Gbagyi or  Gwarri (also spelled Gbari) are peaceful, agriculturalist, artistic and Nupoid-speaking people living in North-Central geo-political zone of Nigeria. They predominantly live in the Niger, Kaduna States and the Federal Capital Territory. They are also found in Nasarawa and Kogi States in central Nigerian Area. Gbagyi is the most populated ethnic Group and indigenous in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, where their major occupation is farming. This means Gbagyi people are the bonafide owners of the Nigerian capital city, Abuja.

                      Gbagyi Cultural troupe from Abuja, Nigeria.

Gbagyi people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria with an estimated population figure put at 5.8 million, spread in four States, including the FCT and located in thirty local Government areas, according to the 2006 National Population Census figures. Besides, it is the dominant ethnic group in the nation’s Capital, Abuja, which invariably implies that no Nigerian can afford to ignore the history, traditions, culture, socio- economic and political life of this ethnic group.


 The word Gwari, which the Gbagyi are famously called, is the name of a particular yam in Gbagyi. Principally there are three types of Gwari: Gwari Niger, Gwari Gengen and Gwari Yama. Before their farming occupation, Gwari’s were into calabash carving, pottery and hunting and fishing.
Gwari fishermen , near minna , Nigeria stock photo
Gbagyi fishermen near Minna. Courtesy

The Gbagyi people are known to be, noble, peace-loving, transparent and accommodating people. Northerners are fond of saying in Hausa language “muyi shi Gwari Gwari” (meaning let’s do it like the Gbagyi or in the Gbagyi way). Culturally, Gwari’s put their personal loads and luggage on their backs or shoulders. As an ethnic group they respect head and believe that there can be no life without head.

Members Gbagyi Cultural Troup from LEA Primary School Gwarinpa 1,Abuja, during the 2009 World Teachers' Day Celebration, in Abuja on Monday, 05/10/09-Photo-Sam Adeko

 In his seminal biography of the late Sir Ahmadu Bello entitled "Values and Leadership in Nigeria"  John N. Paden posits that “two things make the Gwari people more distinct from any other people in Nigeria, and those two things are their undying clamour for peace and their impenetrable cultures.” It is interesting to note that the observation made by Paden in his book about three decades ago is still associated with the Gwari people today, most especially their cultures that are still kept intact despite the fact that they saw colonialism and keep seeing western education. One of these undying cultures, according to Paden, is carrying loads on their shoulders rather their heads as is the case among other Nigerian people.

Gbagyi dancers performing their traditional folklore at a 2011 farmer day celebration at Jinda, Nassarrawa State, Nigeria

In addition the Gbagyi people have emerged as a unique breed of people among Nigerians, their culture shows how much they have come to terms with the universe. One famous Gbagyi is General and former President of Nigeria Ibrahim Babangida

Ex Nigerian military head of state, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) is Gwari native from Minna, Nigeria

Why Gwarri people do not Carry loads on their head
In most African cultures, women carry loads on their head. The situation is quite different among Gwari women in Nigeria. In this society, women carry loads on their shoulders, because they are of the believe that the head should be accorded a royal status as the King of the entire body, saddled with the task of thinking for the body, as a result it should not be burdened with manual or pedestrian task, such as ferrying goods from place to place. But this is not so today, as the venom of civilization has since overtaken and eclipsed it, and the traditional sight has become a rarity except for the older women who still hold on true to this belief and practice.

 According to the Fanti of Kuta, Alhaji Danladi Shekolo the exact part of the body atop which loads are carried is known as Bwapa in Gwari, and it was a practice among women, as Gwari men were tabooed from carrying loads as ordained by the ancient gods.
Gwari women who carry heavy loads on their shoulders averred that the loads weighed lighter on the shoulder than on the head.  A woman said “Growing up, I saw my seniors carrying loads on their shoulders, so I copied them. Today, I cannot carry any load on my head because it would weigh too heavy for me. To me, all that matter is comfort.”
Gwari woman carrying wood , near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
Gwari woman carrying wood , near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

The Fanti, who is the paramount traditional ruler of Kobwa, a community in Kuta, said Gwari cultures show how much they have come to terms with the universe, because daily they aspire to give life a meaning no matter the situation they find themselves. He said giving life a meaning requires a deep introspection, which is why their people don’t burden the head, for it is the part of the body with which they “think out a living.”
“Our people are one of the most intelligent people on earth. Forget about their backwardness in assimilating into the western cultures, as is trendy with every Nigerian today.

Ingenuous Gbagyi Women carrying Fuel Wood in Jikoko (FCT), Nigeria.

 Most of our people see those people copying the Whiteman as foolish and barbaric because even before God it is wrong to copy another person when God has already created an identity for you. The reason why we don’t carry loads on our heads is because we don’t want to burden our heads. The brain is found in the head, and it is with it that the affairs of the world are being goaded; if we burden it, it is a belief among us that we will be mentally retarded,” he enlightened.

