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LOCATION: Niger River delta (coastal region of southern Nigeria)
POPULATION: 2 million or more
LANGUAGE: Ijo; other African languages; English for traveling, trading
RELIGION: Traditional tribal religion and Christianity


The Ijo, the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, are a socially and culturally diverse people, living in the coastal region of southern Nigeria, principally in the states of Bayelsa and Rivers. Linguistic and archaeological analysis indicates that they migrated to the Niger Delta as long as 7,000 years ago. It is not known whether they were seeking refuge from mainland attackers or were attracted by the abundance of fish and the supply of salt.

The delta at first must have seemed like an isolated and easily protected area, with its maze of waterways, but later it became a major point of contact with European travelers and traders. Beginning with the Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, the region became more and more closely tied to the world economy as demands for its resources increased: first human resources—slaves—then palm oil, and most recently, petroleum. European missionaries also had a major impact as the Ijo were converted to Christianity, became missionaries themselves, and introduced schools to villages throughout the delta.

The effects of these changes varied widely, however. The Ijo were divided into 43 ibe, an Ijo word roughly translated as “clan(s),” and were never politically unified in the form of a kingdom or state. Those living on islands in the eastern delta formed “city-states” and monopolized the trade for slaves and palm oil; the political organization of the central delta was primarily village-based. In fact, when speaking of the Ijo it is important to keep in mind that the Ijo, like many other African peoples, never formed a neatly bounded society. For each general statement, there is usually an exception. For example, the Ijo and their language have the same name (Ijo, often spelled Ijaw), but the great range of dialects prevents Ijo speakers in the eastern and western fringes of the region from understanding one another. Only the Ijo living in the central part of the delta can understand both. But the Ijo now see themselves as a distinct people with reference to their mainland neighbors (the Igbo, Yoruba, Isoko, Beni, and others), even though the cultural differences within the Ijo-speaking population are sometimes greater than those between Ijo and non-Ijo.

The Ijo political identity took shape during the colonial period, as early as the 1940s as part of nationalist movements throughout the continent. Later, the creation of the Delta state in the 1960s responded to Ijo demands for recognition, and 30 years later the Bayelsa state was carved away from the Delta state. Political identity has been sharpened both through conflicts with the federal government and with neighboring peoples, particularly the Itsekiri and Urhobo living in the Warri area.


An accurate census has been difficult to achieve in Nigeria as a whole. Estimates range from two million Ijo speakers to more than seven million of Ijo descent. The communities they occupy in the Niger Delta vary in size from several thousand to a few hundred persons, or fewer. The population size is tied closely to the topography of the delta.

There are three broad ecological zones in the delta of the Niger River. The first is fairly narrow, only a few hundred yards in places, and consists of a sandy stretch of land that marks the edge of the delta as it meets the Bight of Benin. The villages located here are small. The second zone is the area of mangrove trees and tidal floods that lies behind the beaches. Mostly seasonal fishing camps are found here, although in the eastern delta the trading organizations formed by the Ijo middlemen developed into communities with denser populations. The third zone includes the dry land that rises above the man-groves. The communities here are located along the banks of the rivers that crisscross the delta.

The waterways were the only means of transportation in the delta until a highway and bridges were built in the 1980s that crossed the northern part of the delta connecting Lagos in the east (the former capital of Nigeria) with Port Harcourt, a major city in the west. In the past the Ijo traveled extensively along the coastal waterways that extend from Cameroon to Ghana, and settled along them to work as fishermen, government employees, missionaries, and tradesmen. The Ijo are found today living throughout Nigeria and have entered numerous other occupations. During the Christmas holiday, many Ijo return to their delta communities. The high-speed motorboats that have replaced canoes reduce the trip home to a few hours' journey from the mainland, when formerly it took several days.


The languages spoken by the Ijo belong to the Ijoid or Benue-Congo subgroups of the Niger-Congo language family. The Igbo and Yoruba languages are also members of the latter subgroup. Because of the demands of travel and trading, it is not unusual for an Ijo to speak several African languages, as well as English or pidgin English. Beginning in primary school, English is the official language of instruction.

Ijo names usually involve a personality trait or an event. A girl might be named Oweizighe (“a male has not yet been born”) because her parents had wanted a boy. The process of naming is as fluid as the names themselves. Anyone can name a newly born child, or no name will be assigned until it seems clear that the infant will survive beyond the first few months. A young person can decide to change his or her own name. For family names people use their father's first name, or his father's name, depending on factors such as the social standing of the grandfather or the place where the person lives while growing up.


The Ijo do not have a category of beliefs that can easily be called folklore. At best they have some unproven stories of how they came to move from one place to another, or how a particular custom was started. In one frequently told example, disputes among brothers over the distribution of wild game led to the splitting up of a community and the formation of a new ibe. In another example, some Ijo claimed that a water spirit convinced them to stop female circumcision in their ibe after seven young women died.

Similarly, with regard to religious beliefs, those who converted to Christianity came to see traditional Ijo notions about spirits and magical powers as examples of superstitious beliefs. In contrast, they believe their own faith in a major world religion is based only on truth.


The traditional Ijo believe in a High God, called Wonyingi (“our mother”), who created and controls the destiny of everything on earth. An individual's spirit is believed to meet with Wonyingi before birth to make an agreement or contract for the person to live a particular life. This belief is tied in with a philosophy that requires each person to work hard to achieve the good fortune that may be in his or her contract. When the person's best efforts come to nothing and a person is beset by misfortune, the Ijo rationalize that it must have been part of the contract. There are several kinds of spiritual agents, however, who can help to shape a person's destiny: spirits of the dead, spirits of the bush and water, and witches.

Although the spirits of the dead are believed to go back to their own villages, it is necessary to bury the dead properly and to appease the spirits with food and drink. Before consuming a beverage, an Ijo will pour a little of it onto the ground for dead relatives to “drink.” It is believed that if the spirits are unhappy, they will make a person ill, infertile, or even cause that person's death.

Spirits of the bush and water are believed to be the most common and conspicuous supernatural agents influencing the course of daily life. The Ijo appeal to the water spirits in particular by wearing elaborately carved wooden masks, decorated with chalk and feathers, on their heads. When a particularly powerful spirit is thought to be residing in a mask, people will travel long distances to ask the spirit for help with their economic, health, or other problems. Spirits may also be asked to punish a thief or protect a person from evil witches. Spirits can respond to these requests through supernatural messages (perhaps explaining why a person died) interpreted by dancers who, with shielded faces, imitate the dances the spirits were said to have performed on the sand banks. In the eastern part of the delta, elaborate masquerade dances are performed on a cyclical basis to honor village heroes.

Not all witches are thought to be bad, but they are believed to be dangerous. They may even be children, who might just as easily kill a clan member as a neighbor. At the same time, if a witch chooses to do so, he or she can protect family members from the attacks of others. The most direct way of identifying a witch comes during funerals, when the spirit of a dead person sometimes confesses to having been one. A witch discovered in this way is buried quickly, without a coffin, at the side of the river.


In recent times, the period from Christmas to New Year's Day has become a time of celebration as many Ijo working on the mainland try to return to their home villages for their annual vacations at that time. The Ijo in the western delta also have a spring festival that lasts 12 days. They welcome the new agricultural cycle with special dances for women who have been circumcised and with libations for the ancestral spirits. They also perform rituals to cast out evil spirits to symbolically cleanse the community.


The central Ijo have relatively few rituals to mark a person's milestones. Differing from those areas where female circumcision is practiced, the females of the central Ijo go from birth to death without any ritual to signify their first menstrual period, marriage, pregnancy, or menopause.

Similarly, rituals rarely are attached to the development of males, even at the time when they are circumcised, usually within a week after birth. In the past, when the main male occupation was collecting palm berries to produce palm oil, a boy was pelted with berries after he had climbed his first tree and cut down his first bunch of berries.

For both men and women, the most significant rite of passage is at the time of death. The status of a person is measured by the type of funeral he or she receives. The more generations of living descendants a person has, the more elaborate the funeral will be. In general, elderly persons with grandchildren would be honored with an all-night wake, a masquerade dance, drumming and dancing, and food for visitors. Those who died a “bad death”—the result of an accident, or if the person was revealed to be a witch, are buried quickly, without ceremony or coffin, on the river bank.


