| By Enuma Chigbo Phillips |
Let your living waters flow over my soul, let your Holy Spirit come and take control… somehow, I find this song reverberating in my spirit and I wonder why. Perhaps my latest trip may have a whole lot to do with this. It was January 1, and indeed a new beginning. Before I go any further, I’d like to say a big Happy New Year to any and everyone who is reading this. Welcome to the year 2015, a year that marks a new order and a year of accelerated growth.
My latest trip where I believe things started to make sense was right in the middle of Cross River State – in Itigidi, the land of the origins of the leader of Cross River State till the end of May this year. To get to this land or ‘The Midlands’ as I have fondly nicknamed it, you go through the Calabar City gate (If your point of departure is Calabar) and past quite a few villages in four local government areas – Odukpani, where the legendary Mary Slessor has her home, Akamkpa, known for limestone and granite, Biase known as the bread basket of Southern Nigeria and Yakurr where you get the best quality garri and where the famous Leboku Festival holds each year. The distance between Ugep, capital of Yakurr and Itigidi is probably about 7km. I smile as this unique journey took me down memory lane…
I remember getting fairly acquainted with this land sometime in 2011. In my quest, I learned that Itigidi is a community in Abi Local Government area and that Abi is simply an acronym for Agbo, Bahumonu and Igbo Imabana, the umbrella communities that make up the Local Government. I got to learn that this midland is counted among the few communities with precise origins and historical antecedents. Available evidence from oral interviews and archives reveal that in about 1400 AD the people of Itigidi, originally called Abama, meaning “Welcome from far away to the peaceful place of settlement,” were 24 villages strong when they migrated from a place called the Benue-Niger contour to Northern Cross River State through what we know today as Abakaliki, to an area known as Okpituma, before straddling along the banks of Cross River to their current location. Interestingly once you get there, Enugu the very first capital of the Eastern region of Nigeria is just about an hour away.
History also talks the early romance of the Itigidi people with Christianity and western education, the first known contact with western education in the 1800’s when an early trader, Cross River State Governor Liyel Imoke’s Great Uncle Eval Eja in the course of his journey along the Cross River estuary, met with Cobham. Cobham was a missionary of the House of Obio Oku in Creek Town. Before then, Christianity had long taken roots in Creek Town with the establishment of the first Church of Scotland Mission in 1845 and subsequently in Calabar in 1850.
Eval Eja was taken to church in Calabar to learn the mysteries of the ‘god of the white man’ as was the common saying back then. Much later, he was invited by one of his business associates, John Coco Bassey in Calabar, to worship with him in the church – The United Free Church of Scotland. Eja was so enthralled by the church that he instantly resolved to see it established in his Itigidi home.
Not long after, a European Missionary, Reverend WR Thompson visited Itigidi in 1899, most likely as a result of intensive canvassing by Eja. During that visit, the first ever by a missionary and in response to the visitor’s appeal, Eja handed over his young cousin of paternal lineage, Ejemot Eson Ecoma to Thompson to be trained at the mission’s institute in Calabar – Hope Waddell. This gesture of Eja’s stirred up opposition – all from his maternal lineage largely emanating from fear that he would not return – that he would either die or be lost in the white man’s land. Consequently, Ejemot was allowed only on the condition that he would be replaced by another member of the Ibritam family, (where the Imoke’s trace their roots down to about 700 years) should their fears be confirmed. To allay their fears, Samuel Imoke – the Cross River State Governor’s father was then pledged as ransom for Ejemot. Records of the early Christian Church show that Ejemot later returned as a trained missionary. He built several churches and schools in the course of his evangelising mission beginning from his home land Itigidi. I was told back then that his ancient house still stands today, next to the Chief’s palace and could be best described as a tourist’s delight.
Four years later on the first day of such an important year, I knew this house had need of a visitor…no…visitors actually, as I was not alone on this journey. My ever wonderful and adaptable husband Richard, my producer Grace and her husband Alex set out for what we could see. Also in the group was Julius, the most brilliant writer of us all. So after the feasting on the first day of the New Year, the next day would indeed be a day of discovery for us.
At about 8am on the 2nd, we were ready to roll. Our tour guide for that day, a son of the soil, amiable Ekpeyong was most helpful. He took us to Ejemot’s house, but somehow our attention was diverted to yet another building. It was the first storey building to be put up in that land and was built by Eval Eja, the man who brought Christianity to The Midlands. Clearly, it was a shadow of its former self. We were aghast as we looked at a storey building which was reduced to the size of a bungalow as a result of neglect. As I write this, I remember my producer Grace’s words said a while back. “It’s people who keep a house going.” I wondered where the people were…
Behind the house however, there was another, and it was here that we learned a bit more about the neglected house. “I was a baby when this house was built,” says 80-year old, Elder John Ani, the first librarian ever, produced by The Midlands. Perhaps like the house, this very accomplished man was a shadow of his former self, as he’s lived as a stroke patient for the last 19 years. “This house was built sometime in the 1800’s by our great grandfather Chief Eval Eja. It was the only storey building.”
“We all lived in unity,” he continues. “Life then was better than it is now. Even when there were disputes, reports were made to the oldest man in the community, who would resolve them amicably. But today people do not respect senior citizens anymore,” he laments.
Clearly in a more reflective state after our tour of the house and encounter with this extraordinary man, we set out to another location, said to be the very first building erected by Samuel Imoke, the late father of Liyel Imoke. It is in this unique place that the Paramount Ruler of the land lives. His name is HRM Eval Edward Esikong Imonco, a highly accomplished and not to mention amiable man. He ushers us into his courtyard in his impeccable English and asks us to introduce ourselves. We take turns to do so and we are given a very warm welcome by him and his personal assistant.
After that he takes us down memory lane in his narration of this very special land. The after effects of the Nigerian civil war seems to be one of the highlights of his narration as he remembers one of the songs they sang, “Nike Nike, anyi g’e lu ugwu Hausa,” meaning, “With strength and determination, we will get to the land of the North.”
“We were very much affected by the civil war. At the time I was a headmaster in Ishiagu in Afikpo County Council School, now in Ebonyi State. We were abducted into the Biafran army and used guns carved out of sticks. This place was a war torn zone and many of our workers were trapped in Igbo land.”
Born on July 19, 1939, Itigidi, he says is a ‘branch’ of Otigidi from the neighboring Ikom Local Government area, also located in Central Cross River, and known for the famous Nkarassi monoliths said to be about 3,000 years old. “Our language is Legbo, and we belong to the Ekoi tribe. Some of our people migrated to this place. They were originally hunters, farmers, and fishermen and we practiced subsistence farming.”
However today, with the boost in farming through the replication of the renowned Songhai farms project from The Republic of Benin in his homeland, this Paramount Ruler looks forward to a better and brighter future. “We are also learning from this project and are grateful to Cross River State Government for bringing Songhai integrated farms to us here, which will in turn subsidize the dwindling economy of oil.”
With those final words of royalty, we head back to Calabar and it was then I remembered my very first trip to this land. It was in 1999 and I do recall the reason for that trip was a 70th birthday celebration. I had a warm feeling in my heart as I began to compare both trips – the October 4, 1999, trip and the January 1, 2015 one. Indeed things had changed for the better. In 1999, we went by ferry into the midland from Ugep but today, there is a very well constructed bridge that takes you across in seconds. This bridge runs over the living waters of the beautiful Cross River…yes indeed things had changed for the better and I know that it can only get better and better. Let your living waters flow over my soul…it is therefore of no great surprise that this very special song continues to reverberate…
— Jan. 26, 2015 @ 01:00 GMT