The Ejagham civilization is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. The Ejagham nation extends from Manyu Division in the southwest province of the Republic of Cameroon to the Cross River State in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Long years of contact with the outside world, especially European civilizations, have greatly tempered the Ejagham way of life. One region, however, has retained most of the ancient Ejagham cultures and traditions in nearly their pristine form. The lower Ekwe region has been described as the last true preserve of the Ejagham civilization.
“Lower Ekwe” is a term coined to describe a group of contiguous villages that have evolved into a peculiar subculture within the Ejagham nation, with a dialect Ejagham Njemaya (meaning “Ejagham from across the river”) that easily distinguishes them from other speakers of the Ejagham language. The villages that make up lower Ekwe include Araru, Babong, Inokun, Mbenyan, Okurikang, and Onaku. The village of Inokun is the hub of this subculture. Its history, its politics, its art forms, its institutions, and its value systems best illustrate the accomplishments and the excesses of the Ejagham civilization.
Inokun is made up of two quarters, Ntasek and Ntota, descendants of two brothers. The two quarters are separated by a small stream (Akem-ayeb), which flows right through the center of the village and is commonly used for bathing and laundry. No one remembers exactly where the founding brothers came from or when they settled in present-day Inokun, but legend has it that through pure grit and servile labor, they subdued the land and built the most important commerce center of their times. A tradition of hard work was implanted. The first professionals, other than medicine men, who did not live off the land were the craftsmen. Inokun became famous for its highly skilled artisans (artifacts from the 18th century remain). Marketing of their work led to the establishment of a trade route linking the lower Ekwe area to the cosmopolitan port city of Calabar, Nigeria. Valuables like pottery, sculpture, animal skin, foodstuff, domestic utensils, household implements, and musical instruments were being exported, while manufactured goods such as lamps, hunting riffles, radios, loincloth, and sewing machines were being imported in ever-increasing proportions. By the turn of the 20th century, Inokun boasted of a culture of nouveaux riches. They were easily identified for smoking a pipe, sporting a top hat, while riding a bicycle (locally referred to as the “iron horse”). Ejagham architecture was the principal casualty of this new wealth. The Ejagham method of building consists of a framework of interwoven sticks padded with mud and roofed with thatches. Mud was being replaced by cement, and thatches were giving way to corrugated metal sheets locally referred to as “zinc.” Zinc quickly became a status symbol to the extent that those who could not afford both had to choose between buying a bicycle and covering their homes with zinc. The use of mud and thatches, though common today, is easily associated with poverty.
Inokun has seen its importance diminish from the days when it was host to the only school and the only native authority court in the Ekwe area. The reasons for Inokun’s dramatic reversal of fortune, from precursor of modernism to custodian of antiquated customs and traditions, cut across politics, geography, and unyielding pride. The story of Inokun, like that of most sub-Sahara people, is a story of bad government. Inokun lost much of its independence when it was incorporated into Eyumojock Subdivision, but never given access to Eyumojock, the administrative capital. The people of Inokun are required to trek for several miles through the forest to Eyumojock for basic health care needs, to register births, to attend secondary school, to make a police report, or even to buy stamps. There is a zero-police presence in Inokun, a void that is occasionally filled by vigilante justice. Women still give birth at home, attended by local midwives ill-equipped to handle certain complications. The result is a staggering loss of women during childbirth and a disconcerting ratio of stillbirths to live births. Inokun has no electricity, no pipe-borne water, no gas, no television signals, and no telephone. Houses have no plumbing, and the main source of cooking fuel is firewood.
Several efforts by the locals to create a motorable road network linking Inokun to other areas have been futile, mainly because the topography of the entire Ejagham land is very rugged. Traveling from Eyumojock to Inokun requires trekking through difficult terrain beset by a series of tortuous hills, culminating in a forbidding descent known as “Akat-egui.” At the foot of Akat-egui flows the treacherous river Akarem. There is no bridge over Akarem. The navigable downstream of Akarem is no more than 30-feet wide and 4-feet deep in the dry season. But the riverbed quickly wells up in the rainy season, acquiring a violent current that has washed away many a traveler, never to be seen again. Some natives consider this a perennial sacrifice necessary to propitiate the gods of Akarem.
