An Igbo elder from Awka with wooden head dress, set with pearl buttons, c. 1910-11

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An Igbo elder from Öka (Awka) with
An Igbo elder from Öka (Awka) with “wooden head dress, set with pearl buttons” (isi ojongo). From the photo album of Northcote Thomas, photographed c. 1910-11. Image Source: MAA Cambridge

Over a century ago, British anthropologist Northcote Whitridge Thomas captured this iconic image—an Igbo elder from Awka adorned in a wooden head dress, set with pearl buttons, and seated on an oche mpata. This photograph provides a unique glimpse into the cultural and social heritage of the Igbo people, particularly focusing on the esteemed position of women in Igbo society.

The Isi Ojongo

The focal point of the elder’s ensemble is the Isi Ojongo—a wooden head-dress that transcends mere ornamentation, embodying the essence of Igbo identity and artistic expression. Popular until the mid-20th century, the Isi Ojongo holds a special place in Igbo artistry, particularly in its use by women of high status.

Igbo women traditionally adorned their hair with a variety of materials, including threads, feathers, shells, bone, wood, beads, and traditional Igbo currency. They skillfully used colorful mud, camwood powder, palm oil, and charcoal to achieve distinctive styles. Each embellishment carried cultural significance, reflecting the wearer’s status and taste.

Social Hierarchy and the Role of Women

The Isi Ojongo on the elder’s head is adorned with pearl buttons, elevating its elegance and signifying her high status. Beyond aesthetics, this traditional attire mirrors the ethos and legacy of the Igbo community, highlighting the significant roles women played. In Igbo society, women often held positions of power and influence, participating in decision-making processes and community governance.

Seated on an oche mpata—a stool reserved for individuals of high esteem—the elder embodies the Ọzọ title. This title signifies success, honesty, and integrity. Women who held the Ọzọ title were respected leaders and played crucial roles in maintaining social order and cultural traditions. The Ọzọ title creates a clear demarcation, setting its holders apart from others in terms of authority and respect.

Northcote Thomas and Colonial Documentation

This photograph is part of Northcote Thomas’s larger collection—an anthropological record of Igbo culture. Thomas’s work, while valuable for its documentation of indigenous cultures, is also intertwined with the colonial agenda. His surveys aimed to understand and control indigenous populations for more effective colonial rule. Despite this complex legacy, the photograph celebrates the enduring vibrancy of Igbo traditions and the significant role of women in society.

Join the Conversation

We invite you to share your reflections in the comments below. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How does the photograph of the elder from Awka deepen your understanding of Igbo heritage?
  • How can communities today honor and keep alive the traditions of their ancestors?

Explore Further

For those interested in delving deeper, consider these insightful books available on Amazon:

Igbo Art And Culture: And Other Essays (Classic Authors and Texts on Africa) – January 1, 2006

This volume encompasses over forty years of scholarly research on African art, both traditional and modern, by the anthropologist, Simon Ottenberg. Focus is on the arts of the Afikpo, an Igbo group in southeastern Nigeria and on Bafodea Limba of northern Sierra Leone. The essays discuss art objects and music in the context of their use in performance and ritual, and the symbolism of aesthetic forms and behavior. Stress in the writing is placed on obtaining Africans’ conceptions of their own arts blended with Western viewpoints. The writing is based on extensive research in Africa.

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Onyeka Nwokike
Onyeka Nwokike

Onyeka Nwokike, a graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a writer at Igbo Archives, is working to challenge common misconceptions and broaden understanding. He has curated a collection of historical photographs and artifacts for Igbo Archives, which helps to fill the educational gaps left by mainstream media and school curricula. His commitment to the celebration and conservation of Igbo heritage has made Igbo Archives an essential resource, cultivating a strong sense of pride and cultural identity within the Igbo community.

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