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Reliving A Dying Tradition: The Rebirth Of “Igbu Ichi”



The sound of ringing bells blends with the thrumming of drums. At a corner, a man was seen beating two slit wooden drums and another jingling the rattles (oyo) in unison. Ufie music welcomes the Nwadioka, traditional tattooist to the compound of the Nwa-ichi, the man to be tattooed.

The music produced by the instruments is  an important music with traditional significance played at prominent ceremonial events like festivals, chieftaincy, as well as during Igbu-Ichi.

At the edge of the proscenium-style arrangement of the venue were older men garbed in native Igbo attire all important men in the Umudioka community with a firm knowledge of Igbu Ichi. One of them is Chief Odidika Chidolue, the last man with Igbu Ichi on his face. And beside them is a picture of different marked men in Neni, all dead, except him. Igbu Ichi, is not only traditional facial marks drawn across the face from the forehead to the cheeks, it is more. Igbu-Ichi is a traditional craft with an entire cultural system around it is gradually going extinct. Done by Nwadiokas, itinerant traditional herbalists cum artists who learned the craft through years of apprenticeship. Also built around this art is a social welfare system, a dispute resolution system as well as a legal system that ensures balance in the communal society.

In the middle of the space is a mat propped up around the head region; beside it, is a small calabash with herbs and on the mat, is a plantain leaf.

The Nwa-Ichi, was brought in on the back of an Nwa-Nso. Once brought in, the proceedings started with songs. The Nwa-Ichi’s legs and arms were held by the Nwa-Nso, as it would have been when the real marks were made.

As the “cutting” was been simulated, the Nwa-Ichi’s sister kneels beside him and feeds him with dried fish. Once the process was done, he is carried on the back, out the same way he was brought.

After that ritual,  the believe was that the Nwa-Ichi has now become a man and as all male members of the community can now take a traditional title.

“It is important to have this re-enactment because we believe that more people across the world need to know about Igbu-Ichi and the culture around it,” said Chiedozie Udeze of Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation, the cultural organisation behind the programme.

Two men went through the process on August 25, 2018 at the British Council: Spanish, Juan Payo, and Norwegian, Rey Brhre. While the marking was simulated, and not actually done, their partners fed them with dry fish. For Payo, the experience was thrilling as it offered him an experiential knowledge of the culture of traditional marking among Umudioka people.

“It makes me feel welcome, like a part of them,” he said that he still needs to find out whether it makes him Igbo.

After the ceremony was done, the men were donned in native Igbo attire: a stripped red cap and a wrapper with text related to Umudioka Community printed on it. They also took on Igbo names; Payo became known as Ogbu Ezi-Oha which means “to have marks to show” while Brhre became “Ogbu Ngwa Ngwa” which means “do the marks fast fast.”

At the end of the ceremony, abacha-ichi, a special vegetable-based meal was served to the guests present while music played, even as some attendees danced to the music. Beyond the art form itself, the re-enactment brought to life that sense of communality, where everyone, young and old, in a traditional African community had a role to play for the community to thrive.



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