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The living waters of Cross River

By Enuma Chigbo  Phillips

Let your living waters flow over my soul, let your Holy Spirit come and take control… somehow, I find this song reverberating in my spirit and I wonder why. Perhaps my latest trip may have a whole lot to do with this. It was January 1 and indeed a new beginning. Before I go any further, I’d like to say a big Happy New Year to any and everyone who is reading this. Welcome to the year 2015, a year that marks a new order and a year of accelerated growth.

My latest trip where I believe things started to make sense was right in the middle of Cross River State –  in  Itigidi, the land of the origins of the leader of Cross River State  till the end of Maythis year.  To get to this land or  ‘The Midlands’  as I have fondly nicknamed it, you go through the  Calabar  City gate  (If your point of departure is  Calabar)  and past quite a few villages in four local Government Areas –  Odukpani, where the legendary Mary  Slessor  has her home,  Akamkpa, known for limestone and granite,  Biase  known as the bread basket of Southern Nigeria and  Yakurr  where you get the best quality  garri  and where  the famous  Leboku  Festival holds  each year. The distance betweenUgep, capital of  Yakurr  and  Itigidi  is probably about 7km. I smile as this unique journey took me down memory lane…

•Itigidi beach
•Itigidi beach

I remember getting fairly acquainted with this land  sometime in 2011. In my quest, I learned that  Itigidi  is a community in  AbiLocal Government area and that  Abi  is simply an acronym forAgbo,  Bahumonu  and Igbo  Imabana, the umbrella communities that make up the Local Government. I got to learn that  this midland  is counted among the few communities  with preciseorigins and historical antecedents.  Available evidence from oral interviews and archives reveal that in about 1400 AD the people of  Itigidi, originally called  Abama, meaning “Welcome from far away to the peaceful place of settlement,” were 24 villages strong when they migrated from a place called the Benue-Niger contour to Northern Cross River State through what we know today as  Abakaliki, to an area known as  Okpituma, before straddling along the banks of Cross River to their current location.  Interestingly once you get there, Enugu the very first capital of the Eastern region of Nigeria is just about an hour away…

History also talks the early romance of the  Itigidi  people with Christianity  and western education, the first known contact with western education in  the  1800’s when an early trader, Cross River State Governor  Liyel  Imoke’s  Great Uncle  Eval  Eja  in the course of his journey along the Cross River estuary, met with  MrCobham.  Cobham  was a missionary of the House of  Obio  Oku in Creek Town. Before then, Christianity had long taken roots in Creek Town with the establishment of the first Church of Scotland Mission in 1845 and subsequently in  Calabar  in 1850.

Eval  Eja  was taken to church in  Calabar  to learn the mysteries of the ‘god of the white man’  as was the common saying back then. Much later, he was invited by one of his business associates, John Coco  Bassey  in  Calabar, to worship with him in the church – The United Free Church of Scotland.  Eja  was so enthralled by the church that he  instantly resolved to see it  established in hisItigidi  home.

•Almost rubble: Front view of the very first storey building in Itigidi
•Almost rubble: Front view of the very first storey building in Itigidi

Not long after, a European Missionary, Rev WR Thompson visited  Itigidi  in 1899, most likely as a result of intensive canvassing by  Eja. During that visit, the first ever by a missionary and in response to the  visitor’s appeal,  Eja  handed over his young cousin of paternal lineage,  Ejemot  Eson  Ecomato Thompson to be trained at the mission’s institute in  Calabar  – Hope Waddell. This  gesture of  Eja’s  stirred up opposition  – all from his maternal lineage largely emanating from  fear that he would not return  – that he would either die or be lost in the white man’s land. Consequently,  Ejemot  was allowed only on the condition that he would be replaced by another member of theIbritam  family,  (where  the  Imoke’s  trace their roots down  toabout 700 years)  should their fears be confirmed. To allay their fears, Samuel  Imoke  – the Cross River State Governor’s father was then pledged as ransom for  Ejemot.  Records of the early Christian Church show that  Ejemot  later returned as a trained missionary. He built several churches and schools in the course of his evangelizing mission beginning from his home landItigidi.  I was told back then that  his ancient house still stands today, next to the Chief’s palace and could be best described as a tourist’s delight.

