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The Kola Nut: As an Igbo Cultural and Social Symbol, by fada Jon Ofoegbu Ukaegbu


The Kola Nut:
As an Igbo Cultural and Social Symbol

Rev. Fada Jọn Ọfọegbu Ụkaegbu, Ph.D.





On account of the multi-referential nature of Igbo cultural symbols, a number of the earlier scholars on Igbo culture confused the sacred and profane, the religious, social and political. Bishop A.K. Obiefuna testifies to this by saying that "In traditional Igbo life no distinctions were made between the sacred and profane, fact and fiction, history and poetry, all served the same purpose in a world where the natural and the supernatural interchanged hands..."[1] It is an exaggeration to say that there was no distinction between fact and fiction in traditional lgbo society. Nevertheless, there is a natural union or marriage between the natural and supernatural in the Igbo society; and this phenomenon confirms the truth that religion is natural to man. The fact that most social symbols are associated with religion does not ritualize them or make them become religious symbols. This aspect of the union between the religious and profane makes our work a little more difficult. In some cases there can be distinction between the religious and profane without possible separation of the two. In such cases, any separation does violence to the harmony and tranquility in the people's culture. We feel the absence of the plates and images in the extract and this marks a notable difference between the excerpt and the main work.


Ọjị – The Kola Nut






There is no Igbo cultural symbol that has received an equal attention as the kola nut. Ọjị Igbo, - cola acuminata, has more than two cotyledons or seed leaves which is the material that is chewed. Ọjị Awụsa or gworo, - cola nitida, has only two cotyledons. In Igbo traditional rituals and ceremonies, the gworo is not a valid matter: only the Igbo kola, cola acuminata is acceptable. The reason for this distinction will be made clear when we treat the ọjị symbolism.


There is a popular but cheap etymology of the kola nut, Ọjị: Ọ = Omenala (custom); J – Jikọtara that unites); Ị Igbo. Thus ọjị means “Omenala jikọtara Igbo", that is, “Custom that unites the lgbo". Cola acuminata and cola nitida are both regarded as having the same symbolism in general and private cases except on occasions like serious traditional ceremonies like marriage and sacrifices where only the Igbo Kola is used.


Eze Silver Nnanyere Ugo Ibeme Ugbala, Eze Ugo III of Okporo in Ọlụ made a revealing research on some aspects of lgbo culture, and ọjị symbolism featured prominently in his exercise. The Kola nut and the tree are regarded as the first tree and fruit on earth. The sacredness of the kola is by nature, for example, the dry wood of the tree is not used as fire wood.


The kola is a symbol of life, and for this reason, many profound and mysterious interpretations and formalities are accorded it. The Igbo kola is always accompanied by wine or drink because the Igbo say that “Onye nyere agbara ọjị ga enye ya mmiri ọ ga eji elofe ya" -“One who gives a deity kola has to give him water with which to assist him swallow it".



Igbo Interpretation of the Kola Nut[2]


Kola with one cotyledon is a dumb kola or Ọjị ogbu. It is called ọjị mmụọ, that is, kola of the spirits. It is not eaten. Kola with two cotyledons is equally a dumb kola and it is not eaten. This is the main reason why the Igbo do not use the gworo or cola nitida for rituals or in serious traditional celebrations.

Kola with three cotyledons is called ọjị ike, ọjị ikenga, that is, kola of the valiant. Only warriors or brave men and consecrated or ordained persons are permitted to eat this kola, as a matter of principle.


Kola with four cotyledons is called "ọjị udo na ngọzi", that is, "kola of peace and blessing”. It is the normal kola. Igbo symbolism of the number four will be well treated in chapter four. The number four is very sacred among the lgbo.


Kola with five cotyledons is "ọjị ụbara mmadụ, ọmụmụ na ụkwụọma that symbolizes increase in procreation, protection and good luck.


