Traditional Nigerian Folktales

Pages from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; Part IV: Proverbs, Stories, Tones in Ibo (London, 1914). Click here to open in a new browser window.

In the early 20th century, the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies were very close. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909, Northcote Thomas was a member of the Councils of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folklore Society. Folklorists, in particular, documented traditional stories and songs, and Thomas had edited a number of such collections.

During his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded many stories on wax cylinder phonographs. He transcribed and published many of these in his Anthropological Reports and in articles in the journal Man. Other than regarding these as specimens of ‘native texts’ (though, of course, they were not ‘texts’ but oral traditions), he provided little explanation or commentary. Given that his surveys were intended to be of practical value to the colonial governments that were funding them, neither did he attempt to explain the utility of collecting the stories from a governmental perspective. As with so many aspects of Thomas’s surveys, while the value of the research at the time was unclear, the significance of the recordings as historical documents is now considerable.

The recordings are, however, challenging to listen to and the transcriptions and translations Thomas provided have many errors and inconsistencies. The potential for future research is immense. To illustrate this the [Re:]Entanglements project has worked with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and Ugonna Umeike of the Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to bring some of the stories to life. Yvonne has rendered some of the stories into contemporary Standard Igbo, re-recorded and translated them, while Ugonna has illustrated the stories, drawing upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs for visual reference. Here is one of the stories Thomas recorded in Asaba in 1913…

Akuko onye isi, onye ngwuro, ogbenye na Eze

(The Story of the Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King)

Above: Ugonna Umeike’s illustration of the story; below: some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs used as visual references informing the illustration.
Northcote Thomas’s original 1913 recording of the story. NWT 613. (British Library C51/2930.)
Re-recording of the story in Standard Igbo. Transcription/translation by Yvonne Mbanefo; voiced by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Otu nwoke onye isi nọ n’obodo ọ maara ọfuma oge oke ụganị dakwasara ya.
A blind man was in a town that he knew very well when a great famine befell him.
Ọ gara na be Eze obodo ahụ, wee yọọ ya nri.
He went to the king of that town, and asked him for food.
Eze nyere ya ji na anụ, ọ wee were obi aṅụrị pụọ.
The king gave him yams and meat, and he walked away rejoicing.
Mana tupuu ọ pụọ, Eze nyere ya ndụmọdụ, gwa ya ka ọ ghara ịgwa onye ọbụla na e nyere ya nri.
But before he went the king advised him not to tell anyone that he was given the food items.
Ọ pụwara, wee hụ onye ngwụrọ bụ onye oke agụụ ji,
He walked  away and  met the cripple who was very hungry
Wee gwa ya ka ọ gaa na nke Eze ka ọ nata ya ihe oriri.
And he told him to go to the king to receive things to eat from him.
Onye ngwụrọ gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya nri.
The cripple went to the king and asked him for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ nwere nri.
The king asked him who told him he had food.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye isi gwara ya.
He said it was the blind man that told him.
Eze weere ji na anụ nye ya, ka o si nye onye isi.
The king took yams and meat and gave to him as he gave to the blind man.
Ọ nyekwara ya otu ndụmọdụ ahụ.
He gave him the same advice.
Ozugbo nje, onye ngwụrọ wee jiri nwayọọ wee laa.
Immediately the cripple went quietly.
Ọ gatụrụ n’ụzọ, wee hụ ogbenye, malite kwuwe n’olu ike
He went a little way, then met a poor man and began saying in a loud voice,
“Gakwuru Eze maka oke nke gị; ọ na-eyere ndị nwere nsogbu.”
“Go to the king for your share; he is aiding the helpless.”
Ogbenye gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya oke nke ya.
The poor man went to the king and at once asked for his own share.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ na-enye ndị mmadụ nri.
The king asked him who told him he was giving food to people.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze nyere ya ihe ka o sị nye Onye ngwụrọ, wee gwakwa ya ihe ọ gwara ya (onye ngwụrọ).
The king gave to him as he gave to the cripple, and told him the same word he told him (the cripple).
Ogbenye pụwara, wee hụ onye ohi.
The poor man went away and saw a thief.
Onye ohi yọrọ ya gwa ya ebe ọ nwetara ji na anụ mana ogbenye ekweghịị.
The thief begged him to tell him where he got yams and meat but the poor man refused.  
Onye ohi gakwuuru Eze ka ọ yọọ ya nri.
The thief went to the king to ask for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye ọ hụrụ n’ụzọ.
The king asked him whom he met on the road.
Ọ gwara ya na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze jụrụ ya ma ọ nwere ihe ọ gwara ya, ọ wee sị mba.
The king asked him whether he told him anything and he said no.
Ọ gwara ya gaa n’ụlọ onye isi na onye ngwụrọ, zuo ihe ha nwere.
He said go to the house of the blind man and cripple and steal what they have.
Eze gwakwara ya hapụ ogbenye, ka a ghara ikpe ya n’aka Eze.
The king told him to leave the poor man alone so that he does not get reported to the king.
Onye ohi zuuru ihe onye isi, ma onye isi ahụghị ya, zuo ihe onye ngwụrọ ma onye ngwụrọ enweghi ike iso ya.
The thief robbed the blind man who didn’t see him, he robbed the cripple who couldn’t chase after him.
Ọ bụrụ na o zuuru ihe ogbenye, Ogbenye ga- ekpe ya n’aka Eze.
If he had robbed the poor man, the poor man would have reported him to the king.


