The Slave Trade Revisited - Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History

The Slave Trade Revisited

Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History


Emmanuel Usanga Amah Jones 

"Although the evidence is more patchy, the pattern of local merchant participation in the slave trade at Old Calabar appears to have mirrored that at British ports. A few Old Calabar merchant families, descended from the original Ibibio-speaking settlers but ADOPTING a new ethnic name, Efik, dominated the African side of the trade."

AT OLD CALABAR, as Latham has shown, credit, and the mechanisms for guaranteeing that credit arrangements were honored, depended on "trust," as credit between European firms and African suppliers was known in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries.22 Goods were advanced to "trusted" merchants in the river towns of the Niger Delta and Cross River estuary. These goods in turn were sent to interior markets controlled by slave traders from Aro Chukwu, whose dispersed settlements in the interior gained control of the slave trade in much of Igbo and Ibibio country in the course of the eighteenth century.

Aro merchants in effect "bulked" slaves at their monthly fairs at Bende and Uburu for re-export to the coast, almost always through Bonny, Elem Kalabari, or Old Calabar, depending on the line of credit.
For Old Calabar, slaves were often sent to Itu on the Cross River, from where they were transferred downriver. Unlike Bonny and Elem Kalabari, however, merchants at Old Calabar traded directly with Ibibio country
and with Cameroons.
Whether through commercial arrangements with the Aro network or with other merchants, the delivery of slaves liquidated debts that stretched into the interior.

Liverpool and Bristol merchants had no direct access to Aro traders and other inland sources of slaves, but they could, and indeed actively sought to, establish good relations with coastal merchants, protecting their investments through institutional arrangements that could be enforced in these towns and apparently through similar means into the interior. It is probably not a coincidence that the great expansion in slave exports from the Bight of Biafra occurred at the same time as the consolidation of the Aro commercial "diaspora."

At any time in the second half of the eighteenth century, a limited number of Liverpool and Bristol firms dominated particular ports in the Bight of Biafra. Probably no more than fifteen or so commercial houses were operating at any one
time, with usually twice as many from Liverpool as Bristol. At Old Calabar, partnerships headed by William Whaley and Edward Forbes of Liverpool and James Laroche of Bristol controlled much of the early trade in the 1740s and 1750s.
William Davenport, who has left some of the most detailed accounts for the eighteenth-century trade, was a major Liverpool trader from 1757 to 1784 and perhaps the largest single British trader at Old Calabar in the period 1768-1774.25

Davenport had been apprenticed to Whaley in the 1740s, and the Whaley Davenport connection with Old Calabar was to continue into the 1770s and beyond through other Liverpool merchants. By 1785-1795, Liverpool merchants John,
James, and William Gregson and Thomas and William Earle and Bristol merchant James Rogers were the leading traders to the port. Members of the Earle family had earlier been partners with Davenport, and the Earles continued to trade into the early nineteenth century. Moreover, another continuity in the concentration of commercial knowledge of trade at the port is evident in the close association of Sir James Laroche, member of Parliament and nephew of the Bristol merchant of the 1750s, with James Rogers, at least before Rogers went bankrupt in 1793.

Although the evidence is more patchy, the pattern of local merchant participation in the slave trade at Old Calabar appears to have mirrored that at British ports. A few Old Calabar merchant families, descended from the original Ibibio-speaking settlers but adopting a new ethnic name, Efik, dominated the African side of the trade. For most of the seventeenth century, when the scale of the slave trade was
not very large, the principal settlement was at Creek Town (Obio Oko), but other wards or "towns" were founded, the most important of which were Old Town (Obutong), Duke Town (Atakpa or New Town), and Henshaw Town. By the end of the seventeenth century, Old Town, where the Robin family was dominant, appears to have emerged as the leading commercial ward, and it remained so until the middle of the eighteenth century.

Old Town was located on the Calabar River downstream from Creek Town and was therefore in a better location to serve slave ships. Another trader active in the 1690s, Ephraim Duke, may have been the founder of the Duke family, which was initially resident at Creek Town but which established its ward, New Town or Duke Town, a few kilometers downstream from Old Town, apparently in 1748, and became a serious rival to Old Town as the slave trade expanded.26

By the last third of the century, there were at least thirty local traders at Old Calabar who were active in the slave trade; they are mentioned in a diary kept by Antera Duke (Ntiero Edem Efiom), fragments of which have survived for 1785-1788. As many as half of these merchants were supplying slaves to British ships in the late 1760s, and each was associated with one of the Old Calabar wards. Prominent among them were Eyo Nsa of Creek Town, Tommy Henshaw of Henshaw Town, and Egbo Young, Antera Duke, and Edem Ekpo and his son,
Edem Efiam (both known as Duke Ephraim) of Duke Town.29 Moreover, several of those active in 1785-1788 remained involved in slaving beyond 1800. 

