History Of Nsibidi the Ancient Igbo Alphabet

The communicative system Nsibidi (also known as nsibiri, nchibiddi or nchibiddy) was prevalent in the precolonial period in the south eastern (presently, made up of Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Ebonyi states) Nigeria. Nsibidi is a pictographic artistic expression used in the pre-colonial era for different purposes, but because it was tagged as a secretive cult means of communication especially by the missionaries, many people avoided the usage, which is contrary to the present day ideology. However, the application of this pictographic expression by visual artists is still very low.

The symbols are at least several centuries old: Early forms appeared on excavated pottery as well as what are most likely ceramic stools and headrests from the Calabar region, with a range of dates from 400 to 1400 CE.
There are thousands of nsibidi symbols, of which over 500 have been recorded. They were once taught in a school to children.Many of the signs deal with love affairs; those that deal with warfare and the sacred are kept secret.Nsibidi is used on wall designs, calabashes, metals (such as bronze), leaves, swords, and tattoos. It is primarily used by the Ekpe leopard secret society (also known as Ngbe or Egbo), which is found across Cross River among the Ekoi, Efik, Igbo people, and other nearby peoples.

Outside knowledge of nsibidi came in 1904 when T.D. Maxwell noticed the symbols. Before the British colonisation of the area, nsibidi was divided into a sacred version and a public, more decorative version which could be used by women.Aspects of colonisation such as Western education and Christian doctrine drastically reduced the number of nsibidi-literate people, leaving the secret society members as some of the last literate in the symbols. Nsibidi was and is still a means of transmitting Ekpe symbolism. Nsibidi was transported to Cuba and Haiti via the Atlantic slave trade, where it developed into the anaforuana and veve symbols.
The origin of nsibidi is most commonly attributed to the Ejagham people of the northern Cross River region, mostly because colonial administrators found the largest and most diverse nsibidi among them. Nsibidi spread throughout the region over time and mixed with other cultures and art forms such as the Igbo uri or uli graphic design. In 1909 J. K. Macgregor who collected nsibidi symbols claimed that nsibidi was traditionally said to have come from the Uguakima, Ebe or Uyanga tribes of the Igbo people.

Nsibidi has been described as a “fluid system” of communication consisting of hundreds of abstract and pictographic signs. Nsibidi was described in the colonial era by P.A. Talbot as “a kind of primitive secret writing”, Talbot explained that nsibidi was used for messages “cut or painted on split palm stems”. J.K. Macgregor’s view was that “The use of nsibidi is that of ordinary writing. I have in my possession a copy of the record of a court case from a town of Enion [Enyong] taken down in it, and every detail … is most graphically described”. Nsibidi crossed ethnic lines and was a uniting factor among ethnic groups in the Cross River region.

Origin of Nsibidi Nsibidi is referred to by Macgregor (1909:209) as “the native name for writing, used in then Calabar Arts and Design Studies ISSN 2224-6061 (Paper) ISSN 2225-059X (Online) Vol.29, 2015 89 district of the eastern province of southern Nigeria, more largely up the cross river and the inland”. Macgregor further stated that the system of writing was practically the property of a secret society which men of age are initiated after undergoing a period of preparation. He agrees that some of these signs are known to the common people in the environment, although the vast majority are only known to the initiates. Macgregor was a Presbyterian missionary deployed to teach in Hope Waddel Training Institute, Calabar. Kalu (1978:77) believes that Nsibidi is an ancient script, which existed before the coming of the Europeans. There are many assertions on the origin of Nsibidi. Yet it is clear that Nsibidi was used by the Igbo speaking people in Afikpo area, Calabar, including the inland (Akwa Ibom). Again Talbot’s iconoclastic work in 1912 entitled “In the shadow of the bush” argued frankly that it was the Ekoi who originated Nsibidi. That is why he (Talbot) found a greater variety among the Ekoi than other tribes. That Nsibidi is a corrupt form of Nchibbidy which is derived from the verb “Nchibbi” to turn. And in usage, the word refers to agility of mind and therefore, cunning or double meaning. Udofia and Inyang (1987:75) postulate that the people of Cross River invented a picture writing called Nsibidi in order to overcome the difficulties in communication in government establishments, trade and diplomacy. Udofia and Inyang also support the view that Nsibidi is used throughout Calabar, beyond Igbo-land and even extended to some areas of Cameroon before the coming of the Europeans. Also Dryrell (1911) who closely studied where the “Tattooed people” alleged to have invented the script came from recognized that some were Efik, while others came from various parts of Ikom, Obubra, Ekoi, Afikpo, Agwagwune, Bende and Edda. Nsibidi to a large extent is pictographic, thus, different social clubs devised their own symbols which they used over the years, although, certain signs became conventional. The above statement was also re-established by Ecoma (2007:107) who quoted Eyo (2005) “provides invaluable evidence that the Calabar terracotta have roots extending more than one thousand years into the past. The motifs and designs echoed the iconography of Nsibidi system of recording, hiding and transmitting knowledge employed by men and women of various associations such as Ekpe, Ngbe etc” Another major problem is the belief of the people, that Nsibidi is the masquerade that kills.


Related readings on Nsibidi

Nsibidi: An Artistic Expression and Communicative System in South Eastern Nigeria Dr Oghale Okpu Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria.

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