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The Historical Relevance of Obolo Women Crafts since the Pre-Colonial Period

By

Romokere Mgbowaji Benson, PhD

Department Of History and International Studies,

Faculty of Arts

Akwa Ibom State University, Obio Akpa Campus,

Oruk Anam L.G.A, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

r.m.benson20@gmail.com

Abstract

Craft is another landmark in the socio-political and economic development of Obolo history. This indigenous technology invented by Obolo women has not been given an indepth study. It is therefore imperative that this paper undertakes an indepth analysis of the historical relevance of the indigenous technology to the social, political and economic growth of Obolo. These crafts in essence facilitate the economic growth and the wealth of Obolo. It introduced Obolo people to international trade because crafts, fish and crayfish became articles of international commerce before and during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Similarly, craft was introduced to pupils in primary school to impart the knowledge of indigenous technology. This indigenous knowledge of craft technology was transformed into modern technology which enhances micro-economy and eradication of poverty in Obolo. It promotes the social transformation of Obolo through the development of building technology, indigenous textile industry and culture (celebration of motherhood), tourism and other indigenous social amenities. Some of the crafts like Odidor (dryer) was converted to shield (agbo) and used as a defensive mechanism in warfare with external enemies. In fact, akasi (rack), was an instrument of preventive diplomacy. However, these crafts became the source of culture contact with other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta and the hinterland. It also enhances their socio-political and economic relations. Obolo history will not be completely relevant without these women invented crafts.

 

Introduction

The Andoni river system in South Eastern Nigeria is part of the inshore waters of Nigeria that are reportedly over-fished (Okpanefo, 1988 cited in Sikoki and Francis, 2007.1). This situation is not surprising as the indigenous people, the Obolo depended almost entirely on this resource for their protein needs, exploiting both shell and fin fishes with various traditional and modern fishing gears (Sikoki and Francis, 2007:1). This assertion points to the fact that Obolo from ancient era depended mainly on fishing occupation for sustenance and wealth acquisition, through which they satisfied their protein needs for healthy living. All these were achieved with the use of indigenous gears for fishing and gathering, most of which were crafted by women. Their usage explains the various and diverse economic activities that the Obolo were engaged in from the remote past to the present.

These women crafts became the fulcrum that sustains their traditional economy and enhances the socio-economic potential resources of Obolo men and women (Iragunima, 2009). These crafts no doubt played an indispensable role in Obolo socio-economic history in several ways as we shall see further.

Apart from being used as fishing gears, they facilitate the acquisition of wealth and prosperity in Obolo from the remote past till date. These technologies have contributed immensely to the preservation of the surplus catch of Obolo marine resources. Drying and smoking are the only solution to preserving the resources for sustenance and commercial purposes; that is for sale internally and in the external markets of the Ogoni, Ibibio and the hinterland (Iragunima, 2009).

Supporting this fact, Derefaka; (2002:225) opined that the other important aspect in which indigenous technology has made contributions is in the area of preserving fish, which is unarguably the most perishable of protein sources in Rivers State. Apart from salting, the other important technique is smoking. Smoking and drying which is more effective for the preservation of fish is widely used.

 

Ejituwu (1991:183), while writing on the economic development, wealth and prosperity of Obolo, recorded that dried and smoked, the small but tasty fish caught with the throwing net were extremely popular in the hinterland. Their systematic pursuit brought a new prosperity to many able-bodied Obolo men. He stated that, according to Dewhurst, the Obolo, in fact, became probably the wealthiest ethnic group in Opobo Division. The latter was made up of Obolo, Opobo, Ogoni and Ibibio peoples.

Similarly, Obolo women traders bought large quantity of dried fish, crayfish, prawns, and shrimps from both men and women at home and fishing settlements, and took them to various markets for sale. Such markets include Ataba-Ija (Ika or Kaa), Kibani (Ogokan), Port Harcourt, Ikot Abasi and Aba. Their trading on marine resources led to the accumulation of enormous wealth which they invested in human capital development for Obolo socio-economic growth (Hebron, 2005).

