all photos by Onyile Bassey Onyile except where otherwise noted
The Nnabo society is an institution of the Efik people of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria. Formerly charged with martial duties, Nnabo masquerades today serve various functions—including spiritual protection and public performances to honor deceased members and the Efik Obong, or paramount ruler—while offering a visually rich display of heritage that speaks to a larger complex of masquerade societies previously found throughout the Cross River basin. Here, we address the lacuna in published sources about Nnabo by introducing the primary masquerade characters and their roles based on interviews with society members in Calabar.
Nowadays Nnabo highlights the warriorlike prowess displayed by energetic young men in their attempts to intimidate and frighten onlookers during public performances. That the masquerades seek to inspire fear is no surprise, considering their former roles among the Efik, which included warfare (Figs. 1, 5, 7). Hence, Nnabo connotes the fearlessness and steady vigilance required to protect the dignity and integrity of the Efik people. While a few members in Calabar today might still desire to regain its former power, Nnabo long ago ceded its martial function to government and now performs primarily to honor fellow members during events such as commemorative funerals, or the installation of a new Obong. Nnabo also provides public entertainment at the holidays (e.g., the annual Christmas carnival of masquerades in Calabar), and may perform during private functions.
We were repeatedly told that, prior to the colonial period, Nnabo led the way onto the battlefield during times of confrontation or war. Its masquerades were charged with intimidating the enemy and removing any malignant spiritual forces they may have incurred. In times of peace, certain members—the Nsibidi Nnabo—carried out the executions of condemned persons ordered by the Obong. The Efik phrase nedseo nsibidi refers to the act of execution.
The origin of Nnabo is shrouded in history, although Efik oral history traces it to the region of the Ejagham peoples of the upper Cross River region. According to members of the Owanese group, Nnabo is not an Efik term, but rather is Qua/Ejagham, because they “owned” the word.1 However, the precise meaning was not proffered because it's “nsibidi”—that is, a secret. Apart from its general connotation as a “war dance,” members noted that Nnabo also means, “Everybody knows that something happens” or, more succinctly, “Action!” It may be that the group originated with, or was inspired by, a Qua/Ejaham or Efut source, as was the men's Leopard Society, known as Ekpe amongst the Efik of Calabar (Latham 1973:36; Leib and Romano 1984:48).
The institution of Nnabo is not limited to the Calabar region. A Nnabo masquerade costume seen by the authors at the Oron Museum in 2004 indicates the group is widespread throughout the southern Cross River region. Its label read:
Nnabo, otherwise known as Idem Nsibidi, is very prominent among the people of Ekoi, Quas, Efik of Cross River State, and Idua in Oron area of Akwa Ibom State.
According to the Ibibio scholar A.E. Udoh, the Ibibio of Akwa Ibom State also had a related group called “Nsibidi,” which, like Ekpe, “had secret signs known only to members” (1983:54).2 However, unlike the well-known Ekpe society, which is organized by grade and whose members are initiated by invitation, membership in Nnabo is open to any interested person, male or female—but men perform all of the masquerades.
The characters of Nnabo masquerades act aggressively because they were meant to strike terror into the hearts and minds of enemies met on the battlefield, criminals condemned to death under Nnabo's sword, or those who would threaten the Obong, whom Nnabo is charged to protect. While these sentiments still hold true today, the powerful aura and imposing appearance of Nnabo masquerades mostly serve to intimidate on-lookers rather than martial foes (Fig. 1). Mostly. Because it surprised no one when, in the years immediately following the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970), the public performances of Nnabo grew so unruly amongst rival associations that they were occasionally banned by the government. As recently as 2003, the Cross River state police forbade Nnabo from performing at the annual Christmas carnival, Calabar's largest masquerade venue (Onah 2003:n.p.). This event has become a massive draw for domestic tourists and therefore is potentially a lucrative event for the Nnabo members who perform. Hence, they decided to keep things more civil from then on.
We were fortunate to be invited into the home of Atafiong Okon Ata (a.k.a. Ikwa Afang) in Calabar South municipality. He is a former Nnabo president of the (Owanese) Nka Okutama Isong Efik Eburutu group, one of the seven Nnabo associations of Calabar.3 Also present were fellow Nnabo members Dr. E.E. Ironbar (clan head); Mr. Aniekan (Financial Secretary); Louis Edem Duke (Secretary General); Bassey Offiong Okon (Youth Leader); and Efeffiong Otu Effiong—a.k.a. Efere Otong, “Okra Soup” (Protocol Officer). Their combined presence, no doubt, was meant to validate the information provided to us. Atafiong opened the meeting in modern fashion, by reciting a Christian prayer—after which his fellows replied, “Amen”—then poured libation onto the earth to honor the ancestors. He wore the distinctive indigo-dyed cotton wrapper (ukara) covered with nsibidi signs,4 a cloth that is the sole prerogative of Ekpe society members. Atafiong later emphasized that Nnabo is distinct from Ekpe, although they both use nsibidi as a secret code to transmit information to members. Nonetheless, Ekpe is the most prestigious Efik men's society, which explains why Ata proclaimed his membership in it as well.
