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Lejja: Enugu’s ancient iron smelting community

Lejja community in Enugu State is a sleepy community which recently came to limelight due the activities of a university team of archaeologists who went there to find out more about claims in some quarters that the civilisation of the community dated back to many centuries, especially as regards smithing activities. 

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An untarred road stretches from Nsukka, a university town, to Lejja, acclaimed by some scholars as one of the world’s oldest iron smelting sites. The site is said to date back to over 2,000 BC. 

A lecturer in the Department of History and International Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Dr. Christian C. Opata, said the population of Lejja is about 247,000. Lejja’s neighbouring communities are Ozalla, Ohodo and Aku in Igbo-Etiti Local Government Area, Nkpologwu in Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area, Obigbo and Edo-Oballa and Nsukka proper – all in Nsukka Local Government Area.

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Otobo Ugwudinoke in Lejja is the spot which is like a village square with century-old columns of stones arranged in a near semi-circle. Also at the square is the village hall. The square boasts of a tall, pillar-like structure with parts of the plastered-wall peeling off due to lack of maintenance.

Sacred stones

A native of Dunoka, Mr. Sunday Odenyi, volunteered some information about the site before the oldest man in the village gave his own version.

Mr. Odenyi said, “There are some of these stones you cannot touch even if you are an indigene because the stones are sacred. People profane the stones knowingly or unknowingly; but there are certain things they have to do to appease the gods.”

The oldest man in the village, 75-year-old Boniface Ugwoke Nwani, said, “The structure you are seeing is called Okiti Omaba; it is the shrine of Omaba. We in Lejja are the only people who have both Omaba and Odo as cultural practices. Nsukka is known for Odo only, while Lejja celebrates both Odo and Omaba. Our neighbours can only practice either Odo or Omaba.” 

The Okiti Omaba is the pillar-like structure which serves as the shrine of Omaba and Odo deities the area is identified with. 

The beginning

In the Dunoka village diary, Otobo Ugwu Dunoka: The Ancient City Visitor’s Diary, the people give insight into their history thus:

“Dunoka is the capital city of Lejja Kingdom. At Dunoka, the law that governs the entire Lejja is made; Ugwoke the father of Lejja has no known human origin.

“Lejja people lived on the top of hills and sometimes, down the valley. It is a known fact that Lejja has never been defeated in ancient wars. 

“The people of Lejja have links with Nri in Anambra State; hence they share some cultural activities. They were normally entertained at Otobo Ugwu where they ate and danced.”

Opata provides on his website a historical insight into Lejja and the effort made by archaeologists to investigate the area thus:  

“The attempt to properly date the iron-age Lejja site has been the concern of some archaeologists in the past few decades. The latest archaeological investigations of the area reveal that artefacts could be found at depths below one metre. 

“To avoid discontinuity of the research resulting from environmental restrictions, we have adopted a more environmentally friendly approach; that is, geophysical mapping of the artefacts before excavation. Archaeo-magnetic data was acquired on regular 1 by 1 metre grid covering a total area of 2,400 square metres using proton precession magnetometer (Geometrics model G-856AX).

“The analytic signal software used for inversion of the field data was first validated using synthetic data obtained from Rao and Babu Models. The result revealed presence of some archaeological features, perhaps, a prehistoric iron smelting furnace and a mound nearby, both remaining in-situ and buried at same depth of 1.76 metres.”

An old man’s narrative 

Elder Boniface Ugwoke Nwani said, “I will tell you what I know because this site has been here before we were born. Even our fathers told us that they were born in the village and saw the stones. Our fathers told us that their own great grand fathers also told them that they were born and saw the stones; that their own parents told them the same thing, meaning that the stones have been in existence many centuries before our great grand fathers were born; none of them admitted knowing when the stones were kept.

“Here in Otobo Ugwudinoke Lejja, whenever the natives want to meet, they usually assemble at this spot after the town crier beats the gong and makes an announcement. Assuming somebody commits an offence, this is the spot where the suspect/offender would be tried.”

He further said, “Otobo has attracted white people; even black scholars have come here to find out its essence of existence. Scholars have argued that this site had existed over 2,000 BC. Different scholars would come and discover various things. And all the different items discovered have their different names.”  

The old man paused, racked his memory and continued, “All these stones have their kings. They all have kings just like human beings. 

“Lejja is rooted in many things. If you hear about the struggle for Adada State, it originated from Lejja. The place is well-known for blacksmithing or smelting of iron to produce hoes, cutlasses, spears, arrows among others. There is a place we shall take you to where heavy rainfall unearthed eko, which signifies where the ancient people practiced smithing.

“Lejja used to go to war with arrows, spears and knives. Our fathrer’s said such wars were caused by land disputes and stealing of human beings (kidnapping). It was common among the ancient people. But those things are no longer in vogue. 

“Some years ago, when some white people came here, we used to dig holes outside this site; there was a day we were digging and we dug out human bones. We didn’t know it was a grave. Those white people used a carton, picked and packed the bones which they took to their country. They said those were bones of the ancient people; and that they wanted to find out in their laboratory the type of food those ancient people ate.”

As if to add credibility to the old man’s narrative, the traditional ruler of Lejja, His Royal Highness (HRH), Igwe Anthony Ochike, Chineyereugo I, recalled that since after the Biafra-Nigeria war, scholars had been visiting the area to dig up items for experiment. However, he regretted that none of the scholars handed over to the natives the items they dug up.

