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The Surprising Symbolism Surrounding Kolanuts

By: Ariwodo Stella

Kolanut is the fruit of kola tree which is common to West Africa. An evergreen tree about 20 meters in height, has long ovoid leaves with yellow flowers and star-shaped fruit. It may be cultivated in areas where ground water is available. Though it is a lowland forest tree, it has been found at altitudes over 300m on deep rich soils under heavy and evenly distributed rainfall. This fruit contains lots of caffeine, it has a bitter taste when chewed fresh but when is dried the taste becomes milder.

Kolanut is very significant in Nigeria culture. It is interesting to note that its value is highly recognized in the entire country. To the Yorubas, it is called ‘ Obi ‘ and it is in this part of the country that kola nut is largely produced though in two categories as ‘Obi Abata’ ( cola acuminate ) and ‘ Obi goro ‘ ( colanitida ). Kola nut is widely consumed in the North amongst the Hausas of Nigeria where it is popularly called ‘gworo ‘. Among the Igbos of the eastern Nigeria, kola nut is highly worshipped, reverend and respected in every significant gathering.

A Fruiting Kolanut Tree

It is called ‘ Oji ‘ in Igboland and this oji is of two types: ‘ oji igbo’: Native kola ( cola aciminata) and ‘ Oji Hausa ‘or Gworo ( Cola nitida ). These are two basic types or species found igbo land and they come in two colours: white and red. Kolanuts are an important part of the traditional spiritual practice of culture and religion in Nigeria. They are used as a religious object and sacred offering during prayers, ancestor veneration and significant life events such as naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. This fruit is of great importance in Nigeria. Little wonder the popular saying that this fruit is grown in the West, chewed mercilessly in the North and worshipped in the East. Because of the diverse culture, belief and religion in Nigeria, this fruit is of great significance to each ethnic group.

Kola nut ( Oji ) occupied a unique position in the cultural life of Igbo people. Oji is the first thing served any visitor in an igbo home. Oji is served before an important function begins be it marriage ceremony, naming, coronation, settlement of family dispute or entering into any type of agreement. It is used as a channel of communication with the ancestral gods and the spirit world. It is also traditionally the channel of communication with the creator who is known as Chineke, Chukwuokike, Obasi di na elu and Chukwu Abiama.

The importance of kola nut to igbo people is briefly described in Chinua Achebe’s 1958 Novel ‘ Things Fall Apart ‘ where he stated: ‘ He who brings kola brings life ‘. The good people of igboland hold kola nut in high esteem. This fruit is important in the socio¬cultural and religious life of the igbos . Like yam which is considered as a king of crop, kola nut is considered as a man’s fruit. It is considered an abomination for a woman to plant, climb, pluck the kola nut as well as pray on it during any kind of gathering that men are present. There are a lot of symbolic uses of kola nut in igboland amongst such are:

Kolanuts are used for various local cultural rites

1. Kola nut is a sacred offering in religious rites: The kola nut represents spiritual purpose in igboland. It is used in prayers which linked between the living and the dead to creator. In the ancient community of Aguleri in Anambra State, it is believed that when an elder takes up the kolanut, the gods and ancestors turn in his direction knowing that he has something to tell them. A typical traditional igbo man does not leave his house in the morning without first breaking kola. With it he prays for life, good health. Fruitfulness, protection and for good luck from the gods and his ancestors.

2. Kola nut in igbo land is a symbol of Acceptance: kola nut is always the first thing a visitor is being offered to. It is a symbol of goodwill and hospitality and friendship. It is believed that kola nut is offered with clean heart thus anyone who brings kola has no evil intention or harm to the person whom it is presented.

3. Breaking of kola nut marks the beginning of an event : The place of kola nut in traditional igbo gathering is not negotiable. It is the first and the most important cultural items presented to guest. Breaking of kola is the equivalent of opening prayer said in Christian gathering. It is the prayer made with this fruit that the purpose of the gathering is defined.

4. Kola nut is a traditional symbol of unity and communion: It is a widely accepted belief in Igboland that he who brings kola brings life. Kola nut is not an individualistic affair but a communal one. It is a food best enjoyed in company. The kola nut is a seed of togetherness, a force of unity, love and peace. Because of the igbo believe in strength in number, little wonder the rejection of one or two lobed kola nut which is often thrown away. It is believed that the more the lobes of kola nut, the more prosperity and goodwill it brings to the host and guest.

Most traditional ceremonies start with the breaking of kolanuts

5. Kola nut is a symbol of continuity : kola nut transcends beyond things. It is a cultural affirmation of who the igbo people are and what they believe in. it is a symbolic representation of their past, present and future. In the breaking of the kola, the igbos see cyclic nature of life for the kola nut is indeed a communion of both the living and dead. It indicates that life will naturally flow into the future.

In Igboland, the type of kola nut is a determinate factor of what its being used for. Emphasis is laid on the number of cotyledons/lobes in a kola nut. Oji igbo must have more than two lobes. An igbo kola nut with two lobes is malformed and so thrown away. It is neither eaten by any titled man- Nze. A three lobes kola nut foretells good omen. It is ikenga oji , kola nut for men who have distinguished themselves in noble deeds.