According to him, in the ancient times, there was a competition among the Nupoid languages, which can be classified into Nupe, Gwari and Ebira, on creativity and intelligence, and Gwari people were assessed as the winners because they knew how to use their heads more. "There was always an argument between them on who among them were the most creative and intelligent. So they invited judges from another place to come and assess their creativity and intelligence after a decade of monitoring and evaluating their arts, philosophies trades and farming. Eventually, it was the Gwari people that emerged as winners. Gwari people owed this success to the distinct place they keep for the brain as well as the respect they have for it, unlike Nupe and Ebira who would disturb their brains with loads,” the traditional rulers added.
Speaker of House of Representative at IBB birthday prayers
Former Military President, Gen Ibrahim Babangida and Gwari native from minna during a prayer session as he marks his 70th birthday, behind are IBB's children, Mohammed, Aisha, Halima and Aminu at their hilltop residence Minna on Wednesday

Gbagyi people speak Gwari language which is a Nupoid language belonging to the larger Niger-Congo phylum. It is spoken by over six million people in Nigeria. There are two principal varieties, Gbari (West Gwari) and Gbagyi (East Gwari), which have some difficulty in communication; sociolinguistically they are distinct languages.
a Gwari man checks his fishing net while floating on a gourd , near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
 Gbagyi fisherman checking his net while floating on gourd, Minna, Nigeria. Courtesy

Due to differences in their resident, communities and States their cultures have slight differences, and there are variations in the Gbagyi language spoken in some villages such that there are dialectal differences. Not all Gbagyi are indigenous in the societies that they inhabit, because it is not in all places they are found that they were the first settlers Gbagyi people across the Middle Belt states of Niger, Nassarawa, Kaduna, Kogi and Kwara States, the cultural officer maintained that those in Niger State are well-established.

Little Gbagyi girl with her headgear about to carry load, Minna, Nigeria. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

Drawing his conclusion from the fact that they were the only set of Gbagyi people with two emirate councils (Minna and Suleja Emirates) Marafa claimed that Niger remained the cradle of the Gbagyi people. Despite the fact that they are all the same in most of their cultural heritage, Gbagyi people have some differences in language and norms.
Gwari boy with branches and goat near Minna , Nigeria , West Africa stock photo
Gwari boy with branches and goat near Minna , Nigeria , West Africa. Courtesy

He pointed out that Gbagyi is the language they speak generally, though there are several other dialects peculiar to groups in the different states.  There are dialects like Gbagyi Yama, the Gbagyi Nkwa, which is spoken in Paiko, Gbagyi Nche, Gbagyi Matai and Gbagyi Ngbagun.
Like most Nigerian languages, Gbari is a tone language and every vowel can have one of five possible tones.
There are three level tones and two glides, rising and falling. The glide tones are rare and they could be
analysed as combinations of level tones. However, they seem to occur in isolation on some words which
indicates that they must be treated as separate tonemes.

“The language Gbagyi refers to the central language we speak, as we are divided into different groups, cutting across the various places. But the crib of Gbagyi people is  in Niger State, as we are the only Gbagyi in the country with two emirate councils.”

                                Gbagyi boy at Minna,Nigeria. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

Some phrases and words in Gbagyi:
1.     How are you?                  -   Agbowolona
2.     Let’s go                            -    Beyalo
3.     We are farmers                 -  Yizhi’afayinu
4.     Gwari                               -  Yam
5.     I am going to school          – Milo ynabanu
6.     Grass                                – Gbebe
7.     Tree                                -  Shuwa
8.     Man                                 -  Zanugbayi
9.     Woman                            – Eyikoza
10.   Sleep                               – Genwa
11.   Wake up                         -  Kwagyewi
12.   Mountain                         – Epe
13    abwawyi                             excl. Good evening!
14    arife                                    excl. Good morning!

It has been claimed that the Gbagyi migrated from Borno into the Abuja region (Thurley, 1931) due to conflict with the Kanuri. Additionally, Gbagyi familiarity with the lapis lazuli stone has been taken in some quarters as indication of Egyptian origin. The question of Gbagyi origin is farther complicated by the fact that the Nupe and Gbagyi languages have recognised affinity and the Koro, whose history seems to have been intricately linked with that of the Gbagyi, actually claim linkage with Wukari and the Kwarafara empire (Cadman, 1913). If the Gbagyi and the Koro have connections with Kwarafara as sometimes claimed, then the early history of the Gbagyi and the Jukun is perhaps intricately interwoven. One eagerly awaits archaeological investigation and research with respect to this particular issue.

Traditional accounts suggest that the Gbagyi and the Koro were the earliest inhabitants of the Abuja region (Shekwo. 1986) particularly with respect to the districts of Diko. Ushafa, Gerki and Zuba in the central and northerly parts and in the case of Kare district settlement dates back to the 15th century.
The oral tradition mentions Gbagyis ethnic nationality as originating from Kaduna , in the Northern part of Nigeria. The Gbagyi people descended from Saunin Minna. The descendants were the original settlers of Gwagwalada in Abuja . It is said that the first settler was a hunter who was on expedition to Paikokun land, a thick forest in Abuja . Paikokun was the name of the mountain where the first settler inhabited.
The Gbagyi people settled on mountains. While on the mountain, about eight kings were crowned; which means that they lived as an organised people, even on the mountain. And when they came down, about four rulers were crowned. Interestingly, the Gbagyi people from Minna came down from the mountain when westernisation came, which attracted a rail track. The people thus agreed to come down to the plain instead of remaining on the mountain.
Nigeria, three-quarter profile, head and shoulders portrait of Gwari adult female carrying basket full of sticks on shoulder. Basket has pointed bootom, balanced in cracked pot. Female wearing head-cloth, neck-ornament.
Medium: Gelatin silver print.
Format: One of four prints mounted on album page.

. Small group of adult females and a child, sitting on ground outdoors. Wearing personal-ornaments including disc-shaped lip-plugs and ear-plugs, bowl-shaped hair-styles. Two females dressing hair of other two females, using small pointed tools. Female at right holding young child.
Medium: Gelatin silver print.
Format: One of four prints mounted on album page.
Portrait of Gwari adult female carrying basket full of sticks on shoulder,Plateau. Basket has pointed bottom, balanced in cracked pot. Female wearing head-cloth, neck-ornament. Circa 1947. Dr Joseph Denfield (Photographed by) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Those who were crowned as kings on the mountain included Esu Sugbaknum, Esu Galadima, Boshni, Esu Kpotun Musa, Esu Dawoba, and Esu Makun Shako. While they were on the mountain, there was only one royal family, but when they came down, the ruling house became two. The forefathers of Gbagyi, however stayed on the mountain for a long time, apparently to avoid being raided by advancing enemies, because it was easier to raid people on the plain than the mountain top. The mountains/rocks were a refuge as well as a mystical source of strength.

