Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Visit to Nigeria’s Cradle of Aro Culture & Civilization

On June 10, I visited the historic town of Arochukwu which is regarded as the center of the ancient and historic Aro civilization and society. Reports are that the Aro date back to the early civilization in Nigeria, and that many current south eastern groups hail from Aro roots such as the Igbo -- the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria. Arochukwu is located in eastern Nigeria at the extreme end of Abia State and bordering Cross River and Akwa-Ibom states. The Aros have rich cultural heritage. They have made their mark in commerce, academia, sports, and politics. Arochukwu is home to many prominent Nigerians: the late Alvan Ikoku, a frontline nationalist whose portrait is on the Nigerian ten naira note; Professor Humphrey Nwosu, a renowned professor of political science who conducted the 1993 presidential elections which were adjudged as the freest in the history of Nigeria; and Kanu Nwankwo, two-time African soccer player of the year.

Apart from paying a courtesy call on Eze Aro, His Royal Majesty Mazi Ogbonnaya Okoro, the traditional ruler of the Aro community, I met with the “Okpnakpon” (the highest decision making council of Aro Kingdom), women’s groups and ordinary citizens. I was given the title Ada Mazi (daughter-leader of Arochukwu) while there. In my speech at the Eze Aro’s Palace, I pointed out that my visit to Aro land underscores the US government’s respect for other cultures and traditions. I told the audience that my mission was to learn more about the people and traditions of the Aro community as part of USG outreach to different Nigerian communities to build mutual understanding. I highlighted my respect for their culture and the history of the kingdom.

While at the Palace, I met with Daa Mgbafor and Mgbokwo Okereke, 80-year twins who were lucky to be saved by Mary Slessor (1849-1915), a Scottish missionary who preached against the cult/witchcraft killings of twins which was then a prevailing practice in Arochukwu. Ms. Slessor came to Arochukwu for evangelical activities after first stopping in Calabar, the capital Cross River State.

I also visited the House of Okoroji and the Oracle of the Long Juju which are both considered the major hallmarks of Aro society. These sacred sites were used to adjudicate cases among the Aro citizens. While the House of Okoroji served as the court of first appeal, the oracle of the Long Juju is the final judicial authority. The House of Okoroji is over 200 years old and has over 35 artifacts such as the rare original Nsibidi writings on the walls denoting the Aro secret society (Ekpe or Leopard) of the region, swords, gates and other interesting historical items which show the contact Aro people had in the past with other peoples, especially Portuguese slave merchants. I was received by Mazi Orji and Ohabiro Okoroji, direct descendants of Mazi Okoroji, the founder of the House of Okoroji prior to British colonial rule in Nigeria.

The visit to the Oracle or Long Juju of Arochukwu about an 8 minute drive away was difficult and physically challenging. It felt like embarking on a hike but I was glad to the site of the Oracle make it. A visitor who makes the journey to the Oracle does not have to visit the gym after the exercise. The Oracle is found in caves with a constantly streaming waterfall inside sandwiched by thick forest. The road leading to the Oracle is not only narrow and slippery but visitors must pass through creeks, dark alleys and a stream where contending parties take turns to pass through to determine their innocence. Historically, a person would win after a trace of blood is released by the gods a few minutes after passing through the stream. Guilty ones were taken to the Oracle where they “disappeared” or began a long journey into slavery. The tunnel where the guilty ones parties were transported to coastal areas to be sold as slaves still exists today. This is one of the reasons the Oracle is called the Long Juju of Arochukwu.

Seeing these sights brought home to me the rich history and longstanding traditions of one of Nigeria’s oldest societies. It is wonderful to know that the people of this area are preserving their heritage, it was a privilege to be allowed a glimpse into this fascinating civilization that has been maintained throughout so many years, and it was an honored to be deemed Ada Mazi.

On June 11, I made my fourth visit to Cross River State’s capital, Calabar. This time I had an opportunity to see the wonderful historic museum that chronicles the pre-colonial and colonial times of the greater Cross River area (which historically encompassed present-day states of Abia and Akom Ibom, bordering on Igboland). First of all the museum of Calabar itself is in one of the historic and famous two-tiered colonial pre-fab houses brought over by the British. The Museum is well maintained in terms of care, but it will be important to find additional ways to preserve the wonderful artifacts in it from the elements. I was fascinated by the iron, bronze, and cowries that were used as currency in pre-colonial and colonial times until the British eventually replaced these cultural items with coins and paper currency. For example, 10 iron cords were required to buy one female slaves. The other pre-colonial item of interest to me was the famous manila (aka manilla) I had read about, which were large iron horseshoe-shaped items considered one of the highest currency denomination. I have seen the manila in several traditional of items with both the rare and disappearing Nsibidi script and Uli motifs (aka ideograms).