Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

The Ancestral House (Iba) in Onitsha, 1960-61

 Above, a View of Umera Ozi’s House from the South, 1960

When I first photographed this uniquely magnificent traditional building in color above, a funeral was underway for  the late Akunne  Agusiobo, a member of an Odoje family, and the center of the ritual activity where I was taking the photograph was occurring directly across Ugwunabamkpa Road from the Ozi‘s house.  (The vehicles present were associated with the funeral, not directly with the Ozi and his house at this time.)

Ozi’s house early October 1960. Note the entry pillars are unpainted.
Ozi’s house early October. Akunne Matthew Uwenchia stands by the framework of an Oda medicinal guardway.

Umera Ozi’s house was the grandest Iba (Ancestral House) of carefully “Traditional” construction in all of Onitsha, and (though I failed to ask) I suspect it was built by master craftsmen from Awka vicinity (as also, probably, was Obi Okosi II’s palace, completed in 1919).  When I first saw it early fall 1960, Its posts and walls were covered with multicolor images of great beauty (and no doubt ritual meanings).  Note in the enlargement of the image at left, you can see that the entryway pillars are not obviously painted.  They had icon markings on them, though. 1 At right, observe the framework for an Oda Guardway, located just downhill along Ugwunaobamkpa Road.  I did not learn the meaning of this particular structure (the  Oda fixture  as a type denotes a social-moral boundary between local groups indicating a need for medicinal protection).

Not long after these two earlier images were captured, the Nigerian Government declared the place a national treasure (a “Museum” designation), whereupon the Ozi‘s wives proceeded to cover nearly all available interior spaces with a whitewash which they then painted over with black (as readers can see on the entry pillars and left), and since I had not entered the place for close examination with my camera,  those figures and  paintings were lost to view (I fear, forever).  If you click on the image at left (taken later when I attended the funeral), you can see whitewash and black images on the entryway pillars. (You will see more examples of the whitewash-blackpainting work below.)

The Ozi‘s house is an especially fine form of the Iba, but the others present in Onitsha in 1960-61 were considerably simpler (though basically alike in their elements). I will describe some of these forms before further exploring Iba Umera Ozi.

The Ancestral House as a Hallowed Onitsha Type

The Iba is a centrally visible unit of the Onicha social and moral order, representing both a unit of a “village”  (ogbe) and a “patrilineage” (umunna) within the larger society.  As such, its form is quite distinct from those of most nearby igbo-speaking  neighbors, rather showing formal similarities to elite houses found among Western Igbo speakers, the people of Benin, and the Yoruba.  I described its properties in some detail in The King in Every Man ((Henderson 1972:166-76)), and provide a diagram of it here at right.

Frank Mbanefo, a native of Onitsha and an architect, provided a valuable account in a 1962 copy of Nigeria Magazine, which focused on the elemental forms, Here at left he presents a somewhat different version of the living arrangements, but the basis pattern holds.  Note his provision of paired grinding stones as part of the kitchen.  At right, he emphasizes the social centrality of the place:  when formal ritual meetings are held at the iba, the wives’ positions are marginalized and the social roles of men are carefully ordered:  the senior priest sits behind the primary altar, the “elders” along the flanks of Ani-Ezi, and the young men (“Children of the Ilo ” or village square) in the Ogwa, the entryway, guarding the door.

Mbanefo drew, alongside this image above right, a major Onicha ritual object, the Okpulukpu,  a symbolically carved wooden box shown above.  This object represents the spiritual dwelling-place of a titled ancestor, its paired parts fitted together, the interior containing treasures to be known only by Ozo-titled men like the ancestral figure who took his sacred ozo title.  In each Iba, one or more of these shrine objects are kept, their numbers accumulating over time, providing miniature spiritual houses for the hallowed Persons to come and receive offerings from their living descendants.

We now look more closely at some examples of these houses:

At left, you see two houses.  the one to the left is the home of an ordinary person, with a simple gabled roof.  In the house on the right, however, you see a living tree is growing out of its center, which identifies it as an iba, in this case one of the Omekam family of Umu-Anyo (a sub-village in Umu-Aroli).  At right you see the interior, its thatched roofs designed to draw rainwater into the Ani-Ezi (which then runs out through a drain provided, called “ulolo“, see below).  Here the household head sits at the throne, his wife beside and below him to his left, beside her kitchen.  The tree in the center is an egbo (the First Tree that grew on the Land), and represents the Iba-holder’s spiritual self.  The bottles arrayed on the earth before the throne are not a formal feature of the iba as a type, but they do here indicate the fact of past ritual performances where drinks have been offered to Spirits and Ghosts.

At left, the iba of Ezekwezili (Jerry Ugbo), the designated Senior Priest (diokpala) of Umu-Anyo.  In this frontal view, you can see that the door is open and the place is illuminated from within (a ritually and socially important fact — the “fortress” aspect is significant).  At right, here the view of ani-ezi  (here, paved) is taken from the throne side.  You can see at the base of the egbo tree a small clay mound.  This designates a ritual surface (with maternal significance), a place where sacrificial offerings are made.

