Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, [1915], at

p. 62



THE child cult is by no means so much in evidence among Ibibios as with the gentler natured Ekoi of the Oban District, where unkindness to little ones is practically unknown, and parents vie with one another in tender care of these small atoms of humanity. Yet even among the Ibibios, despite the almost ceaseless drudgery of their lives, the women at least seem never too weary to lavish care upon their little round-limbed brown piccans, and no single case of a neglectful mother has come to our notice.

Under these circumstances it is only natural that mother-love should prove deeper rooted than all else in the hearts of Ibibio children. A somewhat pathetic instance of this was shown by a murderer of seven years old, whose case came before my husband in the spring of 1913.

Two small boys were playing together, the one richly dowered with worldly goods, for he owned a clasp-knife and a piece of string, while the other, a child of poverty, had nothing. In course of time the poor boy chanced to lay predatory hands upon the string, whereon the capitalist, resenting this attack upon the rights of property, struck him a blow with the knife. As ill-luck would have it, the blade

p. 63

pierced straight through the heart, and the small victim fell back dead.

The relatives of the murdered lad came to the Commissioner demanding a life for a life, and the question as to the fate of the aggressor became a somewhat difficult one. In the end a missionary of great experience was persuaded to undertake the reformation of the little malefactor, who chanced to be brought to him on May 24th, when the principal chiefs and people of the District had been gathered together for Empire Day celebrations.

The small criminal walked quietly up to his new friend, and in a voice low, but strangely pleading, begged leave to go back to his town, and bid a last good-bye to the mother he had left.

"Why?" asked the puzzled missionary. "Did you not do so before you came?"

"I did," answered the boy, "but then we thought only that I was to be separated from her by a few miles. Now, I see clearly, from the crowd which is gathered here, that the people have come together to see me die, so I beg to be allowed to go back once again to say good-bye, since afterwards I may never see her more."

Such an attitude is typical of the race. It is seldom that one of this people attempts to struggle against destiny, should the odds be overwhelmingly heavy. Rather, they seem soberly to acquiesce in the inevitable, meeting fate with the stoicism of despair, which often lends them unexpected dignity and courage when face to face with death.

As a general rule fathers, too, seem to treat their

p. 64

offspring kindly, though, unfortunately, cases of cruelty to children are not infrequent. Two instances, which happened within a few days of one another may be cited as typical.

In the first case the husband was incensed against his wife, whom he suspected of infidelity, though without proof. After brutally maltreating the woman, he broke their baby's thighs as a means of still further punishing her. In the second, the little one, who had just begun to toddle, was pushed on to the fire by its father, with like intent.

The first ornament given to a baby is a string of beads tied round the waist, and, a little later, it may possibly be further adorned by the addition of a snail shell, thought to possess magical properties, which is suspended round the neck.

In many ways the lot of small brown piccans born in these climes is an enviable one, in comparison at least with that of the children of our own poor. Ibibio babies are almost always well nourished, and roll and creep contentedly enough in the warm sand, playing together like a happy litter of little bush cubs. They take considerable part, too, in the life of their elders, proudly riding to market astride the hip of a busy mother, safe girdled in the curve of her arm.

At an incredibly early age these little folk begin to take notice of what is going on around them, crawling out at the sound of the tom-tom, or striving to follow the "plays" given by their elders.

In every Oron town there is a young men's society, the name of which is Ekung. The avowed purpose

p. 65

of the ceremony is to bring more children to the town. It was thus described to us by Chief Henshaw:

"At the beginning of the dry season, after the feast of the new yams, a great 'play' is given by this society, to which boys and girls of the town come robed in their best. For days beforehand little maids cry to their mothers, 'We must have fresh dresses for the Ekung play,' while the boys also beg for new singlets, shirts and loin cloths.

"On this occasion one woman vies with another as to who can lavish most care upon the children. Each daughter's hair is elaborately dressed. Anklets and bracelets are slipped over feet and hands, and even the Fatting-house girls are allowed to come out and join in the celebration.

