Aluk Village has an eerie ambience. There’s a stillness that even visitors – myself included – naturally adopt, an act of reverence described in Efik as Utenghe. The trees rise upward forever, towering sparsely at peculiar corners and intersections, watching over the monoliths.
The sight of a curious stranger with a camera piqued the interest of a prisons officer who doubles as a taxi driver on the weekends. Officer became a self appointed tour guide and guard. A very religious man too: prays the sign of the cross as we drive past any Catholic Church to show respect to the Blessed Sacrament, warns me against stepping beyond the gates of the Monolith Playground without an anointed local. I teased him of being a scaredy-cat, I later learnt it was an act of reverence.
In the days leading to this voyage my mind endured a lingering muddle: should a Christian acknowledge, even inquire into, the metaphysical and spiritual beyond their belief; doesn’t religious tolerance entail acknowledgment? Inadvertently my visit to The Ikom Monoliths in Aluk evolved into a didactic tour, and bestowed enlightenment.
The Ikom Monoliths are basalt stone sculptures found in Cross River State, Nigeria. For the Ejagam People the Monoliths aren’t mere geological wonders, but are sacred stones referred to as Akwanshi – which literally means ‘dead person in the ground’. The origin of Akwanshi remains a mystery, nevertheless to the locals its spiritual significance is apparent: the spirit of their departed ancestors return to live in the stones, providing guidance, protection, and even wisdom for the living – the tenets of Traditional African Religion.
One particular stone, Akpanyang, stood out for me. She portrayed the important roles women in Nigeria – Africa in general – played in the pre-colonial era. It reiterates my stance that with colonialism came patriarchy (but that’s another blog post entirely). Akpanyang is said to be a ‘ruthless’ strong woman, with a star on her forehead she is accorded all-seeing powers. Her authority is so profound other stones tend to be placed at a distance.
The Wisdom Stone, another personal favorite, is endowed with hands. Come to me and I’d divulge my secrets, it beckons. I touched. The only stone outsiders are permitted to.
Akwanshi was also consulted to solve disputes and defiance. Nyamkpe, a sacred grove characterized with a single Ikong Ekpe (the tree of the Ekpe society) served as a traditional court. If found guilty an offender was made to pay Okpoho (cowries), which till this day are visible at the foot of the tree.
Despite the current eminent commitment to Christianity, the people of Aluk still retain their traditional religious beliefs and rituals. The 14th of September marks a yearly festival when sacrifices are offered by three aged women and a tribe of young virgins at the Monolith Playground to ancestors and usher in bountiful harvest.
An elaborate tale of an unsuccessful theft attempt of Akwanshi is narrated by the Curator. The thieves dug all night yet were stared in the face by impossibility in the morning. The mystical details are better narrated from the horse’s mouth, something to look forward to if you do visit.
Ignorance is the prerequisite of intolerance
Regretful and repentant, prior to this encounter I exhibited and expressed fear towards and discrimination against religious affiliations such as this. The turning point? Our guide/curator was sharing the origin of Akwanshi and how they came to be, a story entwined with emergence from water and natural inscriptions on the stone. In thought my mind contemplated, these inscriptions are too honed and geometrical to be anything short of man-made. A thought away from voicing out my unsolicited opinions, Officer must have read my mind and stopped me dead in my tracks.
“We dwell in peace when others are given the freedom to do things, to believe things, even though we feel they are wrong”, he said. Officer went on to explain how this wasn’t an easy task, but the first step is to treat others of varying faith the way I’d want to be treated; accommodation of religious needs would follow suit. One step at a time.
Almost immediately my perspective changed and with it followed my behavior. Two Christians and a Traditional Worshiper enjoying a peaceful evening of exploring these mystical stones, an experience I would always cherish. As I inquired further, ignorance dissipated and welcomed knowledge. At this juncture I understood that tolerance doesn’t make me less faithful to my own religious beliefs, I didn’t have to agree with all I had discovered but a new found resolve to revere differing religious beliefs emerged.
To tolerate is to acknowledge and respect diversity. How else are we to remain in peace with one another?
In celebration of enlightenment, I was invited by Officer to Cameroon’s border town of Ekok for bushmeat, D’jino Cocktail De Fruits, Makossa & Bikutsi.