Among the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria, the kola nut, known as Oji Igbo, bears spiritual and societal significance.
The kola nut, bitter and caffeine-laden, is a fruit of the kola tree, which is specie of the Cola acuminata and Cola nitida trees of the cocoa family, and is mostly found in tropical rainforests in Africa. The long brown nut is used as an ingredient for beverages and medicine.
The Hausa people call it Gworo and the Yoruba people call it Obi. The Igbo people believe that the kola tree and the kola nut were the first tree and fruit on earth.
There are different types of kola nut in Igboland and each holds its meaning. The two-lobed kola nut is thrown away because, in Igbo cosmology, the number two lacks balance and so is considered unstable. The three-lobed kola nut, regarded as a trinity, represents good omen. It also signifies the typical structure of a family, with the two parents and their children.
The four-lobed kola nut the four days in the Igbo week and the blessings they carry. The five-lobed kola nut signifies the five fingers and toes as well as the five human senses, “which need to be engaged for productivity and wealth.” The six-lobed kola nut, which is hard to find, is considered “the communion of the spirits and humans.” The seven-lobed kola nut, a rare occurrence, is “associated with supernatural effects because it represents the four gods of the market days, the four-day week cycle, the three dimension of man and the trinity.”
In every gathering of Igbo people—family meetings, village meetings, traditional marriages, naming ceremonies, funerals, land dispute meetings—the kola nut is the first edible served. Any host who does not share the kola nut is deemed as an unfriendly; to the Igbo people, such action connotes an evil-streaked mind.
In Igbo cosmology, the presentation, breaking, and eating of the kola nut is an act that symbolizes peace, unity, and openness. This is exemplified by the saying: “Onye wetere oji wetere ndu”: He who brings kola brings life. The act of breaking the kola nut is called Iwa Oji. Depending on the occasion, a king, the oldest man in attendance, or a respected male who the king delegates to perform the action, mostly does the act.
Not everyone can perform the act of breaking the kola nut in Igbo culture. In a gathering of men and women, women are not allowed to do so. They can only do so if it is a women-only gathering. Furthermore, some men who are considered to be of a low status are not allowed to break the kola nut.
During the Iwa Oji, the person holding the kola nuts prays over them, inviting the spirits and ancestors to the gathering. In Igbo culture, a person never walks the earth alone; there is always a guiding spirit accompanying them. After the prayers, the kola nuts are cut into parts with a knife, and the smallest part is thrown on the ground for the spirits to eat their share.
With its benefits—increased blood circulation, stimulating the central nervous system, boosting metabolism—the kola nut acquires a higher calling among the Igbo people, serving as an intermediary between the physical and the spiritual.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.