Ukara cloth

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

Monday 23 December 2019

Ǹkàndà-Dibo in Úrúán Ìnyàng Àtáàkpọ̀, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

Ídèm Ǹkàndà. I. Miller photograph
The people of Úrúán Ìnyàng Àtáàkpọ̀ are unique in Nigeria for their display of Ékpè Ǹkàndà, a royal branch of Ékpè traditional society that Úrúán ancestors carried along with them in their early days of migration from  Ùsàghàdèt (colonial name: Isangele), in contemporary Cameroon. Ǹkàndà is displayed on very important royal functions, such as the 'second burial' of a deceased Nsomm (paramount ruler), and sometimes during coronations. The display showcased here was authorized by the current Paramount Ruler/ Nsomm V of Úrúán, H.R.M. Edidem Atakpor Cosmas Bassey Nkanga, in his palace at Íkót Edung Úrúán, Mutaka Clan, with the support of Obong (Barrister) Otu Medo, and Obong Awawa Eka-Enang.

Sign post leading to the palace of Nsomm V - Oku Mutaka. Photo by Ifiok Inyang.
Prominent Mbong Ékpè (plural for Obong Ékpè) from the seven traditional clans of Úrúán ('Essien Úrúán Itiaba') were present at the occasion to honor this reception of Dr. Ivor Miller during his research visit to Úrúán in December 2019. In his 2009 study "Voice of the Leopard", Miller identified Úrúán as one of the sources of Ékpè in Cuba, known as Abakuá. 
Obong Ǹkàndà of Issiet Ekim Úrúán calls the assembly to order with the nkong 'iron bell'. I. Miller photograph
At the center of Ékpè culture are the drums and the drummers, who were at their best to spur up and incense the Ídèm Ǹkàndà to reach its transcendence during its gyration.

Left to right: Etubom Efut, Etubom Ata Diboya, and another drummer. I. Miller photograph
(video clip of drumming to be inserted here).

Ídèm Ǹkàndà greets the assembly in front of the palace. I. Miller photograph

The Ídèm Ǹkàndà is unique for being covered in the ùkàrà royal cloth used by Ádághá Ékpè (Ékpè title-holders). Each section of ùkàrà has its own rich story to tell to initiates. Its conical head is crowned with bàsònkò, a colorful plumed rod. Behind its head is a stylized winged 'hat' with mirrors believed to receive cosmic energies. Around its chest is the nyànyá, made of dyed raffia representing the forces holding the sacred forest. Around its waist are three colored colored cloths, typically white, yellow and red, representing purity (and marine forces), solar energy, and vitality. The ǹkáníká 'brass bell' at the waist acts like a siren, to alert all in the area that Ǹkàndà, the supreme authority of the region, is present.

Ídèm Ǹkàndà plays Ǹsìbìdì with Ikpọ̀ Ǹkàndà 'universal circle of life'. I. Miller photograph
As a royal authority, Ídèm Ǹkàndà has several attendants who manipulate symbolic implements that represent the different levels of the planet and life, as captured in its Ǹsìbìdì language on ùkàrà cloth, also known as ùkàt in Ìbìbìò-speaking regions of Akwa Ibom State.
Ídèm Ǹkàndà with two other attendants. I. Miller photograph
Following Ídèm Ǹkàndà are three attendants; one in charge of the Mfa, a forked staff, another in charge of Ube Ékpè or Okpoyom, the sacred vessel of M̀bọ́kọ̀, and the third manipulating the Ikpọ̀ Ǹkàndà 'universal circle of life'. All these objects are also covered in  ùkàrà / ùkàt cloth. Ǹkàndà is known in the physical plane as a 'war dance', but on the spiritual plane as a 'war against ignorance in human-kind'.

The back of the Ídèm Ǹkàndà, with attendants. In red vest is Obong Awawa Eka-Enang, former Chairman/Mayor, Úruán Local Government Area. I. Miller photograph

The use of body-masks in the Ékpè 'leopard' society of West Africa is quite diverse, each region having its own speciality and distinctive practice. Whereas Ídèm Ǹkàndà covered in ùkàrà cloth is prevalent in Úrúán, the nearby Èfị̀ks and Kúọ̀s ["Quas"] of Calabar have other variations. All histories of Èfị̀k migration agree that centuries ago, Èfị̀ks lived in Úrúán and migrated to their present positions from there. Until the late 20th century, during the coronation of the Obong of the Èfị̀ks of Calabar, an Úrúán prince was required to be present to place the Ntinya 'crown' on his head. When Èfị̀ks play Ékpè Ǹyàmkpè, it is common for a participant to shout out: "Ka  Úrúán!" ("we are going to  Úrúán!"). Nevertheless, although the Ǹkàndà grade is central to Èfị̀k Ékpè, the Úrúán style Ǹkàndà mask is not played there.

