Nsibidi Script

NsibidiNsibidi is an ancient system of graphic communication indigenous to the Ejagham peoples of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon in the Cross River region. It is also used by neighboring Ibibio, Efik and Igbo peoples.
Aesthetically compelling and encoded, nsibidi does not correspond to any one spoken language. It is an ideographic script whose symbols refer to abstract concepts, actions or things and whose use facilitates communication among peoples speaking different languages.
Nsibidi comprises nearly a thousand symbols that can be drawn in the air (as gestures), on the ground, on skin (as tattoos), on houses and on art forms, such as masks and textiles.
Though it is enjoyed as an artistic practice by the general public, deeper knowledge of the nsibidi symbols is restricted to members of men’s associations, which once controlled trade and maintained social and political order.
Nsibidi continues to inspire the work of many Nigerian contemporary artists such as Victor Ekpuk, whose lyrical, densely-scripted works are on view in his exhibition.

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One thought on “Nsibidi Script

  1. amahjones August 4, 2015 at 12:27 am Reply


    The Ibibio word “Nyibi” which means turn in English, is the root of Nyibidi. Nyibidi means turning. The play was usually accompanied with drummings. The drum is called Ibit. The drum for the ruling Crown is called Ibit Itam. Itam means crown, hat, or headgear. Ekpe was indeed the governing deity and Ibit Itam was one of their major plays. Ukara means governance or government in Ibibio. Ukara cloth is worn by those in the government of Ekpe. The Ekpe and even Ekpo masquerade of old used to dance in a circular motion in order to induce a trance-like effect or feeling. Hence Nyibidi. Ibibio is the largest language of the Cross River and Akwa Ibom territories. Efik, Ekoi, Annang, Oron, Eket, Qua, Ibeno, Okobo,etc. are all variations of Ibibio. The Ibibio owned and controlled Arochukwu until they lost it in 1634 to the allied forces of the migrating Igbo and the Akpa. The Igbo slaves of the Ibibio rebelled and joined forces with the Akpa who were themselves of Ibibio origin. The Ibibios left both Arochukwu and their ancient Long Juju, but those who remained continued to run the oracles and influence the Igbo converts/practitioners of Ekpe. The Ibibios and Efiks taught Nsibidi to the Igbos through the Ekpe society. The chief language used in Ekpe is Ibibio. The Ibibios and Efiks knew Arochukwu as Ibom and Mbot Abasi. Mbot means creation. Abasi means God. Therefore, Mbot Abasi means the creation of God or, simply, the people of God. While in Arochukwu, the Ibibio leaders had a secret society called Ekpe. Ekpe means leopard or lion. The leadership operated (and still does)in an esoteric manner. Only members are privy to the innerworkings of the group. They developed an elaborate system of logograms through which their ideas, knowledge, and activities awere recorded. Nyibidi which means turning (going in circles), evolved into Nsibidi. Nsibidi is Ibibio for what is at play or, what’s playing? Nso = what. I(as in letter “e”frown emoticon is. Bidi = play or playing. NSO-I-BIDI (NSIBIDI) or NSO-I-BIRI(NSIBIRI) means what’s playing? What’s at play? Therefore, Nsibidi means what is playing or, what’s at play? Nsibidi was later adopted as the name for the writings associated with Ekpe society. It is true that the Europeans found most of the Nsibidi script among the Ekoi, but it is really of Ibibio origin. The Igbos could not fully adapt Nsibidi because translation from Ibibio into Igbo had too many constraints. Original meanings of Ekpe society’s Nsibidi often got lost in translation.

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