Yakö - History and Cultural Relations

For the history of the Yakö prior to the twentieth century, one is dependent on oral tradition, first collected in the mid1930s. It has been related that the ancestors of the Yakö migrated northward, relatively recently and perhaps as late as the early nineteenth century, from the area of the Oban Hills, which lie to the southeast. These traditions sometimes suggest that various non-Yakö groups, as well as the proto-Yakö, dispersed from this area; however, the only other people known to share this tradition with the Yakö are the Olulumo of Okuni, who live separated from them, much farther up the Cross River, near Ikom. According to Yakö traditional accounts, the dispersal took place as a consequence of quarrels; their ancestors came overland, not by the river, in various groups over a number of years. According to these accounts, the migrants settled first at the present-day agro-towns of Idomi, Nko and Umor (present-day Ugep). Discontent at Umor led to the founding of Ekuri and Nkpani by dissidents. According to other traditional accounts, however, the residents of small, matrilineally based hamlets in the vicinity of these towns moved for safety into the security of the larger settlements because of warfare. These two sets of traditions are not ultimately incompatible. Traditions do not elaborate the nature of the "warfare," and there does not appear to have been either one major enemy or a particular fear of raids by external slave traders. There are, nevertheless, stories of sporadic conflict between the major Yakö towns, and also between Nko and the Mbembe-speaking village-group of Adun. Indeed, both the Adun and the Nko agree that the Igbo speakers now living in the border area between them are settlers who were invited in to form a buffer zone between their two societies. A further factor may have been that the members of some Yakö men's societies were particularly noted as headhunters. This activity was common to most local groups, but it is agreed, both by the Yakö themselves and by their neighbors, that they were outstanding for their success in this field. The fact that head-hunting was ritually forbidden only between fellow townsfolk, not between members of the different Yakö towns, may be a major factor in accounting for the striking size of the Yakö settlements (which were much larger than those of the neighboring Mbembe, for example, who ritually prohibited head-hunting between linked but separated villages). European influence began to have an effect only in the last years of the nineteenth century. In 1895 the British were engaged in extending their influence up the Cross River, particularly with a view to breaking the power of certain (non-Yakö) river trading settlements that were seeking to control all traffic on the river. That year, a small expedition of 200 members of the Constabulary and their indigenous allies attacked the Ekumuru town of Ediba, from which some traders regularly went to deal with the Yakö. Serious clashes took place the following year at the Yakö settlement of Ekuri, near the river. According to Adun traditions, influential traders had organized a resistance force consisting of groups from the Adun as well as the Yakö. This force was defeated, however, and Ekuri was burned by the British, apparently ending concerted opposition, although it was reported in 1905 that the Ekuri themselves were still defiant. By this time, however, a rudimentary administrative system had been established over the Yakö area, and warfare, although not at first including head-hunting, was effectively stopped. Prior to the establishment of British control, the main outsiders to visit the Yakö areas regularly were a few traders based in villages farther down the Cross River, especially from the area of Agwa Aguna. Individual traders established personal links with a particular town and enjoyed protected passage between that town and the river. In addition, associated with the traders, there came also cult experts, who seem to have organized profitable group trips to consult certain well-known oracles (especially the "Long Juju," in the Agwa Aguna area). Thus, although travel was not easy for anyone prior to the establishment of peaceful conditions by the British government, trade goods and new cults were able to circulate. Moreover, there was a considerable degree of cultural borrowing, so that, for example, men's associations with the same name have long been established not only in the different Yakö settlements but also in neighboring non-Yakö villages. Best-known of these associations was the Ekpe Society of Calabar, which many traders joined, probably because it provided them with useful links to local influential men, who considered membership prestigious. Local branches of Ekpe were certainly established in the nineteenth century: they are recorded by the first district officers in 1902. Christian missions and schools had also been established by the early 1930s, and by that time the district officers were making efforts to involve younger local men in new forms of administration. By the 1960s, the area had a high rate of literacy and political sophistication. By then, too, a few Yakö men who had gone on to higher and technical education were pursuing prominent careers outside the district. There was also some temporary migration of unskilled workers to the towns; this migration owed less to dire necessity than to the fact that young men were reluctant to earn money as hired laborers at home, perhaps because hired labor had become associated with work done by the somewhat despised, Igbo laborers who had immigrated temporarily from the Abakaliki area. The construction in the late 1960s and 1970s of a road—ultimately stretching from Enugu to Calabar through the western end of the Yakö area, with a bridge over the Cross River (replacing a somewhat problematic ferry crossing)—has greatly increased contacts with, and movement toward, the outside world. The district, although not entirely unscathed, was less damaged than most of eastern Nigeria by the events of the Biafran war, and it is still a predominantly agricultural district. No detailed study has been undertaken in this area since that war and since the road was built.

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