Special Report

May 4, 2012

Kola nut: Nigeria’s seed of togetherness

Kola nut: Nigeria’s seed of togetherness

Kola nuts

By McPhilips Nwachukwu

THERE is something that is used in identifying every country of the world. This identification mark is, however, more possible with countries that are homogenous in composition. But on the contrary, in heterogeneous countries like Nigeria, it is very difficult to lay claims to such items of referencing or something of a commonality with which to say, yes, here comes, Nigeria.

Nature, however, has a way of taking care of its own contradictions, and this is what happens in Nigeria. Defying such logic of impossibility, this country of about a hundred and forty million people with over 250 ethnic groups has demonstrated to the world that there is a possibility in impossibility.

This beautiful country is blessed with diverse people, whose culture is as diverse as their climatic and weather conditions. It has successfully disproved the hypothesis by being united through one generous gift of nature.

Simple seed nut
What is this gift one may ask? It is a simple seed nut, grown in the western and central parts of Africa. It is the kola nut seed. Yes, the same kola nut popularly known by such botanical names like kola acuminate or atrophora, kola alba and kola nitida.

It is of course, this same kola nut that has given this country, called Nigeria, a unifying image. Journeying from the eastern part of the country through the north to the southern and western parts, one unforgettable experience that the visitor takes away with him is the tradition of kola nut presentation.

Kola nut is so important in the social, religious and cultural life of the people that it is said that at some point during pre-independence Nigeria, when the nation’s founding fathers looked for a common symbol acceptable to all Nigerians that would serve as a national icon on the country’s coat of arms, the consensus was kola nut.

Grown and harvested abundantly in the western part of the country, the seed of kola nut, which is celebrated in a mythical manner by the Igbo of the South-East, is almost eaten like food in the North. The way and manner that kola nut is seen and appreciated by Nigerians makes it something bigger than the mere red and yellow seed nuts hawked around in trays by Hausa traders in small kiosks in the village markets and major cities or that large quantity of agricultural crops grown, harvested and stored in large hand-woven baskets by Yoruba farmers.

In Igbo land, like in any other part of Nigeria, kola nut is bigger than all of these. In some places, it is food eaten with relish and celebrated with deserving feast. Like yam, king of crops, it commands adoration and enjoys many acolytes. Emotional and cultural attachment to kola nut in Nigeria makes it religiously infectious. Adherents of the culture of kola nut, which without exaggeration involves everybody of different religious beliefs, gender and caste, find in the kola nut lobes a cultural vehicle that coveys the people’s world view.

Kola nut is so important in the life of Nigerians to the extent that poetry of kola nut breaks the day for typical homes on occasions of birth, marriage, death or settlement of dispute. It is, therefore, not unusual to hear alongside Christian families who conduct their morning prayers, the voices of  their traditional neighbours, who welcome the birth of a new day with  kola nut invocation:

For Timothy Nnubia, an 80-year-old Igbo man: “Kola nut is our own prayer book. We wake up to pray with kola nut and use it to invoke the spirit of our ancestors. We also use it to appeal to the God of Heaven to guide us in our daily activities. After our petitions, we break it and eat, and if there is palm wine or gin, we drink to wash it down. In a sense, the act of kola nut breaking is like the act of Catholic communion.”

Eze kere elu, kee ala, taa oji     Creator of Heaven and Earth, eat kola nut
Amadioha taa oji                          Amadioha eat kola nut
Ala Ezuhu taa Oji                           Ezuhu land eat kola nut
Ndi nwe ezi taa oji                         Founders of this habitat, eat kola nut
Agwu isi taa oji                               Agwu isi, eat kola nut

This pattern of the application of kola nut as a religious vehicle is not also strange to people from the western part of Nigeria. According to James Adeyemi, kola nut poetry is as much present in Yoruba socio-religious life. He said: “Kola nut presentation to a visitor to one’s home shows acceptance and welcome.” And so does it show friendship and love among the Yoruba, Hausa or Itsekiri people of Niger-Delta.

