2.1 Perception of the Supreme Being amongst the Bonny people in history.
2.2 Other traditional practices of the Bonny people in history.
- Iguana worship.
- New Yam festival.
- Shaving as act of mourning.
- Symbolism of the elephant tusk.
- Iria ceremony.
- Hunting expeditions.
In this chapter we look at the core cultural and traditional practices of the Bonny people as recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries. These practices were observed by various scholars of that era, and consequently recorded as first-hand information, the sources of which include, in some cases, discussions and interviews with the Pepple kings.
Before we proceed however, we customarily access the viewpoints of some academic giants in the subject of interest. Professor Jones M. Jaja, Professor of African and social history, institute of foundation studies, Rivers state university of science and technology, whilst speaking about Ibani culture in the academic release "Ibani dieties and methods of worship...", informs us as follows, "The Ibani trace linkages through the kitchen lineages called "Burusoyo" or "Burusu". Lineage is also traced through the ereji blade. The ereji refers to the matriarch who ritually admitted new slaves into the family...” (pg. 34406) ¹.
The above submission paints the picture of a matriarchal society, and therefore by consequence would mean that the Ibani people, Bonny and Opobo, are a matriarchal race. This generally is in agreement with the matrilineal perception of the ijaw people traditionally.
Professor Jones continuing on Ibani culture presents that, "Eremina-Ogbo (Ere-Ogbo) is a female dance group with a few men who beat the drums. Eremina-Ogbo is the dance group associated with the Iria-bo womanhood rites” (pg 34406) ¹.
Above mentioned is the Iria ceremony (Iriabo). The Iria ceremony is a feminine cultural practice that celebrates the coming of age of a young woman amongst the people of Bonny, Opobo, Okrika, Kalabari etc which in recent times has gained international coverage from several reputable media.
In getting a clearer understanding of the Ijaw feminine concept of divinity we are aided by the work of Professor Christopher Abraham Ajueyitsi titled "God: Male, female or asexual?", an inaugural lecture presented at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma in 2004. According to Professor Christopher Ajueyitsi, "the classical example of this feminine concept of God in Africa is found among the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta of Nigeria, who speak of God STRICTLY in feminine terms. All their names and attributes for God are strictly feminine, and they apply to Her alone. They have four names for the Supreme Being, namely, Temearau (Tamara), moulder of the universe. Tamuno is the Kalabari variant of Temearau. The second name is Ayebaarau..."the foundress of the universe”, (thirdly) Woyingi or Oyin, “our mother” and Oginarau, "she who dwells in the heavens.." (pg 10) ²
Hence we can observe the strictly feminine nature of the supreme being as perceived by the Ijaw Ethnicity. Another worthy mention is the devotion to water spirits which is also a fundamental feature in the Ijaw traditional religion.
𝐂𝐔𝐋𝐓𝐔𝐑𝐄 𝐎𝐅 𝐇𝐈𝐒𝐓𝐎𝐑𝐈𝐂𝐀𝐋 𝐁𝐎𝐍𝐍𝐘 𝐊𝐈𝐍𝐆𝐃𝐎𝐌
Unlike origin which is usually a static point, culture bears the capacity to reshape, absorb and drop aspects of itself with the passing of time. It is observed that the current cultural practices of a people in the present may vary greatly from what was obtainable centuries ago. This mostly is due to an array of circumstances, many beyond the control of man. However, the practices of the long past paint a clearer picture of the heritage of a people, before several distortions over time, and helps to better understand, piece together and appreciate the present.
In view of the above stated fact, we once more look into the earliest documented history of Bonny as recorded centuries ago.
Perhaps of the greatest significance in evaluating Bonny's perception of a supreme diety was the recorded conversation between King Pepple and Trade Captain John Smith circa 1835. In this interesting exchange, Pepple shares his desire to kill God if he can, because according to him, if he succeeds in killing God then he Pepple, can live forever. Apparently, in Pepple’s estimation, God is the one who takes a man's life (Pg 90) ³.
An abridged representation of Pepple's conversation with John Smith is captured below :
Pepple : Suppose God was here I must kill him one minute!
John Smith : You can not kill God.
Pepple : I know I cannot kill him but suppose I could kill him, I would.
John Smith : And suppose you could, why would you kill him.
Pepple : Because he makes men to die.
From the above discourse it is very clear that the traditional religion of Pepple and consequentially, his subjects, was one that identified their Supreme Being as a male manifestation rather than a female, and Pepple wished to physically subdue Him if he ever got the chance, as any man would wish towards an adversary. The conversation however did not end there.
