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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Episode 6: The Ancient Script of Southeastern Nigeria – Nsibidi

J2S – Unlocking the Secrets of Nsibidi: Discovering the Ancient Script of Southeastern Nigeria – (Episode 6)

It is not a surprise that on this Journey to Self, one finds the answers to their queries in random places. I knew that Nsibidi was an old Igbo writing system, but I had no idea how to learn it. In a strange turn of events, I came upon a Twitter profile of a person who taught the writing system as he learned it.

Obviously, I reached out to him, and so our friendship started. After a few talks on Twitter Spaces and Instagram Live sessions, I asked him to teach me one-on-one. He then sent me an email with a Nsibidi dictionary attached to my plea for him to share this “secret” ancient knowledge.

To my surprise, this dictionary is incredibly thorough, challenging to understand, and filled with information. As he probably did, I started by identifying my own learning strategy. This felt like I was being thrown into the deep end to figure it out myself. But that sensation of irritation hit me before I started. I questioned why I was only learning about this in my 30s and why teaching us about our own history and culture in school wasn’t a must in our educational systems. I found the obvious response below after digging a little deeper into this subject.



For centuries, European colonizers spread the idea that Africa was a continent without a written history or civilization. They used this narrative to justify their conquest and exploitation of the continent. But it was also used to erase the rich and diverse cultures that existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans.

Colonialists claimed that Africa was a “terra incognita,” an unknown land without written records or history. This idea was used to justify the looting of ancient artifacts and the destruction of historical sites, as well as the forced conversion of African people to Christianity.

However, Nsibidi, Adinkra, and Mandombe are just a few of the written languages and scripts that have existed in Africa for a very long time. These scripts have been used for centuries to preserve cultural knowledge, and record transactions & history. They were thought to possess spiritual power and were also utilized in religious rituals and ceremonies.

African writing systems were used by the general populace as well as the literate elite because they were passed down orally through the generations.

These writing systems were actively suppressed by colonizers because they were a threat to the narrative they were trying to establish. In some cases, they even forbade their use and destroyed texts and artifacts. Additionally, they discouraged the study of these scripts, which led to the loss of a significant amount of knowledge about these writing systems.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Africa’s writing systems and their role in the continent’s history. This is important not only for understanding the past but also for shaping the future. It helps us reclaim African heritage and promote a more accurate and inclusive narrative.


Reclamation of Our Ancient Heritage

The ancient writing system  ‘Nsibidi’ rose in what is now southeast Nigeria. It is assumed that the Ekpe society, a covert fraternity that was well-known in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries, used it. Various symbols and figures throughout the script convey various meanings.

Nsibidi - ancient script writing
Igbo ancient script writing

Nsibidi’s adaptability is one of its distinctive qualities. It was used for various things, like communication, keeping track of things, and performing rituals. For instance, it was used to document significant occurrences and transactions, like real estate sales and marriage contracts. It was also employed in religious rituals and ceremonies because it was thought to possess spiritual power.

The history of Nsibidi is largely unknown despite its widespread use. Academic theories say that it might have evolved from earlier forms of writing. Such as ideograms of the Nsibiri people, who lived in the area before the Ekpe society arrived. Others contend that it might have been influenced by nearby cultures’ writing systems, like the Igbo and the Calabar.

Early in the 20th century, Nsibidi started to decline as the Ekpe society lost its clout and influence. However, there has been a recent rise in interest in learning about and preserving this ancient script among young people in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

Some traditional societies continue to use this ancient script today to pass on cultural heritage to future generations.

Nsibidi is an all-around intriguing and distinctive script that provides a window into the rich cultural history of Nigeria. It is a significant aspect of the nation’s heritage that ought to be honored and preserved for future generations.

European colonizers used the fabrication that Africa lacked a written language as justification for enslaving and exploiting us. It served as an instrument of oppression. Erasing the vibrant cultural heritage of Africa, and dehumanizing its people. We can work to correct this narrative and advance a more accurate and inclusive understanding of Africa’s history. As more people become aware, they appreciate Africa’s writing systems.


The Role I Must Play

My role as an African is to do my little part in re-educating our people in whatever form I can. I chose writing and art as my mediums for playing my role. As I learn, I teach. I am not waiting to become a master before I believe I am worthy enough to impart my knowledge to my world. The world is changing at a rapid pace, and we must evolve with the times in a way that benefits us and the next generations of Africans to come. We must believe that one day, we will rise to the heights we once reached by taking charge of our destiny and the narrative of our individual and collective journeys to self.


Watch Out for the Next Episode of Journey to Self (J2S)




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