straight to the ancestors and throw blood with feathers so that good luck will follow the young ones and the unborn children; we pray for safe delivery, good luck, good job opportunities, no fights or troubles, etc. That is our tradition as inherited from our great grandfathers.
Orecho Eku means the stone used for sacrifice and to pray to the ancestors; wine and food is poured so that the ancestors will listen to both men and women, and it was done according to the way the ancient people did it.
We pray almost like singing; when pouring libation I call my grandfather and other paramount chiefs, then I move to the other villages along Iyala, we are five villages, and call all the chiefs and pour libation for my visitors so that all will return home safely.”
The Clan Head, Iyala-Nkum, stands with inherited symbols of authority. I. Miller photo, 2016
The monolith custodian then brought us to the monolith, a large basalt stone, with smaller stones around it: one was a carved miniature with a manila bar in front to represent prosperity. Many smaller round stones surrounded the monolith. 
The monolith shrine with surrounding stones, plants, and slit gong. The Egwi shrine is up the hill, left. I. Miller photo, 2016
In the early twentieth century, Talbot described such rounded stones as representing eggs and therefore the fecundity of locals in the Ekoi region (an umbrella term where the majority language is Éjághám).
“According to Ekoi superstition, all egg-shaped substances, such as oval stones, etc., exert a favourable influence on generation” (Talbot 1912: 122).
“All stones rounded by water action into oval form are sacred to Nimm. . . . The object of all is to promote fertility. They are looked upon as the ‘Eggs of Nimm’.” (Talbot 1912: 96).
Nimm, meaning ‘spirit’, is the Éjághám equivalent of Ndèm ‘spirit’ as known in Efik and Ibibio-speaking communities. Talbot described, Nimm as “above all, the object of the women’s devotion . . . Her priestesses have more power then those of any other cult, and the society which bears her name is strong enough to hold its own against the dreaded ‘Egbo [Ékpè] Club’.” (Talbot 1912: 2). Talbot further described how an Éjághám speaking community was founded through the interaction of representative stones of both Ékpè and Nimm initiation clubs, but that’s another story. 
The custodian placed a chief’s cap on the monolith and evoked the ancestors in the presence of village leaders. 
Monolith custodian beats the slit gong to announce our activity. I. Miller photo, 2016
Monolith custodian evokes community ancestors in the presence of the Clan Head. I. Miller photo, 2016
The custodian then led us a shrine up the hill used to protect locals against spiritual attacks. In front of the shrine was a circle of stones, known as Okwa in many Éjághám-speaking villages, where chiefs sit to make important decisions.

Circle of stones on patio of Egwi shrine for chiefs to sit. I. Miller photo, 2016
The interesting thing is that Òwòm village in Nkum Iyala is not Éjághám-speaking. Allison (1968: 14) reported: “[T]he Nkum and Iyala . . . language . . . has affinities with Idma.” Armstrong (1983) called the Idma of the Nkum community “Yala (Ikom)” and the Idma to the north “Yala (Ogoja).” This means that Yala groups on the Cross River, historically affiliated to the rest of the Idọma-speaking cluster further north, were acculturated into the “Akwanshi” monolith culture of the Éjághám-speakers in the Bakor region.