John Smith may be credited as the first European to forward the notion of a Christian God to a Pepple King, and by consequence to the Bonny people. John Smith, during the tricky conversation captured above, goes ahead to carefully describe the tenets of Christianity to a Pepple he knew very well could be very obstinate and unyielding to a foreign tradition. He shares the Bible creation story which Pepple enjoys while expressing his opinion that the serpent should have been destroyed immediately. Afterwards, John presents the gospel of the messiah.
It is worthy of note that while John Smith shares the Christian belief of a God who is a Father and his son who is the messiah, no where does Pepple ever interject in the conversation that God is indeed a woman (Pg 94) ³, as would have been the case if that was the belief he held. Pepple and indeed most of the Bonnians were not known to keep mute when the very core of their tradition was being challenged. If the God Creator of the Bonny people was a woman, Pepple would definitely have challenged the Christian notion of a masculine God.
Also of a strong note is the fact that across hundreds of books written in that era, hardly any one of the scholars recorded a matriarchal trado-religion for the Bonny people. Such a detail would never have escaped the very meticulous scholars if such was the case. Instead they all record the Bonnians as believing in a more regular masculine Deity, and also a patriarchal system of inheritance as obtainable within any other Igbo community. The foreign matriarchal inheritance system adopted by some Bonnians of today is a source of contention and turbulence within the Bonny society.
Numerous practices were observed amongst the Bonny people, however for the sake of brevity and focus we consider the core traditional elements.
𝐈𝐆𝐔𝐀𝐍𝐀 𝐖𝐎𝐑𝐒𝐇𝐈𝐏 : One of the most frequently mentioned practices of the Bonny people was the worship of the iguana. The iguana was the tutelary diety of the Bonny people until its destruction in the wake of Bonny’s acceptance of Christianity. However, before the adoption of the iguana as the national emblem, the Bonny people were noted to have revered the monkey, as recorded by John Smith (pg 61) ³ and Major Arthur Glynn (pg 280) ⁴. Reverence of the monkey is of consequence and points to the fact that though the Bonnians had adapted to life on the coast, their original ancestors were most likely forest dwellers. This is generally in agreement with the established fact that the Bonnians originally came from the forest regions of the Igbo hinterland.
𝐍𝐄𝐖 𝐘𝐀𝐌 𝐅𝐄𝐒𝐓𝐈𝐕𝐀𝐋 : Another practice of note observed amongst the Bonny people is the New Yam festival. According to Crow, "On occasion of planting the yam, which is a principal article of food, and also when it is dug up, a grand ceremony is performed, intended as an expression of thankfulness to Providence for its bountiful supply of the fruits of the earth" (pg 223) ⁵.
From the above we are able to appreciate the ancient life of the Bonny people, in their traditional way of celebrating the yam. This is one traditional practice that is at the very foundation of Igbo tradition. There is arguably nowhere else in the entire world that yam holds the extolled position it does amongst the Igbos, hence for the Bonny people to have celebrated both the beginning of the yam planting season and the festival of the new yam, it is indeed a no-brainer that Bonny was like any other Igbo community. Observe also that the writer informs us that not only is yam celebrated, but also it is a principal meal amongst the early Bonnians. In addition to yam, cassava was also identified as a staple food of the Bonny people (pg 252) ⁵. A common feature in the Igbo diet.
𝐒𝐇𝐀𝐕𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐀𝐒 𝐀𝐂𝐓 𝐎𝐅 𝐌𝐎𝐔𝐑𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 : Another practice of note was the burial rites observed on occasion of death. One of the major rites as documented, was the shaving of the hair and wearing of specified clothes in mourning of a deceased relation (pg 72) ³. A traditional practice still very common amongst the Igbos to this day.
𝐒𝐘𝐌𝐁𝐎𝐋𝐈𝐒𝐌 𝐎𝐅 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐄𝐋𝐄𝐏𝐇𝐀𝐍𝐓 𝐓𝐔𝐒𝐊 : As far back as 300 years ago the reverence of the elephant tusk amongst the Bonny people had already been well established. During Barbot's stay at Bandy (French adaptation of Bonny) in 1699, he observed the symbolic use of elephant tusks. According to John Barbot, "Thus with much patience all our matters were adjusted indifferently....The king ordered the public cryer to proclaim the permission (of his people to/) of trade with us, with the noise of his trumpets, being elephant's teeth..." (pg 459) ⁶.
Over a hundred years later, John Smith will also observe and record the significant use of the elephant tusk amongst the Bonny people as means of making key announcements (pg 120) ³. Exactly as obtainable in the general Igbo society.