"When the 'Image' is seen approaching, with the drummers going before, young boys pour out to meet him, singing also and rejoicing. Some run in front, some behind, some on either hand--shouting for joy. Little crawlers, who had never walked, try to follow when Ekung passes. The mothers would stop them but cannot, so eager are they. Thus little ones often walk for the first time on this day. Still smaller tots, who have never even crawled, are said to try to follow, thus creeping for the first time on Ekung's day.

"The people think that this ceremony brings 'plenty piccans' to the town, and, indeed, if you watch the 'play,' so sweet and gay it is, that you cannot but believe it may draw down some such blessing."

Possibly the soft curves of native babies, and the

p. 66

strength of their dimpled limbs, are due to the fact that they are not weaned before they are two years old; sometimes even, like the ancient Egyptians, as we learn from the "Maxims of Ani," they are suckled until the age of three.

When about four years old little maids of the tribe are given a curious ornament called "Nyawhawraw." This is made of twisted brass dangles, looped at the upper end, and ending in a small ball of metal. It is worn from the ceinture in front, and looks much like a row of very elongated little bells, which clash together with a musical tinkle at every movement of the wearer. We were anxious to buy a set of these, and, as they were not exposed for sale in the marketplace, asked a friend if he knew where they were to be procured. His efforts to secure some proved useless, and after awhile it was explained that it is forbidden by the "Woman's Law" to sell Nyawhawraw to any man, lest his possession, however temporary, should affect these in a way which would be felt by the subsequent wearer. Later, an old woman was induced to purchase a set on our behalf.

The prohibition would seem to have come down from a time when the maidens of the tribe were more carefully guarded than at the present day. It was confided to me by one of my women informants, with the explanation that this also was among the mysteries which must be kept from male knowledge; since, should a man of lowly birth who wished to secure for himself alliance with the family of some powerful chief learn the secret, he would only have to single out an infant bride from among the daughters of

p. 67

such a house, and after having secured a set of Nyawhawraw perform certain rites over them and rub them with a particular kind of "medicine." Afterwards he must bribe a woman of the household to see that they were worn by the little maid, and from that time forward it would be impossible for any other man to gain her love.

These little brass ornaments were, until a few years ago, worn up to about the age of ten, when the first real article of dress, namely a narrow sash, was usually given. A few years later an over garment was added. Of late the Efiks, and those Ibibios who have been brought most in touch with civilisation, have begun to give their children garments of European manufacture at a much earlier age.

The Ekung "play" already described, and those which are usually regarded as preparatory to it, and which small boys and maidens "practise" before they are allowed to join the more important society, would seem originally to have been given in honour of the spirits of vegetation. The "Image" of Ekung himself always wears a fringe of palm leaf or long grasses round his loins; while for the lesser festivals the youthful performers must dress themselves in palm or plantain leaves.

The story of such a play was once told me by an Eket woman. It has certain points of interest, as illustrating the life of an Ibibio girl, so is given in full. It is called "Plaintain Leaf":

"Once a woman went to market, but before setting forth she told her daughter to sweep out all the compound during her absence, to fill the jars with fresh

p. 68

water and to prepare coco-yams and other food in readiness for the evening meal. The girl said, 'All that you bid me I will do,' and at once set about the work.

"Not long afterwards two other girls came to the house and said:

"'We have heard that there is to be a fine play to-day in a town on the far side of the river. Come with us to see it.' But the good daughter answered, 'No. My mother bade me fetch water and food and clean all the house during her absence. Were I to come with you, I should not be able to do as she told me.'

"To this the two others replied, 'We will help you with the work, so that all may be finished before we go.' So the girl said, 'If you will first help me, then I will gladly come.'

"On this, all set to work. The visitors began to cook coco-yams and said, 'They are done,' when they were not done. Also they said, 'We have finished cleaning the yard,' when only a little piece had been swept; and, while the good daughter went to and fro fetching fresh water from the spring, they filled up the other jars with rainwater from old pots, which had been standing about for two or three weeks and was no longer pure. On their companion's return they said:

"'We have worked so hard that all is now finished. Let us therefore go.'

