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. 112



FOR some reason or other Ibibio women seem to be, on the whole, of higher type than the male portion of the community. So marked, indeed, is the difference in appearance that at first sight they might be taken to be of another race from the men. Professor Keith, F.R.S., informs us that this difference is very strongly shown in those skulls submitted to him for examination.

The men are fairly industrious as regards occupations which custom has decreed should fall to their share; such, for instance, as cutting bush for the new season's farms, tending palm trees, and collecting nuts and kernels. They also build the houses, raise the heavier fishing nets, and, as a general rule, paddle the canoes. On the women, however, falls by far the greater proportion of labour. They do the principal part of the farm work, much of the fishing, often undertake the smoking, and always the marketing of the "catch," together with the making and selling of the great water jars and other native pottery.

To give a typical day in the lives of these overworked drudges:

At dawn the wife chosen to share the couch of her lord during the past night rises and brings him

p. 113

water in which to wash. It is in this water, by the way, that she sometimes pours a few drops of the love-potion which she trusts may steal away his affection from the other wives and rivet it upon herself.

Next she goes to the small shrine where stand the row of rude fetishes, often no more than rough sticks driven into the ground, with possibly a slit cut across near the top to represent a mouth. These are the "gods of the week." Before the one which represents the guardian of this particular day she lays an offering, praying that the indwelling spirit will be with her till the morrow's dawn, shielding and prospering her throughout all her undertakings. After this she begins her share of the day's toil, fetching water and firewood, cooking the morning meal and other house or farm work.

Later she loads herself with the palm nuts, oil, yams, cassava, native pots, or other merchandise got ready for the purpose, and sets off either for the native market or the European factory. After a march of anything up to fifteen miles, or even more, she must dispose of her wares and return on her weary tramp, laden sometimes, according to statements made by agents of some of the principal firms on the coast, with a load occasionally as much as sixty pounds in weight, for which she has exchanged her produce. She arrives at home in time to prepare the evening meal for her lord, whom she finds, more often than not, idly awaiting her return amid his gossips in the village "palaver shed."

When it is remembered that in many districts all merchandise is borne by hand, for not even the roughest

p. 114

of carts exists for the conveyance of goods, and that by far the greater proportion of native produce is carried on the heads of women, the opening up and improvement of roads becomes a matter of the greatest importance. On our first visit to the eastern part of the Eket district the main roads were found to be blocked before the entrance to every village, as well as to the more important of the farm plantations, by stockades which stretched right across the thoroughfares. The only means of surmounting these was to climb by two trunk sections set on end and firmly driven into the ground. The lower of these was about one and a half feet, and the second almost double that height. When one stood upon the latter, one had to step over the fence on to a similar block on the other side, and so down--only to be met by a like obstacle at the other end of the town. The difficulty which these stockades added to the task of weary, over-burdened women-traders can be imagined. Happily the roads are now open and so improved that, according to the testimony of merchants at the principal commercial centre of the district, trade has shown a very large increase in consequence.

In spite of the drudgery of their lives many of the women seem bright and kindly, and nearly always have a pleasant smile and word of greeting as one passes them on the road.

To the feminine portion of the community, as has already been mentioned, is owed the one Ibibio fine art--that of pottery. Without a wheel, or any aid save their own hands and a fragment of broken sherd, these women build up, from the blue clay of

p. 115

the locality, richly ornamented bowls and giant jars, which in beauty of line and decoration rival those which we discovered at Abijang and Nchopan on the Cross River, made by Ekoi women potters. In the Duke of Mecklenburg's book, "From the Congo to the Niger and the Nile," the pottery of the Mangbatu is mentioned as far superior to that of any other negro race. I venture to think that this opinion would hardly have been maintained had the surely far more graceful examples to be found among Southern Nigerian tribes been brought to the notice of the distinguished author.

Among Ibibios this talent is given widest play in the creation of new forms for the vases and bowls placed upon burial mounds or within the erections built as memorials to dead chiefs. It is true that no trace of the graceful flying-buttress-like handles and slender necks of the Ekoi water jars has come to our notice here; but the forms of the vessels themselves and the care expended on the raised decorative motifs are surely as fine as any in Africa.

The difference in the Ibibio estimate of the value of life between men and women was poignantly illustrated on one occasion when we were passing along the Oron-Eket road.

