The sound of ringing bells blends with the thrumming of drums. One man is beating two slit wooden drums, another jingling the rattles (oyo) in unison. Ufie music welcomes the Nwadioka, traditional tattooist to the compound of the Nwa-ichi, the man to be tattooed. Known beyond Neni, Ufie—the music produced by the instruments—is an important music with traditional significance. It is played at prominent ceremonial events like festivals, chieftaincy, as well as during Igbu-Ichi. As the compere takes the microphone, it stops.
“Dioka!” shouts the Master of the Ceremony, Ikem Mgbemena.
“Abunya!” responds members of the audience familiar with the call.
It is a common salutation among the Umudioka people of Neni, Anambra State. It is also an expression of patriotism, of loyalty to their community. After the Nigerian National Anthem is sung; it was followed by the Umudioka anthem naturally in Igbo.
At the edge of the proscenium-style arrangement of the venue are older men garbed in native Igbo attire—all important men in the Umudioka community with a firm knowledge of Igbu Ichi. One of them is Chief Odidika Chidolue, the last man with Igbu Ichi on his face. And beside them is a picture of different marked men in Neni, all dead, except for Chidolue. Igbu Ichi, is not only traditional facial marks drawn across the face from the forehead to the cheeks, it is more. Igbu-Ichi is a traditional craft with an entire cultural system around it gradually going extinct. Done by the Nwadioka, an itinerant traditional herbalist cum artist, who come to be experts at the craft through years of apprenticeship. Also built around this art is a social welfare system, a dispute resolution system as well as a legal system that ensures balance in the communal society.
In the middle of the space is a mat propped up around the head region; beside it, is a small calabash with herbs and on the mat, is a plantain leaf.
Before the actual Igbu-Ichi ceremony, there is a kola nut breaking session carried out in Igbo language because “the kola only understands the language of the breaker,” explains the compere. The kola nut is symbolic in Igboland. It is present at every occasion. At this occasion, it for offering prayers and also to recognise everyone from different nations and ethnic groups present. The sharing of the garden eggs to the members of the audience follow. This points to the sense of communality among the Igbo. Even though the kola is shared according to age, everyone partakes of the feast.
The Igbu-Ichi ceremony officially begins. The Nwa-Ichi, is brought in on the back of an Nwa-Nso. Once brought in, the proceedings start with songs. The Nwa-Ichi’s legs and arms are held by the Nwa-Nso, as it would have been when the real marks were made. As the “cutting” is being simulated, the Nwa-Ichi’s sister kneels beside him and feeds him with dried fish. Once the process is done, he is carried on the back, out the same way he had come in. After this is done, it is assumed that the Nwa-Ichi has now become a man and as all male members of the community can now take a traditional title.
“It is important to have this re-enactment because we believe that more people across the world need to know about Igbu-Ichi and the culture around it,” says Chiedozie Udeze of Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation, the cultural organisation behind the programme.
Two men went through the process on August 25, 2018 at the British Council: Spaniard, Juan Payo, and Norwegian, Rey Brhre. While the marking was simulated, and not actually done, their partners fed them with dry fish. For Payo, the experience was thrilling as it offered him an experiential knowledge of the culture of traditional marking among Umudioka people.
“It makes me feel welcome, like a part of them,” he said that he still needs to find out whether it makes him Igbo.
After the ceremony, the men are donned in native Igbo attire: a stripped red cap and a wrapper with text related to Umudioka Community printed on it. They also take on Igbo names; Payo becomes known as Ogbu Ezi-Oha which means “to have marks to show”, while Brhre is now “Ogbu Ngwa Ngwa”, which means “do the marks fast fast.”
At the end of the ceremony, abacha-ichi, a special vegetable-based meal is served to the guests present while music plays, even as some attendees dance. Beyond the art form itself, the re-enactment brings to life that sense of communality, where everyone, young and old, in a traditional African community has a role to play for the community to thrive. While the tradition is endangered, the event shows that it is still alive and will remain so in the hearts of all those present. The question then is: will it continue to live, to find expression in these hearts? In what forms will it be manifest in the future? Only the future can tell.