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The colanut, whose botanical name is “Cola Acuminata” or “Cola Nitida”, has been an important item in African societies for millennia. Colanut trees have been utilized for various purposes. Some traditional herbal healers use the pods to ease labor pains. The seeds are deployed to relieve diarrhea, nausea and hangover while the tree bark is used to heal wounds. The nuts are chewed as a stimulant and the roots can be used to clean teeth and sweeten breath. The colanut can be processed into a dye which is used in indigenous garment industry, body art and as an ingredient for cosmetics. The colanut tree is indigenous to the African rain forest. It can thrive in the wild but it is deliberately cultivated in most parts of Africa. A colanut tree variety was discovered to cohabitate quite well with cocoa plants, particularly when the latter in seedling stage. This lead to a massive propagation of colanut trees in vast cocoa plantations that were developed in many West African countries since the early days of European colonial rule. The cocoa beans are harvested for export to beverage and confectionery manufacturers overseas while the proceeds from the colanut tree are mostly consumed locally. The colanut is ubiquitous throughout tropical Africa. It is, however, amongst the Igbo cultural group in Nigeria that this nut conjures a meaning that transcends its material utilitarian value.

For reasons that cannot be fully explained by historians and anthropologists, Ndiigbo venerate the colanut as a ritualistic food that reinforces interactions in both their physical and metaphysical world. Presentation, breaking and sharing of the colanut are central to consummation of interpersonal relationships as well as solemnization of group undertakings in many formal or social settings in Igbo society. At the personal level, individuals who maintain homesteads or live by themselves are expected to offer and share the colanut with their guests as a symbol of goodwill toward them. Within the context of authentic indigenous Igbo values, it is considered extremely unusual for one to fail to offer the colanut to a guest, particularly in one’s own home. In the rare circumstance where the host may have temporarily run out of his supply of the nuts, the guest usually expects a profuse apology for the lapse. It is the normal etiquette for this apology to precede any other offerings that might be made as a substitute for colanut such as drinks, snacks and other refreshments. Some title groups in Igbo society may decline to partake in further proceedings in the residence of a host who cannot present the colanut to welcome his quests at the first instance.

Colanut is usually presented with other accompaniments as the case may be. Most commonly, the colanut is presented with “alligator” pepper, a hot spicy fruit from the ginger family, which mixes quite tastefully when chewed together with cola. Some prefer the accompaniment of hotly seasoned peanut butter made from dry-roasted groundnuts and pepper. To accommodate the taste and preferences of some who may not tolerate colanut well, other vegetables and fruits can be presented together with the colanut. Some people, who can afford to do so, accompany the colanut with palmwine, hot drinks and non-alcoholic beverages. Whatever is presented with the colanut takes a subordinate role when it is time to make the actual offering to the guest. The colanut, with its condiments and other accompaniments beside it in a plate or platter, is what is handed over to the guest while the other items are placed elsewhere in everyone’s view. Where the spouse of the head of the household is available, the wife usually delivers the colanut platter to her husband who then makes the presentation to their guests.

Colanut is not only presented to strangers, but to all guests. The Igbo connotation of a guest is anyone who resides outside the host’s homestead. The next-door neighbor or even a close relative, like one’s sibling, is regarded as a guest as long as he resides outside the host’s homestead. It is only a fool, according to an Igbo saying, that fails to regard his relatives as guests in his own homestead. The colanut is usually presented with a brief remark by the host to welcome the guests. If there is only one guest, he should receive the platter, acknowledge the presentation of the colanut with thanks and hand the platter and its contents back to the host to oversee the ritual of breaking the cola. In most parts of Igbo society, it is the prerogative of the male head of the household to perform the ritual for breaking the cola. This is more so if the male head of household has not broken any cola since daybreak. In some areas, such rites may be the task of the oldest or titled man present. In some situations, the youths are called upon to perform the actual breaking of the colanut and sharing the cola out to guests after the appropriate person has completed the libation ritual.

In a large gathering, presentation, breaking and sharing of colanut take a different format. The principal aim of the colanut ritual is the reenactment and solemnization of human relationships, proceeding from the host to encompass all the guests present. The male head of household or his surrogate first presents the colanut to the next of kin for onward transmission to rest of the guests. If the number present is not too large, the colanut should be passed around the guests bearing two things in mind: guest’s age and relationship to source of the cola. The colanut should pass from the hands of younger to older individuals and from closely related to distant relatives and finally to strangers, in meticulous order. Errors are destined to occur during this intricate process. That is why anyone, with platter of colanut in hand, is given the liberty to consult as he wishes before making the next move. The inquisitive traveler, an Igbo saying goes, rarely misses his way, even in a very strange land. This saying is put to practical use during the presentation of the cola. The average Igbo is unlikely to acquiesce to a gross error in the custody of colanut during its presentation. Every protestation regarding a breach of protocol is usually fully explained and necessary amendments made before proceeding further.

