Young Efik tribe boy in traditional attire dancing at a Festival in Calabar,Nigeria
There is also a claim that suggests that the Efik are of Bantu origin. Due to civil conflicts and war, the Efik people migrated down the Cross River to seek new homes for themselves in the 1600s. They first attempted to relocate to a place which has since been called Old Efik. It rests on the upper end of one of the adjacent islands in the Cross River. Various differences and wars created more separation and migration up the river to Mbiabo. Some of the Efik people chose to settle in what are now known as Creek Town, Duke town and Henshaw Town.
King Duke of Calabar in Full Dress (published 1895).
The afore-mentioned locales are what comprise present day Calabar. The Efik also created settlements such as: Efut Abua, Efut Ekondo, Qua settlements of Akim qua and big Qua towns. Some of the Efik ascended the other branch of the river and formed Adiabo. This area is within the boundaries of the current Cross River State, Nigeria. The Efik settlement over time expanded into the territories of the modern day Ibibio of Akaw Ibom state, Ibo and Qua. The Efik also migrated across the river onto a land that is now called Cameroon.
Efik Calabar Dancers
Firstly, all but one mention Ibom in Arochukwu and Uruan in Eastern Ibibio as major centres of dispersion of the Efik. The people seem to have run into trouble first in Arochukwu:
The Aros wanted the Efik immigrants to worship their Longjuju called Ibritam
Chuku but the Efik refused and said they were worshippers of Abasi Ibom (i.e. Ibom
god). The Aros asked them to get away from their town if they were not prepared
to worship Ibritam and so a religious dispute arose (Hart, 1964, p. 59)
Secondly, the last major ethnic group among whom the Efik lived in fairly recenttimes were the Ibibio (possibly at Uruan) from whom they may have acquired the name Efik meaning "oppressors" or "Those that oppress others" (Noah, 1980a, p. 6, 10).
Thirdly the majority of the Efik once lived in Creek Town (Okurotunko) by the creeks of the great bend of the Calabar river estuary, from where they finally settled in the city states of Old Calabar namely, Old Town (Obutung), Duke Town (Atakpa) and Henshaw Town (Nsidung).
It would seem that what has gained currency in the traditions of origin of the Efikis part of their recent history in which a section of Greater Ibibio clans crossed what mayhave been a great barrier, the Cross River, to the left bank where they came into contactwith the Qua, Efut, Ekoi and other ethnic groups which were culturally different from theirown. Up till this day the Efik still pay homage to the Qua people (Noah, 1980a).
According to the 2006 Nigerian census, the Efik make up 2% of the nation’s population. The language is predominantly spoken in the Calabar municipality, Calabar south, Odukpani, Akpabuyo and Bakassi local government areas. It is the second predominant language to the surrounding neighboring areas. Statistics shows that 360,000 people in the afore-mentioned municipalities (as well as in parts of Cameroon) speak Efik as a first language and that 3.5 million people speak Efik as a second language. It is believed however that, in recent years, the use of the Efik language is decline in western Cameroon.
According to history, an Efik leader and his entire village of Obutong were captured by the British slave traders and taken to their final destination, Havana in Cuba . This Efik Chief founded the Abakua society in Havana in the 1830s. The first Abakua group is named after "Obutong" an Efik town in Calabar (Efi Kebuton). Most of the names mentioned in the songs are places and names of the Efik people and town of Calabar . These societies has become an cultural identity of the Cuban people.
Afro-Cuba and the Efik reunite
The literal importance of the Efik language dates back to a time period between 4000 and 5000 BC. The language is as old as the Ikom Monoliths which date back to AD 170. The language is perhaps the earliest known signifier of an attempt at keeping written records after the Efik started a form of secret writing known as "NSIBIDI."
