Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

The Relationship between Early Forms of Literacy in Old Calabar and Inherited Manuscripts of the Cuban Abakuá Society 1

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

The Relationship between Early Forms of Literacy in Old Calabar and Inherited Manuscripts of the Cuban Abakuá Society 1

Article excerpt

"Arán arán Efik abeson kanyo nyuge afenyipa makaro ngomo: The Efik people sent 'a declaration of war' in writing (through signs drawn) on a white piece of paper."

-Cuban Abakuá phrase referring to literacy in Calabar2

Oral tradition has long been-and remains-the main engine of cultural transmission in West Africa, but for several centuries, literacy in many forms has played an important if secondary role. The Cross River area of Nigeria and Cameroon, for example, is famous for its old and indigenous nsîbîdî scripts or pictograms, as well as for the Efik elites of the Atlantic port of Calabar who became proficient in alphabetic English in the 1700s. Building on these precedents, this essay presents enough circumstantial evidence to ponder the influence of forced migrants from this region who entered Havana and Matanzas, Cuba, on the production of manuscripts in the Spanish colony from the early 1800s. These texts contain historical-mythical information about the Abakuá society that were codified in its initiation language, employing a mix of pictograms and alphabetic script, as well as detailed "mythic" maps of the Calabar region. Abakuá had been founded on institutions of the Cross River region, including the Ekpe "leopard" society, and its members preferred to protect all information about themselves from observation by colonial authorities and other outsiders, hence these manuscripts have been hidden from non-members for two centuries. Today, however, after twenty years of collaborative research with the author, some Abakuá leaders have begun to share pages from their archives, precisely because of new possibilities to communicate directly with their counterparts in Calabar. Thus, although literacy on both sides of the Atlantic is usually associated with European culture and social forms, access to the Abakuá manuscripts allows a comparison of the use of writing in Calabar and Cuba as a tool for emphatically non-European forms of thought and action. These rare documents suggest that Africans enslaved in a plantation economy of the Americas drew on specifically African forms of literacy in order to sustain themselves in an alien environment.

Calabar and its Diaspora: a History of Multiple Scripts

In the lower Cross River region, community leaders have long cultivated several types of literacy, most famously the nsîbîdî "communication arts" that include scripts and codes most readily seen on the sacred Ukárá cloth worn exclusively by titled members of the Ekpe "leopard" society. Ukárá cloth display nsîbîdî symbols using metaphor to express fundamental ideas of the group. As seen in Figure 1, an Ukárá cloth displays the totem animals of the region, including a leopard, a python, a crocodile, a chameleon, a tortoise, as well as a sword for defense, the manila rods (two half circles) representing wealth, the double metal idiophonic bell that symbolizes royalty, and finally the chief who "sits" on Ekpe and therefore is the highest authority in the community. Nsîbîdî communication also occurs through signs drawn on objects or the ground, as well as through gestures, drum patterns, chants, and so on.3 Nsîbîdî codes are also displayed during body-masked performance-each category of costume having specific designs and paraphernalia that are performed with communicative movements to specific rhythms. More recently, the English language and alphabet added to the already existing literacy of Calabar.4 All continue to coexist in the region, and since the 1750s have influenced the culture of Cross River peoples, including those who were enslaved and forcibly migrated to the Caribbean, where they were known as Carabalí, after the port city of Calabar.5

In Cuba, the Carabalí and their descendants created manuscripts documenting mythical-historical narratives about Cross River civilization: historical figures, important communities, trade activities, all within the context of the foundation of the Ekpe "leopard" society, the supreme form of governance for hundreds of communities in the area. …

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