Ichi scarification and the Nka Dioka Festival, Neni

by George Emeka Agbo, Chijioke Onuora and Paul Basu

Nka Dioka Cultural Festival, Neni, December 2018
People of Umudioka dressed in the specially designed uniform at the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival, Neni, December 2018.

On 31 December 2018, the pavilion of the Umudioka Arts and Cultural Centre in Neni, Anambra State, Nigeria was filled by thousands of people who attended the 40th Nka Dioka Cultural Festival of Umudioka, Neni. Ndi Igwe (community leaders), titled men, and state functionaries graced the occasion. A live orchestra, cultural musical troupes (such as Egedege), and masquerades (agbogho mmonwu, otenkwu, etc.) electrified the arena with their performances. The people of Umudioka filed in in groups according to their age grades, all dressed in the same uniform designed exclusively for the occasion. The main motif repeated on this uniform comprised of a man’s face with ichi marks positioned above the tools used for the scarification, framed with the inscription ‘40th Year Nka Dioka Cultural Festival of Umudioka Community Neni’. The motif is a visual articulation of the event, giving insight into the history and culture of this town in Anambra State.

Nka Dioka Cultural Festival, Neni, December 2018
Textile design for the 40th anniversary Nka Dioka Cultural Festival.

Umudioka communities (in Neni and seven other towns among the Igbo) were historically known as specialist surgeons who carried out ichi and nki facial scarification, mbubu (body marking from neck to belly) and iwa eze (tooth filing). Among the photographs that Northcote Thomas made during his 1910-11 anthropological survey of what was then Awka District (corresponding more or less with present-day Anambra State), there are numerous portraits of people with facial and body scarification. Due to its broad social, political, and economic signification, ichi was the most common of these markings. Ichi specialists from Umudioka were invited to various towns across the region to create the marks on those who wanted them. Their clients were mainly male, although certain women, including priestesses, could also obtain the marks. Thomas wrote about the practice in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Iyiazi, ichi marks, Nri, 1911.
Northcote Thomas photographs of a man named Iyiazi with ichi scarification marks, Nri, 1911. (NWT 2629 and 2930; RAI 400.15109 and 400.15110)
Woman with mbubu body marks, photographed by N. W. Thomas in Nri, 1911.
Northcote Thomas photograph of a woman with mbubu body scarification marks, Nri, 1911. (NWT 2430; RAI 400.15311)

In the case of families of high social and economic status,ichi marks could be obtained for their children at a relatively early age. In adulthood one can also do it as an expression of one’s wealth and prestige. The ichi scarification process begins with a journey by the Nwadioka (ichi specialist from Umudioka) to the Nwa Ichi (his client). The Nwadioka is accompanied by Nwa Nso, an assistant who carries the the Nwadioka’s tool bag and prepares the ground (mat and wooden pillow) on which the Nwa Ichi lies for the marking. He is also accompanied by the Nwa Mgbado Ichi, a second assistant who holds down the Nwa Ichi’s legs on the mat while the scarification is taking place. It is, of course, painful to receive ichi marks; so, to assuage the pain during the procedure, the Nwa Ichi’s mother or wife intermittently gives him a piece of fish to eat. Words of encouragement and melodious songs are also used to soothe the pain. At the same time, the lyrics of the songs convey various messages about ichi, the dexterity and experiences of the Nwadioka, and the value of the art. Nwa Nso plays the role of a nurse for fourteen days, cleaning the cuts with warm water and administering herbs that facilitates the healing.

Implements used for making ichi scarification marks, Neni
Implements (mma nka) used for ichi scarification. Clockwise from top left: (1) ichi knife for marking the affluent; (2) ichi kninfe for marking less affluent; (3) knife for isu nki (the short strokes on the temples and bridge of the nose); (4) knife used for itu mbubu (body marks for women).
Northcote Thomas photographs of ichi marks the day after they were cut
Northcote Thomas photographed this man in Achalla the day after he received ichi marks, indicating how painful it must be. It was, however, highly dishonorable to flinch during the operation. (NWT 3742 and 3743; TNA CO 1069/60)

Before the incursion of Christian missionary activity, ichi served as a means of protection for those who had the marks. For instance, they were not prone to abduction for slavery which was rampant at that time. The high value placed on ichi also made it a prerequisite for ozo title taking in most Igbo communities. In fact, ichi is seen as a sign of class stratification, not only by virtue of receiving the marks, but by the Nwa Ichi’s ability to ‘hire’ the costly implements used to make the marks. There are two types of ichi knives which do not necessarily produce different results but the use of one attracts higher payment than the other. Thus, there is an ichi knife for the highly affluent and another for the average class. When the Nwadioka completes the ichi cutting, he remits a certain percentage of his pay to the group of retired Nwadioka called Ndi Isimmanka.

