A survey of the life of the Itsekiri people (Ancient account and present day, Lifestyle and culture)

Good day, esteemed readers and welcome to Informationhood. Today, we would take you through a guide on the life style of another Nigerian ethnic group, the Itsekiri. This account of this tribe will focus on the historical life of this group in time past, as well as their present day life, their general mode of lifestyle and also, their culture.

As an introductory prelude to describe this group, they are an ethnic tribe of the Niger Delta area, Delta State in Nigeria. For their population, they presently number just under 1 million people and live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State on the Atlantic coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can be found in parts of Edo and Ondo states and in various other Nigerian cities including Lagos,
Sapele, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Abuja.

It should also be noted that most people of Itsekiri descent are scattered all over the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. They have close relations to the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria and more widely to the Urhobo and Edo peoples.

Early account of the Itsekiri people

As early as the 15th century, the first Itsekiris adopted a prince Ginuwa who was also called “Iginuwa” in Bini Language from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and has swiftly introduced into kingdom rule. Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. These interactions in the 16th century led the Itsekiri to become primarily accept the Roman Catholic Christianity.

The Itsekiri monarchy has continued to the present day, with the coronation of Ogiame Ikenwoli on the 12th of December in 2015. The Itsekiri’s historical capital is Ode-Itsekiri also called big warri or Ale iwerre though the monarch’s main palace is in Warri town the largest city in the area and home to diverse other communities surrounding the areas which include the Urhobos, Ijaws,
Isoko, and many other Nigerian ethnic groups working in the oil and gas industry.

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Present day account

The Itsekiri, though a minority group within Nigeria, are considered to be a highly educated and affluent ethnic group with a very high rate of literacy and a rich cultural heritage. The Itsekiris have one of the oldest histories of western education in
West Africa, and are noted for producing one of its earliest university graduates – the Olu of Warri Kingdom, Olu Atuwatse I, Dom Domingo a 17th-century graduate of Coimbra University in Portugal. Today, many Itsekiris can be found working in the professions particularly medicine, law and the academic professions and in business, trade and industry and were among the pioneers that led the development of the professions in Nigeria during the early-to-mid 20th century.

Culture and lifestyle

The Itsekiris traditionally lived in a society that is governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and council of chiefs who form the nobility or aristocracy. Itsekiri society itself was organised along the lines of an upper class made up of the royal family and the aristocracy – the ‘Oloyes and Olareajas’ these were mainly drawn from noble houses including the royal houses and the houses of Ologbotsere (prime minister or king maker) and Iyatsere (defence minister). The middle class or Omajaja were free-born Itsekiris or burghers. As a result of the institution of slavery and the slave trade there was a third class ‘Oton-Eru’ or those who descended from the slave class whose ancestors had come from elsewhere and settled in Itsekiri land as indentured or slave labourers. In modern-day Itsekiri society the slave class no longer exists as all are considered free-born.

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Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje while they tie a wrapper made from George material around their waist and wear a hat with a feather stuck to it. The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads. Itsekiris are also famed for their traditional fishing skills, melodious songs, gracefully fluid traditional dances and colourful masquerades and boat regattas.

Due to their occupation, the Itsekiri live on the coast in an area of extensive mangrove swamps and freshwater wetlands. They are primarily fishermen and have employed traps, fences, and nets, as well as rod-and-line techniques. Women make mats and baskets from reeds and palm materials. Silversmithing has died out, and blacksmithing has declined.

They are also, a people of very mixed ethnic origins who speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba of south western Nigeria and the Igala language of central Nigeria but which has also borrowed some cultural practice from the Edo people of Benin City, given the hegemony that the Benin Empire once exercised over the area, Portuguese in trade terminologies, as the Itsekiri were the first people in Nigeria to establish contact with the Portuguese who were exploring the West African coast, and also more recently, the English. Although linguistically related to the Yoruba and Igala ethnic groups, however, through centuries of intermingling modern day, Itsekiris are of mixed ethnic origins. They are most closely related to the South-Eastern Yorubaland sub-groups – Ijebu, Akure , Ikale, Ondo and Owo ), but also Edo , Urhobo, Ijaw, some Anglo-Scottish and Portuguese descent) and are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion.

Thus, having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a hybrid of the many cultures that have influenced its development. Similarly owing to the complex genetic mix of most Itsekiris over the centuries, many individuals self-identifying as Itsekiri would usually be a complex mix of any of the aforementioned ethnic and racial groups. Thus modern day Itsekiris may be the only southern Nigerian ethnic group to be almost totally heterogeneous (mixed) in its genetic composition. The total absence of any dialectal variation in the Itsekiri language is also unique for the region and is most likely the result of the early coalescing of the Itsekiri people into a small and highly centralised nation state from the 15th century onward.

The Author

Emmanuel Chinaza

Hi! This is Emmanuel Chinaza. A seasoned content writer on all things necessary(it just helps that creativity spurs me on) . An optimist who is very willing to take risks, a big fan of Marcelo Biesla. With my pen, i just might change the world and lest i forget, nothing beats a plate of pounded cassava and Egusi soup!

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