Sierra Leone masquerades

‘Bundu devils’ or Ndoli jowei masquerades of the women’s society, photographed in February 1915 by Northcote Thomas in Tormah (Tormabum), present-day Bonthe District, Sierra Leone. (NWT 6183-4; RAI 400.38125.)

Masquerade traditions are widespread across West Africa. Masked performers are earthly manifestations of spirits – whether of ancestors or forces of nature. They mediate between the visible world of humans and the invisible world of the spirits. They often play important roles in ceremonies marking key rites of passage, such as initiation into adulthood or passing to ancestorhood, and in ritual cycles, for instance those associated with farming, fertility and renewal.

Such spirits may be benevolent tutelary figures; some are fierce and forbidding; others may be clown-like and entertaining. Much has been written about their function in society, their iconography and symbolism, and the dramaturgy of their performances. Earlier European commentators often characterised these figures as ‘festishes’ or ‘juju’. Thomas was among the first to recognize their importance in the wider ‘magico-religious sphere’, and that this was not merely about ‘belief and worship’, but ‘inextricably mixed up with law, social organisation and other elements of human life’. He also acknowledged, however, that not enough was known about them to offer an adequate analysis, not least since this knowledge was largely restricted to initiates.

During his anthropological tours in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, Northcote Thomas photographed and documented many different masquerades, from the Eliminia performed by senior age-grade members in Otuo or those associated with annual Ovia festivals around Benin City during his Edo tour, to the graceful maiden spirit (Agbogho mmuo) or aggressive Mgbedike of the Nri-Awka Igbo. Here we focus on Thomas’s photographic documentation of Sierra Leonean masquerades.

Ndoli jowei

‘Indigenous’ Sierra Leonean masquerade traditions are quite distinct from those found in Southern Nigeria and from the Igbo- and Yoruba-derived traditions introduced into Sierra Leone (especially Freetown) by the so-called ‘Liberated Africans’ in the 19th century. Of the indigenous types, only the Ndoli jowei (the ‘dancing sowei’) of the Mende female Sande society is well known. Its distinctive black helmet mask has become a national symbol of Sierra Leone, and examples are to be found in many museums.

As well as photographing Ndoli jowei masquerade figures in Tormah, Northcote Thomas also made sound recordings of women’s society songs. This phonograph recording was made on February 24, 1915. (NWT 720; BL C51/3154.)

Ndoli jowei is just one of a family of Mende spirit manifestations, although it is especially notable since it is one of the few female masquerades actually danced by women (in contrast to the Igbo Agbogho mmuo, for instance, which is a representation of a female spirit, but danced by men). Thomas photographed examples of the Ndoli jowei in Tormah (now known as Tormabum) in present-day Bonthe District, Southern Sierra Leone in 1915. He identified them in his photo register as ‘Bundu devils’, using the name given to them by Christian missionaries, who demonized such spirit manifestations.

A video installation that featured in the ‘Sowei: Spirit of Sierra Leone‘ exhibition at the British Museum in 2013, filmed by curator Paul Basu and The Light Surgeons. The film was shown as a continuous loop in the exhibition, which featured a sowei mask collected in Sierra Leone in 1886. The exhibition explored the sowei mask from different perspectives – anthropological, art historical, symbolically as a national symbol. The exhibition also considered the colonial entanglements of the mask displayed.

‘Bundu’ – or, more correctly, ‘Bondo’ – is the Temne name for the women’s society known as Sande in Mende-speaking areas of Sierra Leone. Although associated with the Mende, the society and its masquerade is in fact more widespread in Sierra Leone, and can be found in many Temne-speaking areas where the Ndoli jowei is known as Nöwo.

‘The Sowei Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Ndoli jowei masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Samawa

Another photograph relating to the women’s society masquerades was published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, and is also captioned ‘Bundu “Devil”’. This is an altogether more intriguing figure insofar as the costume does not include the familiar black helmet mask. The photograph was taken in the Temne-speaking town of Magbeli (today spelled Magbile or Magbele) on the banks of the Rokel River. In his photographic register, Thomas also provides the name ‘Pa Fore Salia’, and indicates that the photograph is of a woman. It is interesting to note that the woman carries a man’s name and title.

'Bondo devil' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Magbile, Sierra Leone in 1914
The Samawa-like figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in December 1914 in Magbile, present-day Bombali District, Sierra Leone. In his photo register book, Thomas provides the caption, ‘Bundu “devil”, Pa Fore Salia, woman’. Note the two large sacks on the front of the figure’s costume, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum – an affliction said to befall men who pry into the secrets of the women’s society. (NWT 5924 & 5925-6; MAA P.33579 & 33580.)

