Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk

Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk
John Okwuchukwu Okoye Mgbemena, chief priest of the Ndi-ichie shrine at Obu Mgbemena, Umudioka, Neni, inviting the presence of Chukwu, other deities and ancestors through nzu (chalk). Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

The areas in which Northcote Thomas worked as a Government Anthropologist in Nigeria and Sierra Leone have, of course, changed a great deal in the 105 years since the end of his last tour. During 18 months of fieldwork, retracing the itineraries of Thomas, we have, however, also been struck by the many continuities. Despite urbanisation and Christianity, cultural traditions are strong! Take chalk, for example…

Thomas’s reports and fieldnotes on the Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities that he researched between 1909 and 1913 are full of references to the use of chalk in rituals, ceremonies and customs. This chalk is known variously as ‘calabash chalk‘ and ‘kaolin‘. In Igbo it is nzu, in Edo orhue. As Thomas documented, this chalk is used in multiple ways – as an offering to the deities and ancestors, as a medicine, as a symbol of purity, of good fortune and hospitality. It is a sacred substance.

Rites of passage

Initiate of Ovia Society, Iyowa, Benin City, 1909
An Oviovia, a newly initiated member of the Ovia society, Iyowa, with his forehead smeared with chalk (orhue). Photographed by Northcote Thomas, October 1909. NWT 1288. MAA P.29446.

Chalk is used in many ceremonies and rituals, from birth to death. For example, Thomas describes the initiation of boys into the Ovia society in Iyowa, north of Benin City. ‘The boy joins the society’, Thomas writes in an unpublished manuscript, ‘by payment of a calabash of [palm] oil, 20 yams, a calabash of palm wine, 4 kola and 5 legs of Uzo [duiker]. The yams are cooked and fufu is sacrificed to Ovia. The boy marks his face with chalk and is then called Oviovia or the son of Ovia’.

Thomas recorded a number of what he labelled ‘birth songs’ in his travels in what is now the north of Edo State. The Omolotuo Cultural Group interpreted a number of these when we visited Otuo, explaining that they would be sung when the newly born child was presented to the community. To celebrate, both the child and the community members would mark their faces with chalk or arue as it is called in the Otuo dialect. The Omolotuo Cultural Group performed such a song for us, marking their faces accordingly…

The Omolotuo Cultural Group sing: A gigantic tree has given birth to its king; A lion has given birth to its king; It is a good person that gives; Celebrate with this chalk. Filmed by Paul Basu.

Title-taking and kingship

During our fieldwork in Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Obi Victor Nwokobia explained that nzu is part of the paraphernalia associated with royalty, signifying blessing and purity. It is used in the coronation of a new king (obi) and to invoke ancestral blessings on his guests at the palace.

Obi Nwokobia and nzu, Okpanam
Left: George Agbo and Obi Victor Nwokobia discussing nzu during fieldwork in Okpanam; Right: close-up of the molded chalk. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

With others in Okpanam, Obi Nwokobia was particularly interested in a series of photographs Northcote Thomas took in 1912 of an individual he identified as ‘Chief Mbweze’. The name, we were told, should be written ‘Mgbeze’, and what the photographs record is his title-taking ceremony. Thomas does not state what title Mgbeze was receiving, though he lists the highest titles a man may attain in Okpanam as being eze and obu.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Obi Mgbeze Okpanam after his title-taking
‘Chief Mgbeze’ of Okpanam, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1912 after his title-taking ceremony. He holds a pair of alo staffs and wears the eriri ukwu on his ankles, visual markers of his new status. Mgbeze is painted with chalk to symbolize purity and communion with the ancestors. We were told that this photograph was taken at the Udo shrine. (NWT 4093, MAA P.32104)

Obi Nwokobia explained to us the use of nzu in the obi/eze coronation ceremonies. Prior to the conferment of the title, the initiand is rubbed with chalk all over his body. He also wears a white wrapper. The white of the chalk and cloth represents purity and sanctification. The candidate must then spend a period of 28 days in isolation. During this time, the white of the chalk connects the initiand to the ancestors. When the candidate emerges from this period of seclusion, he is considered pure and to have received ancestral validation of his coronation. The newly titled man dances and throws nzu on the people gathered as a mark of blessing on them. It is a moment that Thomas captured in his series of photographs of Mgbeze’s title-taking. These same practices are used in the coronation of an obi today.

