Nsibidi is a system of writing and communication that originated among the Ekoi people in present-day Nigeria around 400 CE (some estimates suggest much earlier). Instead of using an alphabet (like English), abjad (like Arabic) or abugida (like Amharic and Hindi), the Nsibidi script is ideographic (a symbol represents an idea or concept) and pictographic (a symbol resembles what it represents). It is also, in some instances, logographic (where a symbol represents a word or a unit of language). These properties make the Nsibidi script closer in form to Chinese characters than to English letters.
There are thousands of Nsibidi characters in written form, and some can also be expressed through body gestures, for example, by drawing in the air, and even movement of the eyes. As with many ancient written scripts, until the past hundred years, the Nsibidi script had been present in a limited version to the general public. Full literacy and deeper knowledge of the script were more common among groups that governed and maintained law and order. Among some communities who used Nsibidi, such as Ekoi (or Ejagham), Ibibio, Efik and some Igbo groups, the Ekpe Leopard Society was the government and the law, and therefore guardian of Nsibidi.
Colonization, English-medium education and introduction of Christianity have significantly reduced the number of Nsibidi-literate people, and the Ekpe Leopard Society no longer has a function within current government and law. While less powerful and more secretive, the Ekpe still lives on, and through it, Nsibidi lives on. More recently, the Nsibidi script was the main inspiration for the Wakandan writing system in the Black Panther movie.
By Rahim Mawji
(Photo: Wikimedia, Nigeria Stuff, The Coli)