The Importance and Significance of Kolanut in Igboland: Have you ever wondered why the Igbo people of Nigeria value the kola nut so much? Why do they present it to their guests, break it at their gatherings, and pray over it before eating it? What does the kola nut mean to them, and what can we learn from their culture and tradition?
Well, for starters, the Kola nut, or Oji-Igbo as it is known in Igbo land is regarded as a sacred fruit. It is revered, respected, and almost worshipped. It plays an important role in the representation of the Igbo culture and tradition.
The origin and history of the kola nut (Oji Igbo) in Igbo land is shrouded in mystery and legend. According to one popular myth, the kola nut was a gift from the gods to the Igbo people, who were the first to discover and cultivate it. The kola nut was believed to have divine and magical powers, such as healing, protection, and communication with the spirit world, and it was also a symbol of wealth and prestige, as only the rich and powerful could afford to own and share it. It was so revered that it was used as a medium of exchange, a form of tribute, and a sign of allegiance. The kola nut was also a source of social and political cohesion, as it was used to seal agreements, resolve disputes, and foster friendships. The kola nut was an integral part of Igbo culture and identity, and it still is to this day.
The kola nut is also regarded as an omen of peace, this is why an Igbo man would welcome you with kola nuts when you visit his home, saying “onye wetere oji, wetere udo”, which translates to “he who brings kola, brings peace.”
In this article, I will explore the significance and importance of the kola nut in Igbo land, and how it reflects their worldview, values, and identity. I will also share some stories and anecdotes that illustrate the role of the kola nut in Igbo society, and how it connects them to their history, spirituality, and community.
Origin of the Kola nut
The kola nut originated from the tropical rainforests of West Africa, where it grows on evergreen trees that can reach up to 40 meters in height. It belongs to the genus Cola, which has over 100 species, but only two are widely cultivated and consumed: Cola acuminata and Cola nitida. The Igbo people prefer the Cola acuminate (Oji Igbo), which has a bitter taste and a red or pink color, while the Cola nitida (Gworo), which has a sweeter taste and a white or cream color, is more popular among the Yoruba and Hausa people.
The kola nut was introduced to other parts of the world by Arab traders, European explorers, and African slaves, and it became an ingredient in many products, such as soft drinks, chocolates, and medicines. However, it has never lost its cultural and spiritual significance for the Igbo people, who continue to cherish and respect it as a sacred gift from the gods.
For one who is keen on details, it is not difficult to observe that before any ceremony/ meeting begins in Igboland, the Kola nut must be presented and prayed over to God. Nothing starts without offering prayers with the kola nut. It has been customary since time immemorial. The breaking of the kola nut, which entails the prayers over the kola nut marks the beginning of the event, ceremony, or meeting.
The symbolism of the kola nut
In Igbo culture, the kola nut holds immense symbolic significance, with emphasis placed on the number of lobes it possesses. Traditionally, a kola nut must have more than two lobes, as two lobes, known as “oji Ifilifi,” are considered a bad omen and must be discarded. However, when a cotyledon is three, it signifies a good omen, known as “akwu kwa ito, ite esiri.”
Four lobes of the kola nut symbolize acceptance by the gods in Igboland, reflecting the four native market days and demonstrating principles of equality and social justice. Similarly, five lobes are referred to as “oji Ikenga,” while six lobes represent prosperity, ensuring the prosperity of the individual who presents and breaks the kola nut.
Additionally, seven cotyledons denote immense prosperity, and kola nuts with eight lobes or more are rare and highly valuable, symbolizing impending great fortune. These intricacies surrounding the kola nut are deeply ingrained in Igbo culture, from the prohibition of women climbing the kola nut tree to the rituals involved in its breaking.
Kola nuts are presented as the first item in any Igbo meeting or gathering, preceding the discussion of meeting agendas. They are also used to address family issues and complaints, with four or eight kola nuts serving as summons to defendants. Furthermore, kola nuts are essential in various ceremonies, including marriage ceremonies, childbirths, and housewarmings, where they symbolize appreciation and entertainment for guests.
Moreover, kola nuts play a crucial role in covenant-making, known as “Igba Ndu,” to seal agreements and relationships among individuals with common interests or goals. They are also used in morning rituals to thank ancestors for the gift of a new day, reflecting the deep spiritual connection of the Igbo people to the kola nut.
Overall, the kola nut holds a revered place in Igbo culture, serving as a symbol of hospitality, prosperity, unity, and spiritual connection. It is an integral part of Igbo traditions, rituals, and ceremonies, embodying the values and beliefs of the community.
The Significance of the Kola nut and what it means to the Igbos
The significance of the kola nut in Igbo culture is deeply ingrained, holding an unparalleled position in both the cultural and spiritual realms of Ndigbo. The Igbo people are inherently spiritual, intertwining spirituality and tradition into every aspect of their lives in Igboland.
An adage among the Igbo people, “Oji bu Eze,” translates to ‘kola nut is the king in the plant kingdom,’ signifying its paramount importance as the first fruit to grow on land according to Igbo belief. This belief establishes a direct connection between the kola nut and their ancestors, who are thought to have used and communed with it in ancient times.
As emphasized by Achebe, the kola nut is regarded as a sacred fruit with a distinct and distinguished role in Igbo life and culture. Its significance is evident in various social gatherings and ceremonies where the breaking of the kola nut marks the official opening. In instances where a host cannot provide the kola nut, it signifies a grave circumstance, prompting the host to apologize to guests.