Seeing beyond the visible

Among the hundreds of photographic portraits of individuals made by Thomas can be found many in which people have chalk smeared around one or both eyes. This could signify various things. The high female office of Omu, for example, was entitled to wear chalk around both eyes, as can be seen in Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam (see centre photograph below).

Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Woman and baby, Kokori, 1910 (NWT 1461, MAA P.29759); Omu, Okpanam, 1912 (NWT 4108, MAA P.32119); Okonlo, Ibuzo, 1912 (NWT 4336, MAA P.32320). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.
Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Okoye, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2383, MAA P.30731); Ojankwo of Onudu, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2491, MAA P.30817); Man in farm, Nimo, 1911 (NWT 2964b, MAA P.31223). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.

Thomas notes that native doctors (dibia) were also entitled to wear chalk around either one or both eyes, depending on their seniority. The same was true of priests. Chalk around the eyes signifies an ability to see beyond the visible world and into the world of the spirits. Chalk is still used in this way among traditional doctors, diviners and priests, as we have often encountered during our travels in Thomas’s footsteps. They are sometimes called dibia anya nzu, meaning ‘native doctor with the eye of chalk’.

When we met Paul Okafor, chief priest of the Nge-Ndo Ngene shrine in Nibo, Anambra State, he wore chalk on his forehead and left eyelid. He explained that the mark on his forehead granted him access into the spirit world, while that on his eyelid allowed him to see into the spirit world so as to be able to solve his clients’ problems. Okafor further explained that he must wash the nzu off before going to bed, or else he would not be able to sleep, but rather continue to commune with the spirits until the next morning.

Paul Okafor, Chief Priest of Nge Ndo, Nibo
Paul Okafor, one of the chief priests of the Nge-Ndo shrine, Nibo. (Nge-Ndo means the Ngede whose mother is called Udo.) The chalk marks on his forehead and left eyelid grant him access into the world of the spirits. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

According to Nwandu, a dibia we met at Ebenebe, he uses nzu as a medium to communicate with the ancestors. He also applies nzu to part of his eyelid to be able to see the spirit world, and he demonstrated for us how he draws chalk lines on the ground when performing spiritual consultations – igba afa – for his clients.

Dibia Nwandu, Ebenebe
Nwandu, a dibia in Ebenebe, demonstrating how he performs igba afa (divination). As well as the chalk markings on the ground, note the spots of chalk daubed on his right eyelid and left foot. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

Ọgbọ obodo and the Mkpitime cult

In the fourth part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking People of Nigeria (1914), concerning the ‘laws and customs’ of the Western Igbo or Anioma people, Thomas provides an interesting account of the Nkpetime or Mkpitime cult. Mkpitime is the name of a female deity associated with a small lake close to Onitsha Olona, now Delta State, which Thomas visited in October 1912. Thomas evidently spent time with the orhene or priest of Mkpitime, a man named Mokweni, whom he also photographed. His visit coincided with the annual Iwaji (New Yam Festival).

During the festival, the orhene is said to ‘go into nzu (chalk)’. This is a period of seclusion during which no one is allowed to make a noise, quarrel or fire a gun. Three days after going ‘into nzu‘, the orhene is supposed to make offerings at Lake Mkpitime and swim in its waters. On the fourth day, the orhene comes out of seclusion, accompanied by drumming and dancing before the mmanwu (spirits manifest as masquerades). Thomas describes how a woman created figures on the earth of the dancing ground using chalk, but also charcoal, red mud and ashes. Thomas notes that this is called obwo [ọgbọ] obodo – translating as ‘circle of dance’. The motifs represent various ‘totemic’ animals and other aspects of local cosmology, including a leopard, ‘tiger cat’, pangolin, monkey, viper, cross-roads, mirror, the sun, moon and Mkpitime herself. According to Thomas, domestic animals such as goats, ducks and fowls must not step on the figures. However, they are soon obliterated by the dancing feet of the celebrants.

