Gwari people

Gwari / Gbagyi

Gwari / Gbagyi / Gbari

Gbagyi or  Gwari (also spelled Gbari) are peaceful, agriculturalist, artistic and Nupoid-speaking people living in North-Central geo-political zone of Nigeria.

They predominantly live in the Niger, Kaduna States and the Federal Capital Territory. They are also found in Nasarawa and Kogi States in central Nigerian Area.

Gbagyi is the most populated ethnic Group and indigenous in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, where their major occupation is farming. This means Gbagyi people are the bonafide owners of the Nigerian capital city, Abuja.

Gwari people map

Population & Ecosystem

Gbagyi people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria with an estimated population figure put at 5.8 million, spread in four States, including the FCT and located in thirty local Government areas, according to the 2006 National Population Census figures. Besides, it is the dominant ethnic group in the nation’s Capital, Abuja, which invariably implies that no Nigerian can afford to ignore the history, traditions, culture, socio- economic and political life of this ethnic group.


The name

The word Gwari, which the Gbagyi are famously called, is the name of a particular yam in Gbagyi. Principally there are three types of Gwari: Gwari Niger, Gwari Gengen and Gwari Yama. Before their farming occupation, Gwari’s were into calabash carving, pottery and hunting and fishing.

Gwari people


Gbagyi people speak Gwari language which is a Nupoid language belonging to the larger Niger-Congo phylum. It is spoken by over six million people in Nigeria. There are two principal varieties, Gbari (West Gwari) and Gbagyi (East Gwari), which have some difficulty in communication; sociolinguistically they are distinct languages.


Brief history

Gbagyi or Gwari (also spelled Gbari) are peaceful, agriculturalist, artistic and Nupoid-speaking people living in North-Central geo-political zone of Nigeria. They predominantly live in the Niger, Kaduna States and the Federal Capital Territory. They are also found in Nasarawa and Kogi States in central Nigerian Area. Gbagyi is the most populated ethnic Group and indigenous in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, where their major occupation is farming.

According to oral tradition, the first settler was a hunter who went to hunt in Paikokun land, a thick forest in Abuja. Paikokun was the name of the mountain where the first settler inhabited.

The Gbagyi people initially used to live on mountain tops because they believed they were safer on the mountain than at the plain before western civilization made most of them relocate to the plain.

Gwari people


Gbagyi people are known for arable agriculture, wood fetching, pottery, and blacksmith (Je’adayibe, 2002: 6-17). However, these subsistence farmers were dispossessed of their farmlands to accommodate the nation’s capital. Subsequently, generation of rental income became a good alternative for the indigenes and settlers alike.

Therefore, it became a normal practice to rent out a part of the compound to willing migrant tenants. Moreover, the extended family labour force has been fragmented, as its youths took to white and blue collar jobs. Farming was left mostly to the aged and the under-aged.



The favourite food of the Gbagys is known as Wyizhe, made from guinea corn to form Zhepwo a special drink  use to drink with Knadolo  a spicy soup made with locus beans, and their famous dress is call Ajesida, made from local cotton and traditional woven and dyed by their skillful dressmakers. Some of their popular festivals is the Agbamaya festival and the Zhibaje.  The Agbamaya festival is a celebration usually perform to welcome the rain during the raining season, while Zhibaje is a traditional Christmas celebration.



The Gbagyi people wear tie and dye clothing known as Ajeside, made from local cotton and traditional woven and dyed. In terms of dressing, Gwari people usually dress like Hausas and they have predominantly Muslim population. They plant cotton on their farms, the materials of which they use to fabricate their traditional cloths.

Before the white people arrived in Gwariland, the Gwari have their own special dress weaved by them. Their woven wrapper cloth reflect dark black and not too bright colors.

Gwari people

Traditional Architecture

Architecture is one of the aspects of cultural history that aptly gives definition to man’s interaction with his environment, within this sphere, we encounter a proper understanding and articulation of man’s activities as they relate to his built environment.

The Gbagyi traditional architecture owes a lot to nature; the compounds were surrounded by mud walls or fences of coarse plated mats and had one or more entrance huts, which served as reception room for friends and visitors.

The houses were circular, built with clay, mostly with a roof of clay and thatch with grass.

