Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Ijaw Dictionary Project

The Ijaw Dictionary Online
I came across this site during one of my forays into cyberworld. I am gobsmacked that someone has taken the time and trouble to produce something of this magnitude, a resource that goes way beyond just providing the meanings of words. This is not only a language dictionary, but information about Ijaw history and culture, present day politics and much more. It is especially relevant to me because the
Ijaw language is the language of my ancestors. Ijaw (also known an 'Ijo' or 'Izon') is a language that belongs to a group of languages known as the Niger-Congo. Ijaw in turn is a family of several languages known as the 'Ijoid' family of languages. It is a large language group, the fourth largest in Nigeria and is spoken by people who are predominantly in the states located within the Niger delta in the south of Nigeria, (Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Edo, Ondo and Akwa Ibom).

here for the history of the Ijaw as documented by the London based Ijaw Historical Documentation Project (The Ijo Genesis).

The Ijaw speak 9 closely-related Niger-Congo languages, all of which fall under the Ijoid branch of the Niger-Congo tree. The primary division between the Ijaw languages is that between Central Ijaw and Western Ijaw, the most important of the former group of languages being Izon, which is spoken by about 1 million people, while the most prominent member of the Western Ijaw group is
Kalabari, which has about a quarter of a million speakers.

The Ijaw were one of the first of Nigeria's peoples to have contact with Westerners, and were active as go-betweens in trade between visiting Europeans and the peoples of the interior, particularly in the era before the discovery of
Quinine, when West Africa was still known as the White Man's Graveyard because of the endemic presence of malaria. Some of the kin-based trading lineages that arose amongst the Ijaw developed into substantial corporations which were known as "Houses"; each house had an elected leader as well as a fleet of war canoes for use in protecting trade and fighting rivals. The other main occupation common amongst the Ijaw has traditionally been fishing.

Ijaw war canoe. Traditionally a fleet of these were used in protecting trade and fighting rivals (Click photo to enlarge)

Formerly organised into several loose clusters of villages which cooperated to defend themselves against outsiders, the Ijaw increasingly view themselves as belonging to a single coherent nation, bound together by ties of language and culture. This tendency has been encouraged in large part by the environmental degradation that has accompanied the discovery of oil in the Niger delta region which the Ijaw call home, as well as by a revenue sharing formula with the Federal government that is viewed by the Ijaw as manifestly unfair. The resulting sense of grievance has led to several
high-profile clashes with the Nigerian Federal authorities, including kidnappings and in the course of which many lives have been lost.

Images of armed militants in Ijaw land have frequently appeared in the world's media in recent years

One manifestation of ethnic assertiveness on the part of the Ijaw has been an increase in the number and severity of clashes between Ijaw militants and those of Itsekiri origin, particularly in the town of Warri. While the Ijaw and the Itsekiri have lived alongside each other for centuries, for the most part harmoniously, the Itsekiri were first to make contact with European traders, as early as the 16th century, and they were more aggressive both in seeking Western education and in using the knowledge acquired to press their commercial advantages; until the arrival of Sir George Goldie's United Africa Company (later renamed the Royal Niger Company) in 1879, Itsekiri chieftains monopolised trade with Europeans in the Western Niger region. Despite the loss of their monopoly, the advantages already held by the Itsekiri ensured that they continued to enjoy a superior position to that held by the Ijaw, breeding in the latter a sense of resentment at what they felt to be colonial favoritism towards the Itsekiri.

Traditional Ijaw war boats appear today only on ceremonial occasions

The departure of the British at independence did not lead, as might have been expected, to a decrease in tensions between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. With the discovery of large oil reserves in the Niger Delta region in the early 1960s, a new bone of contention was introduced, as the ability to claim ownership of a given piece of land now promised to yield immense benefits in terms of jobs and infrastructural benefits to be provided by the oil companies. Despite this new factor, rivalry between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri did not actually escalate to the level of violent conflict between the two groups until the late 1990s, when the death of General Sani Abacha in 1997 led to a re-emergence of local politics.

The issue of local government ward allocation has proven particularly contentious, as the Ijaw feel that the way in which wards have been allocated ensures that their superior numbers will not be reflected in the number of wards controlled by politicians of Ijaw ethnicity. Control of the city of Warri, the largest metropolitan area in Delta State and therefore a prime source of political patronage, has been an especially fiercely contested prize. This has given birth to heated disputes between the Ijaw, the Itsekiri and the [
Urhobo] about which of the three groups are "truly" indigenous to the Warri region, with the underlying presumption being that the "real" indigenes should have control of the levers of power, regardless of the fact that the members of all three groups hold ostensibly equal political rights in their places of residence.

Although the Ijaw are now primarily Christians, with Catholicism being the variety of Christianity most prevalent amongst them, the Ijaw have elaborate traditional religious practices of their own. Veneration of ancestors plays a central role in Ijaw traditional religion, while water spirits, known as
Owuamapu figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon. In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called Igbadai, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death.

Ijaw religious beliefs hold that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings, and that humans dwell amongst the water spirits before being born. The role of prayer in the traditional Ijaw system of belief is to maintain the living in the good graces of the water spirits amongst whom they dwelt before being born into this world, and each year the Ijaw hold celebrations in honour of the spirits lasting for several days. Central to the festivities is the role of masquerades, in which men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing. Particularly spectacular masqueraders are taken to actually be in the possession of the particular spirits on whose behalf they are dancing.



sokari said...

Thanks - Enjoyed this post

mcjonas said...
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Anengiyefa said...

Hi Sokari, its nice to see you here. I kind of thought you would find the 'Ijaw' thing interesting..