The territory known today as Awka has been inhabited by man for several centuries, perhaps for millenia. In the 1930s, stone tools were discovered in the area which belong to the stage of human development. It is largely because of the antiquity of man in this area that the ‘core’ Awka people do not have any memory of migration from outside the Awka area; they claim that they have been there from the beginning of time! These first Awka people lived on the banks of the Ogwugwu stream in what is now the Nkwelle ward/village in Awka.
How they got there, who their migratory leaders were, whence they came, are all lost in the haze of remote history. We do know that these earliest people consisted of three kin groups – Urueri, Amaenyiana and Okpo – and were collectively called the Ifiteana. ‘Ifiteana’ roughly translates into “[people who] sprouted from the earth”.
The Ifiteana people (i.e., the Old Awka people) were a settled agricultural society. However, big-game hunting constituted a very important sector of their economy. The elephant was their most prized game; its tusk was a very valuable article of trade.
The Ifiteanas already knew the art of smelting iron ore and fashioning the implements of farming, hunting and, of course, war. Their first and chief god was an old deity called Ọkikanube (usually shortened to Ọkanube). According to the myths of these people, Ọkanube was a supernatural being who came from the sky and taught the Ifiteana people of old the arts of working iron and making medicine. His name Ọkanube means ‘He who is Pre-eminent with the Spear’. He was basically a hunting god and the myths say he showed the people how to hunt with iron spears (ube) laced with medicine, hence his name.
The elephant tusk, called okike, was the symbol of the god Ọkanube. Every Awka compound had this important ritual symbol kept in the family chapel cum reception hall (called the obu). In the fifth month of every Awka year, (that is, towards the beginning of the dry season when hunting started), the okike was venerated and the people asked their god Ọkanube for a fruitful hunting season. The okike was brought from its sacred hiding place and unwrapped. A goat or a chicken was sacrificed and buried in a hole in front of this symbol. Then the okike was re-wrapped and taken back to its sanctum. It won’t be seen again until the next hunting season; it was believed that whoever set eyes on okike before the fifth month was struck with madness.
In the hollow of the sacred elephant tusk, the people stored their hunting ‘medicine’. They smeared the ‘medicine’ on their hunting spears before they set out for the bush. This ‘medicine’ was of two types: a) The otolo type, which caused the hunted animal (usually an elephant) to pass diarrhoeal stool, until it died of dehydration and weakness; and b) The ada-ngene type, which excited great thirst for water in the hunted animal. The animal would then seek for a watering-hole, but would die once it tasted water.
The Ifiteana people believed they received the recipes for both ‘medicines’ from Ọkanube himself. Awka was once a haunt of elephants. A part of the town is still called Ama Enyi (Elephants’ Quarters), and until recently there was a pond in the town called Iyi Enyi (Elephants’ Pond) where the elephants used to gather to drink and slack their thirst. Over-hunting rendered the poor animals virtually extinct even before the coming of the British colonialists. The last elephant seen in the area was killed in 1910 by three hunters using the ada-ngene medicine.
As elephants became scarcer and scarcer, the god Ọkanube became less and less important, until people stopped worshipping him altogether. The spot where his shrine once stood is marked by a lone spear stuck in the ground. But his memory survived him worship. According to Amanke Okafor, the Ifiteanas called themselves Ụmụ Ọkanube (the children of Ọkanube) or Ụmụ Ọka; and it was from that appellation that the name of the town, Ọka (anglicized as Awka) was derived.
A market was also named in Ọkanube’s honour – the Oye Ọkanube (Oye Ọka) market. The Oye Ọka market square was the centre of Awka political life, where weighty matters were deliberated on and important decisions made, until the British Government put an end to its meetings in 1928. Ọkanube Declines, Imo-Ọka Rises: When Ọkanube declined in popularity, another god rose to take his place as the most prominent god of the Awka people. The name of the god is Imo-Ọka. The history of Imo-Ọka is rather interesting.
According to oral history, a young Awka girl named Nomeh fell seriously ill. Her kinsmen brought doctors from the neighbouring town, Ụmụezeukwu, to treat her. Unfortunately, Nomeh died. [Ụmụezeukwu doesn’t exist today; Awka wiped the town out in a war following the death of Nomeh.] She was buried on the grounds that later became Imo-Ọka’s shrine.
After a few years, the dead girl began to haunt her Awka kinsmen. Children died prematurely. Awka people believed the spirit of Nomeh was angry because her life had been cut short, and she never got to marry and beget her own children.
To calm her angry spirit and ward off her wrath, her kinsmen hired a team of powerful medicine-men from ‘Idomaland’ (called ‘Akpotos’ by Awka people; it is quite possible that the medicine-men were Igala). The ‘Idoma’ medicine-men prepared a charm for Awka called Akwalị Ọmụmụ ụmụ Ọka (i.e., a charm for the procreation of Awka people). The charm was buried on Nomeh’s grave.
In time, the charm grew in potency and became so powerful that the people began to revere it as a god in its own right. They called this new god Akwalị Ụmụ Ọka or simply Imo-Ọka. Till today, Awka animists still regard Imo-Ọka as the great protector of the town. The Imo-Ọka Carnival (called the Egwu Imo-Ọka) marks the beginning of the Awka native year; and is practically the only pagan celebration in Awka that has survived to the present day. The ‘Idoma’ medicine-men who made the charm were not allowed to return to their own land, for Awka feared that they might go away and make a similar charm for a rival community.
So Awka showed them land to settle on; and the medicine-men started a community of their own which grew into the town of Ọkpụnọ, on the northern border of Awka. Ọkpụnọ Town is often referred to as Ọkpụnọ Ọka Chị – i.e. Ọkpụnọ under Awka’s Patronage. Until the coming of the Europeans, Ọkpuno paid a yearly rent to their Awka ‘landlords’.
In time, the three small kin groups of Urueri, Amaenyiana and Okpo multiplied and expanded away from the banks of the Ogwugwu stream. They absorbed some neighbouring groups. They drove away some others and annexed their territories, until the land and people of Awka became quite substantial.
The communities driven away or destroyed and their lands claimed by Awka include: 1) Ụmụezeukwu – The Ụmụezeukwu War is the first remembered war in Awka annals. 2) Uvume – The Uvume War is still commemorated during the Imo-Ọka Carnival.
Awka young men stage a mock battle (called nrọ ọta) during the festival re-enacting how the Uvume were vanquished and expelled; and how their sacred emblem, a trumpet made of a convoluted horn (Opu Eke) was captured and dedicated to the Awka deity Imooka. 3) Inyi – Inyi and Awka fell out over the violation of the latter’s hunting rights by the former.
Awka fought them and drove them off. Some of them fled to Inyi, near the town of Achi and formed a community there known as Ụmụome. 4) Abo-Enugwu 5) Amantogwu – Awka and Amantogwu quarrelled over the kidnapping and selling of a young Awka lad named Ikelionwu. More shall be said about Ikelionwu in its proper place. 6) Nwolu 7) Uruana/ Nluana 8.) Norgu – Awka fought two wars with Norgu and finally drove them away to their present site