Nsidibi is used by the Ekpe secret leopard society. Nsibidi was used as a means of transmitting Ekpe symbolism. In 1812 King Eyo Nsa Honesty II of Creek Town, Calabar, created the Efik language orthography. Rev. Hugh Goldie became proficient in the Efik language and in 1862 Goldie translated the Old Testament and the book of Psalms into the Efik language making it the first Nigerian language used in translating the Holy Bible. Goldie's other publications included an Efik dictionary and grammar books.
Ekpe, Nsibidi and Ukara among the Efik of Calabar
While ‘Ekpe’ is the name of a masquerade among the Efik of Calabar, the term is also the name of the
leopard and of the traditional sacred institution that owns the masque. The Ekpe (sometimes called Mgbe)
society is also called the ‘leopard’ society because the Ekpe masquerade is a visual cultural reference to a
leopard – its costume, makeup and props define it as such. The link between the Ejagham peoples, the Ekpe
society and the leopard goes back in time. Koloss (1985) narrates a story that links the fear of the leopard to
Ejagham people in 1904. At the time the Ejagham and their neighbours rebelled and the German colonial
administration had to resettle the population into larger villages, for easier control. However, much social
tension prevailed among the people, which resulted in witchcraft accusations in which many suspected
witches were murdered. Coincidentally, at the same time witches were said to be killing people, man-eating
leopards were also mauling people in the communities. The killer leopards were not deemed culpable.
Rather, the communities interpreted the fearsome man-eating leopard as the witches’ preferred form. It does
seem, as Marwick (1965) suggests, that witchcraft accusations are indices of social tension and accusing
others of witchcraft enables accusers to sever relationships with the accused, using real or imagined
episodes. In this case the leopard and the fear of it has remained among the Ejagham generally and has
been appropriated as part of the corporate ambience of the Ekpe cult. The Ekpe society is the most
renowned traditional institution in Efik history not just because of its spiritual or cultic functions but also for the fact that the institution was a pre-colonial police and judiciary system. The Ekpe was vested with the powers of policing and bringing justice to the Efik kingdom. In a Personal Interview (2011) with Chief Edem Okon, a long standing initiate of Ekpe, he made it very clear: “In the olden days before the white man came into contact with the Efik people, Ekpe was government. Ekpe was in control of everything. The white man even used Ekpe to organize and push people to attend church services. Nothing was possible in Efik society
without Ekpe”. In essence, the Ekpe society was the law before the advent of colonialism and western
democracy. Today, however the Ekpe cult is still strong among the Efik. But it has no function within the
postcolonial democratic frameworks of governance. Membership is still very strong and masquerading and
other cultic performances are very visible in the society.
members of the cult. As the official and traditional apparel of the Ekpe society, the ukara is a blue and white
fabric inscribed with two dimensional motifs called nsibidi (it is called nsibiri among the Ejagham). While
initiates wear the ukara fabric as a wrapper, the cloth may also become a wall hanging of sort in the personal
spaces of individual initiates or at a venue for the cult’s activities. Nsibidi motifs also form a good part of the
visuality of the Ekpe masquerade’s costume.
While scholars have written bout the Ejagham generally (Thompson 1974, Kubik 1986, Onor 1994,
Röschenthaler 1996, and Ojong 2008), the most comprehensive work done about the nsibidi is Amanda
Carlson’s Nsibidi, Gender, and Literacy: the Art of the Bakor-Ejagham, Cross River State (2003). Carlson’s extensive fieldwork among the Bakor Ejagham people dealt with funerary sculptures, monoliths,
masquerades, body and calabash decorations employing nsibidi motifs in the broader context of sign-use. To
Carlson, nsibidi is performance, object and graphic communication. Based on her interactions with producers of ukara cloth in Aro Chukwu (Abia State) and merchants in Calabar who sell the fabric, the author insists that the ukara cloth is both a trade good and a contemporary channel for transmitting nsibidi.