When Edem Ekpo died in 1786, his son not only took his commercial name, Duke Ephraim, but also continued the business. Indeed, the continuity in names is one indication that merchants were succeeded by their descendants.
It appears, then, that a few trading houses controlled slave exports from Old Calabar between 1750 and 1807, just as a relatively small number of Bristol and Liverpool merchants and their agents or ship captains tended to dominate European trade with the port.
In this respect, at least, slave trading activities and credit relations at Old Calabar may have become embedded in social relations.

More specifically, they may have come to resemble a situation described by Mark Granovetter in which agents had recurrent dealings with each other and might be assumed to rely on their past record of dealings to determine whether "a particular
other may be expected to deal honestly." It is important, therefore, to try to assess the degree to which trust permeated commercial relations at Old Calabar after 1740.


Ikperikpe Ogu - Ohafia war dance

"The Flesh Melts"

"Kpah-kpah-kpa kpah-kpah-kpa kpah-kpah-kpa..." the sharp clicking of bamboo slats cuts through the din of the crowd gathered for the burial of an eminent chief. The hot midday air is heavy with red dust raised by hundreds of feet: dust mixed with the rich aroma of sweat and the fragrant vapor rising from large pots of palm wine. Several young, robust men in short, coarsely woven blue loincloths begin to move into the center of the large clearing in front of the village meetinghouse. Their muscular arms are draped with the long white hair of ram's manes, and on their heads are "leopard caps," each pierced with an eagle feather. They move with confidence and pride, but their leader seems even more imposing. Balanced on his head is a brightly painted board upon which human heads sculpted of wood are displayed. The heads also are flanked with ram's mane and wear leopard caps-okpu agụ. The commons is crowded with people of all ages, some talking, greeting, laughing, others maneuvering to find a good place from which to view the dancers. The dance leader, holding a small palm shoot in his mouth and a short flared cutlass in his right hand, stares fixedly ahead as he dances with short deliberate steps.
Three percussionists sit on a wooden bench defining one edge of the dance space. With casual concentration they tap out the heartbeat of the dance with bamboo slat instruments known as akwatankwa. A drummer begins to play an ikperikpe ọgụ (war drum). It is not a dance rhythm, but drum language that is echoed by the opu, the antelope horn played by one of the dancers. The voice of the drum calls:

"Everyone should come forth!
Those in the bush come out!
Those on the road come out!
The day is charged!"

An old man, dressed in a faded wrap-cloth of Indian madras, sits on a nearby stool and begins to shout: "Utugokoko kwe nụ!" and a response resounds from the crowd: "huh!" He shouts again, "Akanu kwenụ!! ... Ohafia kwe nụ!! ... Igbo kwe nụ!! ... Nigeria kwe nụ! ..." and each time the crowd responds with urgent approval. Then the old man begins to sing the legend of Elibe Aja, the story of a brave hunter who kills a leopardess that is terrorizing the neighboring Aro people only to eventually meet his own end trying to stop a wild boar from destroying farms in Amuru. The music is fast, driving, insistent. The dancers in the circle are joined by other men, some mature, some mere boys. Each moves his feet in a rapid sidestepping pattern. They roll their shoulders in tight circles flexing their chests. Gradually, deliberately, the tempo builds. As the pace of the music increases the pectoral flexing accelerates. The men's chests pulsate with rippling undulations. This phenomenon is called ọfụfụ. As Joseph Agara put it, "when the music takes fire, the flesh melts.""

– John C. McCall (2000). Dancing Histories: Heuristic Ethnography with the Ohafia Igbo. University of Michigan Press. pp. 53–54.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75dksZNvGJA 


Taking a female chieftaincy title in Igbo land

Taking a female chieftaincy title in Igbo land used to be a practice exclusively reserved for wealthy, married, and elderly women. But these days, age is no longer a criteria as younger women with sound education, success in politics or business, and high corporate achievements are allowed to  take up female chieftaincy titles.

When a woman wants to take up a female chieftaincy title in Igbo land, she must buy several items such as coco-yams, kola-nuts,  pepper etc which she must take, in addition to a substantial amount of money, to the league of female chiefs in her husband’s community informing them of her desire to join them. This initial expression of desire to become a female chief must be done through the leader of the league of female chiefs in the community.

