Ukara cloth

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

Sunday 5 January 2020

Calabar community Ùkwà dance, Cross River State, Nigeria

Ùkwà dance group from different communities in Akpabuyo L.G.A. with Efut, Èfị̀k and Kúọ̀ ["Qua"] members. I. Miller photograph

This troupe was invited to Ikpai Kúọ̀ ["Qua"] Town to honor a deceased member of the Ùkwà dance society, Ntufam ('high chief') Odo Solomon Edet, an Ntoe Ùkwà or Ùkwà Chief, who was buried on 14 December 2019. Ùkwà is a war dance featuring the use of early European swords, characteristic of the Calabar people, reflecting their centuries of trade with European merchants (see September 2016 post for details). Ùkwà is an initiation society, therefore when a member dies, society members will assemble to play Ùkwà to send his spirit into the beyond, thus informing ancestral members that a great son of theirs is joining them.

Ùkwà members take over the street running in a spiral formation counterclockwise. I. Miller photograph
An initiation club has spiritual implications, therefore their members prepare themselves against afflictions that would diminish their performance, and protect them from sword wounds. As they move throughout the town, they stop at the homes of prominent deceased members to salute them, and to pay obeisance to great Ùkwà leaders who passed on the tradition to the present generation.

Traditional Ùkwà dress codes include abundant cloth as a sign of wealth. The ferns serve as camouflage with protective implications. I. Miller photograph
Prior to their play, Ùkwà members pour libation to appease deceased members and the ancestors of the land. They eat special foods in their meetings and observe taboos to protect them from injury. Their sword handles are bound with bright red cloth meant to ward off sword injuries from an opponent. The mbóbó 'cloth sashes' around their chests present them as intimidating and great warriors. They dance barefoot to receive energy from the earth.

Libation is poured by an elder of the family of the deceased before Ùkwà outing. I. Miller photograph
Next to the elder pouring libation is Ntufam Edem Inok, PDP Chairman, Cross River State, who helped promote this event by inviting all the Ùkwà members to assemble in Calabar to honor the deceased.

Ùkwà musicians incite the warriors with their traditional hot rhythms. Note the two-toned double iron gong, rattles and wide membrane drums. I. Miller photograph
After the libation at the town hall, Ùkwà dance goes into full swing. I. Miller photograph

Warrior dance masquerades. Left to right: The helmet masks are female and male. At right, M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́. I. Miller photograph
Okpon ibot 'big head' masks dance in a pair, the female with elaborate coiffure and decorative feathers, while the male is covered with ferns and protects his wife with a sharp weapon. The hooped rings around their waists make them appear robust and gorgeous.  The M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ 'skull mask' is considered dangerous because it can capture victims under its expansive black cloth.

Okpon ibot 'big head' masks dance in front of the high table of chiefs attending the funeral ceremony of their deceased member. I. Miller photograph
The helmet masks of the Okpon ibot 'big head' were in the pre-colonial past covered with human skin derived from enemy warriors. Later, animal skin was used by highly skilled craftsmen. In the present there are no longer master carvers, and the wood is painted with enamel paints. The objects on the decorative heads identify a royal couple, because porcupine quills are used by chiefs, while the feathered rods and coiled hair are used by royal women.

Red feathers and porcupine quills are typically used by chiefs of Éjághám communities. I. Miller photograph
The uncle and brother of the deceased play Ùkwà at Okon Inok village, Ediba Kúọ̀ ["Qua"] Town. I. Miller photograph
Esinjo 'family head' and Mgbe chief Ekong Edim Inok Ibok Odo Kasuk and Ntufam 'high chief' Dr. Abu Solomon Edet exchanging sword greetings at the entrance of their village hall at the commencement of the Ùkwà ceremony.

Banner for the funerary rites of Ntufam Edet, with grandchildren of his family eagerly participating in the Ùkwà activities. I. Miller photograph