            This is corroborated by another example, the “Nkum Akpambe” mentioned by Allison (1968: TOC) are Idma-speakers in Obubra L.G.A., south of Nkum Iyala on the Cross River. Oral tradition of the Éjághám-speaking Nta Clan reports that a monolith at Nkum Akpambe mentioned by Allison (1968: 31, 41) was obtained from Eganga, an Nta village across the river from Akpambe during conflicts between both groups. (Dr. Frank Enor, 2018 pers. com.). These examples are among many others showing the Cross River region as a shared cultural zone within great linguistic diversity.
The  custodian beats iron gongs at the Egwi shrine to announce our visit. I. Miller photo, 2016
Through interviews with locals, we learned more about the shrine and women healers of the past. Richard Ogagbo, born in 1949 in Òwòm, told me:
“I am a son to Mama Anejo Eyo the herbalist woman who died in 1993. She was a native doctor and everybody in Iyala knew her. There was a time when she started seeing all those things, she disappeared from the village and stayed in the bush for fourteen days before returning. She came out with fairies, who communicated with her and told her when anybody entered her room in her absence. There was a time she went to the farm and we were gossiping her but when she returned those fairies reported to her what was said. Such a person is called Onya brija meaning ‘fairy white’. The spirit is a bush spirit, not a mermaid, that is why it is called abrija.
She healed many people from disease; if you came to her she would heal you freely, she didn’t take money, that was the work she did. She would sleep and dream and tell you what will happen to you and it would happen. She helped many people around our area, so many people used to come here.
She would cast out witchcraft and make them confess, and after that they would be free. There is nobody like her again to reveal a witch. But healing of the bone, personally I know the medicine because she taught me as the son.”
The shrine custodian during interview, with Profetess Odey. I. Miller photo, 2016
 Another elder, Daniel Obono Agbo Òwòm, born 1925, told us about the shrine:
“This juju [shrine] is called Egwi. When evil is coming to the community, either witchcraft or water society, the juju kills it. Anybody disturbed by witchcraft or mermaids is brought here and we gather all the foods eaten by the juju, like fowl, and kill it. The juju will then stand with the person and help to heal them. The juju helps in all type of sickness.
The founder of this Egwi was Mr. Ojong Obaje; he started when he was young; while sleeping he dreamt all the medicines of the juju and when he rose saw what he dreamt. Many communities came here to buy this Egwi and when they got to their communities they changed the name, they don’t call it exactly as the founding name.”
Egwi shrine interior with stone base. I. Miller photo, 2016
James Onawu, a retired army man, returned to the village and was elected as the second in command to the chief of the shrine. He reported:
“The juju helps us everybody, both small and big. But when the church came, some people ran to the church and didn’t believe in it because of evildoers. Just few people are remaining to look after the juju and I am the spokesman to the juju.
The power the juju has is when somebody plans to kill another, the victim runs down to us and we do the spiritual things so that the juju will take care of that person. The juju drives wizards from the community and some of them have run to the church. Even there was a time I tried to do bad and the juju held me and I confessed before it left me.
Those that have gone to church the juju doesn’t fight them until when they want to do bad, that is when it can kill you. The juju is not a bad thing, it is close to God and protects the community and keeps everything in order. Even if there is war coming the juju doesn’t allow it to come down.”

This narrative suggests that the juju is a focal point for public commentary, a forum where individuals can accede to collective needs and requirements. But those who may be unjustly exploiting their neighbors can dodge the collective will by running to the church, with a veneer of respectability paid for in tithes.

This short but productive visit made it clear that the monolith heritage of the region is still very strong in some communities, despite many contrary forces embodied in persisting colonial legacies of the patriarchal church, government and rudimentary education that tend to dismiss such heritage practices as “primitive” and “demonic.” In response, some local churches use biblical names and phrases as a public shield while in fact the main focus of their ministries are healing through herbal remedies and prayers as practiced in inherited traditions. 

Signboard for Prophetess Justina Odey “Hebzibah" Ministry, Calabar. I. Miller photo, 2016
In Calabar, Profetess Odey remembered her conversion experience of five years ago as “the light of God came upon me burning so severely and talking to me.” She told me:
“Six months after I had started, God started showing me herbs and their different purposes and cures. I go to the bush and pluck them myself, I process them and give to patients, and they take it home free of charge. He [god] asked me to write this information down, and warned me that I should not collect one naira from anybody, that he is giving me this privilege on a platter of gold. He showed me all those who had died for lack of medicine, and he now said that he is showing me how to help as many people as may come to me. And that is what I have been doing, by the grace of God. Up to today God has not allowed anyone to die in my hands and He will never do. These five years have past as if it were one, with no rest.”
Signboard for Prophetess Justina Odey “Hebzibah" Ministry, Calabar. I. Miller photo, 2016

—Allison, P. 1968. Cross River Monoliths. Lagos: Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities.
—Armstrong, Robert G. 1983. “The Idomoid languages of the Benue and Cross River valleys.” Journal of West African Languages. Vol. 13, n. 1 : 91-149.
—Talbot, Percy Amaury. 1912. In the Shadow of the Bush. London: William Heinemann.

