An Igbo Elder from Awka, Wearing the Okpu Agha and Holding the Ekpeke, c. 1913

HomeCultureAn Igbo Elder from Awka, Wearing the Okpu Agha and Holding the Ekpeke, c. 1913

An Igbo elder of Awka wearing a war helmet Photographed by Northcote Thomas, c. 1913. Credit: Isioma Ani
An Igbo Elder from Awka, Nigeria, Wearing the Okpu Agha (War Helmet) and Holding the Ekpeke (Shield). Photographed by Northcote Thomas, c. 1913. Credit: Isioma Ani

This photograph, taken in the early 1900s, transports you to Awka (present-day Anambra State, Nigeria). It portrays an Igbo elder, adorning his head with the okpu agha, the war helmet. In his hand, he grasps a sturdy ekpeke, a woven shield. These aren’t mere decorations; they’re a warrior’s full regalia, a powerful symbol of valor and a window into Igbo martial traditions.


More Than Protection

The okpu agha transcends the battlefield. It wasn’t just a helmet; it was a badge of honor, a warrior’s medal awarded not for social status, but for bravery displayed in the face of danger. Imagine the immense pride an Igbo warrior must have felt when he donned the okpu agha. It wasn’t just headgear; it was a physical representation of his unwavering commitment to his community, a constant reminder of the responsibility he bore. This wasn’t just a piece of clothing; it was a warrior’s legacy, passed down through generations, whispering stories of courage and sacrifice.

The Ekpeke

The ekpeke held firmly in the elder’s hand isn’t just for deflecting attacks. Woven from local materials, it’s a testament to Igbo resourcefulness and resilience in the face of challenges. It’s more than a shield; it’s a symbol of unwavering defense, a promise to safeguard the community. Together, the okpu agha and ekpeke paint a vivid picture—a warrior who is both an impenetrable force and a protector of his people.

Igbo Martial Traditions

The Igbo martial traditions are deeply rooted in their history and culture. Warriors were not only defenders but also held in high regard as protectors of Igbo values and society. The okpu agha and ekpeke were integral parts of their regalia, symbolizing strength, honor, and dedication.

Okpu Agha: The Warrior’s Helmet

The okpu agha is made from strong materials, often decorated with intricate designs that signify the warrior’s achievements and status. It served both practical and symbolic purposes, providing protection in battle and representing the warrior’s bravery and honor.

Ekpeke: The Resilient Shield

The ekpeke, woven from tough local materials, was a reliable defense tool in combat. Its construction demonstrates the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Igbo people. The shield’s durability and design reflect the importance of protection and resilience in Igbo warrior culture.

A Complex Legacy

It’s important to acknowledge the context in which this image was created. The photograph was captured by Northcote Thomas, a British colonial anthropologist, during a period of British rule in Nigeria. Colonial anthropologists often documented indigenous cultures and societies to understand their structures and potential weaknesses. This knowledge was then used to establish indirect rule, a system where colonial powers governed through existing local authorities while manipulating them for their own benefit.

While the context surrounding Northcote Thomas’ work is complex, the photograph itself remains a valuable tool for understanding Igbo history. It offers a glimpse into Igbo culture and attire during a specific period. By critically examining this image and understanding its origin story, we can gain a more nuanced perspective on Igbo history and the complexities of colonialism.

Join the Conversation

What objects in your own culture hold similar weight and significance? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below! Let’s embark on a global conversation about the objects that define our heritage and the stories they hold within them.


Explore Further

If you’d like to delve deeper into the world of precolonial warfare and its cultural significance, here are a couple of books available on Amazon:

Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order by Saheed Aderinto

Title: Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order

Author: Saheed Aderinto

Publication Date: January 6, 2018

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Length: 336 pages

ISBN: 978-0-253-03161-7

Overview: Saheed Aderinto's Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria delves into the multifaceted roles firearms played in Nigerian society during the colonial era. It challenges traditional perspectives that often limit the discussion of guns to their military use, offering instead a broader socio-cultural analysis. Aderinto explores how the colonial introduction and subsequent proliferation of firearms influenced various aspects of Nigerian life, including leisure activities, ceremonial practices, and social status.

Key Themes:

  1. Cultural Integration of Firearms: Aderinto illustrates how firearms were not just tools of violence but became woven into the fabric of everyday life in colonial Nigeria. Guns were used in hunting, ceremonial events, and as symbols of power and prestige.
  2. Economic Impact: The book examines the economic dimensions of firearms, detailing how their trade affected local economies and contributed to the broader colonial economy. The political economy of gunpowder and firearms trade highlights the interplay between local needs and colonial policies.
  3. Colonial Policies and Social Stratification: The author discusses how colonial authorities regulated firearms, often using them to enforce social hierarchies and maintain public order. The distribution and regulation of guns also reflected and reinforced social and racial divides.
  4. Violence and Public Order: The book addresses the dual role of firearms in both contributing to public disorder and being used as tools for maintaining colonial control. It documents instances of violent crime and accidents involving firearms, shedding light on the complexities of gun-related violence in colonial Nigeria.
  5. Technological Transfer and Adaptation: A significant portion of the book is dedicated to tracing the historical journey of firearms from their introduction by Europeans to their adaptation and domestication within Nigerian society. Aderinto argues that this transfer was part of a larger process of technological and cultural exchange.

Critical Reception: Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria has been praised for its thorough research and engaging narrative. Scholars have commended Aderinto for his ability to weave together diverse sources, including oral histories, archival documents, and contemporary reports, to present a comprehensive picture of the role of firearms in colonial Nigeria. The book has been noted for its innovative approach to understanding colonial history and its implications for modern debates on gun control and violence.

Conclusion: Saheed Aderinto's Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria is an essential read for anyone interested in African history, colonial studies, or the socio-cultural impact of technology. By examining firearms within the broader context of Nigerian society, Aderinto provides valuable insights into how these weapons shaped and were shaped by the cultural, economic, and political landscapes of colonial Nigeria.

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The House of Skulls: A Symbol of Warfare & Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial Niger Delta and Igbo Hinterland – October 9, 2016 by Nkparom C Ejituwu and Stanley I Okoroafor

This is a study of the House of Skulls, one of the lost cultures of the Niger Delta. The House of Skulls was a European label for a house built by some Niger Delta communities with the skulls of their enemies killed in war. The case is used to argue that barbarism is not endemic to African Culture, but rather part of the primitive instinct of man and the House of Skulls, as evidence of human sacrifice, and headhunting in the Niger Delta and its hinterland in pre-colonial times was not worse than some of the practices, both African and European, which have been documented. In doing so the study provides fresh insights into the history of one of the lost cultures of the Niger Delta; a culture much modified in contemporary times.

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The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria – January 1, 1965 by Victor C. Uchendu

Examines the Igbo social system and view of the world. Covers their contact with European culture and the warfare that raged within the Igbo borders.

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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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