Enyi and Egbe: The Nkwerre Totems


Totemism has increasingly gained recognition as a veritable tool for historical reconstruction and sociological understanding of community relations in Africa. In many communities in Igboland, the enduring presence and veneration of animal totems remain significant not only in the conception of place names and historical antecedents but also in molding human behaviour. In some instances, certain totems could be symbolic and descriptive of the enormous power wielded by a community at some points in its history. Yet, some powerful animal totems attain spiritual force upon which the religion, history, economy and social relations of most communities are fashioned.  Historians may explore the relevance of enyi (elephant) and egbe ( gun) as totem animal and object in the historical narrative of the people of Nkwerre-Imenyi/ Opiaegbe .  Imenyi and Opiaegbe,  two popular suffixes in the name Nkwerre, have garnered considerable esteem for the people far and near. Nkwerre people are well-travelled, well-educated, very successful entrepreneurs, and fearless. These attributes are well demonstrated by the totems behind their names.

According to Merriam Webster online dictionary, totem is from Ojibwa, the most basic form of the word in Ojibwa is believed to be “ote” but 18th century English speakers encountered it as “Oteteman” which became the word totem.  Totem refers to an emblematic depiction of an animal or plant that gives a family or clan its name and that often serves as a reminder of its ancestry.

An animal totem may be either edible and harmless, or dangerous and feared; more rarely, a totem may be a plant or a force of nature (rain, water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan.  However, when a  totem is a tribal ancestor of the clan, as well as its tutelary spirit and protector; it sends oracles and, though otherwise dangerous, the totem knows and spares its children. The members of a totem are therefore under a sacred obligation not to kill (destroy) their totem, to abstain from eating its meat or from any other enjoyment of it. Any violation of these prohibitions is automatically punished as is the case in some communities in Igboland. The character of a totem is inherent not only in a single animal or a single being but in all the members of the species. From time to time festivals are held at which the members of a totem represent or imitate, in ceremonial dances, the movements, and characteristics of their totems. The totem is hereditary through either the maternal or the paternal line; (maternal transmission probably always preceded and was only later supplanted by the paternal).

There are as many symbol systems in Africa as there are cultural sub-groups. Truly understanding and appreciating even a few of these symbolic systems will require total dedication from anyone who wishes to study them in-depth. The concept of using totems demonstrates the close relationship between humans, animals and the lived environment. Anthropologists believe that totem use was a universal phenomenon among early societies. Pre-industrial communities had some form of totem that was associated with spirits, religion and success of community members. Early documented forms of totems in Europe can be traced to the Roman Empire, where symbols were used as coats of arms, a practice which continues today.

In Africa, chiefs decorated their stools and other court items with their personal totems, or with those of the tribe or of the clans making up the larger community. It was a duty of each community member to protect and defend the totem. This obligation ranged from not harming that animal or plant, to actively feeding, rescuing or caring for it as needed. African tales are told of how men became heroes for rescuing their totems. This has continued in some African societies, where totems are treasured and preserved for the community’s good.

There are two outstanding totems in Nkwerre- the Enyi and Egbe. Enyi is an Elephant and Egbe is a Gun. People generally view a totem as a companion, relative, protector, progenitor, or helper, and ascribe to it, superhuman powers and abilities, and offer it some combination of respect, veneration, awe, and fear. Most cultures use special names and emblems to refer to the totem, and those it sponsors engage in partial identification with the totem or symbolic assimilation to it. In Africa, wives praise their husbands using the name of their Totem, for example, a wife may call her husband ‘the great lion of the forest’ that is, if the husband’s totem is a lion. There is usually a prohibition or taboo against killing, eating, or touching the totem .

Nkwerre people adopt two totemic symbols; the gun signifies the early occupation of the people as gunsmiths while the elephant is an ancestral name chosen as a result of the diversity and size of the elephant. Gun making is an old profession of Nkwerre people. Various types of guns, such as dane guns, cap guns, rifles, pistols, revolvers and double barrel shot guns were being manufactured by Nkwerre blacksmiths in the past. It was this industry that gave the town the name Nkwerre Opiaegbe. Unfortunately this essential industry has gone extinct.

It is believed that Nkwerre people are colossal and significantly wise. The inside of an elephant is believed to be filled with so many things including that which is good and that which is bad, hence, the possibility of meeting with diverse kinds of people in Nkwerre. Nkwerre people however, adopt the elephant as a social and not a spiritual symbol because they believe that the elephant is a symbol of unmatched strength and with grace, she carries the spirit animals energies of patience, wisdom and the jewels of contemplative meditation. Like a queen, the elephant exhumes an air of authority. Herds of elephants are always led by the females but this does not mean that Nkwerre is a matriarchal society but the social elegance of the people is often portrayed by their women. The people are seen to be very wise and patient. They know what they want, and apply a very special wisdom, in order to get that which they want.

The female elephant is the leader of all animals in the jungle and deserts; others watch her movement and follow the herd, because they know she knows the way to precious reserves of water and food when resources are scarce. She is wise and remembers everything having vast stores of wisdom passed from her elders. She ponders all things and meditates, letting spirits and ancestors’ memory guide her. Deep thought is the specialty of the elephant and the mind is her specialty. The physical strength of the elephant is tremendous; no animal on land can match the strength of the elephant. She knows her own strength and confidently strides across the plains aware of her power.

The elephant is a very intelligent animal she remembers all of the grazing lands and waters to feed. She also remembers a threat specifically, like a specific lion or a poacher. Her memory is one of her special gifts as she can remember the imagery of places, events and other creatures and knows whether someone and something is a friend or a foe. With all these in mind, people have often seen Nkwerre people and Nkwerre community, as great teachers and a citadel of learning respectively because they possess the attributes of an elephant. Many describe them as pacesetters. However, Nkwerre people neither worship the elephant nor the gun, but they are symbols that function within the social and economic lives of the people.

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Type: Document