In contrast to the finely carved helmet mask and dyed raffia costume of the Nöwo or Ndoli jowei, this masquerade costume might be best described as an accretion of beads, coiled basket roundels, bones, bells, shells and animal hair attached to sack cloth. The face of the dancer – presumably Pa Fore – is only partially obscured by the headpiece. This corresponds most closely to the Samawa masquerade described by Ruth Phillips in her book Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. (If you know the equivalent Temne name for this figure, we would welcome your advice.)

Samawa is a satirist, and her use of humour can be light and playful, but can also border on the menacing and frightening. Phillips’ description of a Samawa she witnessed during her research in Southern Sierra Leone in the 1970s, shares many features of the character photographed by Thomas in Magbile:

The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter. (Phillips 1995: 90)

Sure enough, on the front of the costume of the ‘Bundu devil’ photographed by Thomas in Magbile, one can see two bulging sacks, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum, which is indeed a condition that men who dare to intrude on the secret practices of the women’s society are said to contract.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this is one of the few facts about the Bondo society that Thomas records in his Anthropological Report. The threat of scrotal elephantiasis was perhaps sufficient to deter him from pursuing his inquiries further!

Pa Kasi

In contrast to his limited investigations of women’s initiation societies, Thomas conducted extensive research into men’s societies such as Poro and Ragbenle. Thomas attempted to be initiated into Poro at Yonibana, but was prevented as a result of the intervention of a junior colonial administrator by the name of W. Y. Lyons. When Thomas complained about this interference, it was claimed that Lyons acted in the interests of the local population. It is more likely, however, that the idea of a European acting on behalf of the colonial government being initiated into a West African ‘secret society’ was seen as a transgression of a racialised boundary, which could not be tolerated by the colonial authorities.

When Thomas submitted the initial draft of his Report to the Colonial Office at the conclusion of his Sierra Leonean tour, he requested that many details of the Poro society and its connection with chieftaincy be withheld from publication because they would cause embarrassment to his informants. Due to these ethical concerns, the section on Poro in the published report is quite cursory.

There are many masquerades associated with Poro in the south of Sierra Leone, some of which had been previously photographed and published by the colonial administrator T. J. Alldridge. Thomas’s anthropological survey was focused in the north and central Sierra Leone, and he took relatively few photographs during his travels in the south, none of which include male masquerades. (The relative sparsity of photographs from the latter period of Thomas’s Sierra Leone tour was probably due to difficulties obtaining new glass plate negatives as the First World War intensified and affected shipping to West Africa.)

'Pa Kashe' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Pa Kasi’ photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5843-4; MAA P.33510.)

One Poro figure that Thomas did photograph, however, was ‘Pa Kasi’. Pa Kasi is not, strictly-speaking, a masquerade. He is, rather, a senior official of the men’s Poro society. Due to the remarkable nature of his costume, however, we include him here. The photograph was taken in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. Pa Kasi plays important roles in the initiation of new members into Poro and also the crowning of paramount chiefs. The same figures is known as ‘Tasso’ in Mende-speaking areas. Thomas describes him as a ‘doctor’, adept at controlling the powers of magico-herbal ‘medicines’ which have the ability to both cure and kill.

Representations of Pa Kasi or Tasso over 200 years. Clockwise from top left: (1) ‘Gregree of Ma Yerma and Gregree of Ba Simera’, published in 1825 in Alexander Gordon Laing’s Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries in Western Africa. (2) ‘The Poro Secret Society – Group of Tasso Man, Imperri Country’, photographed in 1895 and published in 1901 in T. J. Alldridge’s The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. (3) Tasso photographed by Gary Schulze at the Durbar for Paramount Chiefs held in Bo, 2011, during Sierra Leone’s 50th anniversary of independence celebrations (reproduced with permission).

