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.