Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Umera Ozi’s House in Odoje, 1960-61

 Above, a View of the House from the South, 1960

When I first photographed it 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 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 precisely “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).  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  fixture  as a type denotes a boundary between local groups that requires 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 visited the place with my camera,  those figures and  paintings were lost to view (I suspect, forever).  If you click on the image at left (taken later when I attended the funeral), you can see the whitewash and black images on the entryway pillars. (You will see more examples of the whitewash-blackpaint work below.)

Soon afterward, the Nigerian Government sent in an expert student of architecture, a citizen of Poland named Zbigniew Dmochowski, and I escorted him around various villages as he examined several traditional houses in Enu-Onicha (including of course the Ozi‘s).  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.  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).2

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. 3

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.  After this kind of bad early experience getting film developed locally, I sent all my film to London for processing. Return ↩
  2. 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 ↩
  3. 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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