Dried, smoked and preserved marine resources are bought by the Igbo traders who took them further on to Onitsha, Owerri, Aba. From there they are further distributed to other parts of the country up to Kano and Kaduna. It is important to note that through these women local technology (drying and smoking; odidor-dryer, akasi-fish rack and ochichim-pin stick), fish species peculiar to Obolo are exported to other parts of Nigeria that lacked such species. It as well projected the Obolo nation through their dried shrimps which they popularly referred to as “Ataba (Obolo) crayfish”. This increased the protein and dietary needs of Nigeria.

The wealth acquired from the traditional economy was invested in the socio-economic transformation of Obolo from a primitive society to a developing area. This prosperity enabled them participate in the domestic slavery, trans-Atlantic slave trade and the legitimate palm oil trade. These technology played necessary role in sustaining the trans-Atlantic trade. Indeed, it facilitated Obolo supply of the needed dried fish and crayfish to feed the crew men and the slaves on board who were already used to such diet.

Another historical relevance of these women crafts to note is that, before the demand for human cargo, their crafts became article of international commerce. Obolo women supplied them to the Portuguese. Utong (2000: 73-80), Enemugwem and Sara (2009:151-152) attest to this fact, that when the early Portuguese came, the first article of trade demanded and supplied were spices (ada-oron) of different kinds, local crafts like brooms, baskets and other things.

During the era of trade by barter, baskets became the determinant factor that facilitated such transactions. In other words, baskets of various sizes were used to determine the quantity of agricultural goods to be exchanged for their seafood in the external markets of Ogoni, Ibibio and the hinterland. Similarly when money economy replaced barter economy, basket remains a valuable standard of measurement, unit of measurement and price, and storage facility. It enables the fishermen and women to ascertain their accruable wealth from their fishing expedition and trade transaction (Ojoko, 2005. Hebron, 2005, Ukafia, 2005, lkpaiko, 2005).

This in essence enhances planning, budgeting and expenditure on their social and economic desires as well as family necessities. Like the agricultural produce stored in barns, Okwun (open and lid baskets), akasi (fish rack) and odidor (dryer) provides the alternative source of barns to Obolo marine produce. The dried and smoked fish were packaged in these facilities in barns on the uppermost part of the fish altar (uben,) for commercial distribution (ibid.).

Again, Okwun (open basket) used in sieving indigenous salt, and washing of marine resources on one hand, and on the other odidor used for processing food, fish and shellfish signify that Obolo women operated traditional cottage industry. Sara (2006:88) agrees with the fact that Obolo women developed a cottage industry for salt making, food, fish and shellfish processing as supplementary economy to prawns trapping and shellfish gathering.

However, Ifit (lid basket) became the kitchen or home museum since cultural objects or items of historical relevance were kept for future reference. Like the teeth of leopard stored in the lid basket are used as corals worn around the neck which serve as coral necklace. These materials and objects provide relative chronology to past events in Obolo. It reminds the people of important past events like cultural festivals, date of birth, installation of chiefs and coronation of kings, burial rites of the deceased and other related activities (Uraka, 2005, Iragunima, 2009).

The refined indigenous salt was not only for home consumption but for exchange of foodstuffs from hinterland neighbours and canoe from the Ijo. The Obolo salt industry was a major source of salt supply to their immediate hinterland neighbour of Ogoni before the introduction of the modern refined salt by the Europeans (Ojokor 2005).

The use of the crafts in the production of salt, fish and shellfish processing, and subsequent exchange and sale, enhances their economic and social relations and exchange of cultural values between Obolo and Ijo of Eastern Niger Delta, and the hinterland of Ogoni, Ibibio, Efik and Ibo. The open basket used in sheltering chickens and eggs indicates that Obolo were involved in rearing domestic livestock in addition to fishing. The fowl are used for meat in their diet, harvest in the church, sacrifices to the gods and other important functions. Similarly, the egg is an important item of religious (traditional) sacrifice and cleansing. Even the devotees of the mermaid or marine spirit popularly called “orukoro” (yok emen mun) also provide egg for the spirit (Mark, 2005).