                          Gbagyi people of Minna,Nigeria. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

The Hausa presence in the region is more recent and relates to the Sokoto jihad of 1804 by Usman Danfodio and the Hausa/Fulani power struggle in Zaria in the early 19th century. The exile of a faction of the ruling house of Zaria and their settlement at Zuba in 1807 preceded the establishment of the Abuja emirate which was clearly an offshoot of Zaria administratively speaking (Hogben & Kirk Greene, 1966). By the 1890's. the Abuja region became the target of another batch of invaders from Zaria. namely. Fulani forces under Emir Usman Yaro (Na'ibi & Hassan. n.d.).

                              Gbagyi elder. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

It is argued that the region was attractive to 19th century migrants cum invaders primarily because of the wide range of its resourcesand the feasibility of surplus appropriation on the part of the victorious ruling groups.

                                   Gbagyi people

Gbagyi people are known for arable agriculture, wood fetching, pottery, and blacksmith (Je’adayibe, 2002: 6-17). However, these subsistence farmers were dispossessed of their farmlands to accommodate the nation’s capital. Subsequently, generation of rental income became a good alternative for the indigenes and settlers alike.

                              Gbgyi grain storage huts

Therefore, it became a normal practice to rent out a part of the compound to willing migrant tenants. Moreover, the extended family labour force has been fragmented, as its youths took to white and blue collar jobs. Farming was left mostly to the aged and the under-aged.

Gbagyi people imbibed the notion that “Art is man”, nature being so kind provided materials which through practice, religion, occupation, belief and culture propelled the visual arts of Gbagyi people which is in the following areas.
(i) Traditional Architecture
(ii) Sculpture
(iii) Traditional iron smelting
(iv) Pottery
(v) Indigenous textile
(vi) General domestic crafts.

                              Iron-smelting village in Gwari

Traditional Architecture
Architecture is one of the aspects of cultural history that aptly gives definition to man’s interaction with his environment, within this sphere, we encounter a proper understanding and articulation of man’s activities as they relate to his built environment.

                              Gbagyi thatched huts

The Gbagyi traditional architecture owes a lot to nature; the compounds were surrounded by mud walls or fences of coarse plated mats and had one or more entrance huts, which served as reception room for friends and visitors.

 The houses were circular, built with clay, mostly with a roof of clay and thatch with grass.
Building earth, all over Gbagyi region is of good quality that it can be dug-out from any part of the city

The people have their own indigenous building techniques which they utilized by mixing clay with grasses to strengthen the bricks. Tubali, which recently became the common building material, were originally used only in perimeter walls.

                                  Traditional Gbagyi architecture

Gbagyi sculpture represents human head, figures and zoomorphic figures such as monkey, reptiles. Its sculptural invention falls in the middle range between naturalism and abstractions. Though there is evidence of wood sculptures which produced objects of social value, as the wooden figures that were believed to be fertility gods was discovered.
Fertility gods

The year 1963, appears to be the birth of historical writings of Gbagyi visual arts as noted by (Bernard Fagg), following the discovery of a head by a farmer near the village in Shere Koro on a shrine in a remote village in Abuja emirate. The object is used for veneration by its founder.

The owner of this head insisted that it had been in the possession of his family for many generations and indeed that they had brought it with them from the old village in the hills, when they had moved to their present home in the twenties. Regularly sacrifices were offered to the deity of the terracotta and chicken feathers were sprinkled over the shrine (Bernard Fagg 1963).Though the story was believed to be fictitious, other villagers came up with another story, that the shrine had been created in the hope that by beneficially influencing the fortunes of the other villagers, the owner of the head would earn the right to be made the village chief.

This however did not take place and it was admitted eventually that the head had been found in the bank of a nearby stream. (This head is presently on display at the Jos National museum). Most of these sculptures represent human head and figures. There are however differences, as in the various interpretation of the character of the eye and its outline, and the eyebrows at noted by (Bernard Fagg). Not only is there flexibility shown in position given to the different features of the face, there is as great variety in shape of the head. Any of the different types, whether spherical, Ovid, or elongated can be found on any of these sites (Bernard Fagg).
Gbagyi sculpture

William Fagg, in his contribution pointed out two examples which illustrate well the richness of sculptural invention which is found even in the middle range between naturalism and abstractionism. This observation tends to support Bernard Fagg’s agreement that the object varied as some appear spherical, Ovid or elongated.

                              Gbagyi fertility gods

According to C.O. Adepegba, in relation to the artistic traditions of Southern Nigeria, Nok terracotta’s have often stylistically compared. But the area of their discovery seems to be in the middle of a broad belt of various terracotta productions which appears like a band across Nigeria from her western to the Eastern borders. Some of the other terracotta traditions found in the belt are fairly old. The one from Daima (close to Northern Eastern border of Nigeria) has been dated to between 600 B.C. and A. D 1100, with the one of Yelwa been dated to between the second and the seventh centuries A.D close to Nok terracotta’s as those traditions are in time and shape, they are in forms and style quite different from the Nok find as well as from each other.

                                              Gbagyi sculptural work

Traditional Iron Smelting
Gbagyi people also carved a niche for themselves in the area of traditional iron smelting. Smelting sites are still found near Kwali, Jere, Taruga,Chekari, Garki villages as well as traditional method in fabricating farming implements, arrow head, knives, hammers and other implement that are still in use
Gwari hunter with his iron smelting implements and weapons
The earliest evidence of iron working in the Nigeria region is in Taruga (4th-5th B.C) which falls within Nok culture complex. However, there appears to be some differences between the furnace type found in Abuja and other site within Gbagyi region. While the former were mainly pit bowl furnace, those later where mainly shaft furnace.

