A Report from Calabar
We just received a fascinating report from Justin Clement, winner of our 2020 Travel Grant, on his travels in Calabar, Nigeria.
We’d like to share it with you.
Stone Faces in Far Places
I’d received the heads up from a friend of mine living in Calabar that Ikom was at least four hours from the capital, though they were both in Cross River. One thing I must say I noticed, and experienced, was the hospitality of the locals, the genuine concern and connection between humans. As I left the arrival terminal, and came out onto the road, someone on his way somewhere explained to me how to get to where I was going and also helped me flag down a vehicle going my way. Then came the second surprise: the back seat which is intended for three people, with me making it three, had another two guys come in, one sitting on the other. Yeah, we were five in the back and believe me, it was one of my less pleasant surprises in Calabar. Little did I know that the best was yet to come. The car dropped me at the U.J Esuene Stadium, after which I had to walk for about six to ten minutes, to the bus stop where I’d get a vehicle to Ikom. The vehicles heading to Ikom were Toyota Siennas and I paid the fare and jumped in. By the time the last passenger paid their fare, we were thirteen in the vehicle.
Excluding the driver.
Three people sat in the front seat, with one of them literally rubbing shoulders with the driver. I sat behind them, by the window on the left, and we were five in my row. Then there were five people seated at the back. Yes, this was a sienna. With thirteen passengers. I’d never felt such kinship with canned sardines like I did right then. And this was supposed to be a four hour journey.
It was seven in the evening when we arrived at a place called Ekoli Yedeen. The driver, due to the time, wasn’t going much further than that, and I was to continue the rest of the journey in another vehicle. This one however, was a private car, with the man driving a cordial silence. The car’s AC was running pleasantly and I was a lot thankful for the elbow room, putting it lightly. I checked out hotels on Google maps as we drove through the night. I discovered one I liked and the man at that moment asked me if I’d seen a hotel. I told him my choice, and he approved. In one of those strokes of rightness, the hotel I chose happened to be right beside where the person driving came to a stop. Checking into the hotel was fairly easy, and I had noodles for dinner after a proper shower.
The next day was a Sunday, and I decided on a stroll that morning. Cross River had always been a place I’d been looking forward to visiting for a while; the state’s history and promise was something I’d been hoping to see. So I stepped out of the hotel to check out my environment. In a burst of spontaneity, I decided to swing by Alok that morning, to have an idea of the region. I assumed that since the monoliths were referred to as the Alok-Ikom monoliths, the place was just around the corner.
I enlisted the services of a bike man, and I noticed again that people here were a lot more polite than others I was used to. We negotiated the fare and we set off. My eyes swallowed the scenery and I managed to get a few pictures and videos. We rode for quite a while, more than 20 minutes till we arrived at another village. From time to time, I’d check my location on Google Maps. We got somewhere and a woman asked to join us on the way to the next village. The roads were long. Really long.
There I was, sandwiched between the rider in front, the elderly woman behind, exchanging stories. Here in Cross River, it seemed people could form friendships in seconds, and spending more of my time in harsher or hurried climes, the experience was novel as it was warming. The rider asked me where I’d come from and when I told him Port Harcourt, he said that he had stayed in Port Harcourt for a couple of years before leaving for Cross River. We rode like this for about ten, fifteen minutes, all three of us giving each other pieces of us, letting the wind take nothing. We got to a town, Balep, and stopped to ask how far Alok was from there. When the woman on the bike said that Alok was still about four local governments away, I checked Google maps again. I zoomed in. And zoomed in again. The fact that the map had been zoomed out made me grossly miscalculate the distance, and it was such a wow moment that I couldn’t keep my jaw from dropping. The rider likewise couldn’t keep himself from crying out in shock. 🥲
The bike man parted ways with us here, genuinely wishing me well, before turning back towards Ikom. The elderly woman had it good; Balep was her destination, so she bade me goodbye and went her way, leaving me to find my square root. I looked to the left. Infinite road. I looked to the right. More infinite road. The words swimming my mind were Nathan Drake, Uncharted.
