Revue: MILLER”If We Lose Our Monolith Heritage, We Lose Our Identity
Dr. Ivor Miller is an American culture historian, who specialises in the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. He was a Senior Fellow at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution (2011-2012), and a Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria (2009-2011). He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and International Relations at the University of Calabar. In this interview with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, the historian talks about what Nigeria will lose by allowing the monolith heritage to go into extinction.
Who is Ivor Miller? And why is he interested in the African and Diasporan culture? MILLER is an American culture historian. He specialises in the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. His most recent book, Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba got a honourable mention by the Association for Africanist Anthropology.
Based upon fieldwork in Nigeria, Cameroun, Cuba, and the USA, it documents ritual languages and practices that survived the Middle Passage and evolved into a unifying charter for transplanted slaves and their successors.
His current research interests are the pre-colonial formation of the Ékpè (leopard) society in West Africa, and its use in West and Central Africa as a system of community justice.
His first book was written in collaboration with Professor ‘Wande Abimbola, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ife, published in 1997, as Ifá Will Mend Our Broken World: Thoughts on Yorùbá Culture in West Africa and the Diaspora. This conversational volume comparatively treats the trans-Atlantic reach of Yorùbá cultural practice, in Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and the USA.
In Cuba, this book was translated by practicing Babalawo (diviners), in order to understand the West African background of their heritage.
His second book, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City, documented the early Hip-hop movement in New York City. An ethnography and analysis of a community of early Hip-Hop visual artists and their cultural production, commonly called ‘graffiti’, in New York City from 1968 to 1990, the photo-documentation and audio interviews created during fieldwork were juxtaposed with published literature to argue for the Afro-Caribbean influence in the early Hip Hop movement that rapidly became globalized through mass media.
There is a discussion of African (i.e. Nsibidi) and Afro-Caribbean writing systems. His PhD. dissertation was Belief and Power in Contemporary Cuba (Northwestern University, 1995), an ethnography of Yorùbá-derived initiation communities in contemporary Cuba.
This work discusses contrasting theories of cultural continuity and creolisation, while also examining shifting attitudes of Fidel Castro’s regime towards the practice of African-derived religions of contemporary Cuba, to conclude that while religions were officially prohibited from the 1960s to 1980s, their practice was camouflaged by the general population and even used tacitly by political leaders.
This phenomenon was demonstrated to be consistent in varying degrees throughout Cuban history from the colonial era to the present. The major findings were published in 2002, as Religious Symbolism in Cuban Political Performance, in The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies.
What led you to the study of Cuban cultural history in the trans-Atlantic context? I was very lucky to be educated in the USA in a time of surging interest in the African sources of American heritage. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, I met Professor Abimbola, who was a visiting scholar at nearby Amherst College, and was exposed to Yoruba civilisation through him and other Yoruba educators like Professor Rowland Abiodun, who was also in at Amherst College.
Meanwhile, I was studying West African dance history and technique with Donald ‘Eno’ Washington, an African-American, who had studied classical court dances of the Malian Empire in Dakar. Later, I earned an M.A. at Yale University under Professor Robert Farris Thompson, who was instrumental in opening up the field of African aesthetics and philosophy in the Americas.
While living in New York City, I met several Afro-Cuban artists and musicians, namely painter Juan Boza and drummer ‘Puntilla’, and through them visited Havana in 1991. I studied Afro-Cuban dance and music at a workshop at the National Folklore Ensemble, and from there became integrated into the wider community of African descendants in Havana.
While the Cuban political regime tends to promote ‘national unity’ by ignoring the European and African past of its citizens, it was clear to me that there was a very important untold story about African heritage in Cuba. I never looked back, and I’ve been working with Afro-Cuban elders on documenting their heritage and cultural production for 25 years now.
What inspired your focus on the Lukumi-Yorùbá initiation systems of Ocha and Ifá? In US academic circles in the 1980s, there was a great interest in Yorùbá studies, so accordingly I began to focus on this issue in Cuba, where Lukumi-Yorùbá systems are widely evident and promoted.