The people have their own indigenous building techniques which they utilized by mixing clay with grasses to strengthen the bricks. Tubali, which recently became the common building material, were originally used only in perimeter walls.


Why Gwarri people do not Carry loads on their head

In most African cultures, women carry loads on their head. The situation is quite different among Gwari women in Nigeria. In this society, women carry loads on their shoulders, because they are of the believe that the head should be accorded a royal status as the King of the entire body, saddled with the task of thinking for the body, as a result it should not be burdened with manual or pedestrian task, such as ferrying goods from place to place. But this is not so today, as the venom of civilization has since overtaken and eclipsed it, and the traditional sight has become a rarity except for the older women who still hold on true to this belief and practice.

Gwari people

Body Decoration

This is an act of body beautification. Body decoration is a popular practice among Gwaris and the practice is still being sustained up till date. Body decoration can take the form of tattoo, piercing of certain parts of the body like nose, ear, abdomen etc. Traditionally, Gwari women do body decoration to attract men.

It increases honour and respect of the doer. Body decoration is essentially done for easy identification. Before it could be done, consent of the doer needs to be obtained.

In certain circumstances, the unmarried Gwari ladies use body decoration to scare potential suitors by writing the name of their would be husbands on their hands. Gwari people believe that by writing the names of their proposed husbands in their hands is not only for decoration but also a from of oath or covenant to marry the person whose name was written in their hands. Another important body decoration among Gwaris is facial mark. The idea of facial mark became prominent among Gwari people during the second world war for easy identification.

Essentially, body decoration and dressing among Gwaris do not have spiritual attachment. The type of body decoration a person does is a matter of preference.

Animate and inanimate objects are designed as body decoration. Names of ones heroes, friends, relatives and lovers could be written to decorate the body.

Body decoration could be done by self or by the specialists. The instruments for body decoration are blade, niddle, and lamb smoke. Due to advance in science and technology, the body decorators now use halogen to heal the decorated spots. The body decoration healing process takes two to three days. The use of "laali", a common herbal/medicinal leaves is becoming prevalence nowadays among Gwari people as material for body decoration.

As a matter of fact, the parts of the body that are exposed such as hands, legs and face are usually decorated. There is different designs suitable for each part of the body. Body decoration is exclusively meant for mature women.



Gbagyi sculpture represents human head, figures and zoomorphic figures such as monkey, reptiles. Its sculptural invention falls in the middle range between naturalism and abstractions. Though there is evidence of wood sculptures which produced objects of social value, as the wooden figures that were believed to be fertility gods was discovered.


Traditional Iron Smelting

Gbagyi people also carved a niche for themselves in the area of traditional iron smelting. Smelting sites are still found near Kwali, Jere, Taruga,Chekari, Garki villages as well as traditional method in fabricating farming implements, arrow head, knives, hammers and other implement that are still in use



Gbagyi people are renounced in pottery making. In the year 1950, the then Northern Government invited a British potter of Northern origin prior to this development; pottery making has always thrived in this region.

Gwari people


Marriage among the people of Gbagyi is soaked in deep tradition. When a man announces his interest in a woman, he would have to serve 7 years in the bride’s father’s farm, labouring and supplying grains and other produce to the bride’s house in order for her to be well fed. Nowadays, the groom simply pay the bride’s price instead of serving 7 years in the bride’s father’s house.

Initiation into the marital life for a male Gbagyiza begins between the age of fifteen to eighteen as boys within this age bracket are considered capable of producing offspring. For the female Gbagyi child, betrothment could be considered for her between the early age of eight and ten. This is due to the expectation that the girl will be ripe for marriage by the time the dowry payment is completed and a marriage date fixed. Once a boy decides to scout for a wife or when his parents reach such decision on his behalf, certain important questions are asked. These are determinant factors as far as the Gbagyi cultural dictates on marriage goes. These uncompromising questions are: Is the family of the potential bride hard working? Are they troublesome? Are they associated with hunger? How respectful and respectable is the girl, how chastised? How fair is the family’s history with marriage? Is there any case of infertility or impotence in their family? And most importantly whether the bride-to-be had been secretly betrothed in the past.
After these questions might have been satisfactorily answered the groom is given a nod to initiate or continue with the process of courtship, as the case may be. If otherwise the boy is advised to look elsewhere.