Kola nuts

As the Igbo prays with kola nut, so does his Yoruba brother take up his preferred four lobed native kola or kola acuminate to pray for the welfare of his visitor and that of his family:

Wa gbo bi obi se ma igbo             We pray for longevity
Odin llan rorogbo, ododin             As both kola nut and bitter kola
Lan lori ate,Ao ma rie lodo dim           grow annually, may we also  live and grow annually.

Even in the present time, kola nut is even presented in a “ Christian way”  as in such occasions, a pastor, a reverend father or an elder in the Church will be called upon to pray over kola nut in order to bless it.

Here, one would notice some slight variation in the pattern of kola nut prayer:
Our Lord and Our God,
We thank you for this wonderful gift,
We present it to you to bless it and
Cleanse it with the blood of Jesus Christ
Transform it to a source of healing
So that as we eat, it shall become a healing
Upon our souls,
We asked all of these in Jesus name.

However, the pattern, presentation of kola nut in all of the (these) places when a visitor comes around, approves his welcome in the same way that denial of kola nut denotes displeasure and disapproval.

Among the Igbo it is said in a proverb that “onye wetera oji, wetera ndu”, which translates to “he who brings  kola, brings life.” The implication of kola nut presentation, therefore implies, establishment of love and trust. And that is why, it is believed that whoever partakes in the sharing and eating of kola nut with one has become one’s friend and has entered into an oath of preservation of life with one. In this sense, kola nut becomes a communion food. A feast of love, trust and togetherness.

The Hausas of Nigeria are known to be the greatest consumers of kola nut. It is said that an average Hausa man’s coloured teeth is as a result of excessive consumption of kola nut. It is a common saying that during religious celebrations in the North like Sallah, instead of people asking for Sallah meat or food,  they would rather say: “Ina Sallah Gworo?” meaning, where my Sallah kola. Gworo is Hausa name for kola nut.

“Kola nut is regarded as a sacred nut used to communicate with the gods, being that it is chosen by the elders as the head or king of all seeds. As a seed nut, it is used in so many ways as a mediating factor. It is necessary to present it first on every occasion,” explained 75 years old Mumuni Sadiq, Sarkin Hausa, in Festac town of Lagos.

In Nigeria, nothing is said at any event, no matter how serious the occasion may seem, without the presentation of kola nut ritual. It is the first thing to be presented on the occasion of birth as much as on the event of death. It is presented on the occasion of marriage, divorce as much as on the event of political rally. In the same way, it inaugurates political meetings as much as it is used in sanctifying the ground for ordination of priests and in the invocation of the gods.

Religious functions of kola

The religious functions of kola nut are, however, more observed in the western, southern and eastern parts of the country, where ancestral worships go side by side with Christianity. Among the Yoruba, like the Igbo and the Niger-Delta people, native kola nut is used in ritual incantations. Both Ifa diviners and dibias use kola nuts to invoke and appease the gods.

Almost in every part of Nigeria, kola nut is used in offering prayers to the ancestors to guide and protect the people. According to Baba Aduuni, a Yoruba Ifa priest, “the Yoruba believe that kola nut is the favourite food of Ifa, the divination deity, and this is the reason they give reverence to a specific kind of kola nut called, obi abata.”

Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, kola nut plays other important cultural functions: Because of the mythical and legendary history of origins and migrations that shape the history of many ethnic constituents of the country, kola nut is used to trace seniority.

During family or community meeting for instance, when the kola nut is presented by a host, it is usually passed round to the guests in order of culturally defined order of seniority, and finally presented to the most senior person or family or village or community to bless and break.

Among the Igbo, in a situation whereby the person who presents the kola is senior to the person who represents the most senior village or community in their midst, the kola will still be presented to the junior person to get his approval before the oldest person in their midst is allowed to bless and break the kola nut.

Kola nut tree itself is a symbolic tree. It is planted to signify important land marks and historical deaths. According to Dr Isaac Ayodele, a Yoruba trado-medical practitioner, “kola is part of the social fibre of Nigeria. Kola nut trees are planted at the birth of a child and upon the death of a family member. Kola is a valued gift, signifying an even more valuable friendship.”

