“Ijaw? What’s that? Do you mean Igbo?”
The first time I heard these questions was when a girl I’d met in secondary school asked me what my tribe was. We had bonded over our mutual green and white heritage, however, the look of confusion she gave me when I told her I was Ijaw would be mirrored by every Nigerian youth I met over the following years.
Small jokes would be made about how “unknown” my tribe was and if I was sure I wasn’t getting it mixed up with Igbo. Although I laughed my way through, constantly being treated like my ethnic identity was nothing more than a verbal blunder became frustrating.
The three lessons of Year 9 Geography dedicated to Nigeria only briefly scratched the surface of the country’s vast culture and history, failing to mention the existence of any ethnic groups apart from the most populous three. I realised then that in the United Kingdom, the Ijaw existed in the shadows of the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.
The UK is home to a Nigerian diaspora of about 200,000, the second largest after that in the United States. In London, where I live, “Nigerian culture” is almost always synonymous with that of the Igbo or Yoruba.
Their influence in places like south London’s Peckham, aka the UK’s “little Lagos”, has made countless migrant Nigerians from all tribes feel at ease, including my family. However, through no fault of their own, their larger numbers have also formed a bubble of invisibility over many smaller tribes. Although the Ijaw are the fourth largest tribe in Nigeria, I feel like an oddity among fellow Nigerian youth in the UK.
But my tribe, rich in culture and part of a country that was once under British colonial rule, deserves a place in geography textbooks and in the minds of British Nigerians.
Accessing Ijaw culture
The Ijaw people, also known as Izon or Ijo, inhabit the Niger delta region of southern Nigeria, and are defined by their relationship with water and the Niger river.
In the oil-rich delta, conflicts, government neglect and the Ijaw people’s historical reliance on oral history, as opposed to written records, have contributed to the erosion of the Ijaw’s presence and culture in Nigeria – and obscurity in the West.
I emigrated from Nigeria to the UK at the age of two and accessing my culture has never been easy. As communal as the Nigerian population in London is, I have relied on my mother telling me about our culture, her cooking Ijaw dishes such as kekefiyai (a unique stew dish similar to plantain porridge), or phone calls with my extended family to learn about my tribe.
My experience with other Africans has resembled those with fellow Nigerians.
“What is Ijaw? I thought there were only three tribes in Nigeria,” eventually became so frequent that I began to dread talking about my tribe.
Throughout my teenage years, my Ijaw name, Ayibaemi, was the target of ridicule for white children, but also some Black children too.
Although I can attribute a large part of that to childish ignorance, I am now at university and awareness about the Ijaw is still lacking. I continue to use Ayis, the shortened, “easier” version of my full name, but it is no longer a subject of anxiety. As labelling myself “Nigerian” became almost meaningless, I began openly identifying more with my tribe.
People of the water
Although the Ijaw’s origins are unclear, Ijaws are commonly believed to be the earliest settlers of the Niger delta region. Water lies at the heart of Ijaw livelihoods and the Niger river serves as not only our lifeline, but also that of the Isoko, Itsekiri, Urhobo, and many other tribes in the region.
The Ijaw are known not only for fishing, but also for textiles and art, the best known example being the sculpted water spirit masks used in traditional Ijaw religious practices. The masks, many of which have both human and animal features, embody the water spirits which are central to traditional Ijaw religions, and honour the swamp and river animals found in the delta.
Traditional Ijaw clothing includes uniquely printed wrappers across the waist, as well as handmade beaded coral caps, hats and walking canes. I have grown up admiring the beautiful, sequinned traditional clothes that my mother brought with her when she emigrated and wears to church on Sundays.
My mother spent the majority of her life in Yenagoa, the capital of southern coastal Bayelsa state, where I was born. “To be Ijaw, is to be a water-bearer,” says my mother.