 One is also to argue that in relation to the most supplicated types found in Taruga could suggest a form of evolution from a less complicated iron smelting techniques to a more advance type. But such argument appears speculative since they are yet to be purposeful archeological excavation works done on the Abuja iron smelting sites. Such scientific archaeological works could therefore provide dates to make the picture clearer.

                  Sketch of Taruga furnace.

Iron technology as practiced by the Gbagyi communities that now constitute the new federal capital territory Abuja. The various stages involved the prospecting of iron, processing iron ore, as well as the techniques employed in the smelting processors etc. The Gbagyi traditional iron working involved three very important stages as listed below:
a. Iron ore prospecting and mining stage
b. Smelting stage
c. The forging stage.

Gbagyi people are renounced in pottery making. In the year 1950, the then Northern Government invited a British potter of Northern origin prior to this development; pottery making has always thrived in this region.

                      Gbagyi potter at work

The potters trained in this centre have achieved international reputation like Haji Ladi Kwali. She is perhaps the most posthumously celebrated potter in Nigeria.

 She was able to marry traditional technique with modern technique and sometime could complete a well decorated trado- modern pots without any “blue print of sketches” neither will she make use of the potters wheel. It is interesting to note that this centre produced the first glazed pot in Nigeria.
Gbagyi pot

Giri pot is the most famous of the Gbagyi pottery. This is a slim necked pot usually with double handle running from the brim to the upper part of the body (also in other shapes). It is used for storage of grains, flower vases, decoration purposes etc.
Pottery works of Gwari

In a typical Gbagyi culture marriage is a thorough but exciting endeavour. Initiation into the marital life for a male Gbagyiza begins between the age of fifteen to eighteen as boys within this age bracket are considered capable of producing offspring. For the female Gbagyi child, betrothment could be considered for her between the early age of eight and ten. This is due to the expectation that the girl will be ripe for marriage by the time the dowry payment is completed and a marriage date fixed.

Once a boy decides to scout for a wife or when his parents reach such decision on his behalf, certain important questions are asked. These are determinant factors as far as the Gbagyi cultural dictates on marriage goes. These uncompromising questions are: Is the family of the potential bride hard working? Are they troublesome? Are they associated with hunger? How respectful and respectable is the girl, how chastised? How fair is the family’s history with marriage? Is there any case of infertility or impotence in their family? And most importantly whether the bride-to-be had been secretly betrothed in the past.
After these questions might have been satisfactorily answered the groom is given a nod to initiate or continue with the process of courtship, as the case may be. If otherwise the boy is advised to look elsewhere.

                    Aisha Babaginda`s marriage
The next stop is courtship. This is where the fun is or the pain for some people. Gbagyi people attach unqualified importance and strictness to courtship such that it lasts for a period of seven years.
There are two approach to courtship among the Gbagyi people. The first but rare method of courtship is totally in the interest of the groom’s parents. This is when the parents of a boy directs the boy’s attention towards a particular girl or accost the family of the said girl on his behalf. This is usually the case when parents of the groom desire their son to marry from a particular family, for private or popular reasons.
The second approach lets the groom to hunt for a wife by himself. He reports to his parents whenever he finds a girl of his liking. Then the next phase is initiated.

                                 Gbagyi girl

At this stage the groom’s parents sends a delegation to the bride’s parents. The bride’s parents in turn requests some time to confer with the girl. A date is fixed when the groom’s delegation returns with two sets of plate. These sets of plates are then accepted by the bride’s parent to signify acceptance of their proposition. The delegation is then referred to a member of the bride’s family who is to serve as intermediary known as migbiyi. The migbyi deals with everything from here.
The next phase in the courtship is the payment of dowry. The groom is hereby required to do some farm work for the bride’s parents for a period of seven years. This farm work includes making of yam heaps, weeding of ridges and harvesting of farm produce. Usually the groom is assisted by his friends, and the farming continues, two or three times in a year, for seven consecutive years. To test the groom’s ability to feed the bride he’s asked to bring an equivalent of 50kg of guinea corn of his own harvest. This is called wyiga. The groom begins with one wyiga and continues to add one until the seventh year when he presents seven wyiga shortly before picking a date for the marriage.
During this period of courtship, the suitor is allowed his bride. He arrives at her home accompanied by a friend or brother. Then the bride meets him, accompanied by two sisters or friends. This is to dissuade sexual immorality. In every Gbagyi kingdom, any girl who takes in out of wedlock is banished to live in the outskirts of the village until after birth. During this visits the wives of the bride’s brothers may bill the groom and his friend for hospitality rendered. The usual tactics include leaving a few coins in bathing water, water meant for handwashing and in an extra bowl when meals are served. The groom is expected to double whatever amount he and his companion finds. It is this same people, joined by the bride’s sisters who will ambush the bride’s team for a wrestle match each time they come for the farm work. The women usually win because gbagyi women are abnormally strong, plus they hit the men after the day’s hard labour. These women are allowed to do this since they are seen as the bride’s friends.
After seven years of dowry payment and courtship, a wedding day is picked.
Aisha Babangida wedding to Basheer Garba in 2003
The Wedding Rites
The wedding begins with the sacrifice of chickens or goats asking for the blessings of the gods upon the couple. The bride is thereafter released to the groom’s family and friends. It is customary to prepare a meal with eleven chickens, ten of which goes to the bride’s parent and the last to the migbiyi. The bride is accompanied to the groom’s house by five or more maids. That day, at the groom’s house, celebrations ensues from sunset till dawn. The next morning, an elderly woman will call out several names carefully chosen for the bride. When the bride hears one which suites her, she rushes out of her hut and is taken to the bathroom where same elderly woman strips her half naked and inspects her body features and as such determining her chastity. This is called the bridal bath. Again, the villagers party till the break of dawn. On the second morning, the maids who accompanied the bride go into the bush to fetch firewood for the bride. Then they fetch water for all the old people in the village. After this, other marriage festivities which include singing and dancing competitions, wrestling matches et al continues for seven days. On the seventh day, the accompanying maids return to their village leaving only one behind who is called mula cheknu to help the bride with domestic chores. Everybody disperse and the couple begins their matrimonial journey.
Photo: Nigerian Bride Steps Out In Gold. 
                                         wedding bride