The historical relevance of local craft is not limited to the socio-economic development of Obolo. It also extends to schools. The government with availability of the craft and because of its socio-economic relevance to our economy, introduced local crafts as the official handiwork pupils should learn in school. In Obolo (Andoni), such craft like Okwun (baskets), odidor (dryer), broom (aziza) and weaving of table cloth which substituted abaka were learnt in school.

It was introduced for creativity and to promote the technological potentials of the pupils. Also, to train the pupils generally on local craft as an alternative source of income for sustenance. It helped pupils to acquire and sustain the knowledge of the ancient craft of Obolo. Essentially, pupils shall apply modern technology to transform this economic sector to a viable and dependable source of livelihood. Those pupils who cannot do well academically or are indigent resort to these craft to earn a living (Alabo, 2009, Iragunima, 2009, Aqauowo, 2005, Ujile, 2005, Ikpaiko, 2005).

Suffice it to say, the oral account of Unyene 2009 of Ataba affirm that, like many others, he acquired the craft skill from primary school when they were educated on craft technology. He learnt the rudimentary skill to plane broom sticks which he latter applied to plane cane (Iyana) to make assorted home furniture. They include cane chairs, centre tables, side stools, shelves, racks and flower baskets. He started this vocation after his secondary education. This became a dependable means of income for sustenance before he got a political appointment and enrolled for further studies.

The knowledge of indigenous technology of craft making have been transformed into modern technology by some industrious Obolo women in some respect to produce some modern products such as female hat, tie and dye (cloth) beaded purse and bags, necklace, earrings, weaving of table cloth and many others. This modern craft has become an alternative source of micro economic empowerment of Obolo women and eradication of poverty. Some Obolo women engaged in this venture to be economically self sufficient. Mrs. Flora Joseph Igoh, Miss Mgbowajiogak Emmanuel Okop, Mrs. Juana Esuiku Dimiary, bead makers, Mrs. Ugem Macaulay hat maker are some Obolo women in the modern craft technology.

Thatches made by Obolo women contributed greatly to the building development and technology. It provides the social need of shelter (one of the basic necessities of life) in Obolo from the ancient period till date. Thatches are more economical and affordable by everybody. The less privilege who cannot afford the costly modern zinc or corrugated iron roofing sheets are sheltered with the availability of thatches. Some block houses were roofed with it pending when they could purchase zinc. ‘Ibutu’ thatch used as ceiling, helps to reduce the intensity of the sun as well as beautify the house (Ekiket, 2005, Alabo, 2009). Thatch making in Obolo indicates that Obolo had trade relationship with Ogoni through the women who incidentally were the source of this technological knowledge. This was a demonstration of a shared social history between Ogoni and Obolo.

During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), Sara (2006:160-161) asserts that, as part of their social responsibilities, women supplied thatches for the roofing of the ten houses and a kitchen built for the camping of Biafran soldiers at Ilotombi. This Obolo community was the headquarters of the Biafran soldiers. This roofing provided accommodation for the warring soldiers deployed to the area. Another building technology evolved by women was the local slats door (afong) which provides the needed security mechanism to protect lives and property. This brings to mind the prevalent safety of the ancient Obolo with those unsophisticated materials used in making the doors and windows as compared to existing ones in today situation, where even with iron doors people are living in fear of being attacked by armed robbers.

As earlier stated, thatches were used to construct bathrooms in Obolo. It did not only provide social facility for bathing, but also became the local maternity or labour ward where traditional birth attendants delivered women of their babies. Egendem was an exception in ancient Obolo. It was a taboo for women to be delivered of their babies in the town. Their deity forbids blood on the land. In this situation, women gave birth at the waterfront or at the bank of the river (Joab, 2005). This situation has since changed with the building of a Primary Health Centre there. Such bathrooms floored with shells of shellfish were hygienically maintained especially during child delivery to avoid any infection of both the mother and the child (Akpatane, 2005, Josiah, 2005). This explains the Obolo aged-long personal and environmental hygienic consciousness which pre-dates modem hygiene.