The most remarkable aspect of Pa Kasi’s costume is his headdress of ambong. This takes the form of an inverted cone with, according to Thomas, the ‘feathers of the greater plantain-eater in it’. Around its rim are arranged skulls and thigh bones. In Thomas’s account, ‘the skulls are said to be those of people who have infringed Poro law’. This accords with the account of the American anthropologist Vernon Dorjahn who conducted research on the Temne Ragbenle and Poro societies in the 1950s and who states that the ‘skeletal material’ on Pa Kasi’s crown was ‘obtained from those executed for breaches of Poro discipline’ (Dorjahn 1961). In his description of the Tassos in Southern Sierra Leone, Alldridge (1901: 131), however, notes that the bones are those of ‘defunct Tassos’, whom the wearer has succeeded in office.

a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra

Whereas the Pa Kasi/Tasso figure has been documented by European travellers in Sierra Leone since the 1750s, Thomas was the first outsider to record the a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra masquerades of the Temne Ragbènle society. It has been suggested that these spirits – krifi, or kärfi, in Temne – are found exclusively in Yele in Gbonkolenken chiefdom, in Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone, and that they travel to other chiefdoms in the region to perform at the crowning of chiefs. Thomas makes no reference to a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèrabeing exclusive to Yele, however, and, indeed, he photographed examples in Matotaka and Mamaka, in present-day Tane and Yoni cheifdoms respectively, which neighbour Gbonkolenken in Tonkolili District. Our own research also suggests that they continue to exist outside of Yele in other chiefdoms where the Ragbènle society is found.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Namenkara' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Aron-athoma’ and ‘Namankara’ masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5847-8; RAI 400.37943.)

Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone contains just a few notes on a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra. Thomas documented, for example, the Ragbènle society’s role at the death of a chief and the initiation of a new chief. At each of these occasions, and also on the death of a member of the society, the a-Ròng-a-Thoma comes out to perform. a-Ròng may be glossed as meaning ‘mask’, and, according to Thomas, Thoma or Toma means ‘forbidden’, but is also the name of a particular tree. The wood of this tree, he notes, cannot be placed on a fire by a member of Ragbènle or he will burn himself. a-Ròng-a-Thoma generally dance in pairs and are accompanied by Namangkèra, who is a messenger figure.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Nemankera' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotoka and Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: ‘Arronna Toma’ mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotaka, 1914. (NWT 5493-4; MAA P.33202.) Right: Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas of a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra dancing in Mamaka, 1914. (NWT 5847-8, 5849-50, 5851-2, 5853-4; MAA P.33512, P.33513, P.33514, P.33515.)

Although there are a number of a-Ròng-a-Thoma headdresses in museum collections, until recently Thomas’s photographs were until recently the only documentation of the spirits in their complete costumes. The art historian, Fred Lamp, made a study of the figures during his fieldwork in Yele in 1979-80, during which he interviewed the paramount chief, officials of Ragbènle and former dancers of a-Ròng-a-Thoma. Lamp records that è-Ròng-è-Thoma are said to be the ‘chiefs’ of all the Ragbènle spirits, while Namangkèra is their brother. Both are regarded as water spirits. The wooden a-Ròng-a-Thoma mask is zoomorphic in form, with wide, flaring nostrils, a grid of teeth, and a pair of horns that curve around the crown of the head. It is worn with a costume of dyed raffia. According to Lamp, they are considered responsible for the general welfare and safety of the community and the growth of crops. Namangkèra’s mask has a conical, funnel-like opening, which Thomas describes as a ‘long wooden beard’ (the example photographed by Thomas has more anthromorphic facial features). Lamp notes that unlike a-Ròng-a-Thoma, ‘Namangkèra makes sounds and is very talkative, argumentative to the point that people describe him as a “lawyer”’.

‘Arong Athoma: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra, including footage of the masquerades filmed at the installation of Bai Sunthuba Osara at Matamp in Gbonkolenken chiefdom in 2010 by Nuala McAllister Hart. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Sankoh

A particularly unusual type of masquerade figure that Thomas photographed, and which is unique in Sierra Leone in having a brass face, is the a-Ròng-a-Rabai – the ‘mask of chieftaincy’ – or what Thomas refers to as the ‘cheifship krifi’. These are found exclusively in Temne areas of Sierra Leone, and have very rarely been documented. In an article on such masks, Bill Hart states that these are usually bear the name of the chiefly clan, often in archaic form. In his Anthropological Report, Thomas provides a more detailed account of the ‘cheifship krifi’ that he encountered at Mamaka. He writes,

At Mamaka he is called Sanko; Sanko and the chief, Satimaka, must be in separate houses; like the chief, he may not go where bundu [i.e. the women’s society] implements are kept, nor where there is a new-born child. It is significant that at the chief’s death his Sanko retires and is replaced by another man after offering a sacrifice.