Marriage By Elopement
This form takes place for several reasons inter alia: if the groom does not have the stomach for the normal tortuous procedure; if the bride’s parents are against the union of the couple; to avoid shame the retributions that abound when a girl becomes pregnant out of wedlock. This type of marriage is simple. The girls runs away with her suitor. This is referred to as stealing the bride. After a day or two, after the girl’s parents begin searching for their daughter, the boy confesses to his parents what he has done. His parents then send emissaries to alert the bride’s parents. The groom is thereby punished with a demand for a cock and a ram. After that the normal wedding ritual begins, starting with the sacrifice of animals or birds as in the normal wedding described above.
* It is extremely important to mention that there is no limit to the number of wives a Gbagyi man could marry. So it is safe to conclude that the Gbagyi culture encourages polygamy. Also, at weddings a caveat is handed out to the couple, the man especially, to rather return the girl to her parents if she falls short of his standard or expectation to avoid malice and maltreatment. By implication, Gbagyi people allow divorce.
woman preparing corn , near Bida , Nigeria stock photo
woman preparing corn , near Bida , Nigeria. Courtesy

Before the advent of Islam and Christianity in Gbagyiland, the people practiced their traditional African religion. The Gbagyi have a belief in a supreme being and Creator God called Shekwoyi. Shekwoyi is the creator, the one who created the universe and everything in the sky, on earth and in the sea as well as all Gbagyi people and expect them to worship him. He reward the good and punishes the evil one.
In certain situations, all Gbagyi people, whether Christians or Muslims, practice their traditional african worship known as Knunu. Knunu tradition for the Gbagys is a special tree in the Kurmi (Forest), where offering of fowl and beers are made.They claim that Knunu safeguards them, their families, societies, and activities from certain evil forces and uncertaintiesof the future. Thus, the Gbagyi Muslims and Christians live with an unresolved dichotomy between Christianity and Islam and between traditional religion. Even after two centuries of Gbagyi‟s encounters with Islam and Christianity, belief in witchcraft still thrives.

 Islam first came to the Gbagyis in the 19th century during the Sokoto Jihad of 1804 by Usman Danfodio, while Christianity came in the 20th century through the southerners. Islam was able to gain more converts than Christianity, the reason for this was that the practices encouraged by the Gbagyi religion conformed with Islam, such as polygamy, devotion, using of rings or amulets. These similarities made it easy for the Gbagyi’s to receive Islam whole-heartedly. But regardless of the twin influences of Islam and Christianity the Gbagyi people still practice their Knunu.

Gbagyi Knunu religion
Basically, the religion consists of a “personal god, or guardian spirit, whose shrine is in a special tree in the kurmi, where offerings of fowl and beer are made.” It is worth noting that the Gbagyis consider the natural objects – both living and non-living – as endowed with the power and presence of either beneficent or malevolent spirits. The Gbagyis often consult Knunu functionaries who are considered to be endowed with special mystical powers. These functionaries include the Zokuda (“diviners”) and the local Ashigbeda (“medicine women/men”). These people possess supernatural powers to negatively influence and harm others who they perceive as their enemies. They use witchcraft as a powerful means to accomplish their
purpose. They often send out their zafun (“soul”) to attack people mostly in their sleep and cause illnesses and mental torture through dreams. The harmful power of the Agunzheyin is not limited to external manipulations alone. They can cause people to think evil thoughts and to engage in harmful practices.
These Zokudas and the Ashigbedas hail from all social strata; they are neither limited to the lower strata of the society nor to an economically deprived group. Two dominant reasons seem to draw them to the mastery
of witchcraft: taking a revenge on others who are (rightly or wrongly) perceived to be enemies and assuming social power for control. The power of these Zokudas and the Ashigbedas cannot be underestimated. Their
activities influence the socio-economic development of entire communities. They fulfil a function that neither the British laws nor the Christian or Muslim way of life could effectively meet nor understand. They showed the Gbagyis the ways and means of redressing people‟s grievances and sufferings aggravated not only by envy, hatred, and by the urge for revenge, but also by “failure, misfortune, and above all sickness and death.”
Jarumi also explains that the Gbagyis are afraid of the harmful mystical powers and their human functionaries such as the Agunzhenyin. Due to fear of the evil witches, they do not leave behind their “hairs, finger and toe nails, clothes or other articles” which the Agunzhenyin might get hold of and use to harm the owner. There are many types of Gbagyi witchcraft; all of them are inseparably associated with the Zakoyi
(“ancestor veneration”). Adawyiya (“ancestral cult”) is part of the Zakoyi. A subsystem of the Adawyiya is called Amwamwa (“chasers of witches”). These Amwamwa take care of witchcraft practices that are
related to the ancestors.
Pretty Aisha Babaginda

The Gbagyis believe that their dead ancestors are not completely dead; they are “living dead,” who are deeply involved in the welfare of their own living offspring. They are believed to occupy the spiritual realm.
As a result, they can easily watch over their offspring. Nevertheless, if they are not looked after through proper funeral rites and appropriate periodical ceremonies, they might become dissatisfied, angry, and
harmful. They “inspire great fear and extreme caution.” The Gbagyi perceive that all physical and moral manifestations of evil are associated with the spirits and they should be cast off. They have devised various
rituals to fight against misfortunes and witchcraft practices and to liberate themselves from fear and agony.
The Gbagyi recognition of mystical sources of powers as very dangerous and inherently disastrous, if not properly curtailed, draws from an understanding of the activities and actions of such powers. The strong
social and religious role played by Ashigbeda who are empowered on behalf of certain spirits to act for men has made this belief survive over the years. The Ashigbeda people perform the role of unravelling mysteries
around certain occurrences which always draw the people‟s attention to them. The fact of evil lives with the Gbagyis and is understood from an elucidation of the Gbagyi worldviews with regard to „Zafun Nukwoyi’
(“Wicked souls”) and their activities.

