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  • The Art and Material Culture of the Eloyi (Afo) People, Nigeria 1969/70A Photographic Essay
  • Anna Craven (bio)

This paper reports on a survey of Eloyi art and material culture carried out in just a few months from April to June 1969, and January to mid-February 1970, while I was curating the Jos Museum and then establishing the new Kaduna Museum. Essentially the survey was to record, photograph, and purchase works of art and material culture for the national collection at Jos, to note the associated Eloyi terminology and context, and to photograph important immovable shrines and figures still utilized by the people. Acquisitions included replaceable items that were gifted by their owners, a few commissioned from the makers, and the rest purchased.

Since the survey was conducted, the attitude to objects associated with the old religions in West Africa as a whole has changed. A huge market has developed and encouraged the local purchase of original works, and the talented reproduction of sculptures for overseas buyers, especially by artist-craftspeople with a knowledgeable eye for detail from other cultural backgrounds. Some opportunists have seen that they can make money from the products of previous generations, regardless of ethical concerns or "cultural copyright."

Hopefully, this record of the several communities within the Eloyi area between Nasarawa and Loko on the Benue River may be of use to future generations researching their heritage. It is all the more essential, now that some of the sculptures photographed in 1969/70, which are of considerable cultural significance, have been removed from their context and sold to foreign collectors in Europe and the US. The oral history associated with such items tragically rarely travels with them (Figs. 1–2).


The Eloyi people (also known as Afo, a name given them by their Islamic Hausa neighbors) live north of the Benue River and east of the Niger-Benue confluence in Nigeria, to the southeast of Nasarawa. At the time of this study (1969/70) Nasawara was part of Benue-Plateau State, the capital of which was Jos. It is now in Nasarawa State, to which it has given its name, but the state capital is Lafia to the east.

The Eloyi1 belong to the Benue Valley complex mixture of cultures (see Berns, Fardon, and Kasfir 2011). Their area is bordered by, or in some areas mixed with, speakers of Alago (to the east), Agatu, Bassa, Gwari (Gbari), Hausa, and Egbira. They, like other groups, have been adopting Islam and the Hausa language for some years, and knowledge of the Eloyi language (Niger-Congo family) is fast disappearing as members of the older generation die.

Their society was not centralized or stratified, but a fluid one where each village, made up of several extended family compounds built within distinct sections (agirika), was governed by a group of elders (mbakuse) who elected an overall chief (osu) from among themselves. The osu was supported by a series of role-holders who, in age-groups and societies associated with named masquerades (e.g. ngorangorang dance groups and Ekpo ancestor masquerades), moved up the ranks or into other roles as their elders aged and died. A chief could be succeeded on death by his son (though not inevitably the eldest) or by a respected elder whom the others might prefer. Disputes could result in divisions, and a man might decide to set up an independent agirika within the village area or to leave and move to a different place altogether. It was therefore difficult to draw up a map of locations fixed over time in the Eloyi area. Each village and section had its own ritual places and shrines with associated paraphernalia and masquerades, and a religious leader (osu oseshi or eboshi wako) responsible for the sites and the spirits they represented.

Eloyi identity overall was the product of conflict and migration through the centuries and was recorded in their oral history. Although details varied, Eloyi informants spoke independently of their belief that their origins were bound up with the "Beriberi," a nickname for the Kanuri people to the northeast with whom they [End Page 46]

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pp. 46-63
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