Nsibidi: The Advent Of An Ancient Form Of Communication In The 21st Century

Nsibidi on the wall of the black panther

Over time, communication has proven itself as a tool for socio-economic survival. Society, therefore, had built a system to survive through the means of communication. People come and go; evolution takes place springing the birth of something new. The old is thus abandoned for the new. Communication among humans has gone through a series of evolution having been a tool of survival for centuries. The evolution of communication is seen through the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Korean hangul, and Chinese hanzu, to mention a few.


However, some ancient means of communication are still being used despite the constant growth and evolution of man while some have become extinct. Nsibidi is a good example of an ancient means of communication which has withstood the test of time. It is an old writing system used in the 4th century by the people of the southern part of Nigeria.

This artefact of writing which gradually declined with the introduction of the Latin scripts and western education during the 19th and 20th century seems to be making a comeback regardless of its absence of over 400 years. This comeback also reveals the developing change of these symbols. Put simply, Nsibidi appears to be an artefact of the past which is trying to evolve alongside the new world it finds itself in.

The attempt at a comeback starts with the Neo Nsibidi project which started in 2010. This project sees to the collection of data aimed at rebuilding—perhaps restarting— Nsibidi writing system again. Through music, movies and other forms of art, Nsibidi is being adopted again and gradually taking the stage of the global world.

Jidenna Theodore Mobisson, the “classic man” singer for one is among the famous United States musician reinstating Nsibidi. Using his status as a famous American born Nigerian singer, he personalises the Nsibidi symbols through body markings of a tattoo, thereby projecting his heritage or ‘tribe’. He consequently infuses the Nsidibi tattoo on his body with Polynesia symbols. This act ventures to bring back to life the dying language and culture of Nsibidi, hence its adoption in this present day. Not only does he mark his body with this, but he is known for his unique sense of style which imprints the traditional West African design joined in harmony with the European aesthetics. He has also been seen publicly wearing the Ukara clothing which is largely decorated with Nsibidi ideograms, representing status and wealth, formerly used by an ancient African leopard clan. His actions uniquely and strongly brings back to life the Nsidibi—an erstwhile lost African writing culture.

Another adoption in recent times of the use of Nsibidi is once again spotted in the Hollywood Marvel franchise “Black Panther.” The movie is largely unmistakable with inscriptions of Nsibidi symbols on the Wakanda throne and garments worn by its various characters. The movie’s theme aims to project, either consciously or otherwise, that there once existed a structured Africa with an organized system and way of life. Hence, the sights and appearances of Nsibidi symbols in the movie further reinstate the fact that Africa had an otherwise lost writing system. This, therefore, fosters to alter the narrative of the preconceived idea of a dead Africa as negated by history and European missionaries.

The use of these Nsibidi symbols in the film, also reflect its newness in this new age. The film’s production designer, Hannah Bleacher said remnants of the Nsibidi symbols were taken and was updated like Roman numerals. She also says “the language needed to evolve from the older hieroglyphs into a more modern version.”

She further added that “it was a process of trying to pay homage to lost languages but also infusing the idea of Afro-futurism of reclaiming languages lost.”

Ideographic system of writings is used by people who speak different languages and in this case, writing represents language. Though nice to get acquainted with this knowledge from the past, but what are its true aim and intention I wonder behind the development of a writing system long gone in our present reality? Are the Southern people of Nigeria, who now have a language and system of writing supposed to abandon that and opt for the Neo Nsibidi?

Time will tell on that.

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