It took three more bike trips through four more towns before I finally got to Alok. We initially zoomed past the town, and another bike rider told us that the monoliths that he knew about were a little way on the forest fringes, which we’d find by following the footpath leading into the forest. We however declined to move into the forest, and rerouted back to the town proper.
On arrival, I asked for directions, and I got pointed in the location of the monoliths. Alok was a quaint town, nostalgic, in a way that made me feel like I was in the 80s. Just before arriving at the compound where the monoliths were, I came to a tree which from its roots, was historic in its own way.
Getting to the compound, I discovered it was an open air museum and it was locked. I found out they don’t open on Sundays. So much for spontaneity. So I would have to face all those multiple trips to and fro, again? The mental stress of the thought was vexation to my spirit.
When I couldn’t gain access, I retraced my steps to where the bike rider I’d just asked for directions spoke about, and I moved into the forest. It wasn’t a deep or a thick forest (or rather I didn’t go in too deeply), as there was evidence of human occupation—some way in, I came across a church (or at least something that resembled one but now that I think of it, I don’t think that was a church at all 🤔). I walked the footpath till I came to a low wall and climbed over it. I came into a cleared field, where several monoliths were arranged in a rough circle. These ones were black, like coal. There was a family living directly beside this compound, and though we greeted, they didn’t question me as to what I was doing there. There was this haunting quality to the place, to this empty compound within a forest, having nothing but a circle of black figurines in it.
When I eventually left the forest, my eyes caught the road sign that showed that Ikom was fifty kilometres away (thirty-one miles). No wonder. From the forest, I went back to the Open Air Museum and was guaranteed they’d be open tomorrow, and would be able to field all my questions. My return to Ikom was thankfully less eventful, and I only changed transport twice instead of four times, and the second was a Sienna which took me and the other passengers from Nkarasi (the second town, coming from Balep) all the way to Ikom. As I alighted, walking down the busy wide road to my hotel, I stopped at a small minimart to get some groceries (I had not gotten a bite to eat all day, and it was already past four in the afternoon). By a stroke of good fortune, the convenience store, apparently run by a married couple, also sold and served cooked food, and it was one of the oddest yet most welcome settings I’d come across. I ate a well earned plate of eba and afang soup before leaving for the hotel with my groceries. Ah, I was so happy.
I went to Alok again, the following day. Experience is the best teacher they say, and it was evident that yesterday was a price paid. I’d asked questions before coming out, on better ways to get to Alok and I was told that there was a spot where minivans loaded passengers to Alok and beyond. There was a restaurant I’d missed trying yesterday before leaving for Alok, and I didn’t make that mistake a second time. I downloaded food properly— my first time eating pounded yam. With a belly locked and loaded, I found the spot the minivans were boarding, paid the fare and got in (thankfully, we were not close to thirteen this time). As the journey began, someone in the vehicle raised some worship songs, and we joined in. Then he prayed and asked God to bless the journey in Jesus’s name, and after this was done, I felt the journey was settled. I laid back, AirPod in my left ear, and watched the speeding terrain, and I was grateful that I could finally appreciate the scenery in peace, unlike yesterday. The minivan stopped me right at Alok, and I made my way to the site of the monoliths, where the manager/curator was called on phone to come over.
At the Open Air Museum, I disclosed I was there to understand the stones. I was told that carbon dating had put the stones at about 2000 years old but from what was said, there were some monoliths which were also relatively recent. The newer carvings had no symbols or signs, and I was told that the symbols represented things like ethnic groups, families and even mathematical symbols and geometry (triangles, clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation etc).
From what was said, the stones for the monoliths were dragged out of a particular stream called Nto Ata. Some of the monoliths were said to represent heroes of time past in the community. Interestingly, the curator mentioned that we are all born of Adam and Eve, that we migrated from heaven to earth and scattered into various ethnicities.