Zoku is an acceptable practice among the Gbagyi and is highly esteemed because, in it, lays the ability to see the destiny of a person, society, and life in general. Jarumi observed that it is a strong method used in “detecting witches.” It involves what he calls zokushe (“foretelling the future”) which is used to “reveal the unknown or find out the wish of a divinity or spirit.” The basis of zoku is largely a collection of traditional
proverbs and some incantational words known only to the Azokuda, who alone have the knowledge of the appropriate enchantment and procedure that could lead to an effective zoku. Through the services rendered, Azokuda holds the community closely to the traditional beliefs. This act involves the use of string bones (“shinkun”) and nuts, incantation known as “butsnuyi” (swearing), to enable the zoku get the required results for any divination. Evan. M Zuesse states that “divination implies the presence of gods and spirits-agents of the divine that indirectly communicate the decree of the Ultimate.” The Gbagyis understand divination as an act which gives them the opportunity to unearth their destiny through the help of the gods and spirits agents. Therefore, through the zoku they search for ways of either protecting or interfere with such destinies. In most cases, zoku can be good or bad. It is bad when it reveals that there are evil forces or powers behind misfortunes which inform the search for intervention.

                Gbagyi woman holding bowl with paper, Minna,Nigeria. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

Ikenga-Metuh has argued that divination involves consultation that has to do with “birth, before marriage, during serious sickness, after a series of misfortunes, to obtain a job, to pass examination, before building a house,” which are similar to the reason for why the Gbagyi consult zoku. It is in this understanding that the Gbagyi perception of divination holds. Zoku becomes actively dynamic, involved with the lives of the
people through guidance in the strict path of Knunu, communing with the azakoyi on behalf of communities, families or individuals. Evans- Pritchard rightly observed that in Africa “Misfortune is due to witchcraft
co-operating with natural forces.” The same is the concept among the Gbagyi who see nature involvement as divine through the herbal combined with mystical practices in zoku. (Herbs here represent natural forces while the incantations represent mystical forces both forces must cooperate before a witch can carry out his/her enterprise according to Gbagyi belief).
The effectiveness of Zoku lies with the natural components of the ashigbe that is usually drawn from the various herbal medicines available from the different trees in the land. The spirits of the azakoyi who, in their
wisdom, reveal the types of shrubs to be used and which natural tree it was to be taken usually dictates this. The fact that everyone has a destiny from Shekwoyi (the “Supreme Being”), which the zoku chiefly foretell, does not in any way prevent assisting a person to discover the best way to influence their destinies positively. However, the Gbagyis in agreement with Idowu believe that there are myriads of spirits that run errand for the deities which make the work of evil forces so brisk and flourishing. In the process of running errands for the deities, the spirits tend to favour those who offer them the best gifts inform of sacrifice. Likewise, the Gbagyi belief is that their destiny can be influenced and changed if the right sacrifices as prescribed by the Azokuda and accepted by any of the deities.

                                         Gbagyi man. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson
Regarded mostly as enemies of progress, the agunzheyin use their powers to inflict pain and sorrows on their
victims. The Gbagyi understand the role of the agunzheyin to be acquired rather than innate. Jarumi explains that agunzheyin derives from the Gbagyi perception of unexplainable mysteries of nature which zoku
explains as the work of agunzheyin in nature. Since they are perceived to have strange powers to cause tumultuous disequilibrium in people‟s lives, by their nefarious activities, fear and dislike for them is on the increase.
Witchcraft is said to be common among the Gbagyi women. The reasons adduced for this by Jarumi includes: polygamy, the non acceptance of a woman married into the family from another village other than that of the husband resulting in what Jarumi calls the “mother-in-law complex”, and in “queer” and “ugly people.”
elderly Qwari woman near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
elderly Qwari woman near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

Before the coming of Christianity with its “one man one wife” teaching, Gbagyi traditionally were polygamists. The wives competed for their husband‟s attention, which has led some to desire power so that they can control the man. Such makes them become witches. However, there is also a small element of male participation in witchcraft. Therefore, the challenge posed by an acceptance of Christianity and its teachings will demand a complete overhaul of this tradition. There is a strong resistance as many women continue to be accused of witchcraft. Furthermore, such accusations often has “wreaked havoc on social relations and caused suffering to untold numbers of people.” Among the Gbagyi many suspected witches were ostracised away from their families just because there was suspicion around them of being witches.
Although it is very difficult to understand the mechanism behind this belief, the activities which lead to accusations of witchcraft are considered by empirical sciences as natural occurrences (“thunder,” “wild
wind,” “drought”), yet to the Gbagyi people it is a dreaded concept. Bongmba emphasises the fact that witchcraft is not a “benign spiritual force,” rather it is an act that raises ethical questions The Gbagyis have
no problems with the concept of witchcraft and will never question the validity of its use by anyone. They believe that there is a mystical force in it which they link to deities, spirits, and ancestors as vital forces with
powers that could be used for good or evil.
Gwari girls carry water to their village , near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
Gwari girls carry water to their village , near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