In the mid-twentieth century, the ichi marking tradition was disrupted by the expansion of Christianity, which held that it was a fetishistic practice. Following the consequential decline, and after much controversy, the ichi tradition was, however, reinvented in Neni in 1978. From then on, ichi marks would no longer be received in the actual sense of cutting the skin, rather it became a symbolic practice performed annually at the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival. We witnessed this reinvented tradition being performed at the 40th anniversary of Nka Dioka in Neni on 31 December 2018. Two men received the symbolic marks that day. Then men were carried on the backs of attendants and laid on mats where the ceremony took place. The marking ceremony was accompanied by the traditional ichi songs and the Nwa Ichi were given fish to eat as in the original ceremony. The marking itself, however, did not involve cutting; rather the ichi knife merely traced the patterns on the men’s foreheads, leaving no visible trace.

Nka Dioka Cultural Festival, Neni, December 2018
Scenes from the symbolic ichi marking ceremony at the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival, Neni, December 2018. Left: Nwa Ichi being carried on the back of an attendant; right: the symbolic cutting being performed.

Northcote Thomas was not the only ethnographer to make a study of ichi scarification among the Igbo people. The anthropologically-minded missionary, George Basden, who spent most of his career working in the Awka/Onitsha area from 1900 to 1926, discussed ichi scarification in his 1921 book Among the Ibos of Nigeria. In particular, Basden noted the important role of Umudioka (which he spelled Umu-di-awka) communities in the practice. He observed that the men of Umudioka ‘hold a sort of monopoly of the profession [of ichi cutting], and travel all over the country for the purpose’; further noting that ‘judging by the number of those bearing the ichi marks, it must be a prosperous business’ (1921: 183).

It was, however, a later Government Anthropologist, M. D. W. Jeffreys, who made a more extensive investigation of facial scarification as part of a study of ‘the magico-religious beliefs of the Umundri’. Jeffreys identified two distinct ichi patterns, one associated exclusively with Ndri, another which he termed the ‘Agbaja Pattern’. In his article, ‘The Winged Solar Disk of Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification’, published in 1951, Jeffreys provides a detailed account of ichi from a man named Nwora from Nibo, who was an old man when interviewed in 1930, when he recalled having the ichi operation in his youth. Nwora explained that the Eze Nri had told the Umudioka to cut other towns differently to Nri, and it is forbidden to use the Nri pattern elsewhere.

Figures from M D W Jeffreys article 'The Winged Solar Disk of Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification'
Figures I, II and IV from M. D. W. Jeffreys’ article ‘The Winged Solar Disk of Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification’, published in 1951. Figures I and II show the differences between the Ndri (Nri) and Agbaja ichi patterns. Figure IV shows the Ndri (Nri) pattern as it appears on the face. Compare this with Northcote Thomas’s photograph of Iyiazi taken in Nri in 1911.

Ichi patterns were not only cut into people’s forheads. The same patterns are used to decorate a wide range of objects, including wooden door panels, ancestral figures, stools, masks and pottery used for ritual purposes. Thomas photographed many such objects during his survey work, and we have also come across examples in the artefact collections he made, which are cared for by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. We will be including a section on ichi in the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition in 2020 when we will display some of these objects alongside contemporary artwork by Chijioke Onuora, who is developing a series of batik paintings drawing on ichi motifs documented in Northcote Thomas’s photographs and collections.

Ichi designs on objects in the Northcote Thomas collections at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Ichi patterns carved into objects in the N. W. Thomas collections at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Clockwise from top left: ‘Pot used for giving Ndicie palm wine’ from Nibo (MAA Z 13800); Ngene shrine figure from Nibo (MAA Z 14234); base of wooden ozo title stool from Awgbu (MAA Z 14011).
Uwho, Ancestral shrine figure, Nri, photographed by Northcote Thomas, 1909-10.
Ichi designs on ‘uwho’ shrine figure at Nri, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

As can be seen in the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival in Neni, ichi is celebrated as an important part of Igbo cultural heritage – especially among Umudioka communities. In this respect it is interesting to note how Chief Odidika Chidolue (also known as Oke Iwe Adimma) is revered by the community as the only surviving man in Neni who has actual ichi marks. As a valued part of Neni’s living heritage, he receives a monthly stipend of 15,000 Naira from the Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation, which supports the preservation of local culture. In the course of our fieldwork we had the privilege of talking with Chief Odidika Chidolue as well as Nze R. O. Udeze (Eyisi Ebulue II) and Fidelis Igwilo, and were fortunate in being able to record some of their traditional ichi songs.