At left, a view of the throne  (with its altar space) in Jerry Ugbo’s house, and at right a closer image across the altar space showing some of the important ritual objects that are part of this iba.  You can see clearly a set of ozo-title staves (belonging to ancestors), which are leaned against the wall, their bases seated in a box containing what are called collectively ndi-mmuo (the ghosts).  Beside this box lie a rather substantial array of okpulukpu (shiny-black, indicating they have received regular blood offerings).  This collection tells you immediately that this is a very important Ancestral House — representing the entire descent-group of Umu-Anyo.  However, since Jerry Ugbo has not completed his own Ozo title, he is not able to preside over Umu-Anyo rituals that involve titled men of this village unit; for that purpose a designated titled man must act for him in such rituals.  That Jerry Ugbo aspires to higher achievement is however very much indicated in the size of his Ikenga (which stands against the wall above the assembled okpulukpu).

Historically, the Iba is the traditional center for many central Onitsha personal and social activities, from birth to death. As Frank Mbanefo put it in his essay, “During festivities, the decoration includes the hanging of tapestry and various carvings in wood, calabash and ivory on the walls….  [Tradtiionally], The Onitsha family… obtains its relaxation through dancing, singing, and various types of indoor games.  All these activities take place on the aani-ezi, , where the family congregates after the day’s work is over, to enjoy themselves, singing, dancing, acting and telling stories.”2  I did not witness many of these activities in these houses, but in 1960-61 funerals definitely revolve around them.

Activities occur within them and also outside, where they may provide an orienting frame for events staged around them.  For example, in January 1961, I attended a portion of the Ikwa Ozu (Lamentation, or “Second Burial”) of Chief Oziziani of Ogboli-Eke.  As Helen and I observed (in The King in Every Man and in her dissertation), Lamentations are joyous, — they mark the incorporation of the deceased into the ancestral group — and in the case of a very prominent man like the Oziziani, quite elaborate.  In the image at right, you can see a substantial crowd, mostly dressed in their finery, assembled in from of the Oziaiani‘s Iba, the thatched building in front of which stand a group of the Daughters (umu-ada) of the deceased, guarding the Igbudu (the “mock coffin” for Oziziani), the box which will receive symbolic objects associated with him.  In this image the box, covered with white cloth, has been placed just above and behind the Daughters, who remain in vigil with him during this time. Later It will later be taken inside the Iba and be buried there, in the same location as his previous burial.

In this image at left, one of the “Age-Grades”3 related to the Oziziani dance in parade in front of the Iba.  At right , the “Douglas Age-grade” (so named because the birth range of the group coincided with the 1906 assignment of this infamous British officer to a position of power in Onitsha) dances past the Iba, the men in front (Ozo men brandishing their elephant-ivory horns), women behind. 4 The Head Mourner of this funeral, second son of the Oziziani, stands at near right wearing the two-feathered red chieftaincy cap normally appropriate only for the chief himself.




Soon afterward, the Nigerian Government sent an expert student of architecture, a citizen of Poland named Zbigniew Dmochowski, to Onitsha as part of his wider tasks of recording the traditional forms of Nigeria.  I escorted him around various villages as he examined several traditional houses in Enu-Onicha (including of course the Ozi‘s Iba).  Many years later this remarkably talented man published his works on the architecture of various parts of southern Nigeria, and he included the Iba Ozi among them. ((See Dmochowski, Zbigniew, 1990, An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture.  (Three Vols.)  London: Ethnographical Ltd.))  Since he authorized me to use his materials, I will present some of his drawings at relevant points, as here directly below,


where Dumochowski drew a frontal image of Ozi’s house.  This drawing shows the system of pillars that flank the entryway slightly right of dead center.  The carved wooden panels were presumably the work of Awka master craftsmen.  Note the slightly flaring figure drawn at bottom just right of the stairway:  this is the outlet of the Ulolo, a well-designed drain for the unroofed central courtyard.



Dmochowski’s overview drawing with some labels attached. East roughly at left

Now we view  at right the whole body of the structure of Ozi‘s house  through Dmochowski’s layout.   (The orientation here is roughly left-to-right =west-to east. ) This is not the basic form of the Iba  (examples of which I will display further below), but rather presents an elaboration, done for a man who has become a Chief (onye-iche).5

The entryway to the typical  Onicha Iba (“Ancestral House”) is typically called the Ogwa, though it may also be called Ibali in the case of a chief.  The main, central chamber is called Ani-Ezi,  “courtyard land”, typically with an Egbo tree standing as the central shrine (Newbouldia laevis,  a sacred tree regarded as “age-mate of the land” and identified with the builder’s personal god). (I will deal with the features unlabeled on the right side of this courtyard  diagram further below.)  From the far end of Ani-Ezi, an entryway leads outward into a similar room called Agbala-Eze, “Servants of ‘exalted priest'”.  This too has the courtyard structure, but this space is reserved for more private, intra-family, intra-descent group matters, while

This Oba (“barn”) is quite different from the Ozi’s: located in Onicha bushfarmland, it is much larger, contains mainly cassava, and is protected only by fencing; the Ozi’s is walled and holds a diversity of harvest.

the Ani-Ezi  is used for more public — village, or wider civic — events and topics.  The Oba  or “Barn” contains  a series of vertical racks containing stored foodstuffs — yams, cocoyams, maize, other harvested goods.  I neglected to photograph the Ozi‘s Oba, but see the example at right.