Suddenly on rounding a corner not far from the eighth milestone we saw a body lying prone. The feet were upon the grassy border, but the head lay in the full glare of the pitiless sunshine, so near the middle of the path that care was needed in passing on the motor bicycle. As soon as it was possible to stop we went back to give what help we could, and

p. 116

found the body to be that of a youngish woman, but so shrunken by sickness or neglect that the limbs were little more than sticks, while the breasts were like those of an aged crone. She lay face downwards, shaken by shuddering sobs; but though a stream of wayfarers was passing, none took the slightest notice--a fallen log would have excited more, since that would in all probability have been carried away for firewood. We did what we could for the moment, and commandeered two of the passers-by to get the loan of a native bed from a neighbouring compound. On this the little shrunken form was carried back to the sleeping-sickness camp. There, as we well knew, the kindest care awaited her, but alas! it came too late to save this pitiful piece of human jetsam, and she died at dawn.

By a strange coincidence, for never before in our many journeys up and down had we found anyone stricken upon the road, hardly a mile farther we came upon the body of a man apparently felled by sunstroke. He, however, had been carried beneath the cool shade of a wayside clump of bamboo, and the passers-by, both male and female, had set down their loads and were eagerly doing all in their power to restore him.

Many Ibibio women are stunted in growth, while some are positively dwarfs. This is possibly due to the heavy loads which they carry in youth. Once while staying at the rest-house at Ikotobo we noticed a woman turn the corner of the Uyo road. On her head she bore a section of tree trunk at least eight feet in length and two in girth. The late Dr. Foran, who was spending the evening with us, remarked as to the extraordinary weight which these people seem

p. 117

capable of bearing. Not long before he said he had met a man carrying a load of firewood which he computed could hardly have been less than 150 pounds in weight. Since the bearer was not of robust appearance he stopped to caution him as to the risk he was running by so doing, but the old man refused to listen, and passed on. Before his destination was reached he sank to the ground, and subsequent investigations proved that he died from a broken neck caused by the strain of his load. It is comparatively rare, however, for men to undertake such services, the burden of which almost invariably falls upon the women.

A particularly diminutive specimen ran up to us one evening on our arrival at the seashore town of Ibeno. The sunset glow still lingered in the sky, and through the clear air the great peak of the Kamerun Mountain was clearly to be seen; while farther off the islands of Fernando Po and San Thome were silhouetted against the evening light. It is so unusual for the atmospheric condition to make it possible to see these points that my husband sprang ashore and set up the theodolite in all haste that angles might be taken towards the distant heights. These had, for us, associations almost sacred, since they were so closely connected with our friend, the late Boyd Alexander.

When the small dusky figure first approached and stood humbly waiting, we thought that she had only come to bid us welcome, and, as each moment of light was precious, would have dismissed her with the word "Echiro" ("Greeting").

The answer "Echiranda" was, however, given

p. 118

in so faint a voice and with such a sobbing catch of the breath, that we turned to see what was the matter.

It was a pitiful enough sight on which our eyes fell. The woman's right car was all but cut off; while her cheek, throat, and side were cruelly gashed and clotted with blood. All for so small a thing! Merely a quarrel over a few feet of yam patch, which was claimed both by herself and a fellow wife preferred before her in the affection of their common husband.

By rights the following account should be included under the heading of "Juju," but it illustrates so poignantly the estimation in which women are held among this people, that I have chosen rather to give it here. It was told us by Idaw Imuk of Idua Eket.

"In olden days, before Government came to our country, there was a great juju in our town, the name of which was Abo Abom.

"Year by year sacrifices were made before it. First of all the members gathered together in the Egbo House and the chief priest of the cult announced: 'Now is the time for sacrifice.'

"Then, from all the countryside, the people collected yams and fowls and brought them before the juju to induce him to protect them, so that none might die within the year. Then, when the provisions had been stored within the Egbo House and the members were gathered together, the head priest sent forth messengers to seek a man with neither father nor brothers. It did not matter whether or no he had sisters, because, should these come making a fuss and weeping, the members had but to answer, 'Even if we show you your brother's blood, what can you do?'

p. 119

"When such a man had been led before the meeting, with hands tied behind the back with cords well tested as to strength, his body was rubbed all over with dye from the camwood tree. Next he was placed before the juju and there tightly bound by throat and ankles to a stout stake. No further harm was then done to him; he was just left to die of thirst and starvation.

"After making this offering, the members went forth to that part of the sacred bush where the juju dresses were kept. There they robed themselves, and then came back, clad in full dress, to give their play in the town.

"No woman might see this play, but all were curious, even to the young girls, and talked it over among themselves, saying, 'What is there in these rites which it is forbidden us to see?'

"Now, one woman of the place, Adiaha Agbo by name, thought, 'If I hide myself in the bush, no one will know of it, and then I shall learn this great secret which the men keep from us.'