The next stop is courtship. This is where the fun is or the pain for some people. Gbagyi people attach unqualified importance and strictness to courtship such that it lasts for a period of seven years.
There are two approach to courtship among the Gbagyi people. The first but rare method of courtship is totally in the interest of the groom’s parents. This is when the parents of a boy directs the boy’s attention towards a particular girl or accost the family of the said girl on his behalf. This is usually the case when parents of the groom desire their son to marry from a particular family, for private or popular reasons.
The second approach lets the groom to hunt for a wife by himself. He reports to his parents whenever he finds a girl of his liking. Then the next phase is initiated. At this stage the groom’s parents sends a delegation to the bride’s parents. The bride’s parents in turn requests some time to confer with the girl. A date is fixed when the groom’s delegation returns with two sets of plate. These sets of plates are then accepted by the bride’s parent to signify acceptance of their proposition. The delegation is then referred to a member of the bride’s family who is to serve as intermediary known as migbiyi. The migbyi deals with everything from here.
The next phase in the courtship is the payment of dowry. The groom is hereby required to do some farm work for the bride’s parents for a period of seven years. This farm work includes making of yam heaps, weeding of ridges and harvesting of farm produce. Usually the groom is assisted by his friends, and the farming continues, two or three times in a year, for seven consecutive years. To test the groom’s ability to feed the bride he’s asked to bring an equivalent of 50kg of guinea corn of his own harvest. This is called wyiga. The groom begins with one wyiga and continues to add one until the seventh year when he presents seven wyiga shortly before picking a date for the marriage.
During this period of courtship, the suitor is allowed his bride. He arrives at her home accompanied by a friend or brother. Then the bride meets him, accompanied by two sisters or friends. This is to dissuade sexual immorality. In every Gbagyi kingdom, any girl who takes in out of wedlock is banished to live in the outskirts of the village until after birth. During this visits the wives of the bride’s brothers may bill the groom and his friend for hospitality rendered. The usual tactics include leaving a few coins in bathing water, water meant for handwashing and in an extra bowl when meals are served. The groom is expected to double whatever amount he and his companion finds. It is this same people, joined by the bride’s sisters who will ambush the bride’s team for a wrestle match each time they come for the farm work. The women usually win because gbagyi women are abnormally strong, plus they hit the men after the day’s hard labour. These women are allowed to do this since they are seen as the bride’s friends.
After seven years of dowry payment and courtship, a wedding day is picked.

Gwari people

The Wedding Rites

The wedding begins with the sacrifice of chickens or goats asking for the blessings of the gods upon the couple. The bride is thereafter released to the groom’s family and friends. It is customary to prepare a meal with eleven chickens, ten of which goes to the bride’s parent and the last to the migbiyi. The bride is accompanied to the groom’s house by five or more maids. That day, at the groom’s house, celebrations ensues from sunset till dawn. The next morning, an elderly woman will call out several names carefully chosen for the bride. When the bride hears one which suites her, she rushes out of her hut and is taken to the bathroom where same elderly woman strips her half naked and inspects her body features and as such determining her chastity. This is called the bridal bath. Again, the villagers party till the break of dawn. On the second morning, the maids who accompanied the bride go into the bush to fetch firewood for the bride. Then they fetch water for all the old people in the village. After this, other marriage festivities which include singing and dancing competitions, wrestling matches et al continues for seven days. On the seventh day, the accompanying maids return to their village leaving only one behind who is called mula cheknu to help the bride with domestic chores. Everybody disperse and the couple begins their matrimonial journey.



In their traditional religion, some Gbayi believe in a God called Shekwoi, the one who was there before their ancestors, but they also devote themselves to appeasing deities of the god such as Maigiro.

Indigenously, their main religion is Knunu, which they believe protects them from the evil that exist in the community. They worship the Knunu by offering fowl and beer as a sacrifice to a special tree found deep in the forest.

With westernisation, Islam became more prominent among the people after the Fulani jihad while Christianity was introduced to the people by the Sudan Interior Mission, also known locally as Evangelical Church of Africa. The Gbagyi people found it easy to embrace Islam more than Christianity because some practices of Islam such as devotion, using of amulets and polygamy were also practised in their indigenous religion.