But on this largest of Caribbean islands, there are also significant lineages from West-Central Africa known as Kongo-Palo, and from the Calabar region known as ‘Carabalí’, most famously the Abakuá institution that is a variant of the Ékpè ‘leopard’ institution of the Cross River region.
Because most of the scholarship in West Africa and the Americas was focused on Yorùbá studies, when I made contact with ‘Carabalí’ elders in Havana who were ready to teach me about the relatively unknown history emerging from Calabar and its hinterlands, I began to focus on Calabar studies, where I have remained for some twenty years now.
I seem to relate to the ‘underdogs’! What significant thing in the Calabar history has affected your decision to come here? Calabar has many attractions for a cultural historian, firstly because of its 500-year history of contact with European explorers and traders, making local culture a rich tapestry created by the sharing of ideas and materials between visitors and locals.
Calabar is truly an old Atlantic city that remains understudied, partly because of its complexity of languages, ethnic communities, and the lack of documentation of its hinterlands people. I arrived to Calabar in 2004 thanks to a grant from the West African Research Association in the US.
Whereas many scholars in the Americas argue that the Middle Passage and the plantation system in the Americas destroyed the memory of Africa among the enslaved, I decided to test this assumption by bringing the Cuban ‘Carabalí’ data back to Calabar, to share it with local leaders and get their reactions. Almost immediately upon my arrival to Calabar, I was able to meet Calabar chiefs through the guidance of Mr. Mayo Adediran, then curator of the National Museum, Calabar.
Their reaction to my documentation of Cuban Calabar language, music, and Nsibidi drawings was matter-of-fact; they understood the codes without reservations as part and parcel of their own heritage. In 2004, you were invested as a chief (Isun-Mbakara) at the Efe Ékpè Eyo Ema (Ekoretonko), how did you feel then and now, almost 11 years after? I was truly honoured to be invited into the community of Calabar chiefs, who were and are a welcoming group to well intentioned strangers.
When I began to discuss Cuban Abakuá and Ékpè matters, the chiefs quickly instructed me to hush my mouth as a non-initiate. Then one lodge leader who was worldly and intelligent, Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey, the Iyamba of Efe Ékpè Eyo Ema (Ekoretonko), invited me to their lodge one day, and I was initiated and invested with a title.
This in effect was a passport that allowed me to interact with Ékpè members anywhere where Ékpè exists, throughout southeast Nigeria and southwest Cameroon.
This great privilege transformed my relationship with the Cuban Abakuá leaders, who now saw me as a ritual brother (eyeneka in Efik and by extension in Cuba), and they began to teach me more and more.
I was able to perceive that while the Yoruba heritage is publicized, the Carabalí heritage remains underground, I think largely because Ékpè was always a form of governance in Africa, and in Cuba it was used for the liberation of enslaved people, and even during the wars of independence, which lasted for 30 years (1868-1898).
I continue to enjoy Ékpè in West Africa, and have attended lodge activities from Eket, Ibiono, Itu and Uruan in Akwa Ibom State, to Afikpo in Ebonyi State, to Ohafia and Abiriba in Abia State, and throughout Cross River State from Akpabuyo all the way north through Éjághám land into Boki, and then in many areas of Southwest Cameroon, including Mamfe, Ekondo Titi, Usaghadet (Isangele), and Fontem.
All this research is culminating in several major educational projects. One is the donation of all my photographs of Ékpè and Cross River region culture to the Smithsonian Institution’s Photographic archive in the National Museum of African Art, so that they are accessible to others.
Another project is book of photographs about Ékpè performance and symbols that will demonstrate stability and variation in Ékpè codes in Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Cuba. Ékpè may be in other regions, but we don’t yet know its frontiers.
Also, I created a proposal with the support of Ékpè community leaders throughout southeastern Nigeria, to promote Ékpè through UNESCO as World Intangible Heritage, that was submitted through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Nigeria.