Turning now to the right-hand side of Ani-Ezi, we deal with more important religious-ritual structures:  here for convenience I shift the orientation 90 degrees counterclockwise, so we start with the upper portion of Ani-Ezi at the bottom.

Here we look toward Iru-Ukpo, the “Face of the throne”.  The pair of rectangular blocks linked by a line  in the figure at right is Dmochowski’s icon for this location, indicating a portable structure that can be set up when a ritual is undertaken, and removed when it is finished.  Ozi’s Ikenga figure is located close to the left of the Throne, but as you can see it is so completely covered with the residues of past ritual performances that it cannot be seen at all.  Note there is dried blood at the foot of the throne in the left-hand image, showing some sacrifice was recently made.  Our hosts then brought the Ozi himself out to sit for photographs on his throne, after suitable cloth decorations had been added to the scene. 6

A view of “Iru-Ukp” and “Ukpo” (throne), with Ikenga at lower right


Ozi’s Ikenga, so covered with the objects of sacrifice that the Being’s horns cannot be seen.
Ozi on Ukpo with chief’s spear
Ozi on Ukpo holding Chief’s Fan










Referring again to the diagram, immediately behind the Throne room lies a ritually hidden room that is distinctly constructed for protection, from fire and from improper entry.  This room is called Olisi-loku (or ofili), a “treasure-storage” room.  Traditionally, it was said that the senior son of the head of this household was forbidden entry to this room during the lifetime of that senior priest.   In Ozi’s room, we photographed the following features:

The Ozi’s “inyedi-nne”, shrines dedicated to his mothers (own mother, mother’s mother, etc).


At left, the mounds dedicated to his “mothers” (called inyedi-nne).  The symbolic importance of these links to maternal ancestries may be estimated by the evidence of sacrificial gifts associated with them here.






At left, on the opposite side, pinned on the left side of the pillar wall is the string-array used at iru-ukpo; right of it are the standard array of a lineage priest’s “idols” — his Vessel of God (okwachi), covered with white clay and never receiving  blood sacrifice during his lifetime; his own and close kin’s Ossissi  (Ozo title staves) — the one on the left (his sacrificial ritual staff) has received blood sacrifice.  Below the Okwachi are an Okpulukpu (Treasure box of a named titled ancestor), and a box containing a cylindrical wood icon of untitled  (and unnamed) ancestors — ndi-mmuo, the ghosts.


Across the alcove from the ndi-mmuo stands an ekwe drum, typically held by a chief for summoning people of the village.  In the image at right here, you see a chief’s special ritual fan hanging on the wall.  Left of it is his ritual bag (akpa).






Opobo Festival December 1961.

In further alcoves of Olisiloku, at left I photographed an array of magico-ritual objects, for example a metal staff and some pots.  The “boat-shaped” object  in the center of the image was entirely unfamiliar to me in 1960s Onitsha, but I did see something that looked comparable — far south from Onitsha in the Delta coast at Opobo, where we witnessed ritual persons carrying fire-smoking boat-like objects on their heads during the December holidays there in 1961.  I suspect, but did not inquire, that this object may have had similar ritual uses.


Okwule-Odoje. A variety of ritual objects were stored in this secret chamber.


In a similar fashion, I photographed the array of ritual objects in the room shown here at left.  Unfortunately, I failed to record exactly where this image was taken, so it must simply stand here as a set of important objects for this house.  (It may have been taken in one of the rooms of the Agbala-Eze  complex discussed below; or in the Okwule Odoje — the room indicated above, dedicated to Masquerade activities of that Village.  But the two objects at bottom  right suggest patrilineage connections rather than masquerade per se.))








  1. Unfortunately this image is badly scratched horizontally across the surface.  I initially tried having my film developed locally, but after seeing how cavalierly it was treated sent all my later films to London for processing. Return ↩
  2. 1962:25. Return ↩
  3. I use this term in place of the anthropological convention of “age-set” because NdiOnicha used this term when translating their Ogbo into English. Return ↩
  4. The disproportion in numbers between men and women in their fifties in Onitsha is due to the fact that so many males have government jobs “abroad”. Return ↩
  5. Frank Mbanefo published a fine paper on “The Iba House in Onitsha” in 1962.  Henderson 1972: 166-75 provided a detailed account.  Both these sources may be found in the main Bibliography of this website. Return ↩
  6. I cannot resist reporting how we encountered Umera the Ozi on this occasion.  We were escorted into his bedroom (shown on the Dmochowski diagram here), and I am unsure whether he was sleeping  in the room so marked or in the smaller one shown just below it.  But we found him wrapped up in a fetal position, and the kinsman who escorted us “unpacked” him, so to speak, sat him up and dusted him off.  In later years, when I chanced to see the movie “Cat Ballou”, where the hero Lee Marvin first appears when he is “unpacked” from the rear trunk of a stage-coach, I had the stunning remembering of this improbable event. Return ↩
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