NSIBIDI…The Long lost system of writing of the Nigerian South-Easterners

As a little boy, I noticed my grandmum had an array of tattoos adorning her both arms…what I never understood was what those meaningless inscriptions were all about….or so I thought until I discovered NSIBIDI. Coupled with the fact that my granny has ancestral roots from the Ibibio tribe.

Quite unfortunate she died without me knowing the meaning of her tattoos although I remember only two symbols which are NSIBIDI translations of a tree and it’s roots.

Nsibidi was thought to date back to the pre-15th century CE, and the possible early forms of this writing system was used way back in the 5th century CE, found on pottery excavated by archaeologists. If the inscriptions on the Ikom monoliths in the Cross River region were considered to be indeed Nsibidi, this would push its date of birth way back into the 2-3 millennia BCE. Concentrated around the northern Cross River region, Nsibidi is normally attributed to the Ejagham people, also known as the Ekoi. This in turn, influenced other cultures such as the Igbo to form magnificent designs like the Uli. Nsibidi then became a uniting factor among ethnic groups along the Cross River region.

The diagram above is the record of a court proceedings or judgement case and it translates as follows

(a) The court was held under a tree as is the custom, (b) the parties in the case, (c) the chief who judged it, (d) his staff (these are enclosed in a circle), (e) is a man whispering into the ear of another just outside the circle of those concerned, (f) denotes all the members of the party who won the case. Two of them (g) are embracing, (h) is a man who holds a cloth between his finger and thumbs as a sign of contempt. He does not care for the words spoken. The lines round and twisting mean that the case was a difficult one which the people of the town could not judge for themselves. So they sent to the surrounding towns to call the wise men from them and the case was tried by them (j) and decided; (k) denotes that the case was one of adultery or No. 20.”

What truly stuns me about Nsibidi is indeed the efficiency of this writing system and its ability to use several symbols to represent information which would translate into entire sentences or paragraphs.

Image credit: Hales, Kevin (2015). “The Moving Finger: A Rhetorical, Grammatological and Afrinographic Exploration of Nsibidi in Nigeria and Cameroon.

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