Two main criteria influence interpersonal relations among the Ijo: age and gender. Otherwise, they are remarkably egalitarian in their economic and political outlook and activities. Everyone is expected to work, even young children (from the time they are able to clean up around the compound), as well as, the most elderly members of the group. Priests of the cult houses and chiefs are also expected to help with the work, which includes farming, fishing, canoe carving, and weaving thatch for roof repairs.

The standard greeting is noaho (“hello”). Although the Ijo do not celebrate birthdays, they are very conscious of relative age distinctions. Younger people are expected to bow slightly at the knee when meeting someone older, and to express their respect by offering the oldest person present the opportunity to speak or to eat and drink first. Women, however, usually defer to men unless they are considerably older than the men.

At political gatherings, whether family or village meetings, men make decisions based on consensus. Although people defer to the oldest men, agreement is reached through the ability of a speaker, regardless of age, to persuade the others to accept his views.

Another form of greeting is to ask anyone passing by to “come and eat.” Since Ijo villages are not subdivided by walled compounds, the open space allows people to see all those who pass by. As with the American greeting, “How are you?”, the offer to join in the meal is not taken literally and is not usually accepted.


Village life changed considerably after oil exports became a major source of income to the Nigerian government. Closer ties to international markets created more opportunities for paid work on the mainland and in government-supported developments in the delta. Health clinics became more common, and some illnesses, such as yaws, which afflicted many children, were almost eliminated. Malaria, however, and other illnesses endemic to the tropics remain prevalent.

Since the introduction of electricity, television sets can now be found even in the most isolated of villages. The houses of thatched roofs and mud walls typical in the past have been mainly replaced by cement-block houses, some having two stories.

The change to more permanent housing is perceived by the Ijo as an improvement in their standard of living, and not simply as a status marker. Those who cannot afford to build a cement-block house are seen as being very poor. The old-style houses require constant maintenance, and thatched roofs let in both rain and snakes.

It is much more difficult to assess the benefits of the new economy to households generally. While the Ijo had been relatively independent in their ability to produce most of what they used and consumed, the post-oil era placed them in the position of having to purchase most of their household needs.

Because of the topology of the delta, villages are essentially located on islands. In the past, canoes were the main form of transportation to work on farms, to fish, and to visit neighbors on the mainland. At one time, outboard motors were used to power large canoes to ferry passengers and goods throughout the delta. More recently, high-powered motor boats have become the main means of transportation. Despite the topology, a highway was constructed across the delta, linking Warri in the west and Port Harcourt in the east, via Yenagoa. The maintenance of this highway and bridges in this tropical environment has been a major challenge.


Women are considered to be equal to men. They provide the food for the household, by farming or fishing, and many engage in business activities to earn money to buy what they cannot produce. Although husbands are expected to contribute as well, especially in paying school expenses for their children, it is not unusual for women to pay household expenses. Women who become wage earners, working in the schools or on palm oil plantations, still maintain farms.

The Ijo family is an extended family type. Polygyny, in which one man has two or more wives, is the preferred form of marriage. Each wife has her own bedroom and kitchen, usually in a single house. Since women are expected to live near their husbands' families, and men to live near their fathers, the number of persons residing near each other in an extended family can typically be 15 or even more.

The Ijo practice two forms of marriage, both involving “bridewealth,” or what the Ijo colloquially call “dowry.” The small-dowry marriage requires the husband to pay a certain amount to his wife's parents and kinspeople. In the past, the payment was made in cases of gin; later it was in cash. The large-dowry marriage involves a larger payment, and only a few marriages are of this type; usually wives in these cases are not local women.

The essential difference between the two types of marriage, especially for the central Ijo, is in the lines of inheritance. The children of a small-dowry marriage trace their line of inheritance through their mother to her brother and other kinsmen. In the large-dowry marriage, the children “belong” to the father. What this means in practice is that small-dowry children have more choices of places to live when they reach adulthood: they can continue to live in their father's residence or they can move to any place where they can trace a connection through their mother's line of descent. In practice, however, other factors sometimes intervene to restrict such choices. Children are often sent to live with relatives, either because of divorce or a parent's death, or to help care for an infant when there is no older sibling in, for instance, the mother's sister's family.