The leader of the league of female chiefs in the community summons a meeting of the league, and during the meeting, the items and money brought by the aspirant is shared and distributed among members of the group according to hierarchy (which means that leaders will receive a slightly higher portion than others) after they have certified her worthy of taking up a female chieftaincy title in line with the peculiar traditional standard operational in that particular community.

At such a meeting, the aspirant for the female chieftaincy title will take charge of providing and assortment of drinks for refreshment. After this initial meeting, the aspirant will sponsor a second meeting, and provide more items – tubers of yam, bags of salt, drinks, etc for distribution to members of the league of female chiefs. The reason for the stringent screening and presentation of gift items before a woman can take up a female chieftaincy title in Igbo land is to ensure she has the financial and material means to cater for other less privileged women, children and orphans when times become hard in the community.

If any female aspirant can prove herself worthy of this high calling, she can then be given the right to take up a female chieftaincy title in her husband’s community. This implies she will receive the right to assume a new name that fits her nature and how she wants the community to perceive her.

Afterwards, private activities are performed by the aspirant and other female chiefs before she is publicly presented to the public through a formal ceremony.

During the formal presentation of the new female chief to the public, she is expected to perform a majestic dance in public twice, with other female chiefs of the community who received portions of the gift she brought to their league singing and dancing behind her to show their support and solidarity.

Who sponsors the public presentation ceremony? It is the new female chief that does so.

From that day of the public presentation, the new female chieftaincy title holder in Igbo land is expected to support, help, and promote the efforts of the male chiefs towards ensuring the survival and progress of their community.

Most  wealthy men in Igbo land, when taking up chieftaincy titles for themselves in their various communities also sponsor their wives for a female chieftaincy title too. In the end, male chiefs in Igbo land feel proud when they and their wives are addressed “Chief and Chief Mrs…”in public.

Igbo culture recognizes women as equal entities to men but of a different specie. That is why female chiefs are equally celebrated and respected in Igbo land.

Finally, despite the perceived equalities Igbo culture holds for men and women, female chieftaincy title holders cannot partake in traditional activities reserved for men such as breaking of kola-nuts, going for war, climbing palm trees, performing masquerades etc. So, also are male chiefs forbidden from meddling in activities and functions exclusively reserved for females.

The cultural beauty and dignity Igbos lost to British colonization

Before the incursion of Europeans (British colonialist) into Igbo land, we naturally cultivated and practiced customs and traditions that were adapted to our own soil, our own climate and our own blood. The Igbo customs and traditions we developed helped us, at that time, to actualize our fullest potentials as a people. They were what every Igbo man or woman was known for.

Igbos thought with one mind, we spoke with one voice, and performed diverse but similar deeds through the common customs and traditions we shared amongst us. We were held as one by Omenaala (the Igbo traditional religion). We flourished and enjoyed the true beauty and progress our minds and souls attained.

But things changed in the 19th-century when British colonization effort in Sub-saharan Africa spread to Igbo land and increased the encounters between us and other ethnicities near the Niger River. We proved decisive and enthusiastic in our embrace of British colonization, because the increased encounters between us and other ethnicities boosted our commercial activities.

But then, during the colonization of our land, It was not only commercial activities that the British expressed strong interest in. They were also interested in our administrative system and religious lives. While we enjoyed the wealth and power that came to our people through the colonization process, the religious imperialism the colonialist engineered upon our collective psyche was not-so-good.

At first, the British missionaries penetrated the hinterlands of the Igbo nation, and established all sort of church denominations each with a handful of ardent followers and converts. The churches struggled for a footing in our traditional society which was, at that time, bounded by strong age-long traditions, taboos, and expectations. As a result of that early struggle of the churches, the European missionaries aimed at yanking off the cultural traditions and customs of Ndigbo with a view to supplanting it with both logical and illogical church doctrines and rituals.

The British missionaries were clever. They came quietly and peaceably into Igbo land – our land – with the Christian religion. We, the Igbos, were amused at their “foolishness” and allowed them to stay. But not-so-long afterwards, the European missionaries put a knife on the things that held us together (our revered Igbo culture and traditions), and yanked off as many of them as hindered their ulterior motives, which made the centre of our cultural existence no longer able to hold together as one, and things indeed fell apart for all of us. This same idea was echoed in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel; “Things Fall Apart.”

The missionaries won over our brothers to their side through evangelism and indulgence, and ever since, the Igbo nation could no longer act like one. Omenaala was fought hard and fast by the colonialists who used both schools and churches as effective platforms for socially controlling and Influencing the minds of our people and twisting it to support their whims and caprices.

