Ekpe is a secret society among the Efik of Cross River state in Nigeria. They were the legislative, judicial, and executive power before colonisation, especially among the Efik who exerted much influence across the state. Long before Akwa Ibom and Cross River were separated. Young boys are initiated into Ekpe at puberty. Girls are not allowed to join but women are given due respect according to their standing in the community and if from the royal house.
Nsibidi is an ancient script of symbols that represents ideas and words and is believed to have been created by Ekpe. It is believed to date back to 5000 BCE. There are reportedly over 1000 symbols that represent ideas about love, warfare and the sacred but only some of those that deal with love are available to us today. You’ll have to join Ekpe to know the rest. Even the colonialists could not penetrate.
During Nyoro Ekpe, Ekpe parade, different Ekpe groups will draw nsibidi in the sand with their toes and invite other groups to interpret the symbols. Sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. Ekpe societies have been compared to freemasons because they are secret societies, are well-connected and are quite powerful.
In the movie Black Panther, nsibidi symbols were woven into the dresses of Okoye and Nakia in the scene at the bar where they go to capture Klaw. The symbolism is that they are there in warfare and the symbols are meant to represent the nsibidi symbols of war. I doubt that they are the actual symbols. There’s a clip on the Vanity Fair site where Ryan Coogler explains this scene and its symbolism. Ukara cloth is made, inscribed with nsibidi, and is worn almost exclusively by the Ekpe society. Not just anyone can wear ukara. Ankara ukara is not.
When we were young, different Ekpe societies would come to greet my mom at our home. It is an occasion for Ekpe to come out. They used to fill me with such dread but at the same time, they fascinated me. No outsider can see the face of an unmasked Ekpe masquerade. His group will surround him as he eats and drinks. I guess all that mystique added to the whole boogeyman is gonna get you feeling I had.
Ekpe means leopard in Efik and the Ekpe are called the leopard societies. The masquerade dances like he is a leopard. There is a flurry of movements, then pause as if ready to pounce. Like a leopard. The dance of the masquerade was and is captivating. (There are videos on YouTube). Black panthers are called leopards in Asia and Africa and wild jaguars in America.
What little we do know of Ekpe is scant at best because they keep their secrets and have done so for centuries. But there is so much we could learn. Like why does the Ekpe masquerade have a bell attached to his waist? Do the colours of the masquerades have any significance? Red seems to be the predominant colour, but there are black, and brown ones, and once I saw a white one. Do the different Ekpe groups have different roles? Apparently, there are levels in the society, about 9 or so, from initiate to the highest level. How did Ekpe start and why?
Ekpe is one example of our cultural heritage that we could explore and harness and promote in modern terms. Marvel Comics has been using comic books to tell the stories of ancient cultures and mythologies using symbolic depictions in cartoon characters. This has helped such stories capture the imagination and hearts of young and old alike, and in Black Panther’s case, propel it to a 1 billion dollar blockbuster making it the 4th highest grossing movie of all time. Now let’s watch it become the highest grossing movie of all time. A story about a leopard society. Ekpe. Black Panther.