Ǹkàndà play, Efe Ékpè Iyamba, Bayside, Calabar, 1976. Effiiom Effiwatt photograph.
The above photo was taken during the 'second burial' of the Obong-Iyamba of Efe Ékpè Iyamba in 1976, identified in the Hart Report as "Effa John Eyamba, Eyamba XIV" (Hart 1964: 55, paragraph 158). Ǹkàndà mask is not present, but the seven Ǹkàndà dancers each carry specific tools for the dance. From right to left, the dancers hold: two animal horns (ebrambi) carried in front of the group to guide the movement of the play; Ikpọ̀ (the hoop) is used to guide the Ídèm Ǹkàndà; a  two-pronged stick; a long stick, a machete, a basket, a gun. Ǹkàndà is popularly known as a 'war dance', but in the present this is merely theatrical. Specialists claim that esoterically, the dance represents a 'war on ignorance', that gives spiritual insights to initiates with the curiosity to learn.

Ǹkàndà play, Ikot Ansa/Nkonib, 2008. I. Miller photograph

As seen in the above photo, the Kúọ̀s ["Quas"] of Calabar play Ǹkàndà with the same seven attendants. While the body-mask is made from raffia, like the Ídèm Ikwo 'messenger' mask, the Ntang Ǹkàndà 'peacock feathers' in the hat at the back of the head represent the presence of Ǹkàndà.

Ǹkàndà display, Ekondo Titi, S.W. Cameroon. Nanji Cyprian photograph.
Among the Balondo people of SW Cameroon, Ǹkàndà is an important Ékpè display. The photograph above shows a raffia body-mask similar to that of the Kúọ̀s ["Quas"], but a distinct head piece.

Ironically, artistic depictions of Ékpè masks in Havana, Cuba in the 1870s show a remarkably close resemblance to the Úrúán Ídèm Ǹkàndà. The following image created in the 1870s by a Spanish artist has become iconic of Cuban Ékpè, known as Abakuá. This resemblance with Úrúán suggests the presence of Úrúán people in Havana at this period.

Victor Patricio Landaluze, (illustrator). 1881, Havana, Cuba.

Ékpè specialists in Calabar have identified Landaluze’s drawing as an Ǹkàndà mask. This visual recognition is supported by their interpretation of the Abakuá phrase “Itia Ororo Kánde”, an Abakuá place name for the town of Regla, where Abakuá was 'born' in the early 1800’s. In Èfị̀k, this was interpreted as: ‘Itiat oyóyò Ǹkàndà’, ‘The birthplace of Ǹkàndà in Cuba’. In Èfị̀k: Itiat ‘stone’ (symbolizing ‘foundation’); oyóyò ‘beautiful’, ‘the greatest’; Ǹkàndà, an Ékpè grade. (Engineer B.E. Bassey 2004 pers. com.)
            Thanks to these insider interpretations, Abakuá culture can finally be removed from the context of “slave culture” or “criminal groups”, where it has existed in much of the literature until now. Ékpè is historically understood as a royal tradition of community leaders and trained Ókù ‘priests’, a perspective that has been maintained internally among Abakuá leadership in Cuba.


Bassey, (Engineer) Bassey Efiong. 1998/ 2001. Ekpe Efik: A Theosophical Perspective. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing.

Essien, Dominus. 1993. Uruan People in Nigerian History. Uyo: Modern Business Press.

Hart, A. Kalada. 1964. Report of the Enquiry into the Dispute Over the Obongship of Calabar. Official Document No. 17. Enugu, Nigeria: Government Printer.

Landaluze, Victor Patricio (illustrator). 1881. Tipos y Costumbres de la Isla de Cuba. Havana: Antonio Bachiller y Morales. 

Miller, Ivor. 2009. Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba. UP of Mississippi.