"The good girl asked, 'What should one wear for this play?' And the others answered:

"'It is a very special play for which every one must wear plantain leaves.' So they went out and

p. 69

cut these, then fastened them together skirt-wise round their waists, and so set forth gaily.

"Now when they had gone a long way, and the two visitors knew that there would be no time for the good daughter to return and fetch other garments, they ran into the bush and brought out the little waist strips that young girls used to wear, and also dresses to be worn over these--all from the hiding-place where they had concealed them in readiness some time before.

"The good girl said:

"'You told me that we were only going to wear plantain leaves. Now you are robing yourselves in fine garments!' At this they only laughed and answered nothing. The girl continued: 'My mother's house is too far-off. I cannot go back now to fetch other clothes. As I am, I must go with you to see this play.'

"Not long after they had crossed to the other side of the river, they saw a man cutting mimbo high up in a palm tree. For some time he gazed at them and then called down, 'Of these three girls, the one who only wears plantain leaves is more charming than both the others.' When the two gaily dressed maidens heard this they were filled with envy, and said:

"'Give us the plantain leaves to wear, and we will give you our clothes in exchange.' The Plantain Girl answered, 'Very well.' So she took their dresses and gave them her leaves instead. After they had changed they went on once more until they saw another man coming towards them on the road. As

p. 70

he passed he looked back and said to himself, but so that they could hear him:

"'Of these three girls, the one who wears a proper dress is far prettier than the two with plantain leaves.'

"On hearing this the others went aside and consulted with one another saying, 'I thought it was only the leaves which made her more admired than us, but, although we have changed, she is still preferred above us. What can we do therefore? At length one of them said, 'We must change again,' and they did so.

"When they reached the place where the people were playing, the three stood and looked on. When the first dance was over all the finest young men in the town came and crowded round the girl of the plantain leaves, asking her to come to their houses and eat and drink with them. The other two were left quite alone and unnoticed, since no one cared to invite them. Plantain Girl, however, said, 'Let us all go together, otherwise I will stay here with you.' So they went, and when they were seated a cup of mimbo was brought to the beautiful visitor. She drank some, then passed the bowl to her two companions, but they refused it.

"On seeing this, Plantain Girl was much astonished, and said:

"'You two brought me to see the play. Now the people here offer drink to me, and I wish to share it with you, yet you refuse. What is the matter?'

"They answered, 'Nothing'; but after awhile one stood up and whispered to the other, 'Come outside, I wish to speak to you.' So they went into a far-off

p. 71

corner and spoke together. Then they came back and said to Plantain Girl:

"'We are going away for a few minutes. When we are ready to go back home we will come for you and all return together.'

"Plantain Girl smiled, and said, 'Very well,' for she believed them, knowing no guile; but at once these false companions set out for home, leaving her there alone.

"On their way back the two girls came to a stream across the road which all had passed together earlier in the day. It was a juju water, and on the brink they bent down with hearts full of envy and hatred of the companion whom they had deserted, and lifting up their hands called upon the name of the juju and said:

"'We bade this girl wear plantain leaves that we might outshine her, yet all the people prefer her before us. When, therefore, she comes back and stretches out her foot to cross your stream, do not fail to seize her, so that we may be avenged.'

"Plantain Girl waited for her companions to return as they had promised, but when she saw that night was coming on, she could tarry no longer, but said to her new friends 'The other two must have forgotten me and gone home.' So she left the place and set forth alone.

"When she came to the small water which, on her way to the play had hardly reached ankle high, she thought that it would be the same now, so, though darkness had fallen, she stepped bravely in, thinking to cross safely. No sooner had she left the

p. 72

bank, however, than the water rose and rose till it overflowed her head, because of the cruel spell which had been wrought by those two envious ones, when they called upon the juju and begged it to seize her. For three long days she was kept a prisoner beneath the water. Then the same man who had seen her going to the play and was again cutting mimbo near the place, heard her voice crying very pitifully from out the stream. The juju would not let her go free, because of the cruel prayer that had been made. Only sometimes he raised her up to the surface, by the side near the bank, that she might look out for a moment, and see the green trees and the white sky again.