From the cultural perspective, Obolo practiced a variety of trado-religious activities. Some of the cultural activities required the use of some of the crafts like okwun, odidor and akasi. The spectacular use of okwun (open basket) by “Ogbo Wonder” in retaining their local gin during their cultural display became a source of attraction to the people. This mystical creativity and exhibition imparted in the people the idea of converting the abundant material resources in the area to a source of cultural entertainment and recreation, which helped to increase the life span of the Obolo. According to Ngere, 2005), Zalmon, 2005), Obadiah, 2005) akasi as a symbol of peace became the traditional means of averting internal crisis in Obolo communities. This measure was used to avert the imminent clash between uwo-lle and uwo-Ngere both of Ngo town, arising from the lingering chieftaincy dispute between them. This accounts for the prevalent intra and inter communal peaceful co-existence in ancient Obolo as against the contemporary situation.

Odidor is one vital craft in the socio-cultural history of Obolo, because of its use in the celebration of the royal burial rites. Being used to construct agbo, for the cultural celebration of the final burial rites of kings and chiefs, explains the high regard and recognition they accord their deceased traditional political leaders. This highly revered culture (burial rite ceremony) had since become a source of tourism in Obolo (Ataba). Neighbours from far and near were attracted to witness the promotion of the ancient cultural heritage of Obolo. On the other hand, agbo (shield) was a necessary defensive mechanism.

With it Obolo warriors and amazons were able to defend their territory from being invaded by their enemies during the local inter communal wars. The use of abaka (traditional cloth) signifies that ancient Obolo had a textile culture of clothing before the European textile clothing was introduced in the area. It reminds us of the rich cultural heritage of celebrating motherhood in the area. This celebration which was esteemed and envied by all young girls helped to regulate their sexual behaviour and discourage prostitution, pre-marital sex and pregnancy. Its usage in trado-religious ceremonies in Obolo, mostly during Aman-Obolo (female deity) festive activities and war time preparation, suggests the importance of abaka in religious functions.

Oket (crayfish trap) one of the crafts and fishing gears promoted the craft technology of Obolo women during the women craft exhibition at the Better Life for Rural Women Programme in Abuja (Jacob, 2009). It is one of the existing Obolo craft antiquities.

 

Conclusion

From the historical perspective, these crafts evolved by Obolo women have fundamental relevance to the socio-political and economic studies of Obolo. The indigenous craft is notably the major and indispensable sustainer of Obolo traditional fishing and gathering economy and trading activities since the ancient period. These women crafts, unarguably provided the major or basic necessity of life in Obolo, such as food, clothing and shelter.

 

REFERENCES

  1. PRIMARY SOURCES

A.1 Oral Evidence

Akpatane Alice (2005), Aged 96, retired traditional birth attendant and former woman activist, interviewed in Port Harcourt on 9th April, 2005.

Alabo, Ujagun Blessing (2009), A 51 year old Universal Basic Education Desk Officer, Andoni Local Government Education Authority and Ex-Community Development Committee Chairman Ataba was documented in Ataba on 3rd August, 2009.

 

Aqauowo, Patience Jacob (2005), A 56 year old Teacher at Iko Town. Eastern Obolo L.G.A., Akwa Ibom, Nigeria was documented on 27th July, 2005.

Ekiket, Mary (2005), 50 years old woman skilled in thatch making, was interviewed in Ayama – Ekede, Andoni L.G.A, Rivers State, Nigeria on 31st May, 2005.

Hebron, Agnes (2005), 79 years old Church women leader was recorded in Port Harcourt on 11th May, 2005.