Following that “negative” success engineered by the missionaries against our cultural psyche, the God-willed beauty of our Igbo nation became a mighty pipe-dream. As long as the leaders of our people try to force upon us foreign clothing, and foreign architectural styles in the illusion that this makes for the progress of the Igbo people, our cultural and spiritual beauty and dignity will remain lost. Imitation is not uplifting.

I am reminding those of us that argue that we’re in the information age and as such, the media has shrunken the world into a global village, know nit today that there is no personal cultural achievement for Igbo people in the uniformity of the world through copying other cultures at the expense of our own.

The Igbo nation can only progress through the upward development of what culture, customs, traditions, and language we already possess. In so doing, we can find and regain the beauty and dignity of our culture which was lost through the not-so-noble efforts of the missionaries during the colonial era. We can never achieve that by adopting a culture and religion that is borrowed. Taking something over is not progress, for progress shows itself in the improvement of what already exists.

Let me conclude by saying once again that true progress for our people – the Igbo people – lies solely in the development of our own culture which is naturally adapted to the Igbo soil, Igbo climate, and Igbo blood. We must all become indigenous in the purest sense of the word, if we ever wish to develop our cultural and spiritual beings as well as expect help from Chukwu.

To be rooted in our native soil and all its nuances is a basic condition, and it, alone, guarantees that we can regain the cultural beauty and dignity we’ve lost to British colonialism. If we ever succeed in achieving that, we can expect only peace, unity, robust health, strength, beauty, and spiritual maturity for our people.

Understanding the Igbo family life and structure

Family is a very important institution in the lives of Igbo people. All relationships, according to Igbo culture, emanates from the family. Every child birthed in any family begins to learn about human relationships from within the family.

Our collective view of the family unit, as people of Igbo extraction, is quite different from the views of the Western world. To Americans and Europeans, family basically implies one father, one mother, and their biological or adopted children. But, if we observe closely what is implied when Igbo people talk about family, we’ll see that, to our people, family refers to a group of people living under one household who may or may not even be related by blood or marriage.

It is in a family setting as described above that we, Igbos, differ so much from Westerners but not-so-much from other African tribes.

In understanding Igbo family life and structure, we have to take into consideration three (3) Kinds of family settings common in Igboland as follows:

Family Setting with Only One Mother:

This kind of family structure found in Igboland consists mainly of father, one mother, children, dependants, and relatives. Some 50 years ago, it was quite rare to find this kind of family setting among our people living in the geographical area designated as South-East Nigeria.

Family Setting with Multiple Mothers:

Polygamy is part of Igbo culture, and is well accepted and acknowledged by our people as a man’s legitimate right, if he so chooses to have multiple women as mothers in his household. One key feature of this kind of family setting is recurrent quarrels and undue competition among the mothers within the household as each mother typically cooks her own meals and maintains her offspring without undue interference from others.

Extended Family Setting:

We, Igbos, are mainly known for this kind of family set-up in which father, mother or mothers, children, in-laws, from both sides, friends, and other relatives all live together as one household.

Reasons Why Igbo People Prefer the Extended Family Setting

The extended family is like a pillar of support for each member of the household as some members may be not-so-rich, widowed, orphaned etc as the case may be. The popular Igbo saying; “Igwe bu Ike” (Multitude is power) was coined to reflect the high value we place on the extended family setting.It helps the upbringing of children as their training is not merely confined to the limits of the knowledge and experiences of their biological parents.It reduces the financial burden and woes of the elderly members of the household as both the young and old jointly work together to make money and pay bills or put food on the table for every member of the family.

Some Challenges Associated with Igbo Extended Family Setting

It makes the financial burden of a few members of the household heavier as every other member’s needs also become theirs.It could make some members of the extended family household lazy, because some will not develop their abilities or increase their effort in life, because they have their hopes of survival hinged on the success of well-to-do members of the extended family household.

Responsibilities of Various Family Members According to Igbo Culture and Tradition

The father represents and speaks on behalf of the family in public forums. It is his responsibility to cultivate, grow, and develop the family wealth and resources. He serves as the family priest and spiritual leader and teacher of Igbo culture and traditions to members of his household. It is the fathers’ responsibility to lead by example, correct deviant members of the family when they go wrong, and provide for the needs of his household.

It is the mother’s responsibility to inspire and fuel the father with ideas to move the household forward towards progress and development. It is expected of her to preserve the family wealth and resources. It rests on the mother’s shoulders to set and uphold standards of morality and purity in the family. She has to make the household homely and comfortable for every member of the family including occasional visitors. Finally, it is her duty to love the father of the house, cook his meals, and maintain the cleanliness of the home.

