The Ibo live in the eastern province of Nigeria. Their number (approximate and difficult to verify) was estimated at sixteen million in the 1990s. The Ibo country is surrounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Nigerian swampy delta. The topography gradually heightens going north. The province of Owerri, in the south, is covered by forest, while in the north appears the savannah. The land, of moderate fertility, is in some places overcrowded and overexploited.
Before the colonization period, the Ibo were not subject to centralized authority, and were made of various communities that had no common origin. Their first contacts with the Europeans were at the Port of Bonny, a slave market where, at the end of the 18th century, 20,000 slaves were sold annually, including 16,000 Ibo. In 1856, the first mission, sent by the Church Missionary Society of London, was established in Onitsha, as well as a commercial post. The unity of the Ibo was based, first of all, on a common language to all those who called themselves Ibo (it belongs to the Kwa group like Yoruba and Bini), then on many shared cultural characteristics. The Ibo language is divided into a few regional dialects, which have been tried to harmonize into a common idiom.
Economy and society
Subsistence was provided by the harvest, mainly yam and cassava, and secondarily corn and beans. Palm oil was prepared for sale. Because of the tsetse fly, there was very little livestock. Fishing was insignificant and bush meat occasional. Trade was encouraged by the existence of local currencies: cowries, shackles, brass bars, and small iron spikes. Blacksmiths were known for their skill. The main social group was an exogamous patrilineage, grouping extended families. The eldest of the group held a baton symbolizing the authority of the ancestors. He was the arbiter of internal discord and represented lineage in external relations. The women were submitted to him, but the leaders of the lineages of these could intervene on their behalf. The ritual role of the elder was important: he alone could preside at the sanctuary of the founder. One lineage could dissociate itself from the village, join another, and divide into groups allowing intermarriage. There was a tendency to village exogamy.
The children belonged to the father’s lineage if he had paid the mother’s dowry. Child marriages were arranged, and life together could only begin after puberty. Before their wedding, the girls were kept separately and well fed. Clitoridectomy and circumcision were practiced a few days after birth, with no special ceremony. Divorce was easy and extra-marital relationships were frequent. Age classes were organized on a village basis. Individuals of a certain age were responsible for community duties. Thus, the cleaning of the trails was the work of the young people; the police of the market, and orders from the elders were executed by mature men.
The Ibo revered the natural forces: sun, water, sky and above all Ale, the earth, source of fertility and therefore owner of all that lives and has lived. This inspired ethics because many actions were supposed to offend (such as homicide, food theft, adultery). Ale did not tolerate the birth of twins or abnormal babies, and their mothers were banned. The priests had quasi-judicial functions. It was the most powerful force of the Ibo society. Ancestors were considered as representatives of Ale. Ibo people believed in their reincarnation. The spirit of a deceased person will appease only after the second funeral, several months or even years after the death, pretext for displaying the prestige of the lineage. Ale and the other deities were honoured in sanctuaries where often an oracle attracted the merchants. Witchcraft was hardly practiced. The healers transferred from father to son the knowledge of healing herbs and magic techniques.
Mbari of the Ibo peoples – Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture
Court messenger, a hippo or elephant, a woman displaying herself to passersby, a policeman, with an orphan
Figure of Ala in an Mbari
The sculptors carved in wood masks, statuettes, and stools. The diversity of Ibo styles, which have not yet been fully reckoned, ranging from naturalism to abstraction, can be explained by the political fragmentation of the society. A little known art, with ephemeral materials, was the art of making raw clay statuettes on bamboo frame.
It occurred to Ale to require through the voice of a diviner the construction of a house mbari (often the only one of the village); square and open on all four sides, covered with a roof of zinc. You could still see about fifteen mbari in south of Owerri in 1956. Although the house mbari was not a sanctuary, the image in clay of Ale holding his child installed in the centre; the representation was the size of a woman. On the other side of the house was Amadi-Oha, god of thunder, deputy of Ale; sometimes he was dressed like an English official, a symbol of authority. A third important personage was the goddess of water, with delicate features. A boa constrictor, a representative animal of Ale, was always in the house. The artists had every autonomy to imagine the other statuettes that filled the building. Some of them represented modern subjects: a tailor with a sewing machine, nurses carrying a sick person, a midwife in a white apron, a European woman in a car; the elephant was figured as a fabulous animal, as opposed to the realistically represented leopard. The statues were painted black, white, red, gray and ochre, with sometimes touches of laundry blue. The interior walls of the house were decorated with painted geometric patterns that matched the statues, themselves covered with drawings inspired by traditional body paintings. No worship was practiced in the mbari house which, once built, was abandoned. When after three or four years it was in ruins, a new one was built. It is for this reason that this art remained alive, and incorporated the innovations that pleased the sculptors.