Gbagyi Knunu religion

Basically, the religion consists of a “personal god, or guardian spirit, whose shrine is in a special tree in the kurmi, where offerings of fowl and beer are made.” It is worth noting that the Gbagyis consider the natural objects – both living and non-living – as endowed with the power and presence of either beneficent or malevolent spirits. The Gbagyis often consult Knunu functionaries who are considered to be endowed with special mystical powers. These functionaries include the Zokuda (“diviners”) and the local Ashigbeda (“medicine women/men”). These people possess supernatural powers to negatively influence and harm others who they perceive as their enemies. They use witchcraft as a powerful means to accomplish their purpose. They often send out their zafun (“soul”) to attack people mostly in their sleep and cause illnesses and mental torture through dreams. The harmful power of the Agunzheyin is not limited to external manipulations alone. They can cause people to think evil thoughts and to engage in harmful practices.

These Zokudas and the Ashigbedas hail from all social strata; they are neither limited to the lower strata of the society nor to an economically deprived group. Two dominant reasons seem to draw them to the mastery of witchcraft: taking a revenge on others who are (rightly or wrongly) perceived to be enemies and assuming social power for control. The power of these Zokudas and the Ashigbedas cannot be underestimated. Their activities influence the socio-economic development of entire communities. They fulfil a function that neither the British laws nor the Christian or Muslim way of life could effectively meet nor understand. They showed the Gbagyis the ways and means of redressing people‟s grievances and sufferings aggravated not only by envy, hatred, and by the urge for revenge, but also by “failure, misfortune, and above all sickness and death.”

The Gbagyis are afraid of the harmful mystical powers and their human functionaries such as the Agunzhenyin. Due to fear of the evil witches, they do not leave behind their “hairs, finger and toe nails, clothes or other articles” which the Agunzhenyin might get hold of and use to harm the owner.

There are many types of Gbagyi witchcraft; all of them are inseparably associated with the Zakoyi (“ancestor veneration”). Adawyiya (“ancestral cult”) is part of the Zakoyi. A subsystem of the Adawyiya is called Amwamwa (“chasers of witches”). These Amwamwa take care of witchcraft practices that are related to the ancestors.

The Gbagyis believe that their dead ancestors are not completely dead; they are “living dead,” who are deeply involved in the welfare of their own living offspring. They are believed to occupy the spiritual realm.
As a result, they can easily watch over their offspring. Nevertheless, if they are not looked after through proper funeral rites and appropriate periodical ceremonies, they might become dissatisfied, angry, and harmful. They “inspire great fear and extreme caution.” The Gbagyi perceive that all physical and moral manifestations of evil are associated with the spirits and they should be cast off. They have devised various
rituals to fight against misfortunes and witchcraft practices and to liberate themselves from fear and agony.
The Gbagyi recognition of mystical sources of powers as very dangerous and inherently disastrous, if not properly curtailed, draws from an understanding of the activities and actions of such powers. The strong social and religious role played by Ashigbeda who are empowered on behalf of certain spirits to act for men has made this belief survive over the years. The Ashigbeda people perform the role of unravelling mysteries around certain occurrences which always draw the people‟s attention to them. The fact of evil lives with the Gbagyis and is understood from an elucidation of the Gbagyi worldviews with regard to „Zafun Nukwoyi’

Gwari people

Gwari people


Zoku is an acceptable practice among the Gbagyi and is highly esteemed because, in it, lays the ability to see the destiny of a person, society, and life in general. Jarumi observed that it is a strong method used in “detecting witches.” It involves what he calls zokushe (“foretelling the future”) which is used to “reveal the unknown or find out the wish of a divinity or spirit.” The basis of zoku is largely a collection of traditional proverbs and some incantational words known only to the Azokuda, who alone have the knowledge of the appropriate enchantment and procedure that could lead to an effective zoku. Through the services rendered, Azokuda holds the community closely to the traditional beliefs. This act involves the use of string bones (“shinkun”) and nuts, incantation known as “butsnuyi” (swearing), to enable the zoku get the required results for any divination. Evan. M Zuesse states that “divination implies the presence of gods and spirits-agents of the divine that indirectly communicate the decree of the Ultimate.” The Gbagyis understand divination as an act which gives them the opportunity to unearth their destiny through the help of the gods and spirits agents. Therefore, through the zoku they search for ways of either protecting or interfere with such destinies. In most cases, zoku can be good or bad. It is bad when it reveals that there are evil forces or powers behind misfortunes which inform the search for intervention.