Even guests from distant places or even foreign lands are not left out of the colanut ritual. The farthest in relationship to the source of the colanut usually gets to handle the platter at the end of making its rounds through the guests. Before the colanut platter’s journey is deemed complete, every constituency that is entitled to handle it must have been given the opportunity to do so. An astute observer should be able to trace the relationship of the colanut presenter to various individuals and groups present. To the initiated, this is a reaffirmation of family and ancestral lineage. To the uninitiated, this exercise could be a subtle unspoken lesson in human interconnectivity and geopolitics from an Igbo perspective. The last person to handle the colanut platter is expected to return it to its original source; to the head of household who made the offering. Before doing so, it is considered a polite gesture to inquire from all assembled whether anyone who feels entitled to handle the colanut platter was omitted or inadvertently bypassed. A positive response should require an acknowledgement of error and an open apology to the offended. A negative response means that the colanut has touched all bases and therefore now ready for breaking and sharing to all present.

By design, many more colanuts are usually offered than would be adequate to share for immediate consumption amongst the number of people present. Besides, once the colanut is formally broken, the cotyledons of the nut can be cut into as many pieces as the sharer wishes. Ndiigbo say that only the lack of a thumbnail can be the limiting factor in ensuring that the broken cola reaches everyone present. It is the usual practice for anyone with a portion of colanut to pinch off a piece in his possession to share with those around him before eating what is left. At this phase of the colanut ritual, the emphasis is on sharing, no matter how minute the piece available may be. Before breaking the cola, a handful of choice nuts are picked out by whoever is performing the ritual for distribution to some guests for them to take home unbroken. Guests from most distant places and also the last persons to handle the colanut platter are the first beneficiaries of these selective handouts. The Igbo says that when the colanut reaches the guests’ homes, it gets the chance to tell where it came from. If enough nuts are available, dignitaries and titled men present could be offered whole colanuts as a sign of recognition.

The act of breaking the cola is the climax of the colanut ritual. Before separating the nut’s cotyledons, the person performing the ritual usually starts by reciting libations and extending good wishes to all present. The Almighty, the land and its deities as well as ancestral spirits are invoked upon to come and commune with all gathered. Brief remarks are made on key societal issues of the day. The good and favorable ones are lauded. The bad and unfavorable experiences are wished away, never to recur. Expectations for the future are expressed for individuals, groups and the society at large. As the recitals proceed, all those present intermittently concur in unison by responding “ise-e”, Amen, “ya gazie” when appropriate, depending on individual preferences. Most colanut-breaking rituals are concluded with a short prayer that is formatted to the performer’s taste. A resounding refrain of approval at the end of the colanut-breaking ritual is a confirmation that the nuts are ready to be shared and consumed by all present. The person breaking the cola finally separates one colanut into its cotyledons with his thumbnail or other instrument with a sharp edge. As of right, he retains one of the nut’s cotyledons while the other pieces are sent to the pool that will be shared to all and sundry.

The Igbo society is a highly decentralized one. As should be expected, there are variations in details concerning the presentation, breaking and sharing of the colanut amongst Ndiigbo. In some places, cash is routinely added to colanut platter before the head of household makes his presentation. On special occasions like during traditional marriage ceremonies, relatives and friends of the host often contribute publicly to the colanut pool that is eventually offered to the guests who are mostly made up of the entourage of the host’s in-laws. For some people, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, fruits, vegetables and snacks are acceptable substitutes for cola. No breaking ritual is considered appropriate for any “cola” presentation that does not include actual colanuts. It is, however, not unusual to encounter occasions where libations are recited while opening a bottle of hot drink, wine or champagne. The distribution network for ethnic foods has improved markedly these days that items like colanuts are easily found in most parts of Africa and large population centers of Europe and America. Use of inappropriate substitutes for colanut by Ndiigbo is rare nowadays, even amongst its Diaspora populations.

Colanut ritual is probably as old as Igbo culture itself. The Igbo sees the colanut as a ritual food which, by sharing with fellow humans in the ambience of the spiritual forces that define our cosmos, mends and reinforces cohesion of the greater society. Within the indigenous Igbo value system, the colanut has such a spiritual power that breaking and eating it at the consummation of a deal is considered as a more binding pledge by the parties concerned than written signatures or fingerprints. Signatures and fingerprints can be corrupted by forces external to man. But partaking in the breaking and sharing of colanut after performing associated ceremonial rituals is regarded by the average Igbo as taking a solemn oath that remains immutable for life. The colanut ritual has proven to be a powerful instrument for transmission of cultural values to succeeding generations of our people. To the non-Igbo, it provides a clue to understanding the inner workings of the Igbo culture and its people. Consumption of the colanut is not unique to the Igbo. In fact, the Yoruba grow the bulk of the colanuts produced in Nigeria and the Hausa eat a greater tonnage of the mild stimulant than Ndiigbo. Beyond growing and consuming the colanut like most Africans do, Ndiigbo also break the cola.

 
 

Osondu
The Survival Struggle for Ndiigbo

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