Nsibidi Sheet 2

We have long held the ignorant belief that African nations south of the Sahara never had a system of writing. We believed that with the exception of the ancient Egyptians, other African nations only had oral means of passing on information. Well this article is here to debunk that myth. We will be looking at one of Africa’s oldest writing system called the Nsibidi.


I’m glad you asked this question. Now pay close attention to what I’m about to tell you as I seek to explain what this strange word means.

The Nsibidi is an ideographic writing system that dates back to 4000 and 5000BC. It is native to the Ekoid or Ejagham people of modern day cross river state. An ideographic writing system means that symbols are used to express an idea instead of words. An ideographic writing system can be understood by people who speak different languages. A modern day example is the love symbol. When you see a red heart, it is universally understood to mean love. However, others say the Nsibidi is logographic, which again means symbols that represent words of a particular language. A good example are the English alphabets [A B C D E….] . Logographic symbols unlike ideographic symbols don’t express ideas or concepts. It also cannot be universally understood.

The Ejagham people who are famed for developing the Nsibidi , were an ethnic group from Cameroon who migrated to south eastern Nigeria in pre colonial times. They are related to the Efik, Annang and Ibibio people of south eastern Nigeria. In Cameroon they can be found in the south western area of Eyumodjok , Manyu division and south Mamfe division. The Igbo’s as well shared in the use of Nsibidi probably because of the ties these tribes held in pre colonial times. During the colonial administration a man named  T.D Maxwell first discovered the Nsibidi symbols in 1904. It was through this discovery that the Nsibidi became known to the outside world.


I’m glad you are paying attention and asking these vital questions. Well, history tells us that the Nsibidi or Nchibidi was used primarily by the leopard or Ekpe society. In times past, before the colonial administration, the Ekpe society held the legislative, executive and judicial powers in the land. It is said that the Ekpe society were very strict with their rules and thus the word Nsibidi meaning ”cruel letters” was the name  given to the writings of the Ekpe society. Although this could be more myth than fact. The Nsibidi was used to cover a range of topics.

Calabash with Nsibidi inscriptions;Courtsey of the British library

It was used to communicate sacred thoughts, society secrets and arts of warfare.These loftier versions of the Nsibidi could only be learned by the men of the Ekpe society. More general forms of Nsibidi that expressed topics on love, family structures etc could be used by the general public and women. Therefore you had the sacred Nsibidi reserved for the Ekpe society and the decorative Nsibidi reserved for the women and general public. The Nsibidi could be found on pottery, artefacts, carved wooden doors, materials. etc

The Ekpe ‘Leopard’ society who make use of Nsibidi were also  known for decorating patterns on materials called Ukara. These decorative materials were usually tied round the waist. It was used as a show of who was wealthy, who had a title and was also worn by menopausal women. These women may have held some higher status than other women of childbearing age in society back then. However the wearing of the Ukara cloth is still practiced by the secret Leopard society today.

Members of the Ekpe society wearing the Ukara cloth. Arochukwu region, Nigeria, 1989. Photograph by Eli Bentor, 1989.

Once upon a time Nsibidi was taught in schools. The increasing emphasis on western education eventually eradicated this ancient art form from mainstream society. The only people who still use the Nsibidi today are those of the secret leopard society. They are the only surving Nsibidi literates. Another interesting thing to note is that during the trans- Atlantic slave trade, the Nsibidi was carried to Cuba and Haiti and still survives in these regions today.

Nsibidi writings

Once again dear readers we have come to the end of another history segment. I hope you enjoyed coming on this learning experience with me. But before I conclude finally, I want to know your opinion on this. Do you think the Nsibidi should be brought back and taught once again to our people? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

Till next time guys.



Philip effiong. 2013. Phillip-effiong.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.philip-effiong.com/Nsibidi.pdf.

Ovie Farraday. 2016. Feel Nubia.Be Africa!. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.feelnubia.com/index.php/culture/tongues/133-the-ancient-nsibidi-writing-system.html.

Inscribing meaning. 2016. Inscribing meaning. [ONLINE] Available at: https://africa.si.edu/exhibits/inscribing/nsibidi.html.

free dictionary. 2018. Free dictionary. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.thefreedictionary.com/logogram.

dictionary.com. 2012. dictionary.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/hieroglyphics.

nps.org. 2015. national park service. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/nsibidi-symbol.htm

kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.co.uk. 2013. Trip down memory lane. [ONLINE] Available at: https://kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/ekoi-ejagham-people-originators-of.html.




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  1. Insightful to know our people had great culture and intelligence that was truncated.
    Let it thrive and be known and taught again. NSIBIDI.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I realize this was written in 2018 but I just found it today. I have to say as someone who is still learning so much thank you for sharing this, knowledge is power and I am trying to reclaim mine. This history is important and needs to not be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It may not easily form part of our curriculum today. I recommend that we introduce these symbols and meanings into our fashion industries, especially clothes, shoes, handbags, caps, handkerchiefs and others. Through this means, it will even go beyond our borders.


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