Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Visit to Umuerum, May 1962

This was the most remote “town” that we visited from 196-62,. By “remote” I mean the furthest from obvious British-Colonial influence. In my search for a suitable map, the best I could find was the one at left, made by the outstanding early ethnographer, Northcote Thomas1. The town of “Omerun” It appears just to the right of the crosscutting central lines in the image and to the south of it appears a lake by the same name. It’s interesting to me that Thomas singled it out, since there are many small settlements in this area, not densely populated because it is part of these lowland “swamps”. This would appear to suggest it had some ethnographic importance to him. The spelling of the name, by the way: either Umuerum or Umuelum will suffice.

I found a second map, above, showing the location, here in the northwest corner of a 1959 map of what was then “Udi Division” of Eastern Nigeria. Here the correctly speelled “Umuelum” appears in the northwest corner of the map with its “lake” unnamed but evident nearby to the southeast. Here you can see how limited the village populations are in the immediate vicinity of Umuelum compared this the lands further east and southeast (and above the lowland swamps).

The reader has no doubt observed from the “Featured Image ” above, that my camera problems had not been solved by May 1962 That is correct. Viewers will see false colors aplenty. I have accepted these in the interests of making the images as legible as I can.

Here, before plunging into the further imagery of this last excursive visit to “other groups”, it is incumbent on me to clarify what was going on at this time in our lives. We had been living in Onitsha for well over a year and a half, and while Helen’s personal condition had stabilized2, I was –to take a translation from the name “Azikiwe”, that is, “Youth excel in anger” — I was beginning to excel in anger. The Interregnum that had captured my attention for so long was now “on hold”, and I was drifting away from my closest Onitsha contacts, including my fellow members of Isiokwe. I was beginning to act a bit like an angry Onitsha young man — excelling in anger. (I even spoke harshly to a few respected elders during this time.)

At this point I met a young man from Umuelum. Viewing my written records, ,obviously I had largely stopped writing up my field notes at this point (since I find no indication of what his name was, nor the details of anything else that occurred in Umuelum beyond what my memory retains. So bear this in mind in what follows. It’s an unforturnate fact that this whole episode slipped from my mind as we turned toward the tasks of our impending departure., and even more unfortunate that I failed to relate appropriately to this very fine young person (who I sent away “in anger” shortly before our departure).

Here, we have arrived in Umuelum and Helen stands with our young man guide and our hosts, a man of middle age and his wife running a station servicing the people of that area.. You can see the edge of that building at the rear, and how it is situated well above the swampland in the far distance.

We did not explore the situation of the station, nor even talk at length with our very generous hosts, who provided us with housing and I think fed us during our brief stay. We did know that they were members of the CMS (Church missionary Society), and that was significant here — though we did not explore it — indeed there was some quiet tension in the town regarding our presence, since obviously we must be members of the CMS. Devotees of the RCM no doubt held some suspicions regarding what intentions our sudden presence might bode.

Our hosts provided us with a small, lovely thatched-roof cottage to stay in. I took this photo of Helen sitting at the table. It was May, and hence before the rainy season, but one night the wind blew gustily and a few drops of rain fell on the roof. It was a very pleasant experience to stay in a thatch-roofed house, and I became a fan of this kind of roofing. (We later had more experience of these in Burkina Faso, when occasionally small birds would flit through the roofing sticks and charm us with their beauty.)

Below, the main “Village Square” (ilo) of Umuelum. This was a very fine open one, and (like all Village Squares), this one had a tree, but a tree of startling magnificence. The central activities of the people operate, so to speak, under the moral aegis of this great tree.

Beneath it, there are some activities going on.

Below, you can see a group of women heading off in procession toward somewhere else. Most of them are carrying a similar circular-appearing object, perhaps a seat for making oneself comfortable at the marketplace.

Below (from the same primary image above), you can see that beneath the arms of the giant tree, a row of seats has been placed so that its occupants can confront an audience facing them from the larger square. This arrangement places authority figures along a single line. Off to the right (to the left of the authority seats),, it appears that a secondary array of seats — perhaps of lesser authorities — is placed to face toward them.