The tattoo marks are the first writings on earth,” the curator said. “Nsibidi was the language of the tattoos.” He started taking me round the stones. “There are twenty seven circles of monoliths in the entire clan, in the region around.” The curator mentioned that the Nkirikom Reserved Forest, the oldest reserved forest in the country (1927), has other old monoliths, with some taller than me (I am 6”5, by the way). We stopped in front of one monolith.
“This particular stone is called etalabom, the children stone. This stone is decorated every September 15, by the Bako ethnic group. Only an undefiled person can decorate this stone.” I was made to understand that on that day, an aged woman, who has long stopped having intercourse comes to decorate the stone.
The curator walked me to another stone. “This is the father stone. It’s the father stone that controls this circle [of monoliths],” the curator said, gesturing to the ring of monoliths in the compound. “The logo of Ikom local government is the logo of this stone.”
The next stone had a fair bit of intricacy to its carvings. “This one is the king stone. king—,” the man said, gesturing to a carving along the stone’s middle. “—was so old that his beard would touch the ground when he sits. He had seven titles, and here—” the curator gestures to the top of the stone. “—he was crowned with a human skull, showing that he conquered. In those days, people went for war to acquire land. These monoliths are a record of the people of those days, before Western Education.”
After the king stone, we came to another stone, a bare one this time. I didn’t think it was a monolith until the curator spoke. “This stone, is the peace stone. It has no markings, just the navel. This man is a peaceful man. He lives a free life, an easy life, a loving and caring man. No tattoos.”
“Our people used to make a remark that any person with a protruded navel means that you are productive, that your luck is always shining.” He made this remark in front of a particularly detailed stone with vivid carvings and symbols. “This is the fertility stone,” he said.
The curator told me of two people, that made wishes by the fertility stone. One was a Dr. April from California, who made a wish to the fertility stone that she would want to marry in Nigeria and settle here. Apparently, within a short time, a Yoruba man approached her, and they got married and she settled. Another was a certain Amanda Carson, who made a wish for twins for her first pregnancy and supposedly got it.
“When you take a wish, by the special grace of God, it comes true. I don’t know what is in the stone,” the curator said. “It is only God that knows what is in there. No one is above God.” The curator showed me the symbols of clockwise and anti-clockwise motion on the sides of the fertility stone, and I have to say, the fact that this was all done at a time period dating back two thousand years made the whole experience of it more surreal.
“This is the marriage stone.” This monolith was slimmer than the others. There was a symbol at the base of the stone, looking like a symmetrical representation of two leaves, coming together and moving up in a line to meet at a circle. He tells me the symbol is Nsibidi. He traces his finger from the left part of the symbol to the right side of it, and up to the circle. “One plus one equals one. This symbolizes the coming together of man and woman.”
The next monolith turned out to be an interesting one. The curator gestures to the symmetrical wide curve in front of the stone’s body. “This symbol is Ekare,” he said. “Ekare is a symbol of leadership. Only clan heads, heroes and chiefs handle Ekare.” The symbol reminded me of an ancient weapon I’d read about, similarly wielded by the ancient Obas of Benin. “This stone—,” the curator went on. “—is called Akpanya, and it translates as Troublemaker. Always clashing, always scratching. The stone is a woman’s stone.”
“Akpanya stone is the talking stone behind this community, and it is this stone that is consulted by the chief priest of the community. Each time something wants to happen, the stone would roar like a lion.” I looked at the curator. “The chief priest consults the stone and the stone reveals the meaning of the roaring. Not ordinary men hear [the roar], if you’re not spiritually inclined to Akpanya.” The thought that so long ago they also had women as chiefs made me question how ‘modern’ as a world society we’d become. The curator told me about how about fifty to twenty years ago, a man, Akam, from the community went to another community and stole yams from their barn, and was shot dead. Akam’s community searched for him for more than three days, and eventually got to know their kin had been killed. Prior to this, the two communities were at loggerheads, and Akam’s community began preparing for retaliation. They however, consulted Akpanya and were told by Akpanya not to go, that Akam had stolen and that’s how he’d been killed.