The royal father emphasised that he was keenly interested in seeing the site develop into a full-blown tourist centre, not just because the place was his home, but to prove that black Africans existed and developed their iron technology over 2,000 BC.

Igwe Ochike said, “And the problem that time was that none of those who were coming gave us the items they dug out; they went with them, until a few years ago when Prof. Uzoako, I think, from UNN, with one of our sons, Dr. Christian Opata, came and dug certain areas and found some things. The specimens were taken to Sweden and it was proved that the site dated back to 2,000 BC; that the people there were really iron-smelting people.

“So, all of us were happy and we thought that the people would come to the place and show some interest. I am interested in that place, not because it is my home, but to show that blacks, Africans are not the least in development.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t see why people will be saying that Africa is backward; it’s just a change of evolution in the entire set up of mankind.

“So, I am really happy that last two weeks people came from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism from Abuja to show that they are interested in the place.

“If you go to that place, it is very interesting; there are places you see the furnace, the pots and the rest of them.

“I feel that if the place is developed, it will benefit not only Enugu State, but the black man in general, and it is very important because I can remember when I was in Britain from 1975 to 1981, artifacts in museums were very, very interesting.”

A native of Lejja, Dr. Opata, in a chat with Daily Trust, described the iron smelting site as “the pride of Africa” in the sense that it shows that Africa, even way back to 2,000 BC, had not only existed, but was also deep-rooted in iron technology. He explained that iron was the beginning point of technology. 

In one of his writings, Opata stated that, “Ejuona is an integral part of Lejja archaeological site, a well known pre-historic iron smelting site in South East Nigeria. The researcher, who dated Lejja site as earlier than 2000 BC emphasised the need for intense archaeological research in the area to recover more dates and clarify some claims about the origin of the iron smelting technology in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Opata further wrote that, “It is, therefore, advisable that while this scientific method of tracing human history is very essential, it must be applied very selectively. A solution to such problem may be an application of a more environmentally friendly approach (the use of geophysical methods) prior to excavations.” 

Appeal to government

Igwe Ochike said, “I want both the state and federal governments to come and take over the place. There was a man called Prof. Cami who was in charge of UNESCO; he was from Tanzania. He was the Chairman of UNESCO funds; he wanted to do something about the site but by the time he wanted to start; he had a stroke and could not continue.

 “I will ensure that we give them enough support in terms of protecting whatever they bring, and make sure that they are given enough land and space.”

Similarly, the oldest man in the village, Elder Ugwoke Nwani, added his voice to the call for government’s intervention. “I would like the government to come and build a house where people would come and pay before going in to see the ancient iron sites. It will bring development and make the outside world know about Lejja.” 

Government interest

The Enugu State Government has said took a major step towards protecting and exploiting the iron smelting site. At a press briefing after a presentation made to the State Executive Council by an Associate Professor of Archaeology from UNN, Dr. Pamela Eze-Uzomaka, the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Rita Mbah, said the Lejja iron smelting site was “one of the oldest in the world, which dates back to about 2000 BC.” 

The commissioner said the Gov. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi-led administration “is passionate, committed and delighted at the revelation” made by Dr. Eze-Uzomaka.

She said the executive council had in a quick response to the presentation, set up a three-man committee that would visit the site and devise the best means of protecting it “as a world heritage centre.”

She added that the state government intended to construct the road leading to the site to be able to exploit its natural contents as “a tourism site and money spinning venture”, stressing that a lot of other benefits were going to accrue from it.

In a similar vein, the associate professor told newsmen after the presentation that she was at the EXCO meeting with her team to brief the state government on the outcome of their findings, saying that they were “able to get over 40 nationals from about 18 countries of the world to come and help us excavate Lejja site.”

Dr. Eze-Uzomaka further explained that one of their findings was “radio carbon dates” which placed Lejja as one of the oldest iron smelting sites in the world.

She said, “This discovery means that Enugu State has one of the oldest iron smelting sites in the world and this site is being visited by so many countries. I have travelled to some parts of the world, giving lectures about this site and yet our people do not know about what they have. 

“So we have come here to tell the Government of Enugu State that we have something here in Enugu State worth protecting, because people are coming from all over the world to visit this site.”

While appreciating the commitment of Gov Ugwuanyi’s administration towards the project, she also called for the collaboration of the state government with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and the tourism board.

Culture vs Christianity

As time and age affect most things, so also it is with the practice of iron smelting by Lejja people. One can count the number of natives who still practice the art or trade as a means of livelihood. 

“Not many Lejja people still engage in blacksmithing. Children of nowadays want money fast and they are not keen in taking over from their forefathers,” said elder Ugwoke Nwani.

He also recalled the near-bloody clash between some Christians and natives over site. 

He said, “There was a time some Christians who were holding crusade here in the night asked for permission to have the king of the stones removed, claiming that it was idol practice. The news went round the community and the natives mobilised to chase them but before our people got to the spot, the Christian crusaders had taken to their heels. If our people had laid their hands on them, they would have realised that it was wrong of them to have suggested the removal of any of the ancient stones, let alone the king of stones. They would have been rounded up and handed over to the police for attempting to destroy ancient heritage.”

Intersetingly, the Lejja natives have passed the ball to government. With time, it would be known to the whole world if the ear-pleasing things said by the state government through Commissioner Mbah would be made a reality or is just one of those government talks.

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