In another light, Carlson underscores the fact that unlike men’s use of it, Ejagham women use nsibidi
visual forms without “overt emphasis on secrecy or the mediation of power” (216). As women paint both their bodies and that of ancestral representations like monoliths, they “are actively involved in a discourse that
creates meaning in relation to the body, one of the most potent and powerful symbols within Ejagham culture” (217). Thus, as an African writing system, nsibidi, be it on the body, fabric or other cultural spaces “provides a language that is not dependent on verbal communication” as “it allowed for linkages between the numerous peoples of the Cross River region” (217).
Whereas the term nsibidi is popularly known as the visual motifs or writings on Ejagham cultural artifacts
like the Ikom monoliths, the ukara cloth and as body decorations among the Efiks, it is also the name of a
special team of seven virgin young men (members of the Ekpe society) who are sent to make arrests for
serious crimes that usually attract the death penalty. On this trip the nsibidi are masked with multicolour body
painting. Pre-outing preparations take 7 days in the forest until they become ‘spiritual’ entities. Only second
sons (and never first sons) of initiates are permitted to become nsibidi. A first son must go into hiding when
nsibidi is passing, else the nsibidi will literally extract flesh from his body. While on an arrest mission, the
nsibidi boys do not talk but hold fresh palm fronds in their mouths and can only make a humming sound.
They come topless and wear only a skirt made from palm fronds also. As far as the Efik tradition goes, it is
forbidden for women to gaze upon the nsibidi except women that are initiates of the Ekpe (Chief Edem Okon, Personal Interview). At the end of the assignment, the nsibidi must go back into the forest to be debriefed and neutralised before it becomes safe for them to re-enter the society. As a distinguishing feature of the broad Ejagham cultural group spread across Nigeria and Cameroon (Thompson, 1974), the nsibidi motifs inscribed in the ukara textile’s surface function as both ideograms and pictograms (Onor, 1994, Kubik, 1986). In fact, Ojong (2008) has compared the Ejagham nsibidi to the Egyptian hieroglyphics. To the Efik people, the pictographic and ideographic nsibidi is in fact a ‘language’ rather than a mere system of motifs. Chief Edem Okon puts it succinctly:
"Whereas the ukara cloth produced today are on white fabric, the olden days types were made on thicker
brownish calico. The scripts on the ukara cloth are nsibidi. But nsibidi is not limited to the symbols on the
ukara cloth. Nsibidi is more than that. Nsibidi includes a whole range of verbal and non-verbal sign
Efik little girls from Calabar
systems, including body movement, eye language, drawing in the air, or on the floor with the feet and
many more. It is with the nsibidi that initiates talk among themselves and with the Ekpe. Right under the
nose of non-initiates, an initiate can hold a conversation with the Ekpe using only eye movements.
Nsibidi is the language of Ekpe and nsibidi is Ekpe."
Nsibidi sign system is used among initiates of the Ekpe society in Efik land to communicate with one another
and with the Ekpe. While individuals may inscribe it as tattoos or on walls at home or the cult’s spaces, the
ukara cloth, which is the official apparel of the Ekpe society, is the most prominent surface on which nsibidi is
utilized and circulated among the Efik of Calabar. Members of the Ekpe society tie the cloth during the cult’s
activities and meetings. Larger versions of the ukara fabric are sometimes hung on one wall of the leopard
society’s meeting place as backdrop for ritual and other social occasions to which only initiates are in
The ukara is dyed only in indigo and nsibidi signs are embedded on the fabric by stitching and tie-dyeing
the fabric. After dyeing, the stitches and ties are removed to reveal the white designs that appear against the
deep blue background. The production process is essentially a resist dyeing method which, as Boser (1985)
notes, may be the oldest method of producing non-woven patterns on dyed fabric. The finished ukara cloth is a patchwork of signs that uniformly cover the surface of the fabric. Besides functioning as a symbol of
membership in the Leopard Society the ukara cloth acts as a summary of the Ekpe cult, its social reputation
and its principles.