Four years later on the first day of such an important year, I knew this house had need of a visitor…no…visitors actually, asI was not alone on this  journey. My  ever wonderful and adaptable  husband Richard,  my  producer Grace and her husband Alex set out for what we could see. Also in the group was Julius,the  most brilliant writer of us all. So after the feasting on  the first  day of the New Year, the next day would  indeed  be a day of discovery for us.

At about 8am on the 2nd, we were ready to roll. Our tour guide for that day, a son of the soil,  amiable  Ekpeyong  was most helpful. He took us to  Ejemot’s  house, but somehow our attention was diverted to yet another building. It was the first storey building to  be  put up in that  land and was built by  EvalEja, the man who brought Christianity to The Midlands.  Clearly, it was a shadow of its former self. We were aghast as we looked at  a storey building  which was  reduced to the size of  a bungalow as a result of neglect. As I write this, I remember my producer Grace’s words  said a while back. “It’s people who keep a house going.” I wondered where the people were…

Behind the house however,  there was another, and it was herethat we learned a bit more about the neglected house.  “I was a baby when this house  was built,” says  80  year  old, Elder JohnAni,  the  first librarian  ever,  produced by The Midlands. Perhaps like the house,  this very accomplished man was a shadow of his former self,  as he’s lived as  a  stroke patient for  the last  19 years. “This house  was built sometime in the 1800’s  by our great grandfather Chief  Eval  Eja. It  was the only storey building.”

“We all lived in unity,” he continues.  “Life then was better than it is now.  Even when there were disputes, reports were made to the oldest man in the community, who would resolve themamicably. But today people do not respect senior citizens anymore,” he laments.

•Inside the very first storey building in Itigidi
•Inside the very first storey building in Itigidi

Clearly in a more reflective state after our tour of the house and encounter with this extraordinary man, we set out to another location, said to be the very first building erected by SamuelImoke, the late father of  Liyel  Imoke. It is in this unique place that the  Paramount Ruler of the land lives. His name is  HRMEval  Edward  Esikong  Imonco, a highly accomplished and not to mention amiable man. He ushers us into his courtyard in his impeccable English and asks us to introduce ourselves. We take turns to do so and we are given a very warm welcome by him and his personal assistant.

After that he takes us down memory lane in his narration of this very special land.   The after effects of the Nigerian civil war seems to be one of the highlights of his narration as he remembers one of the songs they sang, “Nike Nike,  anyi  ge  luugwu  Hausa,” meaning,  “With strength  and determination, we will get to the land of the North.”

“We very much affected by the civil war. At the time  I was a Headmaster in  Ishiagu  in  Afikpo  County Council School, now inEbonyi  State.  We were  abducted into the  Biafran  army and used guns carved out of sticks. This place was a war torn zone and many of our workers were trapped in Igbo land.”

Born  on  July 19  1939,  Itigidi  he says is a ‘branch’  of  Otigidifrom  the neighboring  Ikom  Local Government area, also located in Central Cross River, and known for the famous  Nkarassimonoliths said to be about 3,000 years  old. “Our language isLegbo,  and we  belong to the  Ekoi  tribe. Some of our people migrated to this place. They were originally hunters, farmers,and fishermen and we practiced subsistence farming.”

However today, with the boost in farming through the replication of  the renowned Songhai farms project from The Republic of Benin in his homeland, this Paramount Ruler looks forward to a better and brighter future.     “We are also learning from this project  and are grateful to Cross  River  State Government  for bringing Songhai integrated farms to us here, which will in turn  subsidize the dwindling economy of  oil.” With those final words of royalty, we head  back to  Calabar  and it was then I remembered my very first trip to this land.  It was in 1999 and I do recall the reason for that trip was a 70th  birthday celebration.  I had a warm feeling in my heart as I began to compare both trips – the October 4 1999 trip and the January 1 2015  one. Indeed things had changed for the better. In 1999, we went by ferry  into the midland  from  Ugep  but today, there is a very well constructed bridge that takes you across in seconds. This  bridge runs over the living waters of the beautiful Cross River…yes indeed things had changed for the better and I know that it can only get better  and better.  Let  your  living waters flow over my soul…it is  therefore  of no great surprise that this  very special  song continues to reverberate…


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