Dr. Frank Enor, Department of History & International Studies, University of Calabar. July 4, 2018.
—Prophetess Justina Odey 'Hebzibah', president of Shiloh Deliverance Ministry, 47C Atamuno Street, Calabar South. Interview  with Ivor Miller and Abu Edet April 9, 2016, Calabar. Revised by Prophetess Odey on May 12, 2016.
—Richard Ogagbo. Born in Òwòm village, 1949. Interview May 12, 2016, Òwòm village.
HRH Ogaba Joseph Okojan, Clan Head, Iyala-Nkum, Ikom Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria. Born 10 April, 1945. Interview May 12, 2016.
James Onawu. Interview May 12, 2016, Òwòm village.
—Daniel Obono Agbo Òwòm, born 1925.
—Vincent Tawo, father of Justina Odey Hephzibah. Interview 29 April, 2016.

Saturday 2 June 2018

Tata Ikpi (1959-2018): "Each person sees his own Ékpè"

Chief 'Tata' Ikpi with Miller, holding a copy of Voice of the Leopard, Ugep, 2015.
Chief Eteng ‘Tata’ Ikpi, the Iyamba Ékpè of Lebolkom village in Bikobiko Ward of Ugep, generously introduced me to the Ékpè culture of his community, and throughout the entire Middle Cross River region. Tata's concern for the living heritage of his people made him an ally in my research to understand the West African sources of Cuban Abakuá practice. After meeting in Calabar through mutual friends in 2010, Tata read my book Voice of the Leopard, becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the project. First, he wrote a letter in support of the book, which helped lead to the publication of a Nigerian edition by The Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) in Lagos, 2011.

Secondly, Tata guided me to meet leading custodians of Ékpè in the Yakurr L.G.A. area, to understand its functions, history and protocols. This was important, because leaders of Calabar communities were not generally aware that Ékpè exists in the Yakurr region. Research began by presenting me to the Obol Lopon (Village Head) of Ugep to announce my research plan. In reference to a statue in front of his palace of "Mma Esekpa, the Great Mother of Ugep Eburutu," the Obol Lopon explained that a vital feature of Ugep is the spiritual presence Mma Esekpa, a founder of the Ugep community centuries ago: "Mma Esekpa is our fertility deity, and the protector of this great community; in times of trouble, in times of invasion, she is always around the Ugep people, and she sends messages to the Obol Lopon through people who see dreams, who go into trances."

Cement sculpture of "Mma Esekpa, the Great Mother of Ugep Eburutu." Palace of the Obol Lopon, Ugep. I. Miller photo, 2010.
After informing the Obol Lopon, Tata gave me a tour of nearby communities with Ékpè, including Agoi-Ibami, Ekori and Idomi in Yakurr L.G.A., Ediba in Abi L.G.A, and Orra community in Afikpo, Ebonyi State. The presence of Ékpè in many communities is signaled by the memorial statues of past heroes wearing the blue and white ùkárá cloth used exclusively by members. The following photographs show some of the highlights:

Tata Ikpi, front, with Ékpè chiefs of Ugep and Miller, at Obol Etim Ubi Square, Ugep, 2010.

Tata was helpful to other scholars working in the Ugep area, like Dr. Gitti Salami, who wrote many articles about Yakurr culture, some of them about artists who created cement statues, as seen in many monuments pictured here.

Ute Röschenthaler's extraordinary book about the diffusion of initiation clubs in the Cross River region acknowledges "Chief Tataw (Obong Ekpe of Bikobiko-Lebokum quarter)" of Ugep for help during research (Röschenthaler 2011: 553).

Cement statue of former Idomi community leader wearing ùkárá Ékpè cloth, Idomi, Yakurr L.G.A., I. Miller photo, 2010.

 “Obol Igbo, the Unchallenged Ruler and Founder of Épèntì Village, Ekori Obubra, L.G.A.” Ekori, Yakurr L.G.A. I. Miller photo, January 2010.

Ovai Martin Okpewuru (1932-2003), Ediba community, Abi L.G.A. I. Miller photo, 2010.

“Ovai Ina Eyo (1863-1956).” Enugwehuma village, Abi L.G.A. I. Miller photo, 2010.

