The other day, the palace of the Obong of Calabar and grand patriarch of the Efik kingdom, His Eminence, Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi, Otu V, was agog. That day, masquerades of all kinds and sizes, in their numbers, converged on the palace of the treaty king, strutting their stuff.
Some of the masquerades were sights to behold. Some looked weird, like creatures from another world. Yet, they combined to add glamour to the event. What can one say about the dancers in vibrant colours, with painted faces? They mesmerized everyone with their delicate dance steps while the drums boomed, communicating with the gods and the spirits.
Some of the groups performed with the dexterity and zeal of competition to the admiration of the crowd. Interestingly, some of the dignitaries took to the floor, showing they were still in touch with their roots.
Day of culture
Indeed, that day, the cultural buoyancy of the Efik was displayed in its fullness. The exquisite attire that defines the people was on parade. From the men to the women, there was something to admire. The women made profound fashion statements, with some of them wearing head gears decorated with feathers, making them look as beautiful as the peacock.
The occasion was the induction of Abasi Eyo-Ndem 1V of the Ntiero Edem Efiom Ekpo Royal House into the Etubom’s traditional council by the natural ruler and Obong of Calabar.
According to the Obong, “generally, Efik people are very simple and friendly. They are very absorbing, they make friends easily and are homely.”
Kingdom of principalities
The Efik kingdom is made up of 12 tribes or principalities, spanning across five local government areas in Cross River State, with satellite towns and villages in Akwa Ibom State and Cameroun. Within each of these principalities are the royal houses, which own numerous towns, villages and settlements. The royal houses are headed by an Etubom who, after selection, screening and induction, sits in council with the Obong of Calabar. Ntiero Edem Efiom Ekpo Royal House is one of such houses and traces its origin to a patriarch, Edem Efiom Ekpo, who was said to be the son of the king that rebelled against the practice of twin-infanticide and set up the first Efik settlement that abolished the killing of twins over 100 years before the arrival of Mary Slessor. He was the first ruler of present-day Calabar and was called Duke Aphrom (Duke the first) by the visiting Portuguese and English supercargo traders of the time.
According to Ndem, “an Etubom is the head of a family in Calabar. You can say that Calabar has 12 principal families that make up the royalty and an Etubom will be the head of one of those principalities. An Etubom has clan heads, village heads, family heads and members under him. In my own family, we have 26 villages that I am the head of. So, the village heads and clan heads are under the Etubom. The Etubom can supervise that principality on behalf of the Obong.
“The Etubom sits in-council with the Obong, which specifically means that you are responsible for looking after a principality in the Efik kingdom. Land matters, boundary matters, economic matters, personal matters – matrimonial, child birth, deaths are all the responsibility of the Etubom, who gives the final authority to people to engage in certain things, and gives guidance, since he is the custodian of the history of that principality.”
Who are those qualified to aspire to become Etubom? “If you a true born son of one of the principal houses in Efikland, you have the right to aspire, depending on what your family decides, because you don’t make yourself Etubom. There are laid down criteria. There is some form of internal rotation among those who have the blood. So, it is on that basis that you become Etubom, if you are qualified and if it is the turn of your house,” Ndem said.
Uneasy is the head that wears the Etubom cap. This is because his responsibilities are multiplied geometrically on assumption of the position. He must be grounded in traditional matters because “in African tradition, the dead, the living and the unborn are one continuum. So, you, as Etubom, are responsible for the interaction between the dead, the present (those who are alive now) and the unborn. You are responsible for honouring your forefather and preparing the way for the children to come,” he said.
There are lots of things that stand Efik out in terms of culture, and some are a bit obvious. One of them is their food. They serve some of the most delicious traditional delicacies in Africa. You may have heard that “if you eat their food, you would forget where you are from and you won’t return home.”
Take this from the managing director, Axari Hotels and Suites, Calabar: “We have a very rich cuisine, which I think every Nigerian may have heard about. At the last count, we could point at 17 different types of soup that Efik people have in their repertoire.”