Children and other Dependants:
According to Igbo culture and tradition, children and dependants are expected to serve and remain under the mentorship of father and/or mother only on the condition that they know what they are doing and are not bad influence on the children or dependants. Male children and dependants are supposed to be 100% under the mentorship of the father, while female ones are supposed to be 100% under the mentorship of the mother.


Written by Dunu Okigbo


Ritual Aesthetics of Mbaise – Igbo Funeral through Eshe Performance art

Ritual Aesthetics of Mbaise – Igbo Funeral through Eshe Performance art


Death among the Mbaise-Igbo of Nigeria like in other culture areas of Nigeria is a phenomenon that has deep symbolic implication between the living and the dead. Among Mbaise-Igbo, the occasion of death like the occasion of birth is celebrated with deep emotional attachment.

However, the celebration of death, as a rite of passage to the metaphysical world, is more fundamentally accorded a heightened ritual elevation, especially to that deceased parent, who apart from having lived to a good old age, had also, lived a fruitful and well accomplished life, such that the impact of his spent life is felt not only by his family, but also, by the larger members of his community.

Having lived such a fulfilled life, coupled with the people's belief in ancestral power relation between the dead and living and, their fate in re-incarnation, the Mbaise- Igbo
consider it absolutely important to accord such a dead parent a proper burial, that is manifest in the elaborate burial rites culturally defined for such passages.

Among Mbaise-Igbo, a person is not yet buried in the proper burial sense until this elaborate burial ceremony popularly known as Okwukwu or ifu onu is carried out for him. Okwukwu as a final rite of passage for the dead Mbaise-Igbo aged parent involves an elaborate feasting and ritual processes.

Deriving from the peoples belief that an accomplished parent, whose children do not bury properly by carrying out the elaborate Okwukwu ceremony will not be accorded a place of honor among other ancestral parents in the here after, and consequently may turn violent against his family members; and especially against the eldest son of the family, who on the death of his father automatically becomes the ofo title holder of his family, the family of such deceased parent continues to live on the edge of life on daily basis, out of fear that some enemies of the deceased family may capitalize of this non performance of the proper burial rites for their father to invoking the spirit of dead parent to come and demand of such sacrificial rite, without which his children will be visited with unexplainable afflictions in the form of death, undiagonisable ailments and all forms of troubles as the case may be.

Okwukwu ceremony in Mbaise

Okwukwu, as a ritual feast is a very elaborate ceremony. It is a ceremony that smacks of showing off wealth. Death being a ritual journey that connects the families of the living and the dead; Okwukwu, therefore, involves the participation of all the family lineages of the deceased person, in whose honor the ritual ceremony takes place: It is a ceremony that involves the kinsmen of the dead person, his maternal home kinsmen, the umuda (family daughters married outside) and umu okele (children whose maternal homes are identified as the village of the deceased person.)

As one ceremony, which affords the Mbaise-Igbo a meaningful opportunity to dramatize all the mythical and superstitious belief systems that shape their world and spiritual imagination, okwukwu ceremony is steeped in a lot of religious rituals.
Among some of these beliefs is that a man must have lived to achieve all that he achieved in life or not, because of the strength of his mind and his hand (hard work) or lack of these, as the case may be. Based on this thinking, on the occasion of death and during the okwukwu ceremony, a deceased person, in whose honor, the ritual feast is called, is taken through a ritual ceremony of physical and spiritual empowerment.

Among the people, the ritual killing of dog popularly called iwa nkita anya or empowering of the eye, is carried out on an Eke market day preceding the Afo market day of the okwukwu ceremony. The ritual of iwa nkita anya is carried out by an appointed person through divination. This ritual executioner of this ritual rite must also be a man of strong will and bold personality. At the appointed day of the ritual, he is expected to go on a procession with other kinsmen of the deceased( umu nna) led by a convoy of other Okwukwu honorees with the dog tied to a rope trailing behind as they walk round the market square amidst fast paced masculine song of egwu awuru a kind of solidarity song accompanying that occasions such a ritual procession. After going round the square, the divined ritual killer of the dog of iwa nkita anya is expected to slash off the head of the dog at one cut of the knife amidst high tempo egwu awuru song rendered in this manner:
Owe ghe e
Aya ghe he e
Owe ghe e
Aye ghe e.
This song, though onomatopoeic in nature, is structured to rhyme with the heroic action of the moment. The symbolic implication of iwa nkita anya ritual is that on re- incarnation, the deceased shall be reborn into the world of the living as a bold, hardworking and fearless character.