NNABO AS MEDICINE
According to Efik oral history, Abasi, or Almighty God, provided Nnabo troupe members with the knowledge to create antidotes—recipes for specific ibok (medicines) using combinations of plants—so that humankind could protect itself during war or conflict with neighboring villages. Nnabo personifies the most potent of ibok used for protection against impending danger. It is one of many masquerades in Efik culture that are believed to be imbued with spiritual prowess and clairvoyance. A Nnabo masker properly empowered with ibok is considered to be able to perceive hidden danger in order to overcome it.
Before any Nnabo performance, many rituals must be conducted, including the singing of sacred songs to empower the medicines that protect Nnabo performers. The rites also include setting the “table,” or altar, called okpokoro Nnabo (Fig. 2), which is placed on the floor with members seated around it. The okpokoro contains a plantain leaf with two old swords crossed over it; nkoi-ebion (porcupine quill); a portion of iduot (a reddish powder obtained by scraping the bark of the ukpa tree, Pterocarpus soyauxii, which is used as a medicinal ointment); and charcoal (ukan or nkan), a metaphor of the past. Here nkan and iduot act as antidotes to any malevolent charm present on or around the altar. Also included is a bottle of locally brewed gin wrapped with a red scarf, an egg, and a string of seven cowry shells. In Efik folklore, itiaba (seven) is a sacred number having special powers. It signifies completeness, the perfection of a complete cycle. The symbolism invested in the number seven in Efik folklore can be linked to the origin of creation (and for this reason, Nnabo maskers generally perform in groups of seven).
As the gathering is called to order, libation is poured onto the earth to invite the spirits of departed members and the ancestors of the larger Efik community to join the gathering. At the same time, the spirit of Nnabo and all of its powerful medicines are invoked. Immediately after the pouring of libation, the egg on the okpokoro is picked up protectively by its custodian. The egg symbolizes life and motherhood. Essentially, it represents Ndem Efik, a tutelary deity of the Efik people associated with the rivers and seas who is revered by Nnabo. Eggs are central components in Ndem rituals because of their potent medicinal and healing properties. Cowry shells, which come from the sea, also pay homage to Ndem. They solicit protection from evildoers. Cowries were also a precolonial form of currency and so are symbolic of wealth and status (Eyo 1979:42–44, 58). The plantain leaf represents nature and provides the assurance of unity among Nnabo members. The crossed swords literally project a show of strength. But their four ends also symbolize the cardinal points of the earth and the coming together of the spiritual and human realms. The red scarf represents blood shed in war.5
THE NNABO ENTOURAGE
Nnabo troupes consist of several types of performers, each with specific roles that contribute to the total harmony of the Nnabo performance. Chief Effiong Effiom noted that there are many different characters represented by Nnabo masquerades, including Edua Nnabo (Nnabo dog) or Edua Ino (dog thief); Nsibidi Nnabo; Idem Nnabo; Mkpokoro (human skull); Ayabom Nnabo (male Nnabo); Eka Nnabo (Nnabo mother); and Anansa.6 This section describes them according to their seven hierarchal orders, which corresponds to how the troupe advanced on their enemies during wartime. All the Nnabo masquerades wear strands of nyok (seed shells from the ebo tree), which jingle rhythmically as they perform.
Before any performance or outing, Nnabo troupe members employ a medicine (ndomo) to predict the outcome of their impending activity. Ndomo is made up of short strands of broom, tied with a piece of red cloth, and an egg. Effiong told us that, as part of the consultation rites, the egg is smashed on the floor beside the broom, and depending on layout of the empty eggshell, the future of the impending performance may be predicted. If interior of the broken eggshells lie facing the floor, this would indicate that a problem is imminent. On the other hand, if the insides of the shells are visible, this would signal a positive outcome.7
Leading the way is Edua Nnabo, the scout, who keeps ahead of the other performers as they move through town. It vigilantly seeks out enemy ibok, and is heavily armed with its own ibok to ward away their effects (Fig. 3). This character also acts as the custodian of gifts given to the troupe in appreciation of their performance, in order to inspect them for any hidden ibok before they are handed out to members of the troupe. Edua Nnabo's costume bears some resemblance to that of Mkpokoro, but is only about half its size. And while Mkpokoro is always in black, Edua Nnabo's garments may vary in color, though red is preferred. In both hands, Edua Nnabo holds stems of the cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta), which are used to scare off anyone who might get in its way (in fact, the fluid from this plant can be very irritating on contact with human skin). The face cover of this Nnabo is very much like that of Mkpokoro, though its headgear is different and varies depending on the choices of its maker.