Kola with six cotyledons indicates communion with our ancestors, that is, "ọjị ndi mmụo na ndi mmadụ jiri gbaa ndụ". The smallest part or cotyledon is not eaten but is thrown away for the ancestors to eat. In like manner, kola with one cotyledon is not eaten by man, that means that it is not broken during ceremonies because it belongs to the ancestors, an attitude reminiscent of the direct link between the living and the dead in Igboland.



Presentation of the Kola Nut


Eze Ugo III of Okporo says that "The kola nut is the 'bread' of Igbo Sacramental communion, and must therefore be specially presented, broken, shared and partaken by all the parties and families in every marriage ceremony as the final consummation and blessing."[3] The reference to the bread of Igbo sacramental communion reminds us of the fact that in Igbo Traditional Religion, everyone pre-sent at a sacrifice participates in the consumption of the sacrificial meal, and the children are not left out. The importance of the people’s communion in Igbo native rites is analogous to the priest's communion in the Catholic Church in the sense that every priest who celebrates is bound to partake of the communion. No other symbol represents Igbo communal spirit more than the kola nut.


The Eze goes on to talk of kola presentation. "Ọjị is the first thing served in every function or ceremony, personal or communal agreements, welcoming of a visitor to an Igbo home, and settlement of family disputes."[4] G.T. Basden records that Igbo welcome is not complete without the sharing of the kola nut. 1mmediately after the prolonged greetings in the traditional manner, "...the kola nut is brought forth on a dish or saucer or, what is more correct, on a wooden platter (really a small box fitted with a vocer) prepared and kept for the sole purpose of presenting kola nut.”[5] He goes deeper in the description of the kola presentation. "In the dish are one or more nuts. The owner first receives it from the slave attendant or one of his wives. He takes a nut and puts it to his lips, thus signifying that it is about to be offered in good faith. This symbolic action proves him to be free from malice. The dish is, thereupon, passed to the visitor."[6] The kola presentation is not essentially descriptive; rather it is at the same time a symbolic action.


The symbolism in the kola presentation comes out clearly when many people are in attendance. The social aspect is clearly brought out because the ọjị is carried from one person to another according to a trace of kinship relationship starting from the home of the host, spreads out in the direction of left to right movement and comes back to the host. This symbolic action is a manner of headcount or a way of checking the identity of all the people in attendance in any gathering before any type of discussion could be had. The kola presentation symbolizes peace and welcome; and if one makes a mistake while carrying the kola round, 'ịpa ọjị or ịre ọjị ', he is traditionally dealt with according to norms in different communities. Such an error is considered as very grave and indicates that the offender is not so responsible and may not be a reliable person.



Blessing of Kola


The blessing of kola, ịgọ ọjị, is the right of the eldest person in any gathering or it may be that of the Eze (king) as the case may be. However, the oldest person is preferred in most cases because he is the custodian of truth and closer to the ancestors. In the evolutionary trend of the tradition, an ordained minister or one consecrated to God now takes precedence in the blessing of the kola; but the eldest per-son or the Eze who has this right will give or transfer it to minister as a privilege, not as a right.


The Ndi Ichie Akwa Mythology gives an account of the blessing of the ọjị in Igboland. “The principle behind this Igbo kola culture is that the nut cannot be broken without saying of prayers or incantations by the eldest in the gathering. This gave rise to the proverb ‘He who brings kola 5rings life', because in the kola nut prayers, the elder in addition to his wise sayings normally requested for peace prosperity, long life, happiness and protection from all ill fortunes."[7]  Not only do the Igbo say prayers before the breaking of the kola nut, no traditional Igbo would drink or eat without sharing at least, with the ancestors. Thus writes E. Elochukwu Uzukwu that "The kola nut, a symbol of life and commensality which is never omitted in the morning cult, is broken. The traditional part for the spirits (the radix) is given to them, and those present share the rest."[8]