Edikang-Ikong is regarded as the king of Calabar soups, and it is popular across the country. Afang, afia efere (white soup), editan, ekpang-nkwukwo, atama, ukwoho edidot and ukang soup are also popular.
Perhaps that is why ‘Calabar kitchens’ are popular across the country and beyond. It is even said that no man tastes the Calabar woman’s food and remains the same. Sometimes, the man acts as if he has been charmed. Most of the Efik cultural dishes contain sea ingredients because their settlements are on riverbanks and creeks.
It is said that the Efik kingdom has some of the best women that they are wonderful homemakers because of some of their advanced cultural traits. To start with, they are usually neat. As someone put it, “neatness is a tradition of Calabar people, particularly the women. It is a cultural attribute.”
It is also said that Efik women know how to satisfy their husbands in every ramification. Many attribute this skill to the fattening room practice.
The nkuko, popularly known as the fattening room, is an age-long tradition of the Efik. According to Etubom Bassey, “it is the equivalent of what Caucasians call finishing school. If you are from the upper class in the UK or France and you have a daughter, you send her to a finishing school in Switzerland. Finishing school in Switzerland teaches her the different types of wine, if she didn’t know; the school teaches her etiquette, how to be a lady. Efik people have that; it’s called nkuko. Nkuko is where the well-to-do man, who has a daughter, sends her for weeks or months or a year, depending on his power, to some old women who would teach her how to be an Efik lady. They teach her how to handle a house and be a homemaker.
“They will teach her the exquisite and final points of beauty and etiquette: how to cook, how to look after a man, how to look after children and how to be resourceful in her husband’s house, how to handle in-laws, how to handle visitors and how to handle her husband. We have that and it is still being practiced over here.”
In the fattening room, Efik girls are pampered with full body massages to make them flexible and bring out their natural endowments. They are fed sumptuous dishes, made to sleep and do not lift a finger by way of work. The essence is to produce a robust lady because it is their belief that a beautiful woman is one who is plump with a healthy waistline. It was gathered that “also included in the training are the cultural dances (Ekombi), folklore, folktales, songs and other forms of entertainment. Skills in artistic designs on calabash and other materials are taught as well. It is here that she is taught about sex with the intention of giving proper satisfaction to her husband.”
At the end of the exercise, there will be merriment throughout the day and night. However, this practice has been modified to meet modern needs and challenges.
Another profound aspect of Efik tradition is the so-called Ojuju Calabar. Etubom said: “At the last count, from my research, I think we have about 80 different masquerades. The masquerades are not just for fun; they have deep cultural and traditional meaning, and come out for specific purposes. The Ekpe is among the most popular, which spreads all the way to northern Cross River, Igboland and even went abroad to Cuba, Brazil, etc. The masquerades are accompanied with chants, songs and dances.
“These are very strong cultural practices that have stood the test of time. They have lasted for 800 years or more; some of them with written history about the daily practices that took place from the 14th Century and beyond.”
Various events like the coronation of the Obong, burial, chieftaincy and other seasonal celebrations and ceremonies witness different kinds of masquerades.
The traditional attire of Efik people is elaborate and colourful. In fact, they dress in admirable robes that make them look like princes and princesses. An Efik woman, in full traditional regalia, is always a cynosure because of her stunning outfits. Some adorn brass combs in their hair (edisat ukwak) and hold the staff (esang). One of the most popular designs is known as Onyonyo.
“Our dressing also sets us apart. But to the uninitiated or the layman, what you see is just the wrapper and the big shirt and something that looks like a tie. The way we knot the wrapper, whether on the left or the right, shows something. The number of knots says something. The okpomkpom that we hang around our neck says something. Every knot tells a story for those who know. So, you wear your history on your body.
“We equally have the secret writing used for certain secret ceremonies,” he said.
Some of the cultural practices are revealed to the uninitiated.