Saturday 6 August 2022

Early Igbo Sojourners in Eastern Yorubaland

The attached pictures depict people at a masquerade dance. The masquerade is the famous Mgbedike masquerade, popular in the Nri-Ọka area. In Picture 1, a man can be seen wearing a hat, with ichi marks on his face.

But these pictures were not taken in Igboland. They were taken in the village of Okitipupa, in the Ondo area of eastern Yorubaland in the 1940s by British colonial officer Edward Harland Duckworth. Who were these people and what was Mgbedike doing in Yorubaland in the '40s?

Ọka tradition relates that their itinerant blacksmiths had penetrated into Yorubaland at some undetermined time in the past. Professor O. N. Njoku says this happened sometime between the 1890s and 1904. But it was in the Colonial Period, from the 1930s, that they began to appear there in significant numbers for Yoruba tradition to take notice of their presence.

It was their skill in gun-smithing that enabled the Ọka to penetrate Yorubaland. While Yoruba gunsmiths used nails and riveted their gun parts, Ọka smiths used screws. Ọka guns could thus be taken apart, cleaned and re-assembled.

The best-known of the Ọka smiths in Yorubaland in the 1930s was one Godwin Okafọ who settled in Igede Ekiti. Ekiti people didn't even know his name and simply called him Ọka. He brought innovations and enriched the smithing tradition of Igede, just as his fellow Ọka craftsworkers were changing the face of the profession in other towns in Ekiti.

This is what an elder from Igede, Chief Akande, had to say about Godwin and his 'brothers':

"These Isobos [a name originally referring to Urhobos, but extended to anyone from the Eastern Region] came and began to make heavy duty guns that could kill 2 or 3 animals at once. They were the first to seriously start producing knives, cutlasses hoes and others in large quantity for sale. Look at Awka [i.e., Godwin Okafọ], he is small in stature but stronger than many around us. He was the person who first started producing short, rather than the usual long, guns here. Not only that, these Awka people performed their smithing activity by producing, for the first time, double-barrel guns that could kill a whole district if there is war..."

("Economic History of Ekiti People in Nigeria, 1900 - 1960" by Jumoke Oloidi PhD. Thesis, UNN)

By Nọnso Uche Nnajide

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