Ikenga-Metuh has argued that divination involves consultation that has to do with “birth, before marriage, during serious sickness, after a series of misfortunes, to obtain a job, to pass examination, before building a house,” which are similar to the reason for why the Gbagyi consult zoku. It is in this understanding that the Gbagyi perception of divination holds. Zoku becomes actively dynamic, involved with the lives of the people through guidance in the strict path of Knunu, communing with the azakoyi on behalf of communities, families or individuals. Evans- Pritchard rightly observed that in Africa “Misfortune is due to witchcraft co-operating with natural forces.” The same is the concept among the Gbagyi who see nature involvement as divine through the herbal combined with mystical practices in zoku. (Herbs here represent natural forces while the incantations represent mystical forces both forces must cooperate before a witch can carry out his/her enterprise according to Gbagyi belief).
The effectiveness of Zoku lies with the natural components of the ashigbe that is usually drawn from the various herbal medicines available from the different trees in the land. The spirits of the azakoyi who, in their wisdom, reveal the types of shrubs to be used and which natural tree it was to be taken usually dictates this. The fact that everyone has a destiny from Shekwoyi (the “Supreme Being”), which the zoku chiefly foretell, does not in any way prevent assisting a person to discover the best way to influence their destinies positively. However, the Gbagyis in agreement with Idowu believe that there are myriads of spirits that run errand for the deities which make the work of evil forces so brisk and flourishing. In the process of running errands for the deities, the spirits tend to favour those who offer them the best gifts inform of sacrifice. Likewise, the Gbagyi belief is that their destiny can be influenced and changed if the right sacrifices as prescribed by the Azokuda and accepted by any of the deities.



Regarded mostly as enemies of progress, the agunzheyin use their powers to inflict pain and sorrows on their victims. The Gbagyi understand the role of the agunzheyin to be acquired rather than innate. Jarumi explains that agunzheyin derives from the Gbagyi perception of unexplainable mysteries of nature which zoku explains as the work of agunzheyin in nature. Since they are perceived to have strange powers to cause tumultuous disequilibrium in people‟s lives, by their nefarious activities, fear and dislike for them is on the increase.
Witchcraft is said to be common among the Gbagyi women. The reasons adduced for this by Jarumi includes: polygamy, the non acceptance of a woman married into the family from another village other than that of the husband resulting in what Jarumi calls the “mother-in-law complex”, and in “queer” and “ugly people.”



Whenever ashigbe is mentioned in Gbagyi understanding, it refers to that medicine which has a mystical and transcendental ability to cure, heal, and ward off all evil attacks against a person. In the Igbo society, the roles of “diviners, priests, and medicine-men” are differentiated. Ikenga-Metuh observed: “Medicine for Africans primarily conveys the idea of forces contained and can be extracted from the properties of some plants and herbs and applied to the solution of a variety of human problems.”



The natural death is a death not as a result of an attempt to kill someone through either charm,witchcraft or any other source. Gbaishya is performed before the burial, during the death ceremony or the performance may occur at both occasions.Traditionally, Gbaishya is performed during the death ceremony.The cultural practice is done to commemorate the deceased either man or woman and to celebrate a life well spent by the deceased.It also aim at tracking and showcasing the activities of the deceased while he/she was alive,through drama. Gbaishya is always perform before the members of the community and the daughter in-law or grand daughter plays the major role.However an interesting aspect of this traditional drama is that it is people oriented and participatory. Every member of the community is expected to participate actively during the performance,as natural as they use to communicate with the deceased during his/her life time.

The dramatic performance is a prerequisite of series of cultural activities,such as: Ritual and Sacrifice,Music and Dance and series of other forms of the Enactment,all associated with the death ceremony.This cultural practice has survived to date and is still in practice in most of the Gbagyi communities especially in the rural areas.