Kolanuts plays a vital role in traditional marriages

Every igbo man considers a four lobes kola nut most acceptable. It is indicative of the acceptance and approval of the gathering by the gods of the four market days: Eke, Orie, Afo Nkwo. A kola nut of five lobes is symbolic of productivity and wealth . All assembled are always happy when it is announced that ‘ Oji nkea gbara ise’ meaning this kola nut has five lobes. A six lobes kola nut spells bad omen: ‘isii na – esi ihe’ : six dulls up things. It is a bad luck just like 13 in English. A kola nut with seven or eight lobes is very rare but highly valued when seen.

There are two major traditions as regards who breaks the kola in igbo land. In some parts of the igboland, it is the youngest in a group that breaks the kola nut while in some parts it is the eldest person that breaks and shares the kola. Those who align with the young man tradition are of the view that the young is preferred because he is presumed to be innocent and has not soiled his hands with blood-shed in battle or wickedness.

Heading to a ceremony where kolanuts play a prominent role

However the old-man tradition is preferred by some because the eldest man is seen as the custodian of tradition, he holds the ‘ofo’ the symbol of authority of the ancestors. This is in line with the igbo traditional culture that the eldest man in the family or kindred assumes some priestly functions. The igbos eat kolanut with ground pepper ( osi oji ) or pepper paste which is a mixture of pepper, crayfish, dryfish, palm oil and locally made potash.

Apart from the kola nut taboos associated with women, an unclean person or person who is known to have desecrated the culture will not touch or attempt to pluck kola nut. If he does, the tree will shed off all its leaves and nuts. In some igbo culture, kola nut is not plucked on a particular market day. Such days are considered as traditional days for the gods and can spell a bad omen to human if violated. Even though the kola nut leaves can be boiled for medicinal use, its wood should not be used as firewood in igboland.

In the Yoruba ethnic group, traditional religious worshippers use kola nut or Obi – Abata ( Yoruba name for kola nut ) as an offering to the gods or ancestors to guide them. The use of Obi- Abata is primary by Ifa Babalawo since it is presumed that Obi- Abata is the favourite food of Ifa. Therefore to appeal to Ifa or seek his guidance on anything, offering Obi- Abata to him is the way to go. Ifa is the Yoruba Orisha (deity ) of wisdom, prophecy and ethnics. As it is with the igbo people so is with the yorubas. Various types of kola nut determine its use.

When broken, Kolanuts differs in the number of lobes

1. Akiriboto / single lobe of kola nut: Is the most uncommon type of kola nut according to mythological stories. This type of kola nut is mostly used for medicinal purpose.

2. Gbanja / Two lobes : This comes in both white and red colours with majority in white colour. It is usually big in size and it’s the most preferred for chewing by many kola nut buffs for snacks or stimulants. It can not be used to ask questions from Orisha, divination or any ritual because it has no differentiation lines within the lobes and so it is not regarded for any ritual purpose because it lacks the male or female characteristics.

3. Eta-Obi / Three lobes: Is regarded as being special to Eshu / Elegbara and other Orisha or for special medicinal use.

4. lya – Obi / Four lobes : it is called the mother Obi. She is eaten both by the Orisha and human beings. The Iya obi has two male lobes and two female lobes. It is the equal number of male and female lobes of the four that make it very suitable for asking questions or for divination purpose.

5. Olufuwa / five lobes : Is said to belong to Oshun, the deity for puberty, whiteness and cool serene water. It has the female lobe or the ‘ofa’ which have a double female characteristics. It is always given to Eshu and only two males and two females are used.

6. Iwa refa / six lobes : Regarded as a special kola nut usually used for very special occasions. It is used mostly for sacred activities particularly the Awo Ogbon , during coronation of kings and installation of important chiefs. Kola nut farming is a thriving business in Yoruba land as it is grown here and sold to other parts of the country. During the Islamic celebration (Eid ) it is common amongs the Hausa ethnic group to give gworo as gifts as it is largely consumed by them.

Apart from the socio-cultural- ritual value of kola nut, it has some nutritional and medicinal values. Kola nut is high in caffeine as well as a number of other phyto- chemical compounds including betaine, phenolics, tannis, theobromine, and theophylline. It is used to combat fatigue that is why it is common among labourers to chew kola nut because it diminishes hunger and fatigue. Kola nut and its extracts are also used in treatment of respiratory conditions such as asthma and whooping cough as its caffeine, theobromine and theophylline content act as a vasodilator that dilate the blood vessels allowing for greater circulation of oxygen. Students chew it a lot to stay awake because of the caffeine content. Other medical uses include constipation, depression, low sex drive, ulcer, intestinal disease and morning sickness.

In United State, kola nut extract is a common food flavouring found in coca-cola which is the most consumed soft drink all over the world. Kola nut extract is also used in production of pepsi and many popular energy drinks.

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