Tata taught me that in Ugep, membership in Ékpè is not inherited, an idea expressed in this Ékpè song:

Ònèn-ònèn íkáá yá nwé
person-person sees his own (word by word translation)
‘Each person sees his own Ékpè’ (poetic meaning)

Even though a father is an Ékpè member, the son may not be eligible. One doesn’t just decide to be initiated into Ékpè: one's father, uncle, brother, or a close relative who is an Ékpè member must die, and then the Ékpè members will ask that family to produce a member. They will screen that selected person rigorously, because in Ugep, only the worthy may enter, because the function of Ékpè there is primarily judicial.
Palm wine terracotta vessel for Ékpè members, archives of 'Tata' Ikpi. I. Miller photo, 2010.
On one occasion Tata and I transversed the Cross River to join an Ékpè celebration in Afikpo, to honor Máàzí Otu, a son of Afikpo who had lived in Ugep for 28 years as a pharmacist, was married to an Ugep woman, and became an Ékpè initiate in Ugep.

Tata Ikpi, Ezeogo Brendan Otu, Ivor Miller and Máàzí Otu, Orra, Afikpo, 2010.

One day Tata phoned me in Calabar, instructing me to "drop whatever you are doing and come straight to Ugep, there's an Ékpè event in a nearby village." It turned out to be the penultimate day in a seven year ritual cycle of Agoi-Ibami, when Ékpè 'escapes into the bush', and for three months, the entire community searches for the 'spiritual leopard', which can only be captured with the aide of the women leaders of the community.
Tata Ikpi standing on the Ékpè stones of Agoi-Ibami to chant his status. I. Miller photo, 2010.
Agoi-Ibami had an unusually rich Ékpè culture, including complex nsìbìdì signs, and the participation of young, old, men and women in its seven year cycle, so I later returned many times to work with community leaders to document their practices.
Ikpi, the local Iyamba, Miller, and Andong, in the Agoi-Ibami Ékpè hall, 2010.

Funerary rites schedule for the Obol Lopon, Ugep, 2015. I. Miller photo.
When the Obol Lopon passed away after many decades of leadership, Tata invited me to the funerary rites, which included the Ékpè initiation of the new Obol Lopon, where he presented Voice of the Leopard to the incoming paramount leader.

Tata presents Voice of the Leopard to the Obol Lopon during his Ékpè initiation rites. I. Miller photo, 2015.
Miller discusses Cross River region heritage with the Obol Lopon, Ikpi and other chiefs, Ugep, 2015.

Sadly, Tata passed away in March, 2018. In his funerary program was written:

“Replacing his father in the Ékpè Society, he cherished it so much and learned its doctrines fast. It therefore did not take him much time to become the Obong Ékpè of Lebolkom, Bikobiko – Ugep. As Obong Ékpè, he doubled as the Youth leader or better still, Chief of the youths for a long time. During his reign as many here present can testify, indiscipline generally among youths in Lebolkom was reduced to the barest minimum. You dare not involve yourself in any misconduct or indiscipline. If you do and you are brought before Obong Ékpè and his Youth Council, and your crime is proven true, the devil that sent you will be the same devil to come and rescue you.

            His reign brought about peaceful co-existence among his people and community, just as he also championed a clean, healthy and hygienic environment for sustainable growth and development.

            In recognition of his deep concern and untiring efforts towards community growth and development, the Bikobiko Council of Chiefs in 2006 awarded him the chieftaincy title of Obol Okowen 1 of ACC, Bikobiko – Ugep, a position he held until death. Tata was [a] socialite indeed, a fine and eloquent speaker with a disarming dimple smile, who positively touched the lives of friends and other people too numerous to mention here.”

Tata and Miller during an Ékpè rite, Ugep, 2014.

Sám kání (thanks very much) Tata!, you changed the lives of many in positive ways; you acted responsibly as a leader and role model. Your example will help those privileged to know you to carry on and emulate your example!


Miller, Ivor. 2009. Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba. U P of Mississippi. (2011, Nigerian edition by the Center for Black and African Arts and Civilization [CBAAC], a parastatal under the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture).

Röschenthaler, Ute M. 2011. Purchasing Culture: The Dissemination of Associations in the Cross River Region of Cameroon and Nigeria. Trenton, NJ: African World Press.

Salami, Gitti. 2013. “Concrete Aspirations: Modern Art at the Roundabout in Ugep.” A companion to Modern African Art. Eds., G. Salami & M. Blackmun Visona. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.

Interview with Obol Lopon, His Royal Highness Obol Ubi Ujong Inah (born 1930), the Obol Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of Yakurr, September 12, 2014. Revised by Chief Paulinus Eteng 1 (born 1935), the Secretary to the Obol Lopon.