There are several nsibidi signs such as leopard, snake, turtle, birds etc that appear on
ukara cloths and may signify multiple levels of meaning beyond the representation of the actual subject (see
Figures 2 and 3). However, there may be deeper more esoteric meanings associated with some symbols that
may only be known to certain category of initiates. According to Elder Etok from Calabar municipality, a
member of the cult, ukara cloth serves several functions to the members of the Ekpe society including the
1. Ukara cloth is used by Ekpe members of sufficient rank and wealth, and these men are its designers.
2. Most ukara cloths are custom-made for specific individuals or ritual uses. A good many are
personalized these days with their owner’s names “written” in one corner.
3. Patterns are drawn from the Ukara cloth by Ekpe society members, incorporating both common Ekpe
designs and symbols with personal meanings for the prospective owner. (Personal Interview, 2011)
In a Personal Interview with Mr. Nsa Efangha, a native of Nsidung and an initiate of the Ekpe Society, he
reveals that while there is a newer form of ukara produced on white cotton fabric, there was an older version
that was made of very thick calico.
Ukara cloth Nsibidi writing
In Efik mythology, Abassi is the creator god. His wife is Atai, who convinced him to allow two humans (their children, one man and one woman) to settle on Earth, but to forbid them to reproduce or work and they returned to heaven when Abassi rang the dinner bell; these rules were designed so that they would not exceed Abassi in wisdom and strength. Eventually, they broke this rule and Atai killed them both, as well as caused strife, death and war between their children. Abassi and Atai were so disgusted that they withdrew from the affairs of their descendants.
Others believe the creator, Abassi, created two humans and then decided to not allow them to live on earth. His wife, Atai, persuaded him to let them do so. In order to control the humans, Abassi insisted that they eat all their meals with him, thereby keeping them from growing or hunting food. He also forbade them to procreate. Soon, though, the woman began growing food in the earth, and they stopped showing up to eat with Abassi. Then the man joined his wife in the fields, and before long there were children also. Abassi blamed his wife for the way things had turned out, but she told him she would handle it. She sent to earth death and discord to keep the people in their place.
“The sun and the moon are husband and wife”
|—||The Efik Ibibio people of Nigeria in West Africa|
The Fattening Room (Nkuho)
The Fattening Room is an aged old tradition of the Efik people of Calabar, which has been greatly modified for today's generations. This ancient tradition is the training given to young women while they are in seclusion to prepare them for marriage and womanhood.
Coming out of fattening room
In the Fattening Room the girl goes through domestic training of home economics (like cooking and housekeeping), childcare and how to respect and make her husband to be and his family happy. The older women give advice about their experience in marriage to ensure a successful one.
The Hairstyle of Efik bride
Another important parts of Efik cultural training are the cultural dances (Ekombi), folklore, folktales, songs and other forms of entertainment. Skills in artistic designs on Calabash and other materials are taught as well. All this to prepare her for marriage and womanhood.
Efik wedding couple in their traditional attire
At the end of the seclusion period, people all over are invited to witness the graduation ceremony to honor her success in passing through this ordeal. This ceremony is celebrated with traditional Efik dances (Ekombi) and other forms of entertainment.
Efik wedding bride
This big feast and merriment continues through out the whole day and night as families, friends and well wishers express their joy and happiness with gifts and donations to the bride. Finally she and her future husband embraces and dances welcoming everybody that have come to join the celebration. Everybody cheers the happy couple.
Efik female wedding attire
Further reading on Fattening tradition:http://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/03/fattening-tradition-in-south-eastern-nigeria/
FACE & BODY PAINTING
The face and body painting with Ndom among the Efik people symbolizes purity and love. In the old days it was a form of self-expression where personal identities or pattern were developed and recorded. These patterns came from various families and have developed into family identities.
Efik women with their facial painting dancing in their traditional attire
In some occasions the painting of face or body with Ndom is an expression of joy of birth of a child or any other good news the family might receive. The painted face is also an indication that the bearer has been initiated into all women society. The Abang dancers wear face painting for personal expression of beauty, femininity and love.