She has always considered her relationship with the water as what defined her upbringing as an Ijaw child through activities such as fishing with her siblings, collecting seafood from the riverside markets or swimming in the river with the other local kids. After a long day at school, she would look forward to coming home to eat kiri-igina (a rich, seafood soup made using the heat from a mortar and pestle as opposed to cooking with fire) with eba, a staple food made from cassava.
She speaks Atissa, a dialect of Ijaw, which is so exclusive to natives of Yenagoa that she only speaks it about once a fortnight to her sisters on the phone. As she almost never comes across fellow Ijaws in London, I hear English words being laced into these conversations much more than I used to.
Although my dad was born in Ghana (also home to Ijaws), he grew up in the small village of Otuan, also in Bayelsa. His area was poverty-stricken but communal. His dad was a local fisherman and river merchant, the livelihood of most Ijaws historically.
His mother had a unique tribal mark etched on her stomach with a blade, which resembled a sun, while other women had forehead marks to distinguish themselves as Ijaw. The practice of scarification is still often done by many tribes today, most commonly the Yoruba, but it is now rare to find an Ijaw with tribal marks. The earliest memories my dad has of his mother was listening to her narrate dō (traditional Ijaw folk stories), every morning as he prepared to go fishing or travelling through the Niger delta on his family’s boat. He does not remember those folktales any more.
Describing the Ijaw people in the best way he could, he once told me: “Ijaw people are very truthful. The meaning of the word Izon is truth, actually.”
Violence at the hands of the government
In October 2020, Nigerians took to the streets with the EndSARS movement to protest against police brutality and corruption. On October 20, in the capital, Lagos, where the protests were centred, the Nigerian army opened fire and killed peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate. Ijaws in Bayelsa also took to the streets, and showed solidarity with the movement – after all, Ijaws in Nigeria know all too well what violence and mistreatment at the hands of the government feels like.
Despite the Ijaw and other tribes living on the most oil-rich lands in the country, the communities in Africa’s most important oil-producing region face marginalisation and poverty and the environment is polluted from oil spills. In 1998, Ijaw youth activists adopted the Kaiama Declaration, detailing Ijaw rights to land which have been the target of eco-violence and exploitation by transnational oil companies and the federal government for decades. Protests continue today to reclaim this homeland.
In 1992, the creation of the Movement For The Survival of The Ijaw Ethnic Nationalities in the Niger Delta (MOSIEND), which aimed to restore an Ijawland in the Niger delta and challenge the oppression of the Ijaw people, cemented our existence as fading. The Ijaw people are among the Niger delta tribes who have created a movement with the goal of keeping their ethnicity and homeland intact.
Preserving Ijaw culture
Language is often seen as one of the threads which holds a culture together, however, the more than 10 Ijaw languages are at risk of extinction. The dominant Ijaw language, known as Ijaw or Izon, has only a handful of instructional language books, such as Izon Fie (Speak Izon). It is the first ever self-study Ijaw language book and was launched in 2013 by the Bayelsa state government.
Igniting wider dialogue about Ijaw tribal erasure and ethnic cultural preservation is the first step to getting us out of an endangered culture zone, but these conversations amongst diasporic Ijaws are few. In the US, groups such as the Ijaw Women of America provide a safe space for women and promote equality for Ijaws within and beyond Nigeria. Many Ijaw Facebook groups in the UK and neighbouring countries have been inactive for a while.
Clubhouse, the social media app for networking and conversing, is filled with Nigerian clubs and groups for certain tribes, such as the Yoruba or Igbo. Setting up Ijaw groups is one way to connect our tribe across the globe to spread awareness about who we are – and the issues we face.
My parents instilled in me the importance of my tribe and helped me embrace my culture. Today, when I am asked about the Ijaw and whether I mean Igbo, I no longer feel uneasy educating people about who we are.
Gaining recognition for an ethnic identity whose existence has been erased in the Nigerian diaspora cannot be fixed in a flash, but with a unified effort from Nigerians and British Nigerians like myself, I believe it can be done.