The mimbo man heard her weep and cry:

'I was in the house of my mother, happily working, when two wicked girls called me to go with them and see a play in a far-off town. I asked what dress they would wear, and they said, "Only plantain leaves." So I put on these at their bidding. When we reached the place where the play was held, the people invited me to go and drink. I asked the girls to go with me and offered them part of my mimbo cup, but they refused. There they left me, saying that they would come and fetch me when they were ready to go home. Long I waited, but they never came, so at length I set out alone on my homeward way. The small water rose and covered my head. Since then it has kept me fast held. When the water is full it raises me up so that I can gaze once more upon the white sky, but it will not let me get free, though I try my best both by day and by night.'

p. 73

When the mimbo man heard this, he came down from the tree and ran as fast as he could, till he came to the house of the girl's mother, and told her all that he had learned. At once the woman went round the town begging those who were strong swimmers to go with her down to the juju water and save her child. All of them tried to do this, but though they dived and swam their hardest none could free the girl, because the juju held her beyond their reach. At length they came back quite exhausted and told the mother, 'It is of no use. We have tried our best, but cannot save your daughter.' On this the woman wept more bitterly than before, while the girl's voice was heard crying from out the stream.

"Now in that town there was an old wife whose body was so diseased that her feet were nearly eaten away. So feeble was she that she could only creep along by means of the bent stick which women sometimes use as a staff."

(It may be not without interest to mention that these staves are made from the flat curved roots of the mangrove tree. The bark is stripped from them, and they are then pointed and sharpened along the edge, after which they are used for drying fish, being placed in long rows across a rack over the fire with the fish strung upon them. When they have served this purpose, and the dried fish has been sold, the pointed ends are cut off, and they are used as walking-sticks. According to all accounts these form no mean weapon of offence. In shape they are much like the wooden throwing weapons of the present day Bagirimi of Central Africa, or those occasionally found in the

p. 74

sand of the desert, or dug up now and again from ancient Egyptian tombs. The cutting edge of many of these staves is so hard and sharp as to inflict wounds almost as dangerous as machet strokes. Whether as weapon or staff, they appear to be exclusively feminine possessions; for, save in process of making or while in service for drying fish, we have never seen one in the hands of a man.) To continue the story:

"The sick woman crept up to the girl's mother and said: 'These strong ones have failed, yet by the power of Abassi I think that I may be able to bring your daughter up out of the juju water.'

On this the mother cried out:

"'If you are able to do this I shall be more glad than I can say, and will do all that I can to repay you.' The others, however, said:

"'Do not pay any attention to this feeble woman. We who are strong men have tried our utmost and failed. Do not therefore believe this foolish one.' The mother took no notice of them, and only said to her who had offered to help:

"'Let us go and try as you say.'

"Together they went to the water's edge, and when they reached it the sick woman began to plead:

"'I have suffered for many years, and no one could be induced to take care of me. Now, therefore, I pray you, O juju, send out this girl. Perhaps if I free her by means of my prayer her family will look after me for the rest of my days.'

"The juju heard, and lifted the girl up to the surface of the water so that the sick woman could

p. 75

take hold of her hand and draw her out until she lay high and dry upon the shore. After that, with much rejoicing, all went home together.

"When the house was reached the mother of Plantain Girl asked the sick woman, 'Tell me now, what do you want me to do for you in return for what you have done? The old crone answered:

"'Please keep me here and look after me.' The mother asked, 'Will nothing else content you?' But the woman answered:

"'If you want to do something else instead of this, I will only ask one thing. Kill and bring me seven large baskets full of biting flies.' To this the mother replied, shaking her head, 'I do not believe that anyone could do so much. I think, therefore, I had better keep you, and perhaps I can find medicine to cure your sickness.' So she did according to her promise, fed her and bought medicine for her, tending the sick woman till her life's end."

Next: Chapter 6: Maidenhood To Marriage