“There is power in a woman,” the curator went on after the interesting recounting. “If you as a man go to a beer parlour, then some other man just slaps you, and you run back home complaining to your wife, Maria see what happened to me, I was just on my own and one stranger came and slapped me, and I didn’t want to make trouble so I left him. She would respond, ‘you say what?! If you don’t go back and retaliate, I am leaving your house!’ Women are motivators. You as a man are going to have the strength and power to retaliate. Akpanya is a motivator, that’s why she was given the Ekare.”
Interesting take on the woman.
The last monolith the curator led me to was the queen stone. “For every king, there must be a queen. This is the queen of this circle. The female stone.”
He didn’t have much to say about the queen other than that, so we sauntered around the compound instead, talking about things related.
“I’m wondering,” I said. “How did Nsibidi become a language system or symbolic system?”
“It came into existence because the people of those days were only studying [learning, communicating] by signs and symbols,” the older man replied. “Nsibidi started from the cult of Yamangbe. The Yamangbe cult communicated with signs [and gestures].”
I found this particular bit of information uniquely exciting, because up until then, the origin of Nsibidi had been generally attributed to the Ekoi people of the region, but the mention of this cult was perhaps the first direct, specific angle of Nsibidi’s origins among the Ekoi people. During later research, I found no material at all on this cult (even a Google search produced no single result).
“Other sites are far from here, with other different carvings. Some have compasses, triangles, one is even in the shape of a hunchbacked man,” the curator said.
Apparently, the monoliths were also no strangers to theft. The curator led me to a cracked monolith and told me it occurred during an attempted heist. He told me also, of one of the farther sites, where some thieves had been arrested a couple of years ago. “They were hired by one alhaji to come and pick the stones to sell. They bring buyers from Cameroon. They wanted to carry it and the stone started sinking. Rain started falling, and a signal was sent to the chief priest [by the monolith] that something was occurring at the site, so we went there. When we got there, the thieves were just roaming around, dumbfounded. That’s how we caught them red handed.” Apparently, with the monoliths involved, I had to be open to hear every kind of intriguing strangeness.
I also asked him if Nsibidi could be used in witchcraft and spell work. “Nsibidi isn’t writings,” he told me. “They’re just signs and symbols [depicting meanings].” The curator referred me to a professor at the University of Calabar, who had extensive documentation on Nsibidi and a catalogue of the monoliths in various other circles. As I was leaving, he walked up to me slowly, and smiled. “There was a question I was expecting you to ask that you didn’t.”
I paused and turned to him. “What question is that?”
“You didn’t ask me how the stones were carved all those years ago.”
Oh. It was then I realized my oversight, that I’d simply assumed that stone carvings was done by stone carving tools. I’d been so caught up in its symbolism and significance that I’d neglected even trying to discover how exactly the monoliths were carved. “That’s true. I didn’t ask. How were they carved?”
“They were carved using metaphysical means. That’s how they could have curves and those symbols.” And with this last bit of strangeness, the curator bade me goodbye, answering the questions I came with and leaving me with a fresh batch to take home.
I wasn’t able to meet up with the professor, as it was the verge of the Christmas holidays, but I was really glad with all the material acquired, as well as the information about the Yamangbe cult, little as it was but valuable. My novel project had taken an unexpectedly welcome direction, and at the end of my time in Cross River, my sense of fulfillment and thankfulness was unparalleled. The whole experience made me wonder however, what modern civilization actually was, and what would be left us at the end of the ages.
Questions to be answered, at another time.
P.S: I’ve put more pictures of the Alok experience, including monoliths from the circle I came on in the forest. Hope you feel some —according to Jack Sparrow—stirrings.