Whenever ashigbe is mentioned in Gbagyi understanding, it refers to that medicine which has a mystical and transcendental ability to cure, heal, and ward off all evil attacks against a person. In the Igbo society, the
roles of “diviners, priests, and medicine-men” are differentiated. Ikenga-Metuh observed: “Medicine for Africans primarily conveys the idea of forces contained and can be extracted from the properties of some plants and herbs and applied to the solution of a variety of human problems.”
Ikenga-Metuh however, sees magic as a purely mystical force which can influence or control events supernaturally. Although this agrees with Gbagyi beliefs in the use of medicine as a curative agent, it however differs in the fact that both good and bad medicines are claimed to come from the same person. Thus, the Gbagyis regard medicine men as “herbalist,” who commune with the spirits to assist individuals achieve expected goals. Therefore, medicine-men can negatively be used against one‟s enemies and foes. This is where their medicine becomes a source of worry to the Gbagyi people. How do they comprehend a man endowed by the gods to deal with wicked men turning around to becoming a tool for wicked acts?
Medicine persistently has remained a common feature of Gbagyi‟s belief that has thrived because the Gbagyis see it as potent enough to address their teething problems. Temple observed that the Gbagyis
maintain “a temple” in each village which was a mark for the presence of a medicine-man and an identity of the Gbagyi Knunu. Most times, Medicine men are also “witch doctors.” Parrinder says, “the witch-doctor is a person who seeks to doctor and cure those who are believed to have been bewitched.” This explains why ashigbeda are revered among the Gbagyis. The challenge is in the use of one preparation of medicinal concoction and the claim that it has the potency to cure several diseases. It is worthy of note that the ashigbeda has provided healthcare services to the Gbagyi people for centuries before the coming of both Islam and Christianity to Gbagyi land.

Today, some Gbagyis still patronise the Ashigbeda despite their romance with the two missionary religions. Temple was of the view that the cultural implications of the fact that “each individual Gbagyi worships
a personal god or guardian spirit” may explain the long survival of the syncretistic tendencies among the Gbagyi people. Thus, the inability of Gbagyi Christians to see Christianity as a culture on its own created the dichotomy.

                                     Gbagyi kids from Pyakasa, Abuja, Nigeria.

Gbagyi Religious contact with Islam.
Islam first came to Gbagyi land in the 19th century, during the Sokoto Jihad of 1804 led by Usman Danfodio. Christianity on the other hand came in the 20th century through the southerners. Harold D. Gunn and F. P. Conant, in their study of the people of the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, have stated how in 1804 Sarkin Zauzau, the Muslim ruler of Zaria, took a few Gbagyi slaves to Abuja and how subsequently Islam began to take hold of the Gbagyi people. Islam was able to gain more converts than Christianity. The reason for this was because practices like polygamy, divination and the using of rings and amulet were part of the religion, and the fact that Gbagyi religion also encouraged the use of such, many of them received the religion whole heartedly.

Gbagyi Religion encounters Christianity
Gbagyi people came in contact with three large categories of Christians: Protestant missionaries, British colonial administrators who claimed to be Christians, and Roman Catholic Christians. Charles Lindsay
Temple, an ethnographer in the service of the British Colonial Government in Nigeria states that Protestant Christianity came to Gbagyi land with the arrival of the missionaries of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) in 1904. The following year, other missionaries belonging to the Church Missionary Society (CMS, 1905) followed them. British colonial administrators introduced new legal, educational, and political policies
that failed to address issues related to Gbagyi witchcraft and witchcraft related crimes. S.F. Nadel, who studied the Nupe, describes a common African perception of the Europeans with regard to the persisting nature of witchcraft in Africa: “White Man did not believe in witchcraft”
The British administrators, mostly under the spell of European Enlightenment, could not understand the centrality of witchcraft among the Gbagyis and failed to take it seriously. Therefore, the Gbagyis developed their own ways of addressing their social problems; but they got into moral crisis originating from their loyalty to their ancestral traditions pertaining to witchcraft and their need to conform to British legal system. The second group of Christians with whom the Gbagyis came into contact with were the Roman Catholic missionaries of the Society of African Mission (SMA, founded in 1856) who reached Gbagyi land in 1913.
According to the Catholic Diocese of Minna, Nigeria, the work in Gbagyi land began as an outstation of Lokoja while, her history states that it was administered from Asaba by the Vicar Apostle. The first missionary to plant a Catholic Church in Gbagyi land was Rev. Fr. Leon De Bourge. Largely, the membership was drawn from immigrant rail workers from the South East who made the parish grow. Furthermore, the Catholic work among the Gbagyis was precipitated strongly on the use of Western
education and health facilities. On the other hand, the first SIM/ECWA missionaries to Gbagyi land were Dr. Andrew P. Stirrett and Rev E. F. Rice who came to Wushishi in 1904 to begin the work in the Northern
Nigeria. The work progressed in the following order: Paiko (1909) by Rev E. F. Rice and Rev. George; Karu (1910) by Rev George Sanderson and Rev. Charles Dudley: Minna (1913) by Rev. James F. Cotton while Kuta (1919) was by Rev. John Hay and Rev. E. F. Rice.
The long histories of Islam and Christianity did not completely replace the old loyalties of the Gbagyi people to their Traditional Religion. In certain situations, all Gbagyi people, whether Christians or Muslims,
practice their Knunu. They claim that Knunu safeguards them, their families, societies, and activities from certain evil forces and uncertainties of the future. Thus, the Gbagyi Muslims and Christians live with an
unresolved dichotomy between Christianity and Islam and between traditional religion. Even after two centuries of Gbagyi‟s encounters with Islam and Christianity, belief in witchcraft still thrives.