The economy of Inokun today is much like it was a couple of centuries ago, except for the arts-and-crafts industry, which has all but disappeared. The only real change is the use of money to replace cowries as the medium of exchange. The people live off the land, growing their own food and hunting wild game. Food crop farming is the mainstay of the economy. Farming techniques are rudimentary, consisting mainly of a hoe and a machete. Consequently, farm holdings are very small. Bush burning is being discouraged, but the absence of an alternative timesaving method of preparing the farmland for tilling means bush burning will remain a common practice for the foreseeable future. Animal farming is very limited, consisting mainly of a few goats, pigs, and poultry usually left to roam about and fend for themselves. Because methods of food preservation are not very advanced (mainly smoking and drying), the people are still struggling with food self-sufficiency. Cash crop farming is the main source of income. Cocoa, coffee, bush mango (ogbono), garri, and eru are the main exports.
The political system in Inokun is unique in its fusion of all powers—executive, legislative, as well as judicial—within the council of elders. Inokun is a monarchy. The chieftaincy is hereditary. The chief exercises power through his council of elders made up of wise men from each quarter. At the quarter level, every adult male is required to participate in the political process. The surest way to make one’s opinion count is membership in the Ekpe society, the principal decision-making body. The Ekpe society is a sacred society open to all responsible adult males who can afford its initiation requirements and adhere to its policy of secretiveness. Membership in the Ekpe society is also considered the ultimate measure of manliness, and any adult male who is not a member is derided as a woman. The Ekpe society ensures discipline within its ranks through a system of hierarchy and through the imposition of stiff fines for unethical conduct by members or their dependents. However, the Ekpe society is usually regarded as a society of greed because fines are usually paid up in food and drink consumed exclusively by the members of the Ekpe society. The female equivalent for Ekpe is the Njom-Ekpa, also a sacred society empowered to handle exclusively female issues.
The legal system in Inokun has persisted from the distant past. Although the chief of the village is an auxiliary of the central administration and is required to report all serious crimes to his superiors, the people of Inokun always try to resolve their legal problems within themselves. There is an unspoken code among the natives that bringing one’s neighbor before the courts is an unpardonable breach of communion. Disputes that cannot be resolved within the family or at the level of the quarter are brought before the chief and his council. The chief’s court hears cases ranging from simple disputes to murder, and it operates under a set of traditional legal principles, which accept witchcraft as evidence. Consider the case of two young men who went on a hunting expedition in the early 1980s; one returned the following day with a confession that he had shot and killed his partner. In his defense, he said his partner had transformed himself into a baboon to lure other baboons to come within fire range. Unfortunately, the one baboon he had shot and killed turned out to be his friend. Since there was no history of animosity between the two young men, the hapless hunter was summarily acquitted. He was asked to undergo major cleansing.
Kinship patterns in Inokun can be as simple as they can be hard to decipher. The Ejagham culture encourages closeness among its people to the extent that any two persons connected by blood are considered siblings and are expected to treat each other as such. The Ejagham words for brother, monenseh (literally, “father’s child”), and sister, mone-nyen (“mother’s child”), are applied to cousins and even second cousins. However, when the words mone-nseh and mone-nyen are used in reference to persons other than direct siblings, they are usually followed by a qualifier. For example, I would introduce my cousin thus: “Anna is my sister. Her mother is my mother’s sister.” Similarly, the Ejagham language does not have a single word for nephew. To introduce a nephew, you could say, “Ashu is my brother’s son” or “Ashu is my son; his father and I are brothers.” Keeping track of kinship is especially important in a culture where incest is at the top of its list of taboos. Cousins as well as second cousins cannot marry.