Maobong Oku (painted face) is a beautiful and dynamic dancer, instructor, and percussionist from the Efik tribe of Calabar, Nigeria . Filled with the energy of a child, the wisdom of a wise woman and the ageless spirit of a dancer, she has touched many audience’s hearts.
The Efik people from the Cross River State in Nigeria perform this "Abang" dance. The word "Abang" means, "pot" symbolizing fertility. Originated from the worshiping of the water goddess Ndem, this dance is also a tribute and celebration of respect and gratitude to the earth goddess Abasi Isong, who is credited for the abundance resources, fertile land for growing crops and clay for pottery.
Abang dance displays beauty and femininity emphasizing on flexibility and grace. It is a dance of space, rhythm and unity that attracts and holds the attention of the audience, giving them the appearance of lightness and balance.
Lead dancers always wear a headgear decorated with vibrant colors of red, green and yellow raffia called Ibuot Abang. Sometimes these are decorated with bird feathers that are placed in five formations attached to the flexible stems made out of cane called Basinko giving flexibility.
Several silk scarves and handkerchiefs are hung from the basinko for the lead dancer to hold on to for support.
While the Abang dancer bears the Ibout Abang she undergoes some degree of transformation, taking on the spiritual and physical responsibility of representing the Ancestors or Spirits. During this time she remains silent for the duration as she carries the Ibout Abang.
As part of her costume, her neck is adorned with elaborate colorful beads called Nkwaesit Itong. Across the shoulder she wears bright coral beads called Anana Ubok as her arms are covered with colored raffia called Ekpaku Ubok. Her legs are also covered with raffia and bells called Mkpat Etim.
The dancer wears around the waistline an Akasi made out of cane. This symbolizes the ideal beauty of an Efik woman full figured with a healthy waistline. The Akasi is covered with a large piece of fabric to show beauty, femininity and grace as the dancer moves their body.
Efik Madens displaying the "Ekombi" dance
Masquerades are one of the oldest traditional and cultural events through out Africa . It is accompanied with chant, songs and dances. Masquerades symbolizes the celebration and return of ancestors who came out occasionally to give messages to their people from spirit world. This important occasion is very popular among the Efik people in Cross River State as its' roots are deep in the traditional religion.
There are different kinds of Masquerades for various events like the coronation of the Obong (king of Calabar), burial, Chieftancy and other seasonal celebrations and ceremonies.
The most distinguished and highest of all other masquerades is the Ekpe Masquerade. Its' members are only men and is played on special occasions.
The Efik traditional attire is very elaborate and colorful. The women dress like queens and princesses wearing long flowing gowns, adorning their necks with colorful coral beads and wearing traditional made beaded shoes. They carry beaded handbag while some wear a headdress to match their outfit.
The men wear white shirts over a colorful wrapper tied around their waist. They also hang a long piece of cloth on their neck called Okpomkpom in addition to beaded shoes and a cap.
The artistic culture of the Efik people belongs mostly to the women since the are naturally artistic. The art of calabash carving and brass carving with brasstray decoration are still a big part of the women culture. This art is being handed down to the younger generation.
Other artistic works by the women are beadwork like beaded shoes, hand bags and the special chewing stick bag called Ekpat okok. There, is also raffia and mat weaving basket making, woodcarving and cane making which are done by the men.
The concept of the ‘Fattening Room’ is an age-old tradition of the Efik people of Calabar, Cross River State. Today, it has gone through a lot of transformation and modifications to fit the present generation and current life-style. This age-long tradition is geared at giving all-round training to young ladies as a major part of preparing them for marriage and home-making. It includes all round beauty treatment from head to foot, using fragrant massage oils from natural plants, soaking in mud baths and eating scrumptious dishes. The training and beauty therapy is carried out over a period of time while the girls are each housed in seclusion away from the public while they are in seclusion to prepare them for marriage and womanhood.