Unlike many other African societies, among the Ijo, wives are not ranked within a marriage. Each is treated equally and each has equal access to her husband. This does not prevent women from becoming jealous if they see their husband favoring one of their co-wives. For some women, this is enough of a reason to make them want to be a single wife. Others claim there are advantages to having co-wives, in that they provide companionship to each other, help in feeding the husband, and aid in caring for sick children.

The inability of co-wives to live peacefully together can lead to chronic conflicts and divorce. However, the most important and acceptable reason for divorce is infertility. If a woman does not become pregnant within a reasonable time after marriage, she can divorce her husband and return the dowry. On the other hand, if the man has children with other wives and it appears that the woman is barren, the husband does not have grounds for divorcing her. If she commits adultery or refuses to fulfill a wife's role, such as cooking for him, then he can send her away and still claim a repayment of the dowry.

The Ijo do not have pets as such. Dogs have to forage for food, and rarely are petted.


There is both formal and informal clothing for men and women. During the work day men wear shorts, often under a cloth sarong, a shirt, and sandals (some also go barefoot). For formal occasions they wear a long shirt covering a good-quality sarong, a hat, and shoes, and they often carry canes. Women also wear cloth sarongs with blouses when working during the day, and sandals (some also go barefoot). Their formal clothes consist of expensive, colorful sarongs, blouses, and head wraps. They wear shoes or sandals, and strands of beads around their waists under their sarongs and around their necks.

If clothing is seen as decorative art for the body, it should also be noted that Ijo women spend much time weaving their hair into attractive forms, and tattooing their bodies and faces by cutting designs with a razor and then rubbing charcoal into them.


Fish and cassava are the “meat and potatoes” of the Ijo diet. When fish is plentiful, it is eaten at every meal. When fresh fish is expensive and scarce, so-called “ice fish”—imported frozen fish—is substituted. The Ijo plant maize (corn), plantains, and bananas, as well as many leafy vegetables and peppers. In some areas they also grow yams. Varying with the seasons, clams are found in the river, and fruits such as mangoes grow in the forest. Because of disease spread by the tsetse fly, there are few large animals in the delta. Chickens and goats are the main domesticated animals and are usually reserved for special meals when visitors arrive or a ceremony is performed. Men sometimes hunt for animals, such as deer or wild pigs. Palm wine, tapped from palm trees, offers a nutritious drink at meals and on special occasions.

Ijo generally eat three meals a day. The morning and noon meals are small; the main one is in the evening after work. Men eat together, rolling cassava into a ball—with the right hand only—and dipping it into a shared pot containing a stew of fish and vegetables. Cooked plantains or yams are added when available. Women and children eat in the same fashion from their own plate.

The Ijo wash their hands before eating, but no one eats with the left hand, which they consider “unclean.” The left hand is used to wash oneself after using the toilet, and to engage in sexual activity. By holding a drink in the left hand, a person signifies that he or she has killed someone in the past.


Two forms of education have been closely related since the advent of missionary schools in the last century: formal schooling and informal instruction in culture and livelihood. The schools themselves are accessible to Ijo throughout the delta, eventually through college level. Girls now attend school in equal numbers with boys, and the literacy rate has increased steadily. Schooling is seen as a necessary step to finding a job, and the spectacular increase in the number of schools following Nigerian independence has made teaching positions the primary kind of job available. With the advent of schooling, however, came a rising expectation—on the part of both parents and students—that literacy would bring with it higher wages. This expectation affects the other form of education, the cultural learning that defines being an Ijo. Learning to farm and fish is still part of growing up, but these jobs are often rejected as not being suitable occupations for graduates of secondary schools. The alternative is to migrate to urban areas to look for employment, especially since teaching assignments have become more competitive because of the increasing number of graduates. Since employment opportunities are often no better in the city than in the countryside, the government has established oil palm plantations, rice farms, and other development projects to encourage Ijo people to seek jobs in their home areas.


Ijo dance and music are typical of the rhythmic complexity generally found in West African music. Drums of various sorts provide music at all events. Special dances are performed to distinguish, for example, between a funeral for a person of high status and a masquerade dance honoring a water spirit. The Ijo readily add songs and dances from other ethnic groups to their own repertoire. This has continued with youths forming bands using electric guitars and other Western instruments to blast out the latest Nigerian popular songs.