Video documentation of song traditionally sung during ichi marking. Performed by Chief Odidika Chidolue and Fidelis Igwilo, January 2019.
Chief Odidika Chidolue, Nze R. O. Udeze and Chirizu Igwilo, Neni
Many thanks to our friends in Neni: Chief Odidika Chidolue (also known as Oke Iwe Adimma, the only surviving member of the community to have ichi scarification marks), Nze R. O. Udeze (Eyisi Ebulue II) and Fidelis Igwilo.

We look forward to continuing our research in Neni and, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, exploring other opportunities for documenting this fascinating cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.

References
Basden, G. T. (1921) Among the Ibos of Nigeria. London: Seeley, Service & Co.
Jeffreys, M. D. W. (1951) ‘The Winged Solar Disk or Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification’, Africa 21(2): 93-111.
Thomas, N. W. (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I: Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, S. Nigeria. London: Harrison & Sons.

A Government Anthropologist sets sail for Lagos

S. S. Burutu, Elder Dempster Line

On this day, January 9th, in 1909, the Government Anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, set sail on the S. S. Burutu from Liverpool. Travelling on this Elder Dempster & Co. steam ship, he was bound for Lagos and his first experience of anthropological fieldwork in West Africa.

It was a more a matter of chance than design that N. W. Thomas’s became the first Government Anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. A few years earlier, in 1905, the Chief Magistrate of the Gambia, A. D. Russell, had proposed distributing a questionnaire to colonial administrators in Britain’s West African territories in order to collect information about the ‘customary laws’ of local populations. It was thought that this information would be useful for those colonial officials who were responsible for ‘administering justice’ in the context of indirect rule. The proposal was adopted and over the following couple of years a large amount of material amassed at the Colonial Office.

Report on Central Province, Southern Nigeria, tribal marks
Excerpt from one of the reports compiled by colonial officers on West African customs and laws reviewed by N. W. Thomas. These pages are concerned with ‘tribal marks’ in the Central Province of Southern Nigeria. RAI Manuscripts & Archives.

At the same time, the academic discipline of anthropology was fast establishing itself in Britain. The first qualification in the subject was, for example, introduced at Oxford in 1906, and a first generation of professional anthropologists had been lobbying government for the establishment of an Imperial Bureau of Anthropology modelled on that already existing in the USA. In 1908, when the Colonial Office began considering publication of the information about customary laws in West Africa, it was decided that the job of editing the material should be entrusted to an anthropologist. On the recommendation of E. B. Tylor, N. W. Thomas was approached to take on this task.

Thomas’s review of the questionnaire material was, however, damning. He reported that the quality of the information gathered was extremely variable, and found fault both in the design of the questionnaire and in the methods used in gathering the data. Such research, he argued, needed to be undertaken by an expert ‘familiar with modern anthropological methods’ rather than by colonial administrators – adding that, if so desired, he would be prepared to take on such a task. Thomas’s report shook the confidence of officials in the Colonial Office, and they took Thomas’s recommendations seriously. Following further consultation with senior anthropologists, including J. G. Frazer and C. H. Read, Thomas was duly engaged to carry out ‘an investigation of an experimental character into native law, custom, &c.’ in West Africa.

Of the governors of Britain’s West African territories, it was Sir Walter Egerton, Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, who was most receptive to the idea of supporting the initiative to engage a professional anthropologist. It was thus agreed that the first ‘experimental’ anthropological survey should take place in Southern Nigeria. If the survey proved successful, it was agreed that the initiative would be extended, perhaps to other territories. It was important to note that Thomas was given little direct instruction either from the Colonial Office or colonial government in Southern Nigeria. Rather than focusing narrowly on specific problems or issues, Thomas embarked on a general ethnographic survey, following the guidance set out in the methodological handbook, Notes and Queries in Anthropology.

It is likely that Thomas chose Southern Nigeria’s Central Province as the focus of his initial tour due to his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett and H. N. Thompson, respectively the Deputy Conservator and Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria, who were ordinarily based in Benin City, the provincial headquarters. The companionship of Dennett and Thompson would, no doubt, have eased Thomas’s entry into what were, for him, the unknown worlds of both West Africa and the Colonial Service. Indeed, when his appointment was confirmed, Thomas requested that his departure for Southern Nigeria might be delayed until January 1909, so that he might travel out with Thompson, who had been on leave in England. The passenger list on the S. S. Burutu thus lists both N. W. Thomas and H. N. Thompson among its first class customers.

Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909.
Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909. Highlighted are the names of H. N. Thompson and N. W. Thomas, both bound for Lagos.

Further details about N. W. Thomas’s biography and career can be found in the article ‘N. W. Thomas and colonial anthropology in British West Africa: reappraising a cautionary tale’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 84-107.