Contrary to popular Western belief that pre-colonial Africans were uncivilised barbarians and that Africa was a “dark continent”, Africa had always had its own systems and civilisation. These systems helped us develop and coexist with each other. These systems where multifaceted and manifested in form of art, worship, economy, politics etc. One of these systems is Nsibidi, used by the Efiks and Ejagham people (found in present day Cross River State, Nigeria).
Many people erroneously regard this system plainly in terms of mere writing and counting, but Nsibidi transcends that. Nsibidi is a key aspect of Efik language from which parts of the modern Efik language were derived. Nsibidi is as old as the Ikom Monoliths (on which Nsibidi inscriptions are made) which dates back to AD 170. It was a secret form of writing known amongst the Efiks and Ejagham people.
Nsibidi includes a whole range of verbal and non-verbal sign systems, including body movement, eye language, drawing in the air or on the floor with the feet and many more. Nsibidi is used by the Ekpe secret leopard society as a means of transmitting Ekpe symbolism. While ‘Ekpe’ is the name of an Efik masquerade, the term also translates as “leopard” and of the traditional sacred institution that owns the masquerade. The Ekpe (sometimes called Mgbe)
society is also called the ‘leopard’ society because the Ekpe masquerade is a visual cultural reference to a leopard – its costume, makeup and props define it as such. The Ekpe society is the most renowned traditional institution in Efik history not just because of its spiritual or cultic functions but also as the institution that functioned as the pre-colonial police and judiciary system.
Long before the white man came in contact with the Efik people, Ekpe was the government. Ekpe was in control of everything. Nothing was possible in Efik society without Ekpe. In essence, the Ekpe society was the law before the advent of colonialism and western democracy. Today, however the Ekpe cult is still strong among the Efik. But it has no function within the postcolonial democratic frameworks of governance. Membership is still very strong and masquerading and other cultic performances are very visible in the contemporary Efik society. It is with the Nsibidi that initiates talk among themselves and with the Ekpe. Right under the nose of non-initiates, an initiate can hold a conversation with the Ekpe using only eye movements. It is said that Nsibidi is the language of Ekpe and Nsibidi is Ekpe. While individuals may inscribe it as tattoos or on walls at home or the cult’s spaces, the ukara cloth, which is the official apparel of the Ekpe society, is the most prominent surface on which Nsibidi is utilized and circulated among the Efik of Calabar.
Members of the Ekpe society tie the clothe during the cult’s activities and meetings. Larger versions of the ukara fabric are sometimes hung on one wall of the leopard society’s meeting place as backdrop for ritual and other social occasions to which only initiates are in attendance. The ukara fabric is dyed deep blue and Nsibidi signs are embedded on the fabric by stitching and tying the fabric. After dyeing, the stitches and ties are removed to reveal the white designs that appear against the deep blue background. This may be the oldest method of producing non-woven patterns on dyed fabric. The finished ukara cloth is a patchwork of signs that uniformly covers the surface of the fabric. Besides functioning as a symbol of membership in the Leopard Society the ukara clothe serves as a summary of the Ekpe cult, its social reputation and its principles. There are several Nsibidi signs such as leopard, snake, turtle, birds etc that appear on ukara clothes and may signify multiple levels of meaning beyond the representation of the actual subject.
visuality of the Ekpe Masquerade’s costume. Nsibidi is performance, object and graphic communication and the ukara clothe used by the Ekpe society is a contemporary channel for transmitting Nsibidi.
Unlike men’s use of it, women use Nsibidi visual forms without overt emphasis on secrecy or the mediation of power. As women paint both their bodies and that of ancestral representations like monoliths, they are actively involved in a discourse that creates meaning in relation to the body, one of the most potent and powerful symbols within Efik/Ejagham culture. Thus, as an African writing system, Nsibidi, either on the body, fabric or other cultural spaces provide a language that is not dependent on verbal communication as it allows for linkages between the numerous peoples of the Cross River region.
Whereas the term Nsibidi is popularly known as the visual motifs or writings on Ejagham cultural artifacts like the Ikom monoliths, the ukara cloth and as body decorations among the Efiks, it is also the name of a special team of seven virgin young men (members of the Ekpe society) who are sent to make arrests for serious crimes that usually attract the death penalty. On this trip the Nsibidi are masked with multicolour body painting. Pre-outing preparations take 7 days in the forest until they become ‘spiritual’ entities. Only second sons ( never first sons) of initiates are permitted to become Nsibidi. A first son must go into hiding when Nsibidi is passing, else the Nsibidi will literally extract flesh from his body. While on an arrest mission, the Nsibidi boys do not talk but hold fresh palm fronds in their mouths and can only make a humming sound. They come topless and wear only a skirt made from palm fronds also. As far as the Efik tradition goes, it is forbidden for women to gaze upon the Nsibidi except women that are initiates of the Ekpe. At the end of the assignment, the Nsibidi must go back into the forest to be debriefed and neutralised before it becomes safe for them to reintegrate with the society.
Many people believe that Nsibidi is extinct because of colonial activities but this is not so. Although the Ekpe society is now less powerful and more secretive, Nsibidi still lives on. This is a sign that our African civilizations can never be lost completely. They are timeless as there would always be a preserver of our Africanness. May Africa live long, may our essence never fade.