“The kola nut was a sacred fruit and had a very distinct and distinguished role to play in Igbo life and culture”.
Welcoming guests with the kola nut is a customary gesture among Igbo men, symbolizing peaceful acceptance and respect. Accompanied by items like alligator pepper, bitter kola, and okwu Ose, the presentation of the kola nut signifies acceptance and peace within the community.
However, the symbolic gesture of presenting “kola nut” to a titled man has been subject to misinterpretation, ranging from a heartfelt gift to instances of bribery or extortion in Nigerian culture.
The number of kola nuts offered varies depending on the occasion, ranging from two upwards, and they are typically arranged in a traditional kola nut tray called “okwa oji.” In some regions, money known as “ego Oji” or kola nut money is included in the tray as a gesture of hospitality for visitors.
Overall, the kola nut holds multifaceted significance in Igbo culture, serving as a symbol of hospitality, peace, and respect, while also carrying spiritual and ceremonial importance in various social gatherings and events.
Rituals Associated with the Kola Nut
The Igbos believe that the Kola nut is a catalyst for abundant life. Hence, the popular saying “Onye wetara Oji wetara ndu” is a common idiomatic expression that precedes the breaking of the kola nut at any Igbo gathering. He who brings kola nut brings life it says, and this goes beyond being just an expression; it shows the cultural sacredness of this seed.
The most prominent ritual associated with the introduction and breaking of the kola nut to any gathering of the sort in Igbo culture is the kola nut prayer. This is a traditional practice of presenting and breaking the kola nut in prayers, as a sign of hospitality, friendship, respect, peace, and unity among the host, guests, and stewards. The kola nut ritual is performed at various social and religious occasions, such as traditional marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, meetings, and communing with God and the ancestors.
The presentation and breaking of the kola nut is an entire ceremony on its own, which must be carried out judiciously to avoid the angering of the ancestors.
The kola nut ritual involves the following steps for the case of a guest and his host, for instance; in a traditional marriage scenario:
- The host or the eldest male in the family presents the kola nut to the guest or the visitor, usually on a tray with other items such as alligator pepper, garden eggs, or bitter kola.
- The guest or the visitor accepts the kola nut and praises the host or the family for their generosity and hospitality. The guest or the visitor may also inspect the kola nut for its quality and freshness, as well as the number of lobes it has. The more lobes the kola nut has, the more auspicious it is.
- The host or the eldest male in the family takes back the kola nut and offers a prayer or a blessing over it, invoking the name of God, the ancestors, and the spirits. The prayer or the blessing may also include the purpose of the gathering, the wishes for the guests or the family, and the gratitude for the kola nut.
- The host or the eldest male in the family breaks the kola nut with a knife or his teeth, and distributes the pieces to the guests or the family members, starting from the most senior or the most honored. The kola nut is usually eaten with alligator pepper, which is believed to enhance its medicinal and spiritual properties.
- The host or the family may also offer other refreshments or entertainment to the guests or the visitors, such as palm wine, music, or dance.
The kola nut ritual is a way of expressing and reinforcing the Igbo values of community, harmony, and spirituality. It is also a way of honoring and respecting the kola nut as a sacred gift from the gods and a symbol of life and peace.
It is taboo for a woman to bless or break the kola nut, even picking a kola nut from the tray is frowned upon as it is expected to be handed to her by any male present irrespective of age.
It is said that the kola nut does not understand any foreign language, except the native language, the Igbo language. This is because the ancestors and spirits only understand the native language therefore the prayers before the breaking of kola are done in the Igbo language.
The tray goes around as each person receives the plate or wooden bowl and thanks the host with a brief statement.
Yet another dicey part of the kola nut rituals is the sharing of the revered fruit. In some parts of Igboland, the kola nut is shared from the oldest to the youngest, any mistake in the order of hierarchy sometimes draws a severe penalty, in extreme cases leading to ostracisation. The sharing is particular to each community, some go according to the oldest village or what their culture entails.
Before the visitor is expected to say the objective of his mission or visit, he is expected to eat kola nut first, hence the Igbo adage “Obia taa oji, okaa ihe obiara” (when a visitor eats kola nut, then he can relay his messages)
Uses of the Kola nut in Igbo land
- Medical and Health Benefits:
- Ushering Guests:
- Ushering Events and Ceremonies:
Within Igbo culture, the kola nut, known as Oji Igbo, holds a revered position, offering a glimpse into the worldview, beliefs, and deep reverence for nature among the Igbo people. The meticulous prayers and rituals conducted around the kola nut, down to the details of its cotyledon, underscore the spiritual connection and respect for the mysteries of the natural world.
In traditional Igbo Odinani practices, prayers over the kola nut are offered in the native Igbo language, expressing gratitude to Chukwuokike (God the creator), ancestral spirits, personal chi (guardian angel), and other divine entities. However, with the influence of Christianity, some Igbo individuals now choose to pray in English, invoking the name of Jesus Christ.
While this shift may draw criticism from traditionalists, many see it as a harmonious blend of two religious influences that have shaped Igbo identity. Whether prayers are directed towards Christ or ancestral spirits, the core intention remains unchanged: to promote peace, unity, and spiritual connection within the Igbo community.
We invite you to share your insights in the comments, expanding our understanding of Oji Igbo, and exploring ways to embrace its practices within the context of Christianity or other belief systems.