The application was adjudicated in 2014, but because it lacked political support, it was unfortunately not defended well and therefore not accepted. I hope one day to resubmit the application in better conditions. UNESCO status would help Ékpè people in Nigeria create international festivals to educate the world about this centuries old tradition. There is much left to be done.
Your recent research has been devoted to rescuing the ancient stones or monoliths, as many know them. What do the monoliths mean to you? The Cross River carved monoliths represent ‘the Stonehenge’ of Nigeria. They are extremely rare and magnificent examples of the early civilization of this part of the world.
The philosophy and artistic vision of the early peoples of the middle Cross River region can be grasped through studying them. These stones, called Ákúânshì in Éjághám, represent important ancestors of their communities.
Their carved symbols express the early Nsibidi ‘signs’ of this region, which today are still important communication codes of the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society. I have had the unique opportunity to work with Dr. Abu Edet, my colleague in the Department of History, UNICAL, who has been studying these treasures for the past 40 years.
Our recent survey expeditions to the Bakor area of Ikom and Ogoja L.G.A.s, where most of the monoliths are located, has revealed that they are on the verge of total destruction from negligence from Federal, state, and local governments, particularly the National Museum that is directly responsible for their care.
Therefore, they also represent to me how little we know about who carved these monoliths, and when. Although, there has been important documentation of the monoliths by Philip Allison in the 1960s, there is yet to be a comprehensive study, including a survey of all the remaining stones.
Because many of the stones have been stolen, or destroyed by local farmers and hunters who frequently set fire to the bush, from what we have seen so far, the monoliths also represent the lost opportunities of our generation to document and understand our past.
What has been the challenge of rescuing them? The challenges are many, because first of all, serious funding is required to purchase vehicles, equipment, and the organisation of a team of experts who could first conduct a survey, then work intimately with the leaders and youths of the communities where the stones are found, to train and educate them to preserve this heritage.
Many locals are attempting to save their stones, but these individuals are often misunderstood even by their own people, who may accuse them of not appeasing the ancestors before dealing with the monoliths. In other words, there remains strong bonds between the people living in the monolith areas and the carved stones, but nobody there has been trained on how protect them from destruction.
In the past, government representatives have told Bakor people to expect jobs and local investment from tourists who want to view the stones. But since tourists have not come, the locals are discouraged, and instead are using the monolith sites as cassava and yam farms, where fire is destroying them.
Furthermore, because the current Pentecostal movement in these parts is encouraging susceptible locals to perceive this heritage as satanic in nature, locals often treat them as mere stones that can be used to crush palm kernels and sharpen knives.
The only hope in rescuing this heritage is in a comprehensive response with a well-funded survey team, with meaningful meetings with Bakor community leaders, and with the training of their youths to create an alliance that can stop the ongoing tidal waves of destruction and theft.
Is there no way the Federal government can help out in the rescue efforts, or you have made previous overtures that were rebuffed? Dr. Abu Edet, in his years of service with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), assisted British scholar Keith Nicklin in early surveys of the monolith sites, and later conducted preservation studies of the sites that led to his B.Sc. in Britain, and M.Sc. and Ph.D. in preservation studies.
As Head of Conservation Services with the NCMM, he attempted severally to develop projects for the preservation of the monolith sites, but no funds were forthcoming. Therefore, it seems that in its current state, the Federal Government cannot help in rescuing this heritage. What does history stand to lose if the remnants of these ancient stones go into extinction? Without a proper study of the remaining stones in their original contexts, the early history of Middle Cross River peoples will be lost forever.
Think of the monuments of ancient Egypt: without them, what would be known of Egyptian history? The Egyptian monuments also happen to be at the centre of a huge tourism industry that contributed immensely to their Gross National Product.
The cultural history and practices of Cross River people make this region unique in the world. If we loose this heritage, we lose our identity, and there’ll be no reason for tourism in this region. To see what?