The extended family (ndeb-nju) is arguably the most important social structure within the Ejagham civilization. The extended family more than makes up for a nonexistent welfare system within the broader society. The extended family also eliminates the need for orphanages, adoption agencies, or homeless shelters. In a typical Ejagham society, there are no old-people’s homes, and there are no homeless people. Marriage in Inokun following the proper traditional pattern is a protracted and arduous affair. The suitor makes his intent known by carrying drinks to his intended in-laws. If the initial drinks are accepted in good faith, courtship is officially on. Over the next few weeks, the suitor brings presents and more drinks. Then, he can start seeing his bride-to-be. In effect, he may have relations with her. She stays with her parents until she has her first child. Right after she has her first child, she is circumcised. Then, she is kept in a special room known as a “fattening room,” away from the public. She is kept in the fattening room for 6 months, or in the case of well-to-do families, for a whole year. Here, she is not allowed to do any work, and her family is on hand to cater to her needs. At the end of her stay in the fattening room, she is given a complete makeover, and the public is allowed to see her for the first time. That same evening, a group of her husband’s age mates come to escort her to her new home, bearing her high on their shoulders amidst singing and dancing. The number of traditional marriages has recently dropped, because since the 1990s, many feminist groups have been waging a sustained campaign against female genital mutilation. Some hidebound traditionalists are still unwilling to part with the practice.
Although Inokun has had contact with Christianity for almost a century, when many natives were baptized as a courtesy to the missionaries, the people of Inokun are essentially animists. The bulk of the population is nominally Christian, a great majority of whom are Catholic. A major breakthrough in the conversion of the natives was the translation of the Bible into Ejagham in the 1990s, but the impact was undermined by the fact that most of the natives are unable to read and write.
One of the enduring beliefs is that every descendant of Inokun has a double in the form of a mudfish, which inhabits a small pond called “Ayeb-Ikwi.” Ayeb-Ikwi is also a major source of drinking water. Expectedly, no one fishes in Ayeb-Ikwi. When a child is born to an Inokun household, the event is replicated by the birth of a mudfish in Ayeb-Ikwi; and if by any chance. a mudfish is killed in Ayeb-Ikwi, its human double dies. There is a cloven of witches from all over the Ekwe area. which meets in Inokun after dark to decide on whose home to visit. The witches are known to fly at incredible speeds. They feed on flesh and blood and leave their victims with disease. Villagers mark themselves to render their flesh unsavory or hang fetishes on their doors to ward them off.
The people of Inokun have a genuine fear of ghosts. Ghosts are so pervasive that they control nightlife and influence burial patterns. It is generally believed that in a case of accidental or untimely death, the restive spirit of the dead will hover if it is not pacified prior to laying the body to rest. In a case where there is suspicion of murder, the spirit of the dead is encouraged to return and exact vengeance. In this case, it is commonplace for the dead to be buried with a concealed weapon. When a sorcerer dies, an undercurrent of panic can be felt in the community. Preventive methods range from having a reputable medicine man prepare the body for burial to outright cremation. The Ejagham people regard cremation as the ultimate dishonor to a man’s memory.
Social life in Inokun is dominated by groups. The two main group types are peer groups and sacred cults. Peer groups constitute a support system outside the family. They are responsible for planning weddings, birth celebrations, and arranging funerals for their members. They also function as cooperatives and financial houses. Sacred cults are the principal custodians of traditions and the medium for communicating with the gods. Most prominent among these is the Obasinjom.
In Ejagham communities, both in Cameroon and Nigeria, Obasinjom (or Basinjom) represents the voice of unerring prophecy. Its pronouncements are made manifest through an individual who takes on its persona while cloaked in the guise of an otherworldly creature. This wild masquerade ensemble drapes the body in a flowing robe and is crowned by a crocodilian head, adorned with a tiara of plumage. Characterized as a “speaking mask,” “the one who never tells lies,” and “the one who tells and acts,” Obasinjom unveils subterfuge and denounces wrongdoing. Such revelations form the core of Obasinjom’s dramatic
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- Onor, S. O. (1994). The Ejagham nation in the Cross River Region of Nigeria. Ibadan, Nigeria: Kraft Books.
- Roschenthaler, U., & Chukwuezi, B. (1996). Ejagham (Heritage Library of African Peoples Central Africa). New York: Rosen.