11 March 2002

Nigeria: Gbagyi: Great Farmers of the North!


The Gbagyi, popularly referred to us the 'Gwari' are spread across a number of states in the country. They have an interesting culture, which forbids placing have the head. They are famous for investing places with quite poetical names, and they have and they have an interesting culture of courtship and marriage Yakubu Ozohu-Suleiman recently researched into the Gbagyi.

There are many people in Nigeria and even beyond, who are familiar with the name Gwari, and have encountered some of the people so addressed, but have either heard of Gbagyi as a name of a tribe, or do simply believe that Gbagyi is a tribe other than Gwari who live in the Northern part of the country.

These people are most likely to be surprised, if today they are told that there is no tribe in any part of Nigeria known genuinely as Gwari. History indeed has always produced a phenomenal situation that makes the life of man interesting, and the people who are known and addressed as Gwar,i are not indeed Gwari. They are Gbagyi. Gwari is simply the name of a specie of yam cultivated by the Gbagyi people of Northern Nigeria. Ghagyi indeed are known to be great farmers, producing yams, and a host of other agricultural produce. Gwari happens to be one of the best species of yams produced by these persons, which attracted the interest of people from within the north, and other parts of the country Majority of these customers seemed only to know one thing which is the name of the specie of yam they wanted to buy from a people whose tribal name they did not really know. So, over a long period of time, the name of the yam took prominence over that of the tribe, which produces it, thus producing yet another accident of history.

As great farmers and hunters, Gbagyi, who have registered their presence in many parts of the country todays they are believed to have migrated from Zaria in present day Kaduna State where, indeed, their origin is traced. An adventure, which began long before the colonial era, has today earned for the Gbagyi, not only public respect as great farmers of the North, but also as unquestionable status as indigenes of Abuja the present Federal Capital Territory.

Without any recourse to fighting for ownership of land, Chief John B. Garra, a prominent Gbagyi leader felt it was necessary for people to known that Zaria, as it is called, is only a product of an altered nomenclature "The original name given by Gbagyi who settled and named the region centuries ago is Za'ghiya, a Gbagyi word which means "Civilisation."

"Ze la ghiya" in Gbagyi, means, "the eyes have opened." In other words, a person has come to know what he or she was ignorant of. The story goes thus:

"A long time ago when the Gbagyi settled in the virgin land of Zaria, any stranger (individual or group) who came into the place were considered by the Gbagyi as uncivilised. The Gbagyi then, considered themselves as more civilised than anyother persons. So, after spending a period of time with the Gbagyi in the land of Zaria, the persons, eye is considered open to civilisation. Then the Gbagyi would say to him "za la Ghiya", meaning his eyes have opened to civilisation Zaria as it is presently called is a tongue of the modern times" Chief Gatta clarified.

In fact there is a striking coincidence between this name and the present status of Zaria as a prominent educational town in Nigeria. Perhaps this was a divine calling of the region, or a calculated matching of name and status by our heroes past.

Perhaps also, there is a direct correlation between the meaning found in the word "Gbagyi" and the general trait of humility among the Gbagyi race. The word Gbagyi is interpreted to mean "place yourself low before others", in other words "be humble and modest". "Oza" in the Gbagyi have just as in Ebira language means human being or 'somebody', "Gba" means low. Gbagyi, co-ordinated their relationships with other people whenever they find themselves.

The history of migration has always found explanation in either the search by man for a peaceful environment to live in, or such environment that best suits their activity or occupation as a group. Zaria, according to oral accounts was a vast expanse of forest inhabited by such wild life as lions, tigers, leopards, elephant, and a host of others. These animals were said to be a threat to the Gbagyi, some of whom later decided to seek refuge in other places. Faced with this, a civil war and over bearing external aggression, a proportion of Gbagyi population were said to have fled in search of a peaceful environment, convenient enough for their farming occupation. Some moved towards the inner north, some went west, and others southward, and finally settled in places like Niger, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, Kwara and Kogi States, and what later came to be known as Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

With the prevalence of wild animals in Zaria, the Gbagyi had their first major occupation in hunting. Farming in which they have become famous today, was only a secondary occupation among them. Other economic activities in which the Gbagyi are engaged, are mat weaving and firewood gathering. The culture of mat weaving is so cherished by the Gbagyi, such that up till today an elder would not fail to include in his statement of will, that he or she be buried with a mat, and not some length of cloth or a coffin, as is commonly used in modern times.

In the palace of every traditional Gbagyi King, at least a statue of a lion must be found. The Gbagyi believe the lion is the king of animals. This is anchored in their experiences of how a lion used to kill other animals back in Zaria.

In the whole of Nigeria, and probably Africa, the Gbagyi is the only race whose tradition forbids carrying any load on the head. They would rather carry a load on the shoulder. In fact this culture has made the Gbagyi a distinct race among many in Nigeria.

Elder Nuhu, a Gbagyi and an indigene of Abuja, explains this culture thus. "The head accommodates the most important parts of the body system. The nose which we to use breath and sustain life; the mouth through which we eat, they eyes which we use to see; the ear through which we hear, and the brain by which we think, and which co-ordinates every activity of the body. The head is the king of the body, which must not be loaded at all. The shoulder carries the load better. This is our belief."