Closely following Edua Nnabo is Nsibidi Nnabo, the security force of the entourage, whose appearance informs the public of an impending performance. Nsibidi maskers appear with faces and bodies painted with charcoal and heads adorned with mkpatari (Seleginelia canaliculata). Around their waists hang short shirts made from the fiber of young palm frond shoots, ekpin (Elaeis guineensis). Each Nsibidi member also holds a piece of ekpin between their lips to prevent them from speaking during the performance.
There are three characters represented by Nsibidi Nnabo. The executioners bear a machete with the right hand, and with the left, a basket—claimed to be full of water. Of course, the claim that a loosely woven basket could contain water is preposterous. The boast is meant to demonstrate the power of Nnabo charms to achieve the impossible … and also to intimidate an opponent. Another type of Nsibidi Nnabo again wields a machete with the right hand, and with the left hand holds okpoho, a long wooden hook cut from a Y-shaped branch, which formerly was used to secure the heads of those sentenced to execution. Following closely is the “medicine man,” or charm-bearer, who carries a rectangular box filled with skulls symbolizing the victims of previous wars—a warning to potential enemies. He is the heart of the Nnabo performance and is fiercely protected (Fig. 4).
Altogether, the Nsibidi troupe is usually made up of about twenty people. In their midst is a man in plain clothes, who blows the obukpon (antelope horn) to announce the presence of Nnabo. He remains in close proximity to the charm-bearer throughout the performance. The horn blower is dressed in white from head to toe, which echoes the appearance of Ndem Efik. The sound of the obukpon alerts everyone of the approaching Nnabo entourage.8
Together with Nsibidi Nnabo and the charm bearer, the drummers dictate the dancing steps of Nnabo. Following the drummers is the character called Mkpokoro (skull), an unpredictable and potentially violent image (Figs. 1, 5). This figure wears an oversized black gown trimmed on both arms with tightly woven brown raffia (Raphia farinifera or R. ruffia). Its startling appearance is enhanced by the display of actual human skulls that stare ahead menacingly. The relics, members claim, are those of slain enemies—the spoils of war. Bold, cryptic symbols (nsibidi) cover the masquerade's “face.” Mkpokoro is the scavenger who picks things from the ground as it moves along, covering them with its gown. It is believed that anything Mkpokoro covers in this way will disappear, hence onlookers carefully avoid its approach. According to Efik tradition, it was the duty of Nnabo to protect the integrity of the Obong—and by extension that of the Efik people as well—in part by overt visual intimidation. Mkpokoro's costume, in other words, represents a legacy of studiously developed psychological warfare.
Appearing with Mkpokoro are the Idem Nnabo, which represent the “spirit” of Nnabo (Fig. 6). They sing and speak with a disguised voice. They are the dance specialists of the troupe, and are recognized as the best entertainers. The costume of Idem Nnabo is similar to that of Edua Nnabo and Mkpokoro. They hold a broom (ayan) in their right hand, which they wave around to ward off the effects of any charms that might be lingering about, and with their left hand hold okpoho. Like Mkpokoro, these Nnabo masquerades are adorned with skulls as part of their headgear. However, the major difference is that these Nnabo wear woven multicolored knitted fiber suits (esik), similar to the Ekpe costume. On their backs are vibrantly colored layers of raffia. The top of the costume is also raffia, thickly layered, including a section dyed with indigo. One layer covers most of the head and features a small skull dangling over the forehead; the second drapes over the shoulder. Beneath the skull is a red cloth masking the bearer's face. The costume displays large-scale nsibidi signs (e.g. arcs, circles, and cruciforms) boldly delineated in cowry shells, the archaic currency. We were told these nsibidi motifs constituted the “face” of the masquerade. Cowries, as noted previously, are also symbolic of Ndem. They serve as powerful transformative medicines that, according to Ata, “imbue the masquerade with fear … once on a masquerade it turns to another thing. It can harm.” Moreover, in Nnabo ontology, cowries are considered the “teeth” of Nnabo.
