Irene Ogede: More than Salt – Uncovering my history (30 Days, 30 Voices)


What does mean for me? Geopolitically, I’m South-South but Benue State is North-Central yet language and culture wise; I am strongly related to the Idoma of Benue.

“Study the past if you would define the future” – Confucius

I recently had an argument with my eldest sister while our mother sat back bemused at the bone of contention; a book. A book titled The Yala People – Aspects of our Ancient Heritage, which the author had autographed for my father. I wanted to borrow it but my sister refused, saying I could only read it in her house (insert raised eyebrows) hence the dispute.

I’ll start at the beginning.

My father’s from Yala, Cross-River state while my mother’s a proud Otu-Odu titled woman from Onitsha, Anambra state. Everyone knows about Onitsha, the Igbos, their entrepreneurial spirit and the Biafra War that ravaged Eastern Nigeria. The Igbo States and their culture are both easily identified on the geographical map of Nigeria and more commonly, if not more importantly, the mental map of the average Nigerian.

When I tell people I’m from Cross-River, I get different reactions depending on whom I’ve told. The most common is, “Wow, Calabar woman!”…. followed by, “You know what they say about Calabar women, right?” Coincidentally, these utterances are usually from men and I always, and I mean ALWAYS, have to assert that (1) Calabar is the capital of Cross-River state and does not constitute the entire state. (2) I am not from Calabar, and (3) Even if I was from Calabar, it is wrong to stereotype women from there.

This persistent discourse fanned the flames of curiosity in me for historical information about my father’s people. I use search engines looking for books and articles, frequently coming up empty, so you can imagine my excitement (and eventual disappointment) when I found the book at my sister’s house.

You see the history of the Onitsha is easy to discover. A large community settled by River Niger, they refer to themselves as “Onitsha, not Igbo” much to the chagrin of their neighbors. They will tell you how they migrated from the Benin Kingdom, who migrated from the Ife Kingdom. They will remind you how some of their culture and traditions filtered down through generations from the very first set of ancestors in Ile-Ife. Some even claim they are descendants of a lost Israeli tribe. The depth of their history is evocative and admirable.

About the Yala, all I was told by my paternal grandmother is that only a couple of centuries ago, they left what is now modern-day Benue State in search of salt and settled on the land today known as Yala – found at the northern tip of Cross River State.

Salt? Right.

What does mean for me? Geopolitically, I’m South-South but Benue State is North-Central yet language and culture wise; I am strongly related to the Idoma of Benue. Remember the song by Tuface Idibia – Ocho? Ocho means God in Idoma and Yala.

Let’s break it down further; the Yala language is derived from the Bantu language which is believed to have originated in what is now Cameroon and is known to have influenced the Zulu Language in South Africa. Much more interesting than a salty revelation; I’m beginning to think Yala history could rival that of Onitsha (not that it’s a competition of course).

Much is said, and misunderstood, about the three major ethnic groups and the many minorities within Nigeria. In my quest to extract the truth from fact and imagination, I plan a stealth mission to free a book from its dark dusty location on my sister’s bookshelf, to the warmth of my bedside reading light, revealing more about the Yala than their love of salt.

Wish me luck!


Irene Ogede is a lover of technology and culture which she unrelentlessly strives to satisfy by balancing her vocation and hobbies. A recent returnee to Nigeria, you can find her on twitter @reniestar where her random thoughts and observations make for interesting reading.

30 Days 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians from across the world to share their stories and experiences – creating a meeting point where our common humanity is explored.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (7)

  1. Ehmm…can you not get another copy? LOL…

    1. Nothing is more interesting than the etymology and history of human language or better-still tribe although as a result of constant insatiable greed of man we have never been able to fully assimilate and appreciate the gift of the history of our origin. On the other hand this fracas in my opinion is the result of neocolonialism of the past which in turn is confiscated by the political elites for personal aggrandisement the result in the end is a systematic local-xenophobi
      c culture. If only ‘we’ know where we all come from a lot of the evil discrimination we see today will seize to proliferate as it is now.
      Irene is spot-on on all on her submissions and of course the discovery she made about the Yala group, it is interesting that she set out to educate us in such an eloquent manner, I personally have shown some interest in the origin of the Domas of Nassarawa State, Idomas of Benue State, the Yalas or Iyala of Crossriver State whichever you like and of course our counterparts in the South west province of Cameron but little as Irene puts it exists on the information super-highway being the Internet, may be and just may be time has come when interest groups can come together to do something of substance linking the above mentioned ethnic grouping together. If the celebrated African-American write of the book “Root” Alex Haley would spend a life time researching his ancestral origin and tracing it back in time to an obscured place at the bank of the River Gambia in Juffureh then why not ‘US’ perhaps me being a full blooded Idoma (FBI) might possibly find out that Irene after all is my long lost niece whose ancestor left in search precious salt and failed to retrace their way back home, in any case Irene need not feel a sense of being ‘lost in translation’ as she is terrifically welcome home to the Idoma land (Olidoma) any day any time without any fear of being kidnapped as we are a very welcoming people.

  2. One of the few times I will actually support theft.

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