The favourite food of the Gbagys is known as Wyizhe, made from guinea corn to form Zhepwo a special drink  use to drink with Knadolo  a spicy soup made with locus beans, and their famous dress is call Ajesida, made from local cotton and traditional woven and dyed by their skillful dressmakers. Some of their popular festivals is the Agbamaya festival and the Zhibaje.  The Agbamaya festival is a celebration usually perform to welcome the rain during the raining season, while Zhibaje is a traditional Christmas celebration.
a Gwari girl carries water back to her village , near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
a Gwari girl carries water back to her village , near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

In terms of dressing, Gwari people usually dress like Hausas and they have predominantly Muslim population. They plant cotton on their farms, the materials of which they use to fabricate their traditional cloths.

An indigenous Gbagyi Woman wearing traditional dark cloth in Jikoko (FCT), Nigeria.

Before the white people arrived in Gwariland, the Gwari have their own special dress weaved by them. Their woven wrapper cloth reflect  dark black and not too bright colors.
This performance is one of the exciting aspects of the dance. It bears the message of the dance which has as its theme “Unity Song” emphasizing the need for unity among the diverse ethnic groups of Kaduna State and the beauty in peaceful co-existence.
This song performance is led by a female singer who first appears on stage followed by other women similarly dressed in the same colourful costume with beads and ornamental jewelries of different shapes which adds flavour to the Bazobe song performance. As the songstress continue to render the melodious tunes, she is joined by dancers from other ethnic groups in the State in their colourful attires responding to the rendition of the lead singer. The dance gradually culminates in the Bajju dance belonging to the Bajju tribe of Southern Kaduna. At this stage the floor is cleared of male dancers as the females continue to dance. As the beating of the instruments becomes more strident and enchanting, the dancers gradually leave the stage one after the other leaving the lead singer to close the dance. The dance has become popular in places like Brazil and the Caribbean with much waist twisting and wriggling that puts a spectator rooted to the spot. Watching a performance of the Bazobe is the desire of every tourist on an adventure of this land of tourist wonder.

                         Gbagyi people, Minna,Nigeria

Body Decoration
 This is an act of body beautification. Body decoration is a popular practice among Gwaris and the practice is still being sustained up till date. Body decoration can take the form of tattoo, piercing of certain parts of the body like nose, ear, abdomen etc. Traditionally, Gwari women do body decoration to attract men.
Body decoration has aesthetic values.
Gwari women carrying clay pots , near , Bida , Nigeria , West Africa stock photo
Gwari women carrying clay pots , near , Bida , Nigeria , West Africa. Courtesy

 It increases honour and respect of the doer. Body decoration is essentially done for easy identification. Before it could be done, consent of the doer needs to be obtained.

                     Gwari girl showing her facial tribal marks. Courtesy gordonanddustyhanson

In certain circumstances, the unmarried Gwari ladies use body decoration to scare potential suitors by writing the name of their would be husbands on their hands. Gwari people believe that by writing the names of their proposed husbands in their hands is not only for decoration but also a from of oath or covenant to marry the person whose name was written in their hands. Another important body decoration among Gwaris is facial mark. The idea of facial mark became prominent among Gwari people during the second world war for easy identification.
Gwari woman carrying wood , near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

Essentially, body decoration and dressing among Gwaris do not have spiritual attachment. The type of body decoration a person does is a matter of preference. Animate and inanimate objects are designed as body decoration. Names of ones heroes, friends, relatives and lovers could be written to decorate the body.
Body decoration could be done by self or by the specialists. The instruments for body decoration are blade, niddle, and lamb smoke. Due to advance in science and technology, the body decorators now use halogen to heal the decorated spots. The body decoration healing process takes two to three days. The use of "laali", a common herbal/medicinal leaves is becoming prevalence nowadays among Gwari people as material for body decoration.
As a matter of fact, the parts of the body that are exposed such as hands, legs and face are usually decorated. There is different designs suitable for each part of the body. Body decoration is exclusively meant for mature women.
Gwari woman sifting flour , near Minna , Nigeria stock photo
Gwari woman sifting flour , near Minna , Nigeria. Courtesy

The natural death is a death not as a result of an attempt to kill someone through either charm,witchcraft or any other source. Gbaishya is performed before the burial, during the death ceremony or the performance may occur at both occasions.Traditionally, Gbaishya is performed during the death ceremony.The cultural practice is done to commemorate the deceased either man or woman and to celebrate a life well spent by the deceased.It also aim at tracking and showcasing the activities of the deceased while he/she was alive,through drama. Gbaishya is always perform before the members of the community and the daughter in-law or grand daughter plays the major role.However an interesting aspect of this traditional drama is that it is people oriented and participatory.Every member of the community is expected to participate actively during the performance,as natural as they use to communicate with the deceased during his/her life time.

The dramatic performance is a prerequisite of series of cultural activities,such as: Ritual and Sacrifice,Music and Dance and series of other forms of the Enactment,all associated with the death ceremony.This cultural practice has survived to date and is still in practice in most of the Gbagyi communities especially in the rural areas.
Gwari woman beating calabashes and singing , near Minna , Nigeria , West Africa stock photo
 Gwari woman beating calabashes and singing , near Minna , Nigeria , West Africa. Courtesy


Aisha Babaginda, daughter of IBB, Gwari native from Minna

Gbagyi women and children

Photos by:


  1. Excellent!!! thank you for this. ive always wanted to know more about my roots.

  2. This is a very insightful piece. Well written! I love the finesse and detail out into the research. Great job! Please keep at it!

  3. Very beautiful piece,but I need an insight into their system of landholding.before the creation of the f.c.t and also what is obtainable now

    1. It is indeed very insightful pcs well researched and documented for future generation.


Post a Comment