Another reason for the culture of carrying load on the shoulder, according to Elder Nuhu, is that the early men among the Gbagyi were such people that never liked to expose their armpits. "You know our forefathers did not wear cloth. They used to tie leaves to cover their private parts. The women too do the same. They even cover their breast with leaves. So, the Gbagyi of the early times believe that the armpit also a private part of the body, which should not be exposed. And you know when you carry load on your head, your hands are raised up, thereby exposing your armpits. By putting a load on the shoulder, this s avoided! Your armpit cannot be seen."

Another reason given for the culture of carrying load on the shoulders is that the shoulders are more flexible than the head. First it can tolerate a heavier load. Second, when one is tired, he can move the load from one shoulder to the other. This certainly cannot happen with the head as it is not more than one" elder Nuhu said.

In modern times some Gbagyi have been seen carrying loads on their heads. This is most certainly due to the attention that education and civilisation have brought to body decoration. There is no hard punishment stipulated in the Gbagyi tradition for violators of the culture of carrying load on the shoulders. There is no doubt that it presents a viable and better way of carrying loads over long distances, despite the shoulder scars and alteration of body posture, that have become of the Gbagyi in this respect.

Marriage systems

In the tradition of the Gbagyi, no form of sexual relationship in permitted between two persons of opposite sex before they are legitimately married. Early (teenage) marriage is permitted, however. A young man who picks interest in a girl is equally forbidden from advancing directly to the girl. He is expected to make known his interest through his senior brothers. It is his brothers who now contact the girls relations who may not, at first involve the girl's parents. The girl's consent is sought, and after this point, the message gets to her parents whose consent is also sought.

After the parents' consent is obtained, arrangement is now made as to when the dowry would be paid. Meanwhile the young man and his prospective bride are not permitted to meet in person. Dowry is not paid in the form of money. At the appropriate time, the young man is expected to organise his age group to farm for his prospective in-laws seven times, which may take a period of seven years. The farming is done just one day, each year, from dusk to dawn. If the man is in a hurry to get his wife, he maybe permitted to farm more than once as the case may be, in a year.

However, seven days to the farming exercise, a traditional alcoholic drink known as Burukutu ('oje' in Gbayi) is prepared and delivered to the parents of the girl as a part of the dowry.

Strictly speaking, a decision has not been reached even at this point as to whether the man would finally marry the girl. He is expected to prove himself in the farm. If in the course of making ridges, for instance, one of his age group proves physically stronger than him, the girl would automatically be given to the man. The man who initiated the request would be dropped. The essence of this is to encourage him to work harder, so that his prospective in-laws would be sure that their daughter would not be hungry in his home. The heartbreak and anguish associated with such outcome is lessened by preventing sexual contact between the girl and the man.

The Gbagyi people are believed to be the major indigenes of Abuja, Nigeria's capital city. This is evident in the names of places found in the Federal Capital Territory as explained by Chief John B. Garra and Elder Nuhu: "Utako is a rather wrong pronunciation of the original name given to the area by the Gbagyi. We call it "kuta kwo", meaning a strong stone, 'kuta' in Gbagyi means stone "kwo" means "strong".

"Kukuaba" is a place in Abuja, which is almost forgotten. It is the place where the present Abuja National Stadium is located. The actual name is "Akuku-Nwamba" meaning, 'soft rock', which was the dominant geographical feature in the area, as the Gbagyi came to settle.

Maitama, which is one of the most prominent places in Abuja, has its nomenclature anchored in the experience of the first Gabgyi man who lived in the area. The actual name is 'ma taama" which in Gbagyi means "I refused to leave.

The first Gbagyi settler in Maitama was said to have encountered stiff antagonism from people who later came to settle with him. They did all they could to discourage him so that he would migrate from the place. But he was said to have insisted on living in the area. Hence he says "ma taama" meaning "I would not leave." As more and more people came to settle with him, he decided to name the place "mataama" which was later altered to become Maitama.

'Aleita, in Gbagyi means "domain of locust beans." Lei means locust beans tree, which was very common in the region presently known as as aleita along Airport road. The place was therefore named after this geographical feature.

Lugbe, also located along Airport road, presents another funny nomenclature. In Gbagyi "olu" means 'Birds'. According to a source the first Gbaygi who lived in Lugbe was said to have built a very small hut for himself. The hut was so small that the people used to mock him to the effect that his house resembled a bird's nest, asking whether he was actually building a nest where he would be rearing birds. This was how the place became known as Lugbe.

Garki was completely altered from the name the Gbagyi had given to the place. There used to be a huge mass of black hill in Garki which the Gbagyi's call "okpeyyi." Okpe" in Gabgyi means "hill" "Okpeyyi" unfortunately was lost along the line, as people began to call the place Garki. "So koi yi" as contained in the letter headed paper of the chief of Garki is said to be a way of immortalising the original Garki nomenclature.

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