Below, this photo was taken at the moment of our first arrival, hence the blur. We did not learn the purpose of this very large crowd — I suspect it was a major marketplace — but the central cluster of boys and young men is interesting. Another amazing tree……

Below, a marked boundary with a distinctive village behind it. The mud structure might also control runoff.

Below, a local marketplace. Some figures at middle distance appear to wear Muslim garb.

Below, a closer view of the villagers here. Most villagers appeared to be friendly, though (as I said earlier) some sharp division was present along Catholic/Protestant lines. (Note the figure at right wearing a red cap. Though historically “red cap chiefs” were very important in Igboland, this figure appeared to bear no particular distinction.


We went to see our young man’s major patrilineage priest, and passed outside one of the patrilineage’s shrine houses,below:

Visible inside is a cloth that the shrine has “worn”, indicating the fact of sacrificial offerings having been made to it (something of a symbol of its power).

First we went inside his own personal house, where he showed me the altar, presumably of his own close lineage. I infer this as this is the only occasionn where he personally hollds an iron staff of authority. I presume the altar beside him represents an array of ancestors. Note here how the raftars above show the signs of numerous prior sacrificial rituals, an impressive suggestion (to me) of his sense of responsibility to his own people.

Below, the patrilineage altar of our young man’s wider descent group.

This is the first time I have seen an altar in the shape of a mound with a hollowed-out center containing the “Ghosts” (ndi-mmuo) of the descent group. These are wrapped as a bundle, and include iron spears and staffs, and wood staves presumably dedicated to untitled ancestors. A very large, skin-wrapped ofo stick denoting the ancestral righteous power of the priest lies there beside them, gleaming from past blood sacrifice.

Below, the lineage priest sits besides the ofo of his descent group, holding what appears to be a “doll” figure:

I am entirely unsure of what to call this figure, but it is clearly an icon of some importance,. It wears a white feather indicating Ozo title; it is draped with an array of white cloths (indicating that this is its expected/required ritual dress-offering); and it sits upon an Ozo title stool. All of these iconic features proclaim it as a figure of spiritual power. The priest of this complex is clearly a powerful person also. I would speculate that it might be referred to as an Alusi (Spirit Power).


We proceeded to a meeting place where a much larger group of titled men had just completed a series of offerings. I call them “assembled clan elders.”

The titled men are seated at center, boys and youths at far left. They were in the act of concluding a set of ritual offerings to sacred objects to be shown below. The location was in front of a hut emblazoned with the label “Okonkwo …… Herbal and Healing Home”, suggesting that a leading elder sponsoring the event was a native doctor.

Below, an array of iron spears and staffs, and wooden staves, lay on the ground having been given substantial sacrifice on this occasion (as indicated by the chicken feathers strewn about).

All of this ritual activity suggested to me a thriving sociopolitical system in which titled descent group elders held strong and effective control, which was what in fact my young man guide was telling me. He said that while younger members of the society were trying to gain some control over Umuelum farm lands so they could begin investing in the rice fields that were producing great riches there, the elders were refusing to allow this, claiming that their various oracles were directing them to hold the younger men back, and to continue their policy of accepting regular payments being given to the local elders by businessmen outsiders — who now were busy building and enlarging their very successful swampland rice projects, making great profits there.


We left Umuelum — and Onitsha — and Nigeria very soon after this visit, and have since often wondered how the people of Umuelum have fared in later times. We can clearly see, in any case, that the rice fields adjacent to that community have become immense, as a Google Earth image clearly shows: in the image below, the rice fields (marked by the light-colored plain divided by intersecting diagonal lines) stretch out immediately to the north and northwest of that community, an impressive testimony to someone’s massively active and no doubt very profitable enterprise. And I wonder how much of those profits have accrued to the people of Umuerum.

  1. Thomas 1913: []
  2. Earlier, she had suffered for a considerable time with severe pains near one of her ears, eventually solved by some marvelous doctors at the Iyi-enu Hospital in Onitsha who knew how we could easily clear her stubbornly blocked eustachian tube. []
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