It is important to state here that fear is seen as a weakness on the part of the man among the Mbaise people. The case of Unoka, Okonkwo's father in Things Fall Apart represents a classical attitude of the Mbaise-Igbo fears about fear and weakness on the part of man. And the only explanation that can be made about such a tragic personality would be that he was denied proper ritual rites of burial in his previous incarnation; and especially the right of iwa Nkita anya.
After the Nkita anya ritual, the next stage would be the rite of evule obi literarily meaning, killing of ram for the heart. This particular ceremony is not done for every body no matter what age the person may have attained. It is rather, a ritual of respect preserved for the deceased, who lived through a lot of pains and survived them all. The symbolism of this ritual is also buried in the animal used in the ritual, the ram, which on its own, is a very stubborn animal. A never say die, kind of animal.
A day before the burial, the oldest of the okele ( external grandson) to the family of deceased shall lead a procession of all the other okeles of the village in a carnival kind of procession round the village with their den guns slung on their shoulders amidst heroic songs of egwu awuru. As they go from one family to the other round the village singing egwu awuru, they are given presents in the form of money, drinks and agricultural products. In each of the family they are presented with gifts, the Okeles as a way of appreciation,congregate to pray for their host for his recognition and hospitality.
Among Mbaise-Igbo, the prayers of Ndi Okele are believed to have a very strong intercessionary power in the hands of the ancestors at the other plane of existence. Also, on the final day of the Okwukwu ceremony, Ndi okele also go on procession round the market. As they go round the market, they shoot their loaded den guns and through such actions, add glamour to the whole ritual feasting.

Before the Eshe musical performance, which embodies the entire poetics and dramatic essence of the ceremony, the Opara or first son of the deceased, on the day of Okwukwu, which usually takes place on the market day of the community of the deceased, will dress in his best: usually in the typical Igbo dress pattern, comprising of a George wrapper tied around the waist with a fitting isi agu, (Lion head spotting) jumper top and a red cap to match. He is accompanied in this task by other members of the Opara clime, (other first sons from other families, who have done the same burial rites for their fathers), on the market round ceremony. This movement to the market is very symbolic: apart from the fact that a cow, which is the high point of sacrificial object used for the ceremony is equally costumed with different feathers of birds of symbolic beauty and strength, the essence of the market round is to announce to the whole community, that so and so children of the late deceased person are burying their father properly. As the children go round the market in the company of other ndi opara, they are hailed and praised. Often, one would hear one elderly persons or other shout at the top of his voice: Opara mara mma (A son, who is handsome) and another will add: onye nwa liri bara uba (He, who is buried by his children is a wealthy man.) And soon, the whole remark would submerge into a song, usually taken over by the excited carnival patrons and supporters:

"Onye nwa liri bara aba" He, who is buried by children, is a wealthy man.

"Onye nwa liri bara eze" He, who is buried by children is a king.

"Onye nwa liri bara aba" He, who is buried by his children, is a wealthy man.

Having gone the market round with the costumed cow, amidst greetings, praises and canon gun shots; they return back to the house, where the traditional poetic-drama of traditional oration takes place.


Short History of Mbaise

Mbaise is an amalgam of indigenous, autochthonous clans, connected by intermarriage, and situated in approximate area the heartland of Igboland. It occupies an area of 404 square kilometers. The quiddity of Mbaise is that this homogenous group of more than 1000 persons per square kilometer is the most densely populated area in West Africa. The population of Mbaise as at 2006 was estimated to be 611,204 people (Agulanna, 2008).

Until the advent of European adventurers into Nigeria, the main source of income in Mbaise was subsistent agriculture. In Igboland, no centralized political system existed. The system of government depended largely on kinship relations and shared custom. The village group was the highest level of socio-political organization with the “Amala” exercising all power (Njoku 2003). The weekly gathering of the male family members around the fresh palm wine keg (“awuru-awu” or “manya-orie”) constituted the forum for discussing matters. Recently, the “Aladinma” of the autonomous community exercise judicial, legislative, administrative and executive powers and functions. Typically, life at the pre-colonial time is better understood by reading “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.