But for the masquerader himself, cowries have an opposite, protective effect, which was explained poetically by Ata during our 2009 meeting: “Nobody can harm you, nobody can charm you.”
The most feared and potentially violent character in the entire Nnabo troupe is called Ayabom. Due to the rituals involved in its preparation, as well as the presumed effects the costume has upon its wearer, Ayabom rarely appears in public. When it does, it never appears unescorted and is restrained by a leash tied around the waist, which broadcasts even more loudly the simmering potential for chaos implied by its grisly countenance (Fig. 7). This image represents a kind of visual assault that, in times past, was meant to psychologically terrorize its enemies with shock and awe. Despite the reality that the colonial government long ago ended the martial role of Nnabo, its form is maintained by the society as a part of their history. We think it is likely that the actual skulls and bones used to create the masquerades illustrated here were recovered during the construction of the University of Calabar in the 1970s, when the cemetery located there was destroyed.
The most prominent member of the Nnabo masquerade lineup is Eka Nnabo, the leader of the troupe who embodies calmness and sanity, life and rebirth (Fig. 3). She represents Anansa, the goddess of the sea. She “cools” Nnabo maskers with her graceful dancing. According to our informant, the group's protocol officer, Efeffiong Otu Effiong, Eka Nnabo personifies the mother of humanity, despite the fact that the performer is a man. Her costume is radically different from the other Nnabo. She wears a carved face mask, adorned with multicolored feathers and an elaborate hairdo. She holds a walking stick in each hand and wears a multicolored akasi around her waist. This is reminiscent of the costume worn by Abang dancers of the Efik women's Ekombi society, whose performance emphasizes flexibility and grace while attracting the admiration of the opposite sex. Abang dancers wear akasi to exaggerate the appearance of their waistlines, which is meant to enhance the erotic effect of the dance. Isa Nnabo, her male companion, also wears a carved wooden mask. Together, Eka Nnabo and Isa Nnabo represent the duality of the sexes, and the continuance and growth of the family.
Nnabo masquerades, like so many others, continue to communicate a multitude of simultaneous and overlapping messages. They are to Efik society what poetry is to prose—compressed, intensified, symbolic, and metaphorical. Efik values are invoked by the masqueraders as striking visual forms during entertaining and spiritually-charged performances. Despite the dearth of written sources, it is clear that Nnabo served vital functions for the Efik people in times past, and its performance remains a formidable symbol of Efik culture today.
This project was supported by a Probationary Faculty Research Stipend from California State University, Fullerton.
Nka Okutama Isong Efik Eburutu sociocultural group, personal communication with Onyile Onyile, Calabar, 2004.
Similarly named mens’ associations were also found in the upper Cross River region. For example, P.A. Talbot noted an “Nsibidi or Nchibbidi Society,” among the Ejagham, whose “seven Images [i.e. masquerades] acted as the executioners of those sentenced to death” (Talbot 1923:792). Malcolm Ruel mentioned an “Nsibiri” Society that was said to have predated the acquisition of the Leopard Society at the Banyang village of Nchang and noted that a prominent section of the modern Banyang Leopard Society is called Nsibiri Nkanda (Ruel 1969:202). Hugh Migeod noted in 1925 that the Widekum of Cameroon had a society called “Nchibi” with a masquerade of the same name (Migeod 1925:82).
Much of the information for this essay was collected during an interview with the Owanese Nnabo troupe, at Nsammo Street Calabar, April 17, 2004. While most of the narratives collected for this paper were from the Nka Okut-Ama Isong Efik group, there are several nnabo troupes in the Calabar area. They are: Esuk Orok of the Mount Zion area; Bayside, along Marina Road; Owanese, near Mount Zion; Nsidung in Henshaw Town; Akim, Big Qua; and Ikot Ishie. Together these troupes make up the Nka Okut-Ama Isong Efik Eburutu. In May 2011, all Nnabo groups in Calabar were united as one by the Munene of Efut, Muri Muene Efiong Okokon Mbukpa, under the name Nka Okutama Isong Efik Eburutu. This ended a long-standing group rivalry among the various Nnabo societies of Calabar.
Members of the Owanese Nnabo group, personal communication with Onyile Onyile and Christopher at Calabar South, Calabar, 2007.
Chief Effiong Efiom, the Obong Ekpe, personal communication with Onyile Onyile, Ikot Ishie, Calabar, Nigeria, 2007.
Chief Effiong Efiom, the Obong Ekpe, personal communication with Onyile Onyile, Ikot Ishie, Calabar, Nigeria, 2011.
Atafiong Okon Ata, personal communication with Onyile Onyile, Calabar, 2003.