The kola libation or blessing is employed in all occasions, formal and informal. Thus we now present a case of an old man who called his sons to give them his final blessings before he would join the ancestors. The man in question is Akpụobi, the father and founder of the town of Enyiogwugwu in Mbaise. The meeting opened with the normal blessing of kola when they were all seated. He took one kola nut and said to his dead father: "These are the sons, the sons EKE KEREỤWA gave me, and to whom I am now giving my blessings as you my father once gave to me". He raised the kola and said:


"Eke kereụwa, this is kola;

my father and the ancients, this is kola;

lyiafọ, this is kola;

four days that make eight, this is kola."[9]


Eke kereụwa is one of the lgbo names for God; in this case it means "the One who made the world". lyiafọ is a local deity to whom the town's market, Afọ Enyiogwugwu is dedicated. A brief analysis of this kola-prayer shows that all beings, spiritual and human are invited to partake of the kola and therefore ac-company this family meeting. But ultimately the blessings to the sons come from Eke kereụwa (God) through the deities and the ancestors. This cosmic meeting is made possible, thanks to the kola symbolism of commensality. Here the kola symbolism unites man, the ancestors, cosmic forces, the deities and God. As a symbol of life, the kola libation makes clear this truth when ever it is celebrated.



Why the Kola is Always Broken with a Knife


Why is the kola preferably broken by knife rather than by hand?  Many of the answers received from the questionnaire indicate that it is due to health reasons, that is, for hygienical reasons as the immediate motive. Some people say it is because the kola is sacred, and as much should be treated holily – "Sanctae sanctae tractata sunt".


The popular reason is that ' the kola is broken with a knife as a mark of honour to it because it is not up to the size of a piece of yam which people bite and chew'. The remote reason is essentially religious, for people who have shed blood develop a "strong hand" -"aka ike" and may not break the Sacred Kola for others using the soiled or profaned hand or bloody hand. The sacredness of the ọjị stems from the fact that ọjị is Igbo symbol of life.



Right of Breaking the Kola


Another consideration that brings out the kola symbolism is the question of the rightful person to break it. Is it the youngest or eldest in any given gathering? There are two major traditions: In the south of Igboland, the youngest in any group breaks the kola, while in the north-west and northern parts of Igboland the eldest person breaks the kola. In both cases, the breaking of kola helps in the tracing of seniority. The young-man tradition says that the young is preferred because he is presumed to be innocent, and his hands are not polluted by blood-shed in battle. This tradition has a loop-hole because at times there are gatherings where no one is really young, or where the youngest in the group is also elderly. This tradition is nurtured by the philosophy of Igbo ethical puritanism. The puritan ethics or mentality is strongly founded in Igboland.


The old-man tradition is preferred because the eldest man blesses the kola, holds the Ọfọ, and represents the authority of the ancestors. One of the strongest reasons for religious activities like blessings by the eldest person is that in Igbo traditional society, the first born or eldest man in a family or ụmụnna (kindred) assumes some priestly functions ipso facto. It is more by reason of his priesthood and not necessarily because of his age that the eldest man is preferred; and this is why today, the eldest man gives an ordained minister the kola to bless as a privilege.


The Ndi Ichie Akwa Mythology gives what seems to be the solution to the problem of the right of breaking the lgbo kola as regards the two conflicting traditions in question. The Arọs became very powerful during the slave trade mainly because of the one Ndi Ichie Akwa which is in their possession. Thus they wished to dominate the lgbo as a whole and with the advantage of the oracle, they hatched a plan as the author puts it: "The Arọs then brought an Afa oracle message from God 'Chukwu‘. The divine message said that the Igbo tradition of the oldest person's right to break kola had been abrogated by God so that the right had been transferred to the youngest person. This oracle message automatically gave the Arọs who were the youngest of Igbo family groups, the right to break kola whenever the Igbo people were gathered as a nation."[10] Many Igbo communities in the south obeyed the 'divine message' and changed their tradition of the eldest man's right to break the kola. However, the most probable solution is that the eldest man blesses and breaks the ọjị and gives it to the youngest in the group to share and distribute. Another probable solution is that the eldest man blesses the kola and gives it to the youngest to break and share. This second alternative wil1 eliminate monopoly of function by the eldest man.