Ikpaiko, Roseline Zepheniah (2005), A 52 year old Education Secretary, Eastern Obolo L.G.A. Education Authority and UNDP Coordinator was documented at Ayama-Okoroete on 28th July, 2005.

Iragunima, Juliet Jackson (2009), A 44 year old School Headmistress in Ataba, Andoni LGA Rivers State, Nigeria, interviewed in Ataba on 15th August, 2009

Jacob, Helen (2009), Aged 87 skilled in variety craft making and Ex-Women leader in Ataba, Andoni L.G.A., Rivers State, Nigeria was recorded on 27th July, 2009.

Joab, Margaret (2005), A 50 year old traditional birth attendant and trader, interviewed in Egendem, Andoni L.G.A., Rivers State Nigeria on 14th June 2005

Josiah, Comfort (2005), 64 years old traditional birth attendant, fisherwoman and Ex-Women leader, interviewed at Ayama Unyengala Andoni L.G.A., Rivers State, Nigeria on 1st June, 2005.

Mark, Susana (2005), A 79 year old Ex-Women leader in Ataba, interviewed at Ajakajak on 25th May, 2005.

Ngere, Pricilla Sunday (2005), Aged 85, Ex-Woman activist, recorded in Ngo Andoni on 24th April, 2005.

Obadiah, Rose (2005), A 70 year old trader and former woman activist. She was interviewed in Ngo Andoni on 24th April, 2005.

Ojoko, Angelina Peter (2005), Aged 72, skilled in craft making, fisherwoman and former woman activist. She was recorded in Agana, Andoni L.G.A., Rivers State Nigeria, on 3rd June, 2005.

Ujile, Grace N. (2005), 56 years old retired Teacher, member, Okoroete Customary Court and women leader. Her oral testimony was documented in Okoromboko Eastern Obolo L.G.A., Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 27th July, 2005.

Ukafia, Queen Henriata Owen, (2O05), Aged 51 years old School Teacher was interviewed in Okoroete, Eastern Obolo L.G.A., Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 27th July, 2005.

Unyene, ThankGod Jonathan (2009), 40 years old, skilled in craft technology and former Supervisor of Works in Andoni L.GA, Rivers State was interviewed in Ataba Andoni, on 18th September, 2009.

Uraka, Benjamin David (2005), Aged 48, Civil Servant and Chairman Community Development Committee, Asarama at the period of the interview in Asarama on 13th June, 2005.

Zalmon, Adlinah (2005), A 80 year old traditionalist was interviewed in Ngo, Andoni on 24th April, 2005.

  1. SECONDARY SOURCES 

B.1    Books

Derefaka, A.A. (2002), “Indigenous Technology”, in Alagoa., E.J., Derefaka., A.A. (eds.), (2002), The Land  and People of Rivers State: Eastern Niger Delta, Port Harcourt, Onyoma Research Publications,

Ejituwu, N.C. (1991), A History of Obolo (Andoni) in the Niger Delta, Oron, Manson Publishing Company.

Sikoki, F.D., Francis, A. (2007), An Atlas of Fin Fishes of the Andoni River in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, Port Harcourt, Molsyfem United Services.

B.2    Article

Enemugwem, J.H., Sara, R.B. (2009), “Obolo (Andoni) Women in Overseas Trade and Traditional Politics, 1400-1800”, African Research: An International Multi Disciplinary Journal, Ethiopia, Vol. 3(2) January, (2009), (pp.148-161).

 

B.3    Thesis

Sara, R.B. (2006), “Women in the Eastern Niger Delta: The Case of Obolo (From Pre-colonial period to 1975),” (Unpublished MA History Thesis, University of Port Harcourt, 2006).

Utong, C. I.Z. (2000), “Ilotombi in Time Perspective”,     (Unpublished BA History Project, University of Port     Harcourt, 2000).

 

APPENDIX: PHOTOGRAPHS SHOWING OBOLO WOMEN IN INDIGENOUS CRAFT TECHNOLOGY

 

 

 

 

 

Published inNumber 1Volume 2