Many thanks Yvonne, Kosi and Ugonna for bringing this story to life for us!

It is I who come, Onyeso …

Onyeso, Agukwu Nri, photographed by N. W. Thomas was oton and ofo.
N. W. Thomas photographs of Onyeso of Agukwu Nri, pictured with oton, ofo and goat skin bag. NWT 2563 and 2564; RAI 400.15415 and 400.15416.

There is a wealth of cultural and historical knowledge locked away in the sound recordings that Northcote Thomas made during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. Recorded on wax cylinders using a phonograph and without the benefit of a microphone, these sound archives are, however, some of the most challenging materials to work with. The audio signal is often weak, and the levels of noise very high.

Working with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and thanks to a small grant from the British Library, which cares for Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings today, we have begun to transcribe, translate and re-record some of the the audio tracks. We have also been revisiting some of the transcriptions and translations that Thomas published in his Anthropological Reports. The original transcriptions and translations have proven to be invaluable in re-engaging with the recordings, but they can also be quite inaccurate.

During his 1910-11 tour of what was then Awka District (corresponding more or less to present-day Anambra State, Nigeria), Thomas spent a considerable amount of time at Agukwu Nri. Nri was an extremely important town in Igboland, the seat of the ‘highest ritual political title’, the Eze Nri. The reigning Eze Nri at the time of Thomas’s visits was Obalike. During the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have had the privilege of presenting Eze Nri Obalike’s grandson with a hitherto unknown photographic portrait of his grandfather made by Thomas.

Chief Onyeso and family, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911
‘Chief Onyeso and family’, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911. NWT 2236. RAI 400.15837.

Another important figure in Nri at the time of Thomas’s anthropological survey was Chief Onyeso. Onyeso was the son of the previous Eze Nri, Enweleana, and had served as regent during the interregnum between the reigns of Enweleana and Obalike. Whereas the Eze Nri was a spiritual leader, it appears that Onyeso remained a powerful ‘secular’ leader. As well as photographing him and his family, Thomas recorded a speech by Onyeso. In this case, the original recording seems not to have survived, but there is a transcription and translation of the speech in Part III of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; a volume devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’.

Pages from N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III: Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar, pp.92-3 featuring transcription of speech by Onyeso.
Re-recording of Onyeso’s speech translated into standard Central Igbo by Yvonne Mbanefo and read by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Below is a rendering of the text of Onyeso’s speech in standard Central Igbo together with a revised English translation, both provided by Yvonne Mbanefo.

Ọkwa mụ na abịa, Onyeso, nwa Ezenri,
It is I who come, Onyeso, son of Ezenri
Nna m bụ Eze. Egburu m ichi n’epughị eze
My Father was the King, I got Ichi marks before I got teeth

N’izu iri na anọ, nwa eze na-enwe eze,
At fourteen weeks the son of the King has teeth,

mana ọ bụrụ na ọ nweghị ichi,
But it happened that he didn’t have ichi marks.

Eze pụta, ma ichi adịghịị, anaghị ekwe, aga etufu ya.
but if the teeth come out without the marks, it is forbidden, they throw him away.

Obodo ọbụla mere mkpọtụ.
All the towns made noise.

Mana nwa eze, gaa n’obodo ahụ,
But the son of the king, went to the town.
Wee sị, emena ihe ọjọọ, e buna agha , anụna ọgụ
and said, ‘Don’t do bad things, don’t start wars, don’t fight’.

Ọ ihe a ka nwa Eze na-eme.
That is what the son of the King does.
Anyị na-eyi akpụkpọ agụ
We are the wearers of leopard skins

Ife siri ike n’obodo.
Things are hard in the town.

Anyị bụ ụmụ eze. Anyị ga-eje dozie ya.
We are the children of the King.

Ọbịa ka Gọọmentị jị bịa kpọlụ ndi Igbo niile.
The Government was visiting and took all the Igbo people.

Anyị wee sị ndị Igbo niile na ife anyị na-eme, ka ala dịrị anyị mma.
We are then saying that all Igbo that what we do, to make the land good.

Anyị bụ Nri, Isi ala Igbo niile.
We are Nri people, head of the entire Igbo land.

Anyị bụ isi ọbọdọ niile, mmadụ niile .
We are the head of all the towns, and all the people.

Oge ụwa Gọọmentị bịara , anyị wee lee, obodo mebie.
When the Government came, we looked, and the town got spoiled.

Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, Agukwu Nri, looking at N. W. Thomas's photograph of his great-grandfather.
Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, the current Regent of Nri, looking at Northcote Thomas’s photographs of his great-grandfather, Onyeso, Agukwu Nri, 2018. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Onyeso’s speech is remarkable for many reasons. In this text, we can hear the voice of one of Thomas’s prominent interlocutors – a known, named individual, who Thomas also photographed. It is the voice of a confident, defiant member of an aristocracy, highly critical of the British colonial government, which has usurped the authority of traditional rulers, and undermined the status of the royal town of Nri. Onyeso asserts the primacy of the Nri people as the ‘head of the entire Igbo land’, a ritual and political status discussed at length by the Nigerian anthropologist M. Angulu Onwuejeogwu in his book An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony (1981).

Onyeso also provides first hand details about some of rituals around his office and the political functions of the nwa eze, the son of the king. He refers, for example, to the traditional practice of infanticide. A newborn child is not supposed to have teeth, and if it does this was traditionally considered an abomination, resulting in the child being left to die in the forest. Similarly, a baby who cut his upper teeth first was also considered an abomination. Onyeso states that the sons of kings cut their teeth early, but that it is important for them first to have the ichi facial scarification marks made – if they haven’t received the ichi marks, the child, he says, will be thrown away. Onyeso proudly states that he received the ichi marks as a baby before his teeth came through.

Onyeso also explains that the nwa eze acts as a peace-maker, travelling to towns, quelling disturbances and quarrels, advising towns under the Nri hegemony to keep the peace. This was an important role for Onyeso since the Eze Nri himself was traditionally prohibited from travelling outside of Nri after his coronation. As Onwuejeogwu argues, the Eze Nri ‘ruled but was never seen by the people of his hegemony’. The sacred status of the Eze Nri was undermined by the British colonial authorities; part of the destruction of the traditional order to which Onyeso alludes in his speech.

And what of the Government Anthropologist? Thomas’s position seems to have been ambiguous. On the one hand, he was surely associated with the forces of colonialism that were destroying the Nri hegemony. On the other hand, however, he contradicted colonial officials and sent despatches to the Colonial Office arguing that the ritual authority of the Eze Nri should be respected. He also documented the voices and words of people like Onyeso, representing the experiences of colonisation from the perspective of the colonised in his official Reports. One wonders how many people, even to this day, have actually read Onyeso’s speech or recognized how subversive an act it was of Thomas to include such anti-colonial sentiments in publications funded by the colonial government and distributed to colonial administrators.

Many thanks to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba, Janet Topp Fargion and British Library Sounds for supporting our research on Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings.

Fieldnotes: Kuranko flute

Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.
Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

As part of our fieldwork in Sierra Leone, we are recording contemporary musicians and singers in the locations in which Northcote Thomas worked in 1914-15. Indeed, the majority of the wax cylinder phonograph recordings that Thomas made during his Sierra Leonean tour are ethnomusicological.

On 21 October 1914, while conducting research in Mabonto in what is now Simera Chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded a flute player. Mabonto is now largely Temne-speaking as a result of in-migration due to mining activities. In 1914, however, Mabonto was a Koranko-speaking town.

Recording of Koranko flute made by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto on 21 October 1914. NWT 681; British Library C51/3076.

When we asked whether there were any traditional flute players in Mabonto, we were told that there were none, and that one would have to go deeper into ‘Koranko country’ in order to find one. We were told about a flute player named Hassan Jalloh, who lived in Bendugu in neighbouring Sambaya Chiefdom. The following day, after a long, arduous drive through the hilly terrain, we arrived at Bendugu only to find that Hassan had been called away to play his flute at a men’s society ceremony. Thankfully, however, we were able to arrange for him to come to Mabonto the day after, where he played for us.

We played Hassan Northcote Thomas’s 105-year-old recordings of the flute player in Mabonto. Hassan confirmed that this was the same instrument he played. He immediately recognized the music and began playing a version of the same song, which he told us was played in the men’s society camp.

Hassan Jalloh playing a version of the flute music recorded by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto in 1914.

Thomas collected two examples of these flutes and they were some of the most fragile objects that we photographed in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) stores in 2018. They are made from reeds that grow on river banks in the region. Hassan explained that he learnt to make and play the flute (locally called fuli or fullii) from his father who had learnt from his father before him. The finger holes are burnt into the reed using a hot stick and one can still see where the stick has singed the reed in the examples in the MAA collection. It appears that the MAA examples were not played, however, since they are missing the mouthpiece, which is fashioned from a kind of resin produced by insects.

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in Koranko country in 1914. NWT SL 0139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Reed flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in northeastern Sierra Leone in 1914, now in the collection of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. NWT 139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Hassan Jalloh's flute
Hassan Jalloh’s flute. Note the mouthpiece formed of resin that is missing from the examples collected by Northcote Thomas.