Efik woman after fattening room
By custom and tradition, a woman is not considered ready for marriage even if she is at puberty and regardless of what her educational achievements are, until she has undergone the fattening room process. A girl who has not done so is considered crude and this rubs off negatively on her family. Many families in the past believed that without this, their obligation to their daughter was incomplete. The eldest daughter of the family usually has a longer stay than her younger sisters. Christianity has changed all these in modern times.
In some instances, the fattening room training is divided into three stages: a few months before the marriage, a week before marriage and after childbirth. Among the Efiks, there are three known phases of the fattening room: the circumcision between age six and ten for a period of about three to six months. This is called nkuho eyen-owon.
The second phase is called nkuho-ebuah for circumcised women who become pregnant before marriage. This exercise follows closely after her delivery after which she is confined to a room in her family compound.
The most impressive and popular one is the one that comes just before marriage.
Bethrothed Efik girl returning from fattening room.(circa 1920)
Dressed naked from waist to top with just a piece of cloth around her waist, her arms dangle with beads and bangles as some beads run across her chest.
The history of the cultural practice dates back to a period when the Efiks were said to have lived amongst the Egyptians. It is said that the Efiks had sojourned into Egypt and imbibed the culture of the Egyptians after staying there for about four hundred years. They also imbibed the tradition of the Egyptians. It is evident in the tradition of the mourning house which could be open for about a year in the Egyptian culture. The only difference with this custom as it is practiced among the Efiks is with mummifying the bodies. This may be as a result of the unavailability of the necessary herbs used in the preservation of the bodies.
According to Etubom Charles Ironbar, Head of the Ironbar House, “there is also a tardyon amongst the Efiks similar to the Passover whereby a lamb is slaughtered and the blood sprinkled on doorposts. This they practiced until their time with the Ibos in Arochukwu in the fourteenth century before moving on to Uruan from where they left in 1312. It is on account of this practice that the Ibos had to demand the Efiks leave their land.
An Efik maiden after fattening seclusion.
“Following their stay in Egypt and their departure afterwards, the Efiks decided to emulate the beauty therapy of the Egyptian women can so that their own women can glow in the same manner. The Efiks decided to make this a marriage affair.”
According to the Efik custom, the fattening room ceremony is performed when a woman comes of age in preparation for marriage and in most cases, there must be a ready suitor. Being in the fattening room is to prepare the lady for life in her matrimonial home as regards her husband, in-laws, children and guests to her home.
Ironbar explained further. “In Efik culture in those days, the lady had to be sent there where she is fed, nourished and trained on how to take care of the home and how to appreciate her husband and also to teach her how to cook, prepare the home, and receive visitors. Another thing is that it is also an evidence to demonstrate that her parents have enough means to take care of their daughter. Also, marriage in Efikland is not as in other places where the bride price is so high as if one is selling a daughter. When the daughter is sent out to marry, it is purely for that purpose. In other words, the suitor who comes to marry her in her robust good health must take care of her in the same manner that her parents did.”
In the fattening room, the lady is treated with the highest level of care and sometimes, forced to eat even when she doesn’t want to. The rations given to her are usually that meant for three or four people. This is accompanied by the daily massage of her body using white chalk.
No man is allowed to go into the fattening room except her suitor; and even before he enters, she must be informed in advance of his coming. She is also not exposed to everybody and only attendants and members of her immediate family as well as her playmates have access to her.
After eating, she has to sleep and rest properly. She learns the Efik dance steps, the Ekombi, ntimi and ebak-idok from experts who are brought in just for the purpose of teaching her because on the day of her wedding, she will have to dance. She is also taught some craftwork like table and chair cover making so that when she gets to her husband’s house, she will make them to decorate her home and not have to go and buy.
A lot of training goes on there; all round training to make her a complete woman in her home. In many cases, the period of the fattening room could last up to one year or sometimes even more. At the end of the fattening room period, there must be an outing. She is dressed in the traditional outfit, atiai. This is a piece of damask tied around her waist, with beads running down across her chest. Her hair is designed in a specific way, showing that she is a fattening room graduate. She is then taken to the market. There will be some people making up a train specifically to show her off and how well her family has been able to take care of their daughter.