Sanko wears a helmet of leather surmounted by a tuft; the face is of brass and there is a brass plate behind; strips of leopard skin are attached to the base, and over the skin is fibre that reaches to the waist. He has fibre ruffles round his wrists and net anklets with fibre tops. Four sticks tied together (bonkoloma) are in his hand; they are the chief’s staff; in point of fact the staff actually used by the chief is quite different, long and forked at the top.

The chiefship mask of Magbile is known as aron arabai; like Sanko the wearer cannot come out when the chief is dead; the mask is kept in the chief’s house. The dress is formed of skins, and he has palm-fibre trousers.

When he goes for a walk through the land he carries a broom and whips to flog people who do not come out when he dances. He can judge cases and pay the money received to the chief.

'Sanko' masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Front and rear view of Pa Sanko, the ‘mask of chieftaincy’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka in present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5856, 5855; MAA P.33518, P.33517.)

When we did fieldwork in Mamaka as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we were careful to discuss with the senior men the fact that we had photographs of things that perhaps not everyone was permitted to see. Among the elders we met was Pa Amadu Kamara, the grandson of Chief Satimaka, whom Thomas photographed. We learned Pa Amadu’s grandfather’s full name was Satimaka Memneh Sankoh, and that Sankoh is the name of the ‘devil’ (i.e. spirit) that dwells in the hill above the town. The devil of the hill, we were told, has someone in the town who is called Pa Sankoh. Pa Amadu expressed surprise that Thomas was able to photograph Sankoh; neither did he know whether the spirit still dwelled in the hill. There seemed to be a distinction made between the spirit or krifi, Sankoh, after whom the hill was named, and Pa Sankoh, who alone could communicate between krifi and the people of the town.

Left: Chief Satimaka of Mamaka, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 (detail of NWT 5854; RAI 400.38198). Right: Pa Amadu Kamara holding Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his grandfather, Chief Satimaka, photographed by Paul Basu, 2019. There was a striking family resemblance between grandfather and grandson.

Ayuke or Kabemba

Boys and young men must be circumcised before they can be initiated into the Poro or Ragbènle societies. At the time of the circumcision ceremonies, the initiands withdraw into a circumcision bush, which is forbidden to women and where various prohibitions pertain. According to Thomas’s account of the process, while undergoing the ordeal, those being circumcised are under the guardianship of an old man, and also an old widow who is known as Yabemba. Yabemba must be past child-bearing age, and is the only woman permitted to enter the circumcision bush.

'Kabamba' circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone (NWT 5895, 5896; RAI 400.38234, MAA P.33552.)
Circumcision masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: Circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Matotaka, present-day Tane chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5495; RAI 400.37821). Right ‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Robinkie, Mayoso, present-day Kholifa Rowala chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5514; MAA P.33234).

Once the initiands’ wounds have healed, they follow a masked figure – known as Bemba, Kabemba or Ayuke – back into the town, where they dance all night wearing long gowns (runku). Thomas records that in some towns the mask is worn by the man who conducts the circumcision operation (ayunkoli).

Following the ceremonies, Thomas states that the circumcision mask and its raffia costume are generally kept; although he notes that in some places they are thrown into the bush, presumably to decay. Thomas photographed examples of the Kabemba mask in Mamaka, Matotaka and Mayoso, and he also collected one in Mapori (Mafori?), with its fibre and palm-leaf dress, which he notes in his Report is ‘now in the Cambridge Museum of Ethnology’. We were able to identify and photograph this mask during our research with the Thomas collections at the museum, now called the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Kabimba circumcision mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Yuke’or Kabimba circumcision mask, worn at dance in town’, collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori near Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom, Bombali District, Northern Sierra Leone. (NWT 49; MAA Z 14480.1.)
‘The Kabemba Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Kabemba masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Further reading

  • Alldridge, T. J. (1901) The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. London: Macmillan.
  • Dorjahn, V. R. (1961) ‘The Initiation of Temne Poro Officials’, Man 61: 36-40.
  • Hart, W. A. (1986) ‘Aron Aarabai: The Temne Mask of Chieftaincy’, African Arts 19(2): 41-45+91.
  • Lamp, F. J. (2005) ‘The Royal Horned Hippopotamus of the Keita of Temne: “A-Rong-a-Thoma”‘, Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: 36-53.
  • Phillips, R. B. (1995) Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
  • Thomas, N. W. (1916) Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, Part 1: Law and Custom. London: Harrison & Sons.

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.