In Igbo land, it is also planted to mark out land boundaries; and also used to identify where children’s placentas are buried and as decorative trees in front of shrines. Across the country, there are instances when kola nuts are not eaten or one allowed  the  honour of breaking the kola nut. For instance, in Igbo land, one is not allowed to break kola nut in one’s maternal home. Also, women are not allowed to bless and break kola nut.

On the contrary, some Ifa women in Yoruba land are said to have the power to break kola nut and also have the power and qualification to interpret the lobes according to the mystical rules of Ifa divination. The Hausas do not have any particular ritualistic attachment to kola nut.

A joke has it that an Igbo man brought out kola nut in the presence of his Hausa friend. And following the Igbo ritual round of passing the kola nut from hand to hand, when it got to the hand of the Hausa man having gone round the guests, he said: “Gentlemen, my friend has given to that man, he rejected it, he gave to the other man, and he rejected it. It has come to me, I will eat all of it.”

Map of Nigeria

Other instances that may stop some people from eating a particular kola nut are when the lobes are seen to be “conducting” some kind of head count. The Igbo abhor counting of people since they believe that it may bring afflictions upon the people. And because kola nuts are shared in lobes and each lobe signifies a number among the people, since number is symbolic, they, therefore, become wary about eating kola nuts with certain number of lobes. For instance, numbers like 3, 6, 5 and 4 are very symbolic in the people’s cosmological beliefs.

Some of these numbers for some tribes represent different values. In some cases, strength, prosperity or abnormality. So, while some villages in a tribe may eat a kola nut with six lobes as a signifier of good fortune, another village may abhor it because it is a head count of their village and may bring afflictions. A three-lobed kola, for the Igbo is a sign of strength, while it pre-supposes bad luck among the Yoruba.

Also, kola nut without lobes is not allowed to be eaten because it represents abnormality. It is called “oji gbara kpurukakpu”, meaning kola without lobes. But this is the preferred kola for native doctors. The moment it is noticed that a kola has no lobes, it is immediately withdrawn and replaced with finer species with lobes.

In the same way that kola nut is used in peaceful ceremonies, so also it is used in mediating crisis situations. It is perhaps at this point that the symbolic nature and role of kola nut becomes very manifest. Health-wise, kola nut in Nigeria is seen and celebrated as a healthy food, though not without its side effects. Kola nut’s clean bill of health is given by the Igbo, who in their proverb say:

onye wetere oji wetere ndu             He who brings kola nut brings life
Onye nata oji na ata ndu                    He who eats kola nut eats life.

It is the recognition of this life – giving value of kola nut that makes some cross section of Nigerians add kola nut as vital part of their daily diets and herbal alternatives. The barks and leaves of kola nut trees are said to be used in some places in different forms as herbal medicines.

According to Ayodele: “Medicinally, kola nut is an all purpose pharmaceutical. The leaves, bark, twigs, fruit and flowers of the tree make a tonic that is used as a remedy for coughs, whooping cough, vomiting, chest problems, dysentery, diarrhoea and asthma. The bark extracts have the ability to inhibit dangerous bacteria like staphylococcus, streptococcus, pneumonia and gonorrhea. Bark extracts are also under study as a fertility regulator.”

Kola nut has brought so much to Nigeria. But that does not mean that it does not have its own negative side. According to medical science, kola nut has high level of nicotine which  can  affect body chemistry negatively. It can lead to insomnia, high blood pressure, high heart beat, high level toxicity, over stimulations and locomotor effects.

Despite all these  negative medical report, Nigerians love their cherished kola nut; and this love has blossomed into a  huge economic prospect which kola nut trade promises the country following the exportation of the product to China, North America and India, where it is largely required for the production of cola drinks and pharmaceutical products.

According to Akinbode. A, cited in a paper titled “kola nut production, processing and marketing in the south-eastern states of Nigeria, and published in African Journal of Plant Science, Vol.5(10), 2011 ,” it was estimated that the internal kola nut market in Nigeria is worth about  $30,000,000, while in 1970, kola nut export fetched USD $157, 500 to Nigerian government.