The climax of the fattening room is the graduation or ‘out-going’ ceremony as it is referred to where the damsel is paraded. In the course of this parade, there are donations made in admiration of what they see. Onlookers and admirers alike drop money out of their own free will with nobody begging or asking them to. “The intention is not to go and beg for money but people who see her appreciate what they see and shower her with money,” said Ironbar.
After this, the preparation for the marriage begins.
In spite of inflation and change in terms of foreign exchange rates, over the years, the bride price has remained so because it is linked to the history of the Efik people which has been traced to the twelve tribes of Israel.
The twelve pounds Etubom Ironbar informed are significant in that they depict each of the tribes of the Israelites while they were in Egypt. “In following the custom, they have maintained that and never charge or receive more.”
As is customary in the course of the marriage rites, and particularly, to forbid her from looking beyond her husband for money, during the traditional marriage rites, the would-be husband is asked to pay something which is a denomination of all the monies in circulation. With the husband doing this, it means she has no right whatsoever to go out and look for money. This is forbidding promiscuity.
The term fattening room is not symbolic but actually refers to a room especially dedicated to fatten the lady. All she has there is a bed and a chair for the suitor when he comes around.
Unlike the notion that some of the girls sleep on a mat spread on the floor, an iron bed with poles which in the early days was a bed depicting wealth and affluence, is provided for her. Only those from poor homes sleep on mats.
“In those days, the Efiks were involved in trade from here and Britain and were quite successful in what they did. It would therefore be unheard off for children of such wealthy merchants to sleep on mats and especially not in a time as the fattening room period. “The ground is too hard for you to keep a lady whom you are trying to nurture this way. It is only at funeral ceremonies that people sit on mats in Efikland as a sign of mourning. ”
There is no male version of the fattening room as there was no need to put the men through the same grooming process. Biased or chauvinistic would you say? As future husbands and protectors of their families, they are trained on how they can make money and provide for their families.
The bride is not handed over to the husband but to her father in-law whose attention will be drawn to the fact that she has been given to the family in the best of health and physic and she must be taken very good care of. He is asked to return her back to her family if she is found wanting in any way and the dowry will be refunded.
The fattening room was a tradition that was widely welcomed by all which all families took great pride in having their child fancied by someone. Even at that, it was not compulsory for girls to be sent to the fattening room and there were families who didn’t want it. But the fear was that if you didn’t do it, there would be gossip in town ridiculing the family for not being able to send their daughter to a fattening room and also ridiculing her size. Then, it was a great pride to be fat and robust. But on her own, a daughter did not have the right to decline going to the fattening room. In any case, it was the ambition of all young girls that time to be sent there.
This practice was also adopted by the Ibibios of Akwa-Ibom State who refer to it as Mbobo which is the period of circumcision. You cannot give out your daughter without circumcision which they do when the girls are fully mature and at the verge of marriage.
In many cases, girls as soon as they are born were betrothed to the sons of their fathers’ friends as a way of sealing the relationships. In some cases, the men after making their intentions known to a girl of their choice, would then go to their families to let them know. Such families would then go to the family of the girl to declare the intentions of their son.
Investigations are then carried out by the families to ensure there is no witchcraft, mysterious deaths, sicknesses and that the men are capable of taking care of their daughter.
Etubom Ironbar explained that, she is circumcised while in the fattening room. It is for this reason that the seclusion is necessary so that she recovers properly from the wound and then begins the training. In those days, the Efiks never believed in educating their daughters. That is why they had the time to go through the fattening room. Their belief was that if you trained a woman, when she marries, the family’s name will change. Another reason was that schools gave corporal punishment for misbehaviours. The bluebloods did not want their daughters to experience this. To them the woman’s duty was in the kitchen.