Ogbo Obodo marks, Iwa-Ji ohuu (New Yam) Festival, Onitsha Olona
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ọgbọ obodo markings associated with the Mkpitime cult in Onitsha Olona, 1912. The marks, created in chalk and other materials, represent different totemic animals and aspects of local cosmology. They are drawn on the dancing ground during the Iwaji festival and are erased in the dust by the feet of the dancers. (NWT 4258, MAA P.32253).

Chalk at shrines

Chalk is associated with many deities throughout Southern Nigeria, including Ovia, Ngene and Mkpitime, mentioned above, but also Olokun, Ake, Imoka and others. Artist-educator, Norma Rosen, has written about chalk iconography in Olokun worship, for example, and some of the designs she discusses are not dissimilar to those Thomas photographed in Onitsha Olona. In an article Rosen wrote with the art historian Joseph Nevadomsky, the scene is described in which this ‘elaborately drawn chalk iconography’ is similarly ‘obliterated by dancing feet’, sending ‘vaporous messages fly[ing] back and forth … between the other world and earth’.

Chalk lozenges and markings, Ake shrine, Idumowina, Benin City
Chalk in various forms at the altar of the Ake shrine, Idumowina, near Benin City. An album of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of the shrine that we presented to the community is placed on the altar as an offering to Ake. Photograph by Paul Basu.

We witnessed something similar – and, indeed, participated in the dancing – when we visited the Ake shrine at Idumowina, on the outskirts of Benin City. We had created an album of Thomas’s photographs, which documented the shrine in 1909, and presented copies to the community and the Ake priest. A special ceremony was held in which the album was presented to the deity. As can be seen in the photograph above, adjacent to the altar was a pile of molded chalk blocks and a dish of powdered chalk. The powdered chalk was sprinkled on the altar on which the album was placed, and was used to create patterns on the ground, which were subsequently erased by our dancing.

In his fieldnotes about the Ake Festival that he documented at at Idumowina in 1909, Thomas describes how women would come to the shrine asking the deity to bless them with children, and also to thank the deity if they had recently given birth. (Ake, like Olokun, is a deity associated with fertility.) He records that children were given chalk to eat.

Paul Basu at Imoka Shrine, Imoka Festival, Awka
Paul Basu kneels before the Imoka shrine during the Imoka Festival in Awka. A great mass of nzu (chalk) was piled up in the shrine. Having received blessings at the shrine, he was given chalk from the shrine to eat. Note also chalk marks around the eyes of the priests on the left, and on the toe of the priest on the right. Photograph by George Agbo.

Indeed, chalk is traditionally ingested by pregnant women and as a medicine for various complaints. We have eaten nzu, too, during our fieldwork, after seeking blessings at the Imoka shrine, during the Imoka Festival in Awka.

A symbol of goodwill, friendship and hospitality

In some areas of Igboland, nzu is used instead of or alongside kola-nut in traditional hospitality ceremonies. The most senior man or traditional priest will draw or sprinkle lines of chalk on the ground while uttering a prayer. The number of lines drawn is often four, corresponding to the four deities or market days of the week – eke, oye, afo and nkwo. The prayer is addressed to Chukwu (the supreme God), lesser deities and the ancestors, asking for long life, wealth, peace and fairness. At the end of each prayer, those present will respond by saying Ise!

Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo, Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo at the Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu discussing the use of nzu in Igbo culture. To his left a visitor from Neni draws four lines on the ground before rolling the chalk to another guest. Photograph by Glory Chika-Kanu.
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo calls upon God, the deities and ancestors while marking the ground with chalk. Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

After the prayer, the chalk will be rolled across the ground from the feet of one person to the next in order of seniority (and social/geographical proximity to the host). It is important that the chalk is not passed hand to hand. Each will then make a mark on the ground before him, again often four lines. Ozo title holders are entitled to mark eight lines. Before rolling the nzu to the next person, each will take a small piece of chalk and mark one of their feet, or an eyelid and put a little in their mouth.

Further reading

  • Nevadomsky, J. & N. Rosen, 1988. ‘The Initiation of a Priestess: Performance and Imagery in Olokun Ritual’, The Drama Review 32(2): 186-207.
  • Rosen, N. 1989. ‘Chalk Iconography in Olokun Worship’, African Arts 22(3): 44-53.

Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in January 2021. In the exhibition, which will transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021, our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Ancestral Reconnections

Display of Northcote Thomas photographs in Nibo
Archival returns: Chief Edozie Nnama (Ozo Odenigbo) points at his great-grandfather, Ezeike Nnama, at an informal exhibition of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Nibo, October 2019. Photograph: George Agbo.

[Re:]Entanglements is part of a broader project entitled Museum Affordances, which is exploring what museum collections and archives make possible, or afford, for different stakeholders. As we have retraced the journeys made by the colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas over 100 years ago in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, equipped with the photographs and sound recordings that he and his local assistants made, it has become apparent that one of the most powerful affordances of these archives is to enable people to reconnect with their ancestors. It has been a privilege for us to witness as community members set eyes upon the faces of their grandparents and great-grandparents, often for the first time.

Another striking affordance is the way these ancestral reconnections also connect extended families in the present. The descendants of those photographed during Thomas’s anthropological surveys now reside in many places throughout the world, forming transnational family networks among the broader diasporas of people with West African heritage. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp enable such families to stay in contact, and it is interesting to see how the archive photographs that we bring back to communities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are recirculated on these platforms, bringing extended families together through an appreciation of their shared past.

In October 2019, we were delighted to receive a message from Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye (née Nnama), a public health physician based in Chicago, Illinois, USA, sending us a photograph she had received from family members in Nibo in Anambra State, Nigeria. Dr Okoye – ‘Uju’ – wrote seeking confirmation: Was this really Chief Nnama, her late great-grandfather? It had been presented as such by a researcher from the [Re:]Entanglements project who had visited Nibo bearing the photographs.

In this guest blog, Uju tells the story of this ‘reunion of sorts’. Part family memoir, part eulogy for an illustrious ancestor, part local history, it is a rich and personal reflection on the contemporary value of these colonial-era archives.


George Agbo discussing Northcote Thomas's photographs of Nibo
[Re:]Entanglements project researcher, George Agbo, discussing Northcote Thomas’s photographs in Nibo. Photograph: Glory Chika-Kanu.

Homecoming

The visitor from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka came unannounced, bearing precious gifts. ‘My name is Dr George Agbo’, he said in Igbo as he explained the purpose of his visit to the assembled group of Nibo indigenes. As he set up copies of Northcote Thomas’s 100-year-old photographs in an impromptu display, many of those gathered were somewhat bewildered. The exhibition of these portraits of strange-yet-familiar faces can best be described as a homecoming – an unexpected reunion of sorts, an intimate opportunity to embrace a past that was lost…

Staring at my phone in disbelief, I carefully examined the image that had pinged into our Nnama family WhatsApp group, which has over 50 members dispersed across West Africa, the UK and USA. My cousin, Chief Edozie Nnama (Ozo Odenigbo), had just shared a black and white photograph of a chiefly-looking man stating that it was our famous great grandfather. For the next two days there was confusion as we tried to make sense of what seemed to be an interesting rumour. How could we be sure? So, to the source we went for confirmation, and I sent an email enquiry to the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye, Nnama and email correspondence
Left: Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye looking at the photograph of Chief Nnama on WhatsApp; right: the confirmatory email, also distributed via WhatsApp to the extended Nnama family.

Fingers shaking, I took a screenshot of my email correspondence with Paul Basu, the project leader, forwarding it to the family WhatsApp group. A mere ‘copy and paste’ seemed inadequate for news of such magnitude. For all of our Nnama family members – all who knew Nnama in the same manner that I did, as a revered name – it was the unearthing of a priceless family heirloom, made possible through the archival excavations undertaken by the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Nibo, my great-grandfather’s lands

Dusty red sand. Lush green tropical terrain. A bumpy ascent along untarred roads above the Obibia river. The joyous chants of children playing in the water below. My father’s loud voice bellowing, ‘These are my grandfather’s lands! These are all Nnama’s lands!’ These images remain ingrained in my mind. As a child I knew their significance. This was the land of my ancestors. It was my land. This place, Nibo, was home.