"So she hid, and spied upon the company as they returned.

"When, however, the juju image passed the place where she lay concealed, he called to his followers in a terrible voice:

"'I see one woman named Adiaha Agbo hiding in the bush, in order that she may learn what it is not lawful for woman to know.'

"On hearing this, Adiaha was so terrified that her limbs failed her, and she could not even attempt to escape.

p. 120

"The juju called to his followers: 'Go to that spot. Drag forth the woman, and bring her before me.'

"All was done as he said. The juju members surrounded the woman, brandishing their machets and shouting. One cried, 'She must be killed.' But another, who was a kinsman, answered:

"'If you want to kill her, you must first ask permission of her owner.'

"(The woman was free born, but married, and, according to our rule, a husband is the owner and possessor of all his wives.)

"To this the juju answered: 'Since you speak thus impertinently we will first kill the woman, and then see what further should be done in the matter.'

"On this the members began to consult together. Those who wished her to be killed drew on the one side, those who were in favour of asking her husband as to her fate on the other. The first party said:

"'We play this play as our fathers played it hundreds and hundreds of years ago. So far as we know, no woman has ever seen it before. We remember those who have witnessed other jujus without permission and were killed for it. Therefore she also must die.' Whereon they fell upon the woman and slew her on the spot.

"When the other side saw that she was already dead, they said: 'We will no longer belong to this juju. It is wrong to kill a woman without her husband's permission.' On that they fell upon the murderers and slew seven of them; after which they ran and hid themselves in the bush.

p. 121

"When a little time had passed, the fugitives talked together over all that had happened, and said to one another:

"'Now that we have killed our brothers of the juju, of what use to live any longer? Let us rather slay ourselves also.' To this they agreed, so each man fell upon his machet and died in the bush by himself.

"When the catastrophe was noised abroad, the people of neighbouring towns came to Idua and asked the surviving townsfolk: 'What is the cause of this that we hear? Never did we see such a thing before! If, therefore, you do not pay a fine of one cow to each town all of us will join together and kill the remainder of you; because you Iduans have offended against our rule. If there was a dispute about a woman who had kinsfolk to take her part, you should not have killed her, but have bidden her family ransom her at the price of another who was kinless and about whom, therefore, there would have been no trouble. Had you done so, all the men now dead would have been alive to-day!'

"So Idua was forced to pay a cow to each of the neighbouring towns in order that the palaver might be settled, for the Iduans were not strong enough to withstand all those who had joined together against them."

Ibibios are perhaps unusually bloodthirsty, for crimes of violence were so frequent that for months after our arrival scarcely a day passed without a man or woman running in to claim the protection of the District Commissioner--often with hideous gun or

p. 122

machet wounds to show in plea. Should a day fortunately have gone by without such incident the morrow usually more than restored the average.

One evening just as dusk was falling a woman crept up the steps which lead to the veranda of the station bungalow. Her skin showed that curious grey pallor which intense fear substitutes for the warm brown of the native, and out of her drawn face the dark eyes gleamed, large and terror-filled. Her name, she said, was Unwa of Efa, in the Uyo District. She was now on a visit to a friend at Ikot Atako some few miles off on the far side of the river. To her, hot-foot, had come a brother with the news that Chief Ikombo of Efa had slain their sister Adia Inaw, who was one of his wives, and had afterwards cut off the head and arms of the corpse. According to the testimony of a friend, Amaw Ima by name, Ikombo had "fled to bush" immediately after the murder, and was lying in wait for Unwa herself in order to slay her because she had formerly advised her sister against wedding him.

The reason given for the crime was that the chief had quarrelled with his wife about some small matter, and then charged her with placing poisonous leaves in his food and pipe. Well knowing the danger of such an accusation, the unfortunate woman went before the chiefs of the town and asked what she should do. By their advice she took out a summons against her husband, claiming divorce. His answer was to slay and mutilate the woman who had dared appeal to the protection of the law. Then, knowing himself outcast, he took to the bush, determined to glut

p. 123

himself with vengeance, and trusting that the difficulty of capture might save him from paying the penalty of his crime.

Unwa came in terror of her life to beg protection, for she dared not return to her town so long as this peril was abroad. She appeared grateful for permission to remain until it was possible to arrange with the Commissioner for her safe return. Her story is uninvestigated, and how the matter ended we never learnt, owing to our unexpectedly early departure from the District.

*    *    *    *    *

On another occasion when my husband was visiting the Awa Native Court, a woman, splendidly built and with a fine air of courage and resolution unusual among those of her race, stood forth in Court and called to him.