A photograph from the archives of the Old Residency Musueum in Calabar shows a young Efik woman before she enters "Ufok Nkuho" (seclusion)
The girls, even when with ugly body shapes were systematically massaged to improve their looks. White chalk was used to mop the body with the girl tying a piece of cloth from across her neck down.
Today, there is no such thing as fattening room. No woman who sees what another looks like being slim and trim wants to go and fatten herself. It is a discarded tradition. Also, the society is so different in modern times. Nobody is going to leave school to go and stay in the fattening room.
The training is not lost because it is a continuous process which already starts in the home. It is basically the same things they are taught in the fattening room that mothers teach them at home.
Before sending their daughters to the fattening room, families usually consulted oracles to ensure that there were no forces against them that could pose a threat to their child while there. Where it is revealed that it could cost her her life, the plan was aborted or something done to avert the anticipated tragedy.
After attending a university, Glory Ita Asuquo (left) will return to the fattering room to get
ready for the marriage market.
Lessons learnt were well carried out in the matrimonial home even today. It is for this reason that Efik women are the most sought after in Nigeria. They ring it in their ears saying, “Before your happiness must be your husband’s”.
If at the end of the day the marriage is not successful, the husband is allowed to return the bride back to her parents on the condition that he returns her as in good a state as he took her. With the bride price costing so little, twelve guineas in those days or twelve pounds which comes to about three thousand naira today.
Gone through the fattening room process herself, Mma Eka Ekpenyong now in her eighties said, “It was all fun and excitement for us in those days, except for the circumcision part of it which was a real terror”, she added amidst a hearty laughter.
“I was maybe a size ten when I entered. By the end of one year I was what I would describe as an eighteen or sixteen at the slimmest. I ate until I was sick of eating. I would throw up at the initial stage but after a month my body began to get used to the portions and grew more tolerant of them. Unfortunately, I never lost the weight. But I was happy being married because my husband was happy with the way I looked and enjoyed asking me to come and entertain his guests. Later on, I realised it was more the sake of showing off my physique more than for my culinary skills.
I was kept in a room where on a daily basis, I was massaged three times, fed about six times with large portions of ikpang kukuo, eba, plantain, yam, fufu, along with assorted soups and meat. I also drank a lot of water and slept just as much. My mother when she came to visit would tell me my waistline had to grow because the bigger it was the better.
My mother had already begun teaching us how to cook and maintain a home right from when we the girls were about seven years old. The one thing I looked forward to when I was being sent to the fattening room was the massaging bit. I had heard so much about it from my elder sister and already impatient for my time to get there. I was looking very, very fresh; my skin was finer and supple and the pimples which used to scar my face almost all gone. Even I couldn’t agree less that I was a prettier woman at the end of my fattening room encounter.”
Everybody hears all the glorious tales of the fattening room experience. The gory tales are hardly ever let out. Some young girls did lose their lives as a result of obesity as Mma Eka stated. “I have an aunty who went in there and didn’t come out alive because of how obese she became. Knowledge was quite limited at the time and rather than get medical help, her family members believed they were being witch hunted and faced that instead of looking after her.”
Efik wedding couples
Nowadays, nobody bothers with the idea of the fattening room because the younger women say they learn it all at home and have more priorities that take up their time than investing one year getting fattened up. “I am happy I wasn’t born in that generation,” says Mrs Ikpa Effiom. “I would have ran away from home to avoid being sent to the fattening room. It is a grave injustice to your body as a woman and especially in this age where we are all crazy about being fit and trim. I am married and I see from my husband’s reactions with the things I do at home that he is very pleased with all I do. Fattening room I believe was just a way of massaging men’s ego in that time.”
Today’s men don’t want to be married to a woman fattened up, says Charles Etim. “There is no way I will marry any woman who weighs more than sixty five kilograms and she must have some height. It’ll be punishment for me to marry a big woman in today’s world. I will be too embarrassed to take her out because she will be scattered all over the place. In any case, why would people want to put themselves through such hassles?”