BY NJIDEKA AGBO
By now, we are familiar with the fact that long before the coming of the White man on the African soil, Africa was developed in its own capacity. Besides the written history of Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and what is today known as Nigeria via Nok arts held secrets and knowledge of its people.
As people source for knowledge on this, there is little information on the languages that were used as a means of communication, especially in their neighboring communities and during a trade.
History reveals that the languages of Africa were grouped into four families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. Of all four, the Niger-Congo, Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan are found in West Africa.
Afroasiatic languages are spoken across North Africa, and Southwest Asia. One of its sub-family, Chadic, has Hausa as a language, while Semitic sub-family, has Arabic. Interestingly, Pidgin English also falls under this category. Afroasiatic also boasts of having the longest written history- a popular example is the Ancient Egyptian language.
The Kanuri language falls under the Nilo-Saharan family is spoken in Southern Egypt, Northern Tanzania, DR Congo and Nigeria. The Kanuri language belongs to this family.
Khoisan is a sum of 30 languages and is spoken by about 300,000 – 400,000 people. This is the only family not spoken by Nigerians.
Why is this information important? It helps lay a foundation on how the languages and symbols used in Nigeria were formed. It is also hoped that this foundation will appease our African consciousness. Two popular symbolisms that were adopted and used to communicate in ancient Nigeria were Nsibidi and Aroko.
Widely used, it only gained attention centuries later after the infamous Marvel film, The Black Panther, used some of its symbols. Historians have often argued about the origin of Nsibidi. Macgregor, in 1909, argued that Nsibidi has its root in the Uguakima, Ebe or Uyanga tribes of the Igbos. In his work, he notes that legend has it that this language was taught to the Igbos by baboons. However, another school of thought has argued that Nsibidi originated from the Ekoi people, neighbours of the Efik and Ibibio ethnic groups in Nigeria before it was adopted by the Igbos.
Although there is no generally accepted date, scholars say it has been in use in Ekoi for as long as 400 CE. Its oldest archaeological evidence dates back to 2000 B.C To have the permission to use Nsibidi meant that you were a part of the Ekpe Leopard secret society, found in present-day Abia. Ukara Ekpe, a popular piece of clothing in Eastern Nigeria has some of the ancient Nsibidi inscriptions. The transatlantic slave trade also saw Nsibidi being exported to the Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Haiti.
Still found in a few rural communities in Yoruba land, the àrokò messaging system was used to send encrypted letters or messages over long distances. The conveyor of the message was oblivious of its content because of the secrecy. These letters were made from materials like cowrie-shells and seeds. Each string on the cowrie had a message. Records state that the position also determined the message. For instance, a kernel in the middle meant ‘what is good for me is good for you’, while eight cowries paired together meant “the people of the four corners of the earth”. Sometimes, these letters were done graphically. For instance, a knife positioned in a particular way could mean death to the messenger. àrokò was used to send a message of peace from the King of Ìjẹbú to the King of Lagos in 1851.
Ààlè, a popular symbol among the Ikale Yoruba of Nigeria, featured broken things that sent a message to thieves or a person who is not of high moral or ethical standards on a property. Simply put, it served as a Caveat emptor.