Why Women do not Break Ceremonial Kola


Eze Ugbala of Okporo says that “The high degree of sanctity ac-corded the Kola nut throughout lgboland is likened to that of the biblical ‘forbidden fruit of Par8dise’ in that women are forbidden from either planting, climbing, plucking or breaking the Kola nut."[11] This does not mean that men are holier than women in Igbo society. It is just a question of a mentality similar to the biblical regard for women.


The denial of women's right to break Igbo ceremonial Kola is more of social character and organization and does not imply a let down or inferiority. Women do break the Igbo kola when they gather in their usual cultural groupings of ụmụada or ụmụọkpụ or ụmụmgbọtọ; and also in the Ọha Ndom, that is council of women where no man has a saying. On the contrary, Igbo women have their cultural organizations which are completely independent of men. Igbo women have many customary rights and privileges in the society so that they may not complain over the kola nut tradition which is a matter of division of labour or function.


Coming near to the kola symbolism, we note that kola is also used as a symbol of reconciliation and to effect a covenant between two or more persons. A case between two brothers, Ezeakam and Igwe
was settled by their eldest brother Elem, who "... brought a piece of kola nut and divided it into two and gave one half to each."[12] When settling murder case in an Abịrịba traditional way, kola is normally used.[13]


In a general sense, the kola nut in Igboland constitutes a remarkable social symbol of hospitality, life, peace, kindness, good-will, commensality, fraternity, reconciliation and integrity. The kola is a typical multi-referential social symbol.


While the eldest and youngest persons may break and share kola in social gatherings, it is the exclusive right of the priest to break kola during Igbo rituals to juju, as is made evident in Abịrịiba. "The kola nut and palm wine are jointly used in the Igbo Sacrament of Igbandụ – final reconciliation of man with God in all disputes or misunderstandings."[14]  The unconditional attention given to ọjị symbolism reveals much of the Igbo cultural identity.



Culled from Igbo Identity and Personality vis-ŕ-vis Igbo Cultural Symbols, being the thesis presented for the doctorate degree by Rev. Fada Jọn Ọfọegbu Ụkaegbu.


Cite this document as 2003 kolanutseries.igbonet.com/jukaegbu/





[1] OBIEFUNA, A.K., Some Aspects of Traditional Moral Heritage with Particular Reference to the Igbo People of

Nigeria, art. in Lucerna, Enugwu, Bigard Memorial Seminary n.1. vol. 1, 1978 p. 25.




[2] Interview with Eze Silver Nnanyere Ugo Ibeme Ụgbala, Eze Ugo III of Okporo, Ọlụ on July 20, 1987.


[3] EZE UGO, S.N.I.U., Research and Comments on Igbo Culture, unpublished art., Ọlụ 1985 p.6.


[4] Ibid. p. 3.


[5] BASDEN, G.T., Niger Ibos, London, Frank Cass and Co. Ltd. 1966 (1937) pp. 161-162.


[6] Loc. cit.


[7] NWOSU, I.N.C., Ndi Ichie Akwa Mythology and Folklore Origins of the Igbos, Lagos, C.S.S. Press 1983 p. 60.


[8] UZUKWU, E.E., Igbo World and Ultimate Reality and Meaning, in Lucerna, Enugwu, Bigard Memorial Seminary vol.4, n.1. 1983 p. 14.


[9] Interview by Francis Nwachukwu with Onyeukwu Ọpara Nnakụ, aged 111 by 1959, in Nwachukwu, F.U., Enyiogwugwu, unpublished history 1987 p.7.


[10] NWOSU, I.N.C., o. cit. p. 86.


[11] EZE UGO, S.N.I.U., a. cit.p. 4

[12] NWACHUKWU, F.U., o. cit. p. 44.


[13] Interview with Chief Ejim Akụma and a selected group of Abịrịba elders on August 28, 1987.


[14] EZE UGO, S.N.I.U., a cit. p. 4




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