Ukara cloth

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

Upcoming film project: Seven year Ékpè ritual cycle

At the apex of the Seven year ritual Ékpè cycle, leader of the Idut 'rainbow' society contributes an offering to the leaders of the Ékpè 'leopard' society. Ivor Miller photo, 2010

The Ékpè ‘leopard’ society is widespread throughout the Cross River region of West and Central Africa. As an early form of community government, it has common fundamental codes and protocols where ever it is practiced, yet Ékpè can also be quite varied in its public expressions. This is natural because each ethnic community has its own peculiarities, and as one Ékpè leader reported, ‘while we share the stream, we do not share pots’, meaning that diversity in Ékpè is accepted and even cherished by knowledgeable leaders.
            In the Middle Cross River region, the Agoi-Ibami community lives in the rural hills along the edge of the Oban Hills Division of the Cross River State National Park, a forest region extending into southwest Cameroon. Every seven years, the elders of Agoi-Ibami hold a community-wide event that includes all age-grades (children, adolescents, young adults and elders) and both genders in a celebration of the continuity of their traditional government, which is the Ékpè society. The event begins three months before its conclusion, and terminates with the entire community surrounding the Ékpè hall to confirm the presence of the mystic Voice of the Leopard, which oversees justice in the community.
            What is particularly interesting about this ritual cycle is the prominent role played by the society of royal women called Idut ‘rainbow’, because without their presence and collaboration, the mystic Ékpè would not return to the community. Therefore the Ékpè members, who are male, must appease the Idut women and feed them pounded yam and bush meat for three months during the entire process until its conclusion.
            For the people of Agoi-Ibami both young and old, the process is like their own carnival, in that each young participant creates a banner or colorful object to display while joining a procession in search of the ‘mystic leopard’, while the elders are adorned with traditional symbols, body painting, masquerade dances, and so on.
            Because of the singularity of this Ékpè ritual process, which seems to be the last remaining one in southeastern Nigeria, I have been preparing to create a documentary of this event with the support of the leaders of this community. The film would be presented at international festivals and used for education in universities around the world; it would also be an effective tool for other communities with Ékpè, throughout southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Cuba, to understand the shared values and symbols of their own local variant.
            I was very fortunate to have been brought to Agoi-Ibami in 2010 by Chief Tata Ikpi, an Ékpè title-holder from Ugep who had read my book Voice of the Leopard (2009), and encouraged me to continue research in his area, which is Yakurr Local Government Area in the Middle Cross River region. In those days, this required a 90 minute motorcycle ride from the Calabar-Ikom highway up into the hills. Chief Ikpi and I arrived to Agoi-Ibami the day before the culminating event, stayed overnight, and enjoyed the return of the mystic Ekpe from the bush to the community. Here are some images from those two memorable days:
1) Children’s procession through the town, each displaying their own decorated staff-like object.
2) Young men’s procession through the town, being led by an Ékpè elder.
3) Ékpè leaders proceed through the town, en route to the Ékpè hall, led by a masquerade. Each participant displays their own ritual object: a drum, ram skin, palm leaves, caps, loin cloths, body decorations, and so on.
4) The Ékpè leaders proceed from the bush to the town, en route to the Ékpè hall.
5) The Idut ‘rainbow’ royal women’s society, with bodies decorated in indigo paint, kaolin chalk, parrot feathers, protective necklaces, meet in their clubhouse. 
6) Upon reaching the Ékpè hall, the men await the arrival of the head of the Idut women’s group, who is dressed symbolically. Her presence announced the intention of the women to make the proper offerings to the forest, so that the mystic leopard will emerge.
7) As the Ékpè chiefs enter their lodge hall, each one stands upon sacred stones and announces their position in the society by chanting while holding a staff of office.

Professor Eskor Toyo joined us in Agoi-ibami to support our film project. See the article on Professor Toyo for related video clips.