Nested in Igboland, on the banks of the Obibia river in Anambra State, Nigeria, Nibo lies close to its populous neighbour, Awka, with whom it shares a long history and close cultural ties. As children raised in various locations in West Africa and the United States, my father – Prof Samuel Kingsley Ifeanyi Nnama (Ozo Oyibo, Ozo Akaligwe, Ikenga Nibo-Traditional Prime Minister of Nibo, and the second in Nibo’s hierarchy at the time of his passing in 2016), who spent his childhood in Nibo and initially migrated to the United States in 1975 – made it a point to ensure that my siblings and I fully understood the legacy with which we had been entrusted. This was made especially tangible each Christmas during our childhood and teen years, when we would make an annual pilgrimage to our Nigerian hometown, Nibo.

Ezeike Nnama

Hearing the pride in my dad’s voice as he attempted to connect us, his children, with our mysterious and powerful ancestor – his grandfather, who he never actually knew in person – left a desire for a deeper understanding. Who exactly was this Nnama? How did he acquire his fame? What did he look like?

Since we had no photographs to look at, we created our own images in our minds. As I matured on another continent, thousands of miles from Nibo, my curiosity grew even stronger.

Northcote Thomas's photograph of Chief Nnama
Chief Nnama of Nibo, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. NWT 3006a & 3007; RAI 400.16496 & 400.16436. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

There he sits, with identifying facial marks and the nza over his shoulder. The scarification marks are called ichi – they signified royalty and status. The nza is a horsetail switch, which in those days formed part of the regalia of leadership. It is even used today by the current ruler of Nibo. His neatly-cut beard amazed me – what instrument, I wondered, did they use to maintain such neatness?

The photograph had a profound effect on me. I realized that while my dad has passed on his love for history and family to me, this image validated my connections. Nnama was more than a figure in a folktale – he was real! And the tears started flowing.

My late father was a keen family historian. This was a passion which he passed on to me at an early age. Back in 2007, we together created Wikipedia pages for Nibo and Chief Nnama to document their histories. Nibo is made up of four villages: Ezeawulu, Umuanum, Ifite and Ezeoye. Nnama Orjiakor was born sometime in the late 1860s/early 1870s into the royal family of Umuanum village. In the late 19th century there was a dispute between the ruling lineages of Umuanum and Ezeawulu, each claiming the throne. After decades of conflict (ogu uno), Umuanum prevailed and Nnama was confirmed as the Ezeike (king). To secure the peace, the opposing factions were united in the marriage of Nnama’s son – my grandfather – Orji Nnama and Mgbafor, the daughter of Ezekwe, the warrior leader of Ezeawulu village.

Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor was an astute strategist and formed an alliance with the powerful Aro warlord Okoli Ijoma of Ndikelionwu. Nnama arranged for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s second son Nwene Ijomah. In pre-colonial days, Nnama served as Okoli Ijomah’s deputy in the ‘Omenuko’ court, which presided over much of present-day Anambra State. This alliance offered Nibo great protection and safety during turbulent times.

With the coming of the British, however, Nnama recognized the futility of resisting the colonialist’s military might and the Nibo war council agreed to surrender. This marked the end of Nnama’s alliance with Okoli, who vowed that he would not be ruled by any other king and waged a military campaign against the British, suffering great losses and eventually putting an end to his own life rather than succumbing to the enemy. Meanwhile, Nnama was appointed as a Warrant Chief by the British in 1896 and continued to serve as Nibo’s traditional ruler until his death in 1945.

Nnama’s people

Northcote did not only photograph Chief Nnama when he visited Nibo in 1911. Inquiring further from Paul Basu, I was directed to a Flickr album containing almost 300 photographs he had made of people and places from my hometown. I was amazed to see my people in their natural habitat, often with remarkably intricate hairstyles that would be envied even today. As I looked through the photographs, I tried to connect the dots.

[Re:]Entanglements project Flickr site
Screenshot of a page from the Nibo album at the [Re:]Entanglements project Flickr site.