The Aro Expeditionary Force (British) moved through Owerri and Mbaise in 1902. When the British Colonial Administration was introduced in the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria, the government established a native court at Nkwogwu Nguru in 1905 and built a residence for the Whiteman there. Dr. Rogers Stewart who was trespassing Mbaise got killed and in 1906, the “Ahiara Punitive Expedition” led by Captains Brian Douglas and Harold Hastings started the reprisal punitive massacre of people in the area. In 1927, the Colonial Government introduced taxation using warrant chiefs and court messengers to collect the taxes. These colonial agents became corrupt and used taxes as tools of oppression and suppression. When the taxes were increased in 1929, it triggered the Women Uprising which resulted in the destruction of the native court at Nkwogwu and the sacking of the Whiteman’s residence. Subsequently, other courts were established at Itu for Ezinihitte; Afor Enyiogugu for Agbaja; Obohia for Ekwerazu; Orie-Ahiara for Ahiara; and Uvuru for Oke-Uvuru.

On June 12 1941, Mbaise became a federated unit of five clans, namely, Agbaja (Nguru, Okwuato, Enyiogugu, Obiangwu, and Umuohiagu), Ekwerazu, Ahiara, Ezinihitte, and Oke-Uvuru. A common treasury was opened in Enyiogugu in 1942 and it was later transferred to Aboh in 1948. Obiangwu and Umuohiagu which were constituent parts of Agbaja pulled out in 1957 and joined Ngor Okpala. Unfortunately Mbaise was currently reduced to three local governments, namely Ahiazu (result of a merger of Ahiara and Ekwerazu), Aboh-Mbaise (carving out a part of Ezinihitte West and added to Agbaja), and Ezinihitte.

Between 1955 and 1958, Mbaise County Council under the Chairmanship of Honorable N. D. Ukah initiated two landmark development projects namely Mbaise Secondary School and Mbaise Joint Hospital (now General Hospital) both in Aboh. In 1954, Dr. Aaron Ogbonna who studied abroad became the first qualified medical doctor, returned home, and established the first private hospital in Mbaise in 1956. Prior to this time, any sick person who needed western medical attention either went to Holy Rosary Hospital, Emekuku Owerri or Methodist Hospital, Amachara in Umuahia.

Mbaise people have always been very active in Nigerian politics. The sons and daughters have rendered services as Federal Ministers, State Commissioners, a Governor, Governorship candidates, a Federal Vice-Presidential candidate, and even a Presidential candidate. In 1946, long before Independence of Nigeria, Mr. Jamike Iwunna, who was credited for suggesting the name “Mbaise”, led an entourage of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe to Mbaise before the 1947 London Constitutional Conference. Mbaise has produced four Federal Government Ministers in the persons of Dr. Sylvester Ugoh (PhD Harvard Economic), Chief I.D Nwoga (Oxford), Professor Fabian. N. C. Osuji (PhD Ibadan), and Mrs. Chinwe Obaji. Several sons and daughters have served as honorable commissioners in Imo State governments. Dr. Sylvester Ugoh was selected as Vice-Presidential Candidate while Prof F. N. C. Osuji and Dr. Alex Obi vied as the governorship candidates of Imo State, and currently Dr. (Mrs.) Ada Okwuonu is the Deputy Governor. Chief Chinedu Ezebuiro vied for the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the defunct Social Democratic Party. Air Commodore Luke Ochulor (Rtd.) was the first Military Governor of Delta State. Chris Anyanwu is the first female senator in Imo State. Late Gaius Anoka, who initiated the annual Pan-Igbo Ahiajoku Lecture series, was the Nigerian High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.

Mbaise people place a high premium on education. The earliest missionary and educational activities commenced in Mbaise about 1915. Today, there are several Catholic Priests and Clergymen of the Anglican Communion serving worldwide.
In 1934, an Irish nun established a convent in Ogbor Nguru that served Orlu, Ikeduru, Okigwe and Obowo. Mbaise daughters received early education at the Regina Caeli College, Ogbor Nguru and attracted suitors from all over the former Eastern Region of Nigeria and beyond. Despite the fact that western education arrived late relative to other parts of the country, Mbaise can boast of countless professors, PhDs, and different specialty graduates. These professionals are contributing to human development and progress all over the world. Some have served exceptionally well as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing council of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, as Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, the Madonna University, Okija, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the (Old) Imo State University, as Librarian FUTO, and as Registrar of the University of Nigeria Nsukka.

Mbaise indigenes have contributed in numerous areas of economic, educational, and social development of their country. Dr. Sylvester Ugoh was the first and only Governor of the Central Bank of the defunct Bank of Biafra. Dr. (Mrs.) Agatha Ndugbu (PhD, OON) a lawyer, statistician, and economist served as Imo State Head of Service. Famous legal luminaries Sir Mike Ahamba, Sir Bon Nwakamma, and Lucius Nwosu are among the first Senior Advocates of Nigeria in Imo State. Several others are serving as High Court Judges in Nigeria. The first lawyer from Mbaise Chief B. S. Nzenwa was called to the bar in 1959. From the military to the police forces, you will find at the top echelon, men and women from Mbaise in command positions.

