The Itsekiri Tribe: A Distinct coastal Race.
|The Itsekiris are an ethnic group of the Niger Delta area. The Itsekiris live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government areas of Delta State on the Atlantic coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can also be found in parts of Edo, Ondo and Port harcourt. The Itsekiris are closely related to the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria and more widely to the Urhobo and Edo peoples.
The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or ‘Iwerre’ as its proper name – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government districts. The area is a key centre of Nigeria’s crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri forms the industrial and commercial spotlight of the Delta State region.
The Itsekiri are a people of very mixed ethnic origins who speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba of south western Nigeria and the Igala language of central Nigeria but which has also borrowed some cultural practice from the Edo people of Benin City, given the domination that the Benin Empire once exercised over the area, Portuguese in trade terminologies, as the Itsekiri were the first people in Nigeria to establish contact with the Portuguese who were exploring the West African coast, and also more recently, English. Although their language is related to that of Yoruba and Igala ethnic groups, however, through centuries of integration , modern day Itsekiris are made up of different ethnic origins. They are most closely related to the Ilaje, Ijebu, Edo, Urhobo, Ijaw, some Anglo-Scottish and Portuguese descent) and are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion.
Thus having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a fusion of the many cultures that have influenced its development.
In the 15th century, the early Itsekiris adopted a prince Ginuwa (also called “Iginuwa” in Bini Language) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly united into a kingdom under his rule. Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders.
The Itsekiri’s historical capital is Ode-Itsekiri (also called “big warri” or “Ale iwerre”), though the monarch’s main palace is in Warri town the largest city in the area and home to diverse other communities including the Urhobos, Ijaws, Isoko, and many other Nigerian and expatriate groups working in the oil and gas industry.
The Itsekiri, though a minority group within Nigeria, are considered to be a highly educated and affluent ethnic group with a very high rate of literacy and a rich cultural heritage. The Itsekiris have one of the oldest histories of western education in West Africa and are noted for producing one of its earliest university graduates – the Olu of Warri Kingdom, Olu Atuwatse I, Dom Domingo a 17th-century graduate of Coimbra University in Portugal.
The Itsekiris traditionally lived in a society that was governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and council of chiefs who form the nobility or aristocracy. Itsekiri society itself was organised along the lines of an upper class made up of the royal family and the aristocracy – the ‘Oloyes and Olareajas’ these were mainly drawn from noble houses including the Royal Houses and the Houses of Ologbotsere (Prime Minister or king maker) and Iyatsere (defence minister). The middle class or Omajaja were free-born Itsekiris or burghers. As a result of the institution of slavery and the slave trade there was a third class ‘Oton-Eru’ or those descended from the slave class whose ancestors had come from elsewhere and settled in Itsekiriland as indentured or slave labourers. In modern-day Itsekiri society the slave class no longer exists as all are considered free-born.
Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a hat with a feather stuck to it. The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads. Itsekiris are also famed for their traditional fishing skills, melodious songs, gracefully fluid traditional dances and colourful masquerades and boat regattas.
Before the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, like many other African groups, the Itsekiris largely followed a traditional form of religion known as Ebura-tsitse (based on ancestral worship) which has become entrenched in modern-day traditional Itsekiri culture. Once the dominant form of western Christianity in Itsekiriland for centuries, only a minority of Itsekiris are Roman Catholics today whilst the majority are Protestants notably Baptist and Anglican.
There are a number of semi-autonomous Itsekiri communities such as Ugborodo,koko, Omadino and Obodo whose history predates the 15th-century establishment of the Warri Kingdom. The Ugborodo community claims direct descent from the Ijebu a major Yoruba sub-ethnic group.