The photograph of Nnama begins the sequence of images that Northcote took in Nibo. The anthropologist would, of course, have gone to the king first. After taking Nnama’s picture, I reasoned that Nnama would then have arranged for Northcote to photograph other members of the ruling family. Prof Basu then sent me copies of Northcote’s photographic registers, allowing us to put names to the faces. Although the Igbo names were often incorrectly transcribed, I was hopeful that some of them might correspond with those recorded in our extended family (umunna) tree compiled by my late father.

In the photo register, after ‘Chief Nnama’ was ‘Oniyi’, who I couldn’t identify. But next was ‘Eke’. This was Nnama’s brother, whose descendants we all know. Then there was ‘Aduko’, which sounded so familiar. Could it be? Was it her? I wondered. Yes, this was surely Nwonye Oduko, my grandfather’s older sister, and Nnama’s first child.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Eke, Aduko and Nwanna
Left to right: ‘Eke’ (NWT 3010; RAI 400.16505); ‘Aduko’ (NWT 3012; RAI 400.16502); ‘Nwanna’ (NWT 3028a; RAI 400.16394). Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Unfortunately, Aduko’s photograph is spoilt by a double-exposure. But, nevertheless, there she stands: Nnama’s ‘Ada’, his first child and daughter. Tall and seemingly full of pride, with scarification marks around her breast signifying her status as a daughter of the king. My dad had told me about his aunt Oduko, and the image made me smile.

‘Nwoze’, ‘Ekewuna’, ‘Ekwnire’, ‘Nweze’, ‘Ebede’, ‘Nwogu’, ‘Nwankwo’… these names I did not recognize, even taking into consideration Northcote’s errors of transcription. But then came ‘Nwanna’. Looking at the family tree, I saw there was indeed a Nwanna under the Ogbuefi branch of the family. I looked up the corresponding photograph and was stunned to discover that this Nwanna bore a striking resemblance to my dad’s older cousin, Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi, as well as his siblings, children and grandchildren. Other family members made the same observation.

In haste, I forwarded the image and a summary of my findings to Chief Lawrence’s daughter via WhatsApp. It was a remarkable discovery. For the Ogbuefi family members, looking at the photograph of Nwanna was akin to gazing in a mirror. For my Uncle Lawrence, aged 87 years old, this was a priceless heirloom. Nwanna was his father. He died when Uncle Lawrence was still young and my uncle had never before seen a photograph of him. After over 80 years, this image was a kind of resurrection that had him shedding tears of joy.

Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi and Nwanna
Locally-made photomontage of 87-year-old Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi alongside Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his father, Nwanna.

Uncle Lawrence wrote to me:

I salute the doggedness of the British anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, who visited my town Nibo in 1911 and took photographs of my people, including my dad – Nwanna Ogbuefi. I also salute the Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge for preserving those photographs for us. Those of us who were too young, even at our father’s death, to have any mental picture or reminiscences of what he looked like now have the opportunity of seeing what our dad looked like and appreciate the resemblances.

Northcote Thomas made trips to our land and made recordings that now establish a link with our fore-parents. Thomas may be long gone, but his work lives on to unite peoples of lost identities and educate and inform our children of the kinds of lives their great grandparents lived.

Travelling in time

To see Northcote’s photographs of Nibo carries us back to the Nibo of my grandfather’s childhood. To hear voices, recorded on Northcote’s phonograph, chanting songs in a pure Nibo dialect, stirs up a deep nostalgic feeling. As my cousin, Chief Nnamdi Nnama (Ozo Owelle) put it: It is an uncommon feeling, like one has travelled back in time to truly discover who you really are. Looking at the pictures said so much to me, and also left so much unanswered.

While much has changed in Nibo since Northcote’s visit, there are still traces of that time. Although faded over time, still standing is our famous uno nko nko ­– built over the site where our founding ancestor, Anum Ogoli, who established our village Umuanum was laid to rest. Inside can still be found the huge ikolo drum, which was also photographed by Northcote in 1911. The sound of this great drum could be heard at a great distance and the ikolo was used to communicate with the villagers.