But perhaps the most illustrative of the high significance of the elephant tusk in Bonny culture is its use by its most prominent person, the King. Bonny kings from time immemorial have been known to carry the Ọdụ mkpa alọ (Odu as called in Bonny to this day) as a symbol of their authority. This practice is steeped in tradition, Igbo tradition to be precise, where a bearer of the Odu is regarded as having attained the pinnacle of societal achievements.
The Ọdụ, till this day is carried by the Kings of Bonny and Opobo as their symbol of authority over their domain.
𝐈𝐑𝐈𝐀 𝐂𝐄𝐑𝐄𝐌𝐎𝐍𝐘 : The Iria ceremony as observed amongst the Bonny people and the neighboring tribes of Okrika and Kalabari is a cultural practice that has attained wide recognition in recent times. The Iria is celebrated amongst the women folk at different stages of their lives from early youth through adulthood.
Whilst the ceremony has continued to gain recognition, little is researched on as regards its origin. This had lead to a situation where it is erroneously linked to the Ijaw Ethnicity of Nigeria.
The Iria ceremony has as its original traditional name : Ị rụ Mgbede (coming of age/maturity). A keen eye can quickly observe how time and circumstances have worn and distorted the original Igbo words of Ị rụ (to attain/to reach) to Iria, while the Mgbede (maturity) has been casually discarded. Hence the current name of “Iria” could be argued to be meaningless, or at best a poor reproduction of the original. The Iru Mgbede ceremony is an age long female coming of age ceremony found amongst several Igbo communities. The ceremony was usually practiced as soon as the girl child attained puberty. At this time the girl(s) go into seclusion as the traditional rites begin in earnest. According to Igbo culture the men were never allowed into the seclusion area.
For the stipulated time of seclusion, usually about 3 months, the girls are closely tended and taught in clear details how to manage their homes by mostly aged mothers. Also the girls are fattened and their shapes worked upon such that they are irresistible to the male folk on completion of Iru Mgbede.
On completion of their time in Ị rụ Mgbede the girls were made to go through the ceremony of "Ipu Ama" i.e stepping out/public display, in some cases at the village square or at the market, with her body beautifully adorned in uli (camwood).
At the completion of this the girls were now completely qualified to be espoused.
lru Mgbede also served to ensure that girls did not engage in premarital engagements as it was a taboo for a girl to be impregnated before her Iru Mgbede ceremony.
In the Ngwa and Ukwa-Ngwa areas of Igbo land where Bonny people descend from, the ceremony bears the exact name as captured above : Ị rụ Mgbede, as against other variations of the name to be found in other parts of Igbo land like Ida Mgbede, Ịnọ Mkpuke, Ikwaezi in Mgbidi, Ibauke in Umuahia. The neighboring communities to Bonny where Iria is celebrated today which include Okrika, Kalabari (New Calabar), are all recorded to originally have Igbo ancestry, Okrika being from Afam Ndoki (pg 24) ⁴ and New Calabar descended from Arochukwu and a section of the Efik from the Duke Ephraim family of Calabar (pg 265) ⁷ and (pg 25) ⁴ with elements of both Igbo and Efik culture still observable in New Calabar. Until the modern era it was still the practice in new Calabar to take a deceased chief to Arochukwu to be buried.
The claims in some quarters that the Iru Mgbede now Iria and also the Nwaotam forest masquerade of the Igbo race are mediums of connecting to the water spirits, are bogus and should be consequently disregarded. The culturally inclined can observe there is no connection to water divinities whatsoever in both ceremonies, and there are no basis for such whatsoever.
𝐇𝐔𝐍𝐓𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐗𝐏𝐄𝐃𝐈𝐓𝐈𝐎𝐍𝐒 : Great hunting expeditions were recorded amongst the ancient Bonny people by writers and other observers of the time. Until the modern era, every year the great chiefs and men of Bonny held a hunting festival. As reported by Richard Francis Burton, “Once a year every great house with its chief repairs to the bush and makes a surround of men and boys to trap gazelles and antelopes...the evening of the battue is spent in devouring its proceeds and in hard striving with strong drinks” (pg 293) ⁷. John Smith also reports on this annual hunting festival, “...After a successful battue when more deer have been captured than suffice to satisfy their appetites, they (deer) are laid about in their rooms with their four legs tied together...” (pg 153) ³.
Great hunting expeditions into the outlying forests were a commonplace event in the Igbo society and both the young and older men looked upon this hunting expeditions as an opportunity to show their hunting prowess to the admiration of the community. Great hunters were given high recognition amongst the Igbo people.
In recent times though hunting expeditions have declined with the rise in modernisation.
Most of the aforementioned points which have been discussed above are major cultural elements of the Bonny people, some of which are still observed even to this day. These cultural elements as investigated, stand side by side with practices obtainable across the rest of the Igbo nation.