There was a stir among the men present, several of whom busied themselves in persuading her to sit down and keep silence. Among these a lean old man, with one glittering eye--the other had been closed by a machet stroke--and a most malevolent expression, was particularly prominent. Another case was beginning: plaintiff and defendant were already in the box, so the judge went on, apparently unconscious of the woman, but keeping her in view all the time. Many efforts were made to entice her outside the building; but she resolutely refused to stir, and, at the end of the case in hand, sprang forward again--this time right to the front of the Court. On her hip, encircled by the right arm, sat a sturdy piccan, while the left was flung out towards the Commissioner,

p. 124

and from her lips demands and entreaties poured forth in a flood of excited eloquence.

It transpired that the woman, Nwa Udaw Uko by name, had been put into prison for no fault at all, but merely on demand of the hawk-eyed old chief, named Etesin, who had busied himself in trying to suppress her when she first strove to draw attention to her case. His plea was that "Some white man or other at some time had ordered her piccan to be given up to him so soon as it was able to walk alone; and that, since she refused to do so, he had induced the Native Court clerk to imprison her. He was unable to give the least indication by which the alleged judgment could be traced; she, on the contrary, pleaded that the chief had no authority over her or any of her people, save that he had seized several of them and sold them into slavery, the last occasion being only three years before. Since there were no witnesses on either side, save the woman's husband, who came forward, at her call, to corroborate what she said, the case had to be adjourned; but the woman was, of course, freed, and a few weeks later the matter was fully investigated.

In the course of the trial Nwa Udaw Uko stated on oath:

"About three years ago Etesin sold my brother-in-law, Umana Isong, to a man whose name I do not know. Many years ago he had already sold him to someone in the Opobo District. Umana ran back to our town, and three years ago accused sold him again. We do not know where he is now. The reason accused gave for selling him the second time was that Umana

p. 125

had committed adultery with Etesin's brother's wife. A long time ago accused also sold my first husband. I do not know where the latter was sent. He has never been seen again."

Akpan Nkana (witness for prosecutor), sworn, stated:

"About three years ago accused sold Umana Isong to some place. Since that time Umana has never returned to his town. He was a relative of accused's. A long while before he had been sold, it was said by his own father, but escaped and came back to Iton, his native place. During the time of the war at Ikot Ebokk accused sold Nwa Udaw Uko's husband, Eduok Adiaha Ekkpo by name. He has never returned. I am a relative of the woman."

Etesin stated:

"Once, a long time ago, I went to another country to get Idiong. On my return I heard that Umana Isong's father had sold him. I said nothing, but went to my house. Umana escaped and came back. The people who had bought him came and caught him again. This was a long time ago. I cannot mention the number of years. It was at the time that his sister, Adiaha Isong, whom I am calling as a witness, was in the Fatting-house. She has now borne five children. I never sold Eduok Adiaha Ekkpo."

Question by Nwa Udaw Uko: "Who sold my husband?"

Answer: "Essien did."

Adiaha Isong (called as witness for accused) stated on oath:

"It is three years ago since accused sold my brother

p. 126

Umana Isong. About a year before that accused had also sold my elder brother Eduok Adiaha Ekkpo."

Question by accused: "Who sold Umana Isong first of all?"

Answer by Adiaha: "My father did."

Udaw Eka Etuk Ikpa (called as witness for accused), sworn, stated:

"It is three years ago since Etesin sold Umana Isong. He also sold Eduok Adiaha Ekkpo several years ago. I am a relative of Umana Isong's. Nearly everyone in our family was sold as a slave."

Question by accused: "Did not Isong Akpabio sell your half-brother Akpan Isong?"

Answer: "No. You sold him also."

Not a single witness could be brought forward to testify in favour of the accused, and, as a result of trying to extort Nwa Udaw Uko's latest piccan from her, and inducing the clerk to imprison her until she consented to give it up, he himself was awarded two years' hard labour.

After Court, according to my husband's usual practice, all prisoners were called before him to ask if they had any complaint to make. Besides the one whose case is given above, there were five women prisoners, and of these all but one were found to have been sentenced without due cause.

The case of the second on the list, Ekkpo Udia of Ekott Ibokk, was perhaps the most characteristic. She had been convicted before the Native Court by a council of chiefs and sentenced to two months' imprisonment with hard labour for the terrible crime of having put her daughter into the Fatting-house without

p. 127

first obtaining her husband's permission, and for not taking her out again immediately on learning his opinion that she should wait for some months before starting the course of feeding up, for which, by the way, the mother provided nearly all the necessary food.

Next: Chapter 9: Marriage Problems