During the 1967-1970 Nigeria – Biafra civil war, Mbaise played very strategic roles. A unit of the “Research and Production” (RAP) that improvised and manufactured various scarce commodities during the blockade was positioned in Mbaise. The Head of State of the breakaway Biafra, General Odumegwu Ojukwu launched the Ahiara Declaration, a blueprint for the political and economic development of the beleaguered Biafra at Ahiara. When Mbaise, where most Igbo people had taken refuge, was overrun by the Federal Armed Forces, the civil war came to an abrupt end.

Some cultural and traditional ceremonies have survived Western influence. The Ahianjoku festival dedicated to the yam deity lasted eight days. The New Yam Festival (Iriji Mbaise) introduced in 1946 is the Christianized modification of the Ahianjoku and it is fixed on 15th August every year. “Oji Ezinihitte” which celebrates the unity of the people of Ezinihitte clan rotates from the oldest community (Oboama na Umunama) to the youngest (Onicha). It is fixed on the first of January every year. Anecdotal evidence shows that the clan revers Oriukwu in Umunama, the market square where they believe the world was created. “Itu Aka” Nguru is also an annual event before the farming season which according to late Ambassador Gaius Anoka takes place to enable the people to better weather the new environment, new times and new challenges.

One unique feature of Mbaise is the high fecundity among their women called “eghu ukwu”. To qualify to be a member of this club, a woman must have a minimum of ten children. There is no maximum and some women were known to have given birth to as many as 15 children (Agulanna 2008). You can tell the gender of a newborn from the song of joy summoning “onye ji ego gba ngaa oo” meaning “whoever has money hurry down here” for a girl. The jubilant chant “onye ji egbe gba ngaa oo” meaning “whoever has gun hurry down here” heralds the birth of a boy.

The local salad called “ugba” prepared in Mbaise has a special appeal when sold in the cities because of its special taste and aroma. Similarly, the local raffia palm wine tapped in Mbaise is sold out before others because of its uniqueness. In a traditional setting, these two go together like bread and butter.

Mbaise culture is rich in music and dance appropriate for each social occasion. According to Professor Nwoga (1978), the peak of Mbaise cultural achievements is in its music and dance, in its song and literary skills. Every form of native Igbo dance ensemble is to be found in Mbaise; whether it has its base in the wood xylophone, hand piano, long drum, short drum, slit drum, pot, gong, bamboo horn or calabash horn. There are dances for childbirth, marriage, funerals of old men, funerals of old women, age group celebrations, communal labor, and other forms of group or social occasion (Nwoga 1978). “Agbacha ekurunwa” dance is performed at childbirth functions, while “Alija” and “Ogbongelenge” feature during marriage. “Eseike”, “Esse”, Ekwerikwe mgba” and “Nkwa Ike” are for death of old men. On the other hand “Uko” and “Ekereavu” are exclusive for death of old women. The “Ekpe” and “Nkwa udu” feature during the “Iriji” Mbaise and “Itu Aka” Nguru. A special mention must be made about “Abigbo”. According to Professor Nwoga who took one of the “Abigbo” groups to the USA in the 1980s, the music and dancers philosophize, criticize, admonish or praise in language expression which not only makes its point but also pleases while it hurts (Nwoga 1978). “Abigbo”, “Agborogwu” and “Ogbongelenge” are performed at the reception of dignitaries. Mbaise has produced many music legends but only few can be mentioned. Joseph Onyenegecha Iwuchukwu (popularly known as JONEZ) and Chief Chrisogonus Ezebuiro Obinna, aka (Dr. Sir Warrior) of Oriental Brothers International Band brought style and zeal into highlife music.

Many Mbaise sons and daughters are among the celebrities in drama, theatre and sports.
Before the advent of Nollywood, Jegede, the husband of Akpeno in the popular play “Zebrudaya” made his mark. Today, there are brand names such as Kanayo O. Kanayo, Genevieve Nnaji, and Rita Dominic Nwaturuocha. Others are Okey Bakassi, Eucharia Anunobi, Ben Nwosu (aka Papa Andy), Chidi Chikere and Ms. Phina Peters and many more celebrity actors and actresses of Nigerian movies. In sports, the first ever female Olympic gold medalist in Nigeria is Chioma Ajunwa. Several sons and daughters have played in the national football team – the Green Eagles and the female football team – The Falcons.