Uno Nko Nko with its large ikolo drum, Nibo
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of uno nko nko, with its giant ikolo drum, built over the resting place of Umuanum’s founding ancestor, Anum Ogoli (NWT 3089a; RAI 400.16463. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Right: uno nko nko and the ikolo drum today. Photograph: George Agbo.
Obu Orjiakor, Nibo
Obu Orjiakor, the court house built by Chief Nnama’s father, Chief Orjiakor Eleh, in c.1856 and used by both Chief Orjiakor Eleh and his son Chief Nnama. Chief Nnama’s grave is just behind the obu. Photograph: George Agbo.

The large tree that Northcote photographed, was still to be seen in my youth, when we took the short cut along the dusty path back to our house. And the obu, or court house, that Nnama’s father – Chief Orjiakor Eleh – built around 1856 remains an important landmark. (Nnama was buried just behind it.) Long gone, however, were the richly decorated walls that once enclosed the Ngene shrine.

Ngene shrine wall, Nibo, photographed by Northcote Thomas
One of several photographs taken by Northcote Thomas of the beautifully decorated walls of the major Ngene shrine in Nibo in 1911. NWT 3064; MAA P.31307. Courtesy of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

My dad always told me that when the British came to Nibo, they came with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Chief’s Nnama’s son, my grandfather, Orji Nnama, chose the Bible. He converted to Christianity, taking on the Christian name Joshua, and eventually became a missionary. This must have dismayed his father, since Nnama was not only the king, he was also keeper of the local gods, the chief priest of the Ngene shrine (Ngene Ukwu Afa), the biggest shrine in Nibo.

Even though Chief Nnama was a traditionalist he was also pragmatic. When his missionary son, now known to everyone as Rev Joshua, approached his father for land to build what would become St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Nnama rose to the task by offering his prized land at the very centre of the town – the Eke market square. A remarkable edifice that still stands today.

Rev Joshua also later built his own personal church on Nnama family land, All Saints Anglican Church. When the church needed to expand, the Nnama family donated the land on which the Ngene shrine once stood, and which had long-since become overgrown with bushes, to be the site of the new All Saints Anglican Church. In the passage of over a hundred years since Northcote photographed it, different religious institutions, the old exchanged for new, and yet the site is still sacred.

All Saints Anglican Church, Nibo
All Saints Anglican Church, Nibo. The original smaller church was built by Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama, Chief Nnama’s son. The larger church in the photograph was built by the community on on the site of the Ngene shrine, the land was donated by the Nnama family.

Since that fateful day when his face appeared on my phone, I often think about Ezeike Nnama. What would he think about his many descendants scattered around the world? What would he think of his town of Nibo today, with a new church prevailing where his traditional shrine once stood? I wish I could tell him that, though his descendants now serve a Christian God, we all stand tall with great pride in our rich legacy, because we know from whom we came.

Ancestral reconnections foretold

Reflecting on the significance of these ancestral reconnections, I want to leave the last words to my cousin, Chief Chibueze Nnama (Ozo Orjiakor VI, Ozo Nnama V), the current Nnama clan family head, who eloquently states:

I was elated, excited, amazed and joyous when we were informed of the interviews, records and pictures of our great-grandfather Chief Nnama Orjiakor (also known as Ozo Orjiakor II, Ozo Nnama I, Ofulozo, Alukachaa ekwe). This was awesome because in line with the cultural oral tradition of our forefathers: we, my brothers and sisters, children of Chief Godwin Chukwuedozie Davidson Nnama (Ofulozo), the first son of Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama (Ogbuaku), as teenagers and undergraduates, would sit down with our grandfather at the Obu Nnama Orjiakor while he relayed our entire family history, culture, taboos, African tradition religion, the coming of the white man and conquering of the  Igbo tribes of the Lower Niger, slave trade, notable judgements as Warrant Chief, words of wisdom of his father, Chief Nnama Orjiakor and grandfather, Chief Orjiakor Eleh, the Warrior King. We were repeatedly told that our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, was interviewed and the records were stored in the archives somewhere in Britain.

As the family historian and cultural custodian, it is awesome and uplifting that the truth of the records, culture and heritage of our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, as foretold and repeatedly emphasised by our grandfather, Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama Ogbuaku, has come to light in our lifetime.


Thank you very much, Uju, for sharing your family’s remarkable story with us!