Although the Ijo have no tradition of literacy, they tell stories in the evenings or when receiving guests, for instance, after a funeral. These stories often have a moral lesson and, while seemingly of a mythical nature, they are told as though they had actually happened.


Like the Western concept of the “Protestant Ethic,” which emphasizes the inherent value of work, the Ijo similarly stress the importance of everyone's engaging in productive work. In practice, this ideological emphasis means that the Ijo do not recognize a hierarchy based on occupational status in which a political leader or religious dignitary might expect to be supported by the community. Instead, they, too, must engage in some form of productive work. With widespread education, however, as noted above, the introduction of white-collar jobs has broadened the definition of work to include more than physical labor alone.


Wrestling and soccer are two of the most popular sports for boys and young men. Soccer, also for girls, has been introduced as part of the school program, but is no longer confined to the school day.

Men's wrestling appears to have a long history. Preparations for a wrestling match in the villages against a team from another village often take on the appearance of preparations for war. In a village, a particular bush spirit that has been associated with protection in battle can be approached for similar protection in a wrestling match. In other places, wrestling matches are just a sport, and like soccer games, they draw large audiences.

Since Ijo villages are usually located near a river, most Ijo can swim. Children often compete with each other in swimming races.


With electricity came the radio and, much more recently, television. The main forms of entertainment, however, remain similar—in form, if not in content—to the way children and adults occupied their leisure time in the past. Storytelling now includes events, real or imagined, that resemble the sensation-alistic “news” in Western tabloid newspapers. As in the past, the Ijo also play games, such as card games and checkers.


Ijo masks and woodcarvings, usually depicting fish and made to be worn on top of the head, are found in museums throughout the world, and are treated as serious art by viewers and scholars. While the Ijo are not unconcerned with the beauty of their carvings, their main concern is with the utility of the object: whether a spirit is satisfied to reside there. Wood carvers, like those who carve canoes, see themselves as craftsmen, possessing a certain talent, whose aim was to satisfy public needs.

Similarly, women weave colorful and decorative sleeping mats. While their main aim is to sell the mats, like craftspeople everywhere, the Ijo recognize and appreciate the difference in quality and beauty between one mat and another.


The problems that beset the state of Nigeria in postcolonial times, ranging from a civil war to a series of military coups, affected even the most isolated villages in the Niger Delta. Nigeria's national regimes' reputation for allowing bribery to become a way of life and for abusing human rights has been well publicized. There is an irony in seeing the Ijo tradition of democratic relations at the local level being frustrated by a modernized national government that has voiced much enthusiasm for achieving democracy but appears, at times, to evolve in the opposite direction.

The pollution caused by oil extraction eliminated, for the most part, fresh fish, the most fundamental part of the Ijo diet. By the early 1990s this ecological degradation was compounded by a general loss of economic well being, lack of employment, and a growing frustration over the inequitable distribution of wealth. Ijo attacks on the oil facilities and theft of the oil itself have caused problems worldwide, particularly in the United States, which relies on Nigeria as one of its top five importing countries for most of its oil needs.


Gender has been touched upon in several sections above, and, as with the other topics, emphasis must be placed on the variations found among the Ijo. From the women in the central delta whose associations extend no further than the extended family to those living on the delta borders who belong to powerful female marketing organizations, the differences are profound. At the same time, the division of labor marked by age and gender is recognized by the Ijo themselves as being inherently balanced. Consistent with a general ethos of egalitarianism, Ijo ideology does not hold one sex to be innately superior to another. Although women never occupied political roles, this did not mean they were not political. A wife could, on occasion, rely on women in her community to forcefully punish a man who repeatedly and without reason mistreated her. Men claimed, not entirely joking, that it was prudent to marry an odd number of women to avoid them pairing up against him. In their view the odd numbered one could be counted on to cook when the others went on strike.

As in many other African societies, women play a major role in the trading economy, whether in the market place or in moving provisions and goods between markets. Their ability to accumulate wealth was not seen as unusual.

In a reflection of the role women played at critical times in the past, as when there was resistance to colonial tax impositions, Ijo women have attempted to impose their own presence by holding sit-ins at oil facilities to make the oil companies more responsive to demands for jobs and local community development.


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—by P. E. Leis