The Unique Culture of Ijaw People

The Ijaws (Water People)

The Ijaws are a collection of people that are indigenous to the Niger Delta in Nigeria. And owing to the affinity they have with water, a good number of them are found as migrant fishermen in camps as far west as Sierra Leone and as far east as Ijaw (also known by the subgroups ‘Ijo’ or ‘Izon’). The Ijaws are a collection of indigenous peoples mostly to the forest regions of the Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers States within the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Some are natives of Akwa-Ibom, Edo, and Ondo states, also in Nigeria.

The Western or Central Izon (Ijaw) consists of Western Ijaw speakers: Ekeremor, Sagbama (Mein), Bassan, Apoi, Arogbo, Boma (Bumo), Kabo (Kabuowei), Ogboin, Tarakiri, and Kolokuma-Opokuma (Yenagoa). Nembe, Brass and Akassa (Akaha) dialects represent Southeast Ijo (Izon). Buseni and Okordia dialects are considered Inland Ijo. The other major Ijaw linguistic group is Kalabari. Kalabari is considered an Eastern Ijaw language but the term “Eastern Ijaw” is not the normal nomenclature. Kalabari is the name of one of the Ijaw clans that reside on the eastern side of the Niger Delta (Abonnema, Buguma, Bakana, Degema etc.) who form a major group in Rivers State, hence their involvement in the fight for greater oil control. Other “Eastern” Ijaw clans are the Okrika, Ibani (the natives of Bonny, Finima and Opobo) and Nkoroo. 

They are neighbours to the Kalabari people in present-day Rivers State, Nigeria. Other related Ijaw subgroups which have distinct languages but very close kinship, cultural and territorial ties with the rest of the Ijaw are the Epie-Atissa, Engenni (also known as Ẹgẹnẹ), and Degema (also called Udekama or Udekaama). These groups speak Delta Edoid languages. The Ogbia clan, Andoni people, as well as residents of Bukuma and Abuloma (Obulom) speak Cross River languages. The Ijaw were one of the first Nigerians to have contact with Westerners and were active as go-betweens in the slave trade between visiting Europeans and the peoples of the interior, particularly in the era before the discovery of quinine, when West Africa was still known as the White Man’s Graveyard because of the endemic presence of malaria.

They are believed to be some of the earliest inhabitants of southern Nigeria. The Ijaws currently numbering about (15) Fifteen million have lived in locations near many sea trade routes and were well connected to other areas by trade as early as the 15th century and they sit on Nigeria’s rich oil lands.

Historically, The Ijaws of the Niger Delta are the descendants of the autochthonous people or ancient tribe of Africa known as the Oru and were addressed so. The Ijaws have kept the ancient language and culture of the ORU. It is not clear when Oru people started to settle in the Niger Delta. What is known is that they have existed as a distinct language and ethnic group for upwards of five (5000) Thousand years.

Their settlements in the Benin region, Lower Niger & Niger Delta were aboriginal (i.e. being the first) and by 500 BC, they started inhabiting the Niger Delta. The traditional Ijaw narratives refer to the ancestors (the Oru-Otu) or the more ancient people (Tobu Otu) who descended from the sky (were of divine origin). They were also referred to as the Water-People (Beni-Otu). While water spirits known as Owuamapu figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon.  Here, men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing. They also believe that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings and that humans dwell among the water spirits before being born. In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called ‘Igbadai’, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death.

Another interesting aspect of the Ijaw culture is the marriage ceremony. Unlike most tribes, the Ijaws have two forms of marriage. The first is a small-dowry marriage where the groom’s family is traditionally obliged to offer a payment to the wife’s family, which is typically cash. Any child gotten from this union can choose to live with the maternal family, whereas in the case of the second marriage which is the large-dowry marriage, a big feast is called and it lasts for days during which expensive items and a heavy dowry are paid to the bride’s family. Here, the children belong to the paternal side of the family.

With the coming of Western civilization, the present-day Ijaw seems to have changed from traditional worshipers to Christianity. They are very friendly and hospitable.

The other main occupation common among the Ijaw has traditionally been fishing and farming.


If you like this article, please share with others
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments