Irigwe people



Irigwe people (Rigwe: Nneirigwe; Hausa: Miyango) are found mainly in Bassa Local Government Area of Plateau State, Middle Belt (central) Nigeria. They speak the Rigwe language (also Nkarigwe), a Central Plateau language. Their headquarters is the town of Miango, west of the state capital, Jos.

Irigwe people are  ancient  hospitable and friendly Bantu rigwe-speaking people of larger Benue-Congo ethnolinguistic group living in Bassa and Barakin Ladi Local Government Areas of Plateau State and Saminaka Local Government Area in Kaduna state. The Irigwe, mostly live in Miango, Jos and Bukuru village in Bassa LGA of Plateau State. This people were famous to the anthropologist for its polyandry practice and traditional ritual dance. There are a lot of tourist attractions in the  Miango village like water falls, high hills, the Miango rest house etc. Currently there are about 70,000 Irigwe people living Nigeria. As a result of Christianity and anthropologists tagging of Irigwe tribe as "primitive" and "pagan" society for practicing polyandry and the British government that kill many of it indigenes because they were threat to them, most Irigwes do not practice polyandry again.

The following are also Irigwe tribes and can be used to refer to as Irigwe; Aregwe, Idafan, Kwal, Kwan, Kwoll, Miango, Nkarigwe, Nnerigwe, Nyango,Rigwe etc. The Irigwe call their language as rigwe. They call themselves as yirigwe and an Irigwe person (singular) is also yirigwe.



The Irigwe live about 20 miles west of the towns of Jos and Bukuru in euphorbia-enclosed, extended-family compounds that are clustered closely together to form a belt of almost continuous settlement running north and south for about four miles just above the western escarpment of the Jos Plateau, Nigeria.



Irigwe people speak rigwe language which belongs to larger Benue or Niger-Congo family. Rigwe (Irigwe) is a Plateau language of the Central sub-group, spoken by people living in Miango (SW of Jos), Kwall and several other hamlets in Bassa local government, Plateau State and Kauru local government, Kaduna State,  Nigeria. According to D.A. Daniel and J.K. Barry, An Outline of Irigwe Phonology and Grammar (1983), data collected from electoral rolls estimates a total Rigwe population at over 60,000. However, Ethnologue (2005) repeats a UBS figure of 40,000 dating from 1985 for the number of Rigwe speakers. The Rigwe language has a very little dialectal variation among speakers.

Although some work on writing the Rigwe language began in 1919, followed by irregular vernacular publications, for example the Katikism /Irigwe Catechism/ (Anon 1935), nine NT books (1935), Irigwe Hymnbook (1986), Alphabet chart (1986), the analysis of Rigwe phonology has remained at best incomplete. A more comprehensive overview of the history of the Rigwe orthography is contained in Reading and Writing Irigwe (2006), a product of the Irigwe Language and Bible Translation Project. This booklet is the main source of current Rigwe orthographic practice although it does not provide proof for its assessment of the Rigwe sound system.

Rigwe has been classified with Izere in the South-Central subgroup of Plateau (Gerhardt 1989) a view reprised in Crozier & Blench (1992). The evidence for this is limited although some comparative data is included in Gerhardt (1983). However, as the present paper will show it has developed a very distinctive phonology. The only other detailed account of a related language is Follingstad (1991) which describes Tyap (Kataf) which has a rich system of fortis/lenis contrasts quite unlike Rigwe.

Rigwe is notable for its extremely rich phonemic system. A number of phonemes only occur once and it is a moot point as to whether they can be described as integrated into the phonological system. The source of this appears to be a combination of the erosion and rebuilding of CV prefixes and pervasive palatal and labial prosodies possibly arising from former pluralisation strategies. In addition, past contact with Chadic languages is probably responsible for both a lateral fricative and low-frequency preglottalised consonants.


History/Myth (Creation)

According to  Sangree (1969) Elders of Rae (Red Earth) recount the following Irigwe origin myth:

"Long ago, Weze, the original Red Earth ancestor, descended from the sun to a spot in the child division (Nyango). A descendant of his first brought forth fire from a hole in the rock by the river that separates the parent and child divisions. A later descendant moved south of the river to what is now the parent division area (Rigwe) and met a man named Audu wandering by. He bore the name Audu, which is an Irigwe nickname for Jarawa, because he had come for the Jarawa tribal group situated east of Irigwe.

The Red Earth people invited Audu to live with them, and he married and became the original ancestor of the most senior Irigwe male section. Audu came bringing as a gift the fruit of the Inhwiae tree, and the Irigwesection he founded is known as Nuhwie in remembrance of this gift. At that time Audu had no crops, his people eating only game, fruits, and berries. The Red Earth people gave Audu crops and asked him to distribute them among his people. They agreed to respect each other as mother and son and as man and woman (which also means husband and wife in the Irigwe language). Then, combining their hunting and gathering and farming skills, they together founded the Irigwe tribe.

With the passing of time the tribe grew to have quite a few sections, some arising from the incorporation of immigrant groups and others being formed by the splitting off of patrilineages from already established Irigwe sections. Then a great migration took place. A man from a junior male section led members of his own lineage, together with offshoots of other male and female sections, to the north side of the river where they formed a new “son” section not far from where the original Red Earth ancestor had descended from the sun. Very soon afterwards the entire Red Earth section followed this new son section to the new settlement. Several other lineages from male and female sections came later. The descendants of all these migrants now comprise Nyango, the child division of Irigwe."

Written history has it that the Irigwe tribe emerged from a close range of the descendants of the Bantu tribes from the Cameroun as a result of the class language spoken by a family of languages between Duala in the Cameroun and Kei river in South Africa, between Barawa in and Omaruru in Namibia, due to the existence of the 84 Bantu groups of Bantu languages divided in some 1600 dialects.

History has it that after the long migration from one point to the other through Yankari, et lal; the Irigwe man settled at Fobur(Jos East). They kept moving in hunt of game and ariable land for farming until they arrived Riti Voh (Dutsen Kurah), and finaly settling at Rigwe(Kwall).



The Irigwe people are mainly agriculturalists. They planted a lot of grains and foodstuffs. the Irigwe people were also known for their game-hunting skills.


Socio-political structure

Irigwe traditionally had no tribal chief, and lacked any formalized political hierarchy as such. Instead the tribe was subdivided into 25 semi-autonomous agnatically based ritual units or "sections" (rekla). They are bound together on the one hand by each section's having exclusive responsibility for performing one or another ritual felt to be necessary for the tribe, and on the other hand by cross-cutting affinal and cognatic bonds mediated by both primary (fo’wena ‘taking a girl,’ band by the women as nynira ‘a from-to’)  and "secondary" (fo mbru ‘taking a woman or wife’ by the men and vwevwe ‘sing-sing’ by the women) intersection marriages (Sangree 1972).

The Irigwe repeatedly utilize the idiom of generation and sex (i.e., parent-child and male female) to characterize and classify aspects of their world, both social and geographical. As a result each of their twenty-four agnatically based Irigwe subdivisions or “sections,” as the Irigwe call them, has its own shrine house, rather womb-like in shape, called a branyi. Each Irigwe section regards its branyi as sacred and as its center of strength and regeneration, and skulls and other relics of warfare and hunting are preserved therein. Each branyi is presided over by a senior man of the section’s senior most lineage. The twenty-four sections are grouped into two geographically discrete divisions. Rigwe (Kwon District), the “parent” division, which lies south of the River Ngell, has ten sections, which together control a major portion of the important tribal ritual.

Nyango (Miango District), the “child” division, with fourteen sections, is north of the Ngell. In addition sections are regarded as either “male” or “female”. There are seven male and two female sections in the parent division, plus one section that is probably regarded as male (but I remain uncertain about this section). Then there are nine male and four female sections in the child division, plus one section that cannot be clearly classified as either. Each section has its ritual specialization of significance to the entire tribe. Female sections share the responsibility for most of the ritual concerning wet-season planting and crop growth, whereas male sections direct the ritual regulating hunting and most other dry-season activities. Sections in the parent division are felt, with one exception, to have ritual status superior to that of sections in the child division. This one exception is the section called Rae (“Red Earth”), which is the most senior female section and is situated in the child division.

Most sections in the parent division are regarded as having diverse agnatic origins. Themale sections in the parent division are ritually ranked and specialized according to their putative order of arrival in Irigwe. The most senior male section presides over the most important dry-season and planting rituals for the entire tribe. The more junior sections in the parent division have their own relatively minor ritual specializations, which are for the most part connected with dry-season activity. The three female sections in the parent division are all of essentially equal ritual status; one carries out planting ritual for one of the important grain crops; a second has ritual to control the lightning; the specialty of the third remains unclear to me.

Rae (“Red Earth”), the most senior female section as noted above, is situated in the child division. The Red Earth section presides over the principal farming and first-fruits ritual for all of Irigwe.

With the exception of the Red Earth section and two offshoot sections from it, each section of the child division recognizes its origin from a “parent” section in the parent division and serves as its ritual subordinate. Thus a section in the child division is regarded as “female” if it is derived from a female parent section and as “male” if it is derived from a male parent section. It is noteworthy that the elders of Nuhwie, the most senior male section, do not accept the Red Earth origin myth given above and dispute the seniority of the Red Earth section. They assert that Nuhwiae was the first Irigwe section and insist that the Red Earth section is merely their daughter (a rather ungrateful daughter at that) on whom they have bestowed female ritual leadership through the magnanimity of their paternal affection.

Most Irigwe sections are subdivided into several exogamous lineages (énûcié). Although extended family compounds of any particular lineage and section tend to be spatially clustered, there are many cases of compounds that adjoin or are surrounded by compounds of other lineages or even other sections. Thus it is not possible to identify either a compound’s lineage or section affiliation solely by its location. Sections vary greatly in size; the largest comprises ninety-nine separate extended family compounds, and the smallest has only two. A compound usually has about thirty-five members, but they too vary greatly in size from as few as three people to over Irigwe hunt all during the dry season, principally in groups organized on a section basis.
The highlight of the hunting season is a three-day tribal hunt and celebration (Zaraci) at the end of the dry season presided over by Nuhwie, the most senior male section. It is in the organization and ceremonial arrangements of this big hunt that one sees the parent and child divisions most explicitly counter posed. The Irigwe’s passion for hunting finds its principal ceremonial expression, however, after this great hunt, early in the rains when planting is just beginning. At this time each section in turn holds a three-day ceremonial to purify and praise its hunters who during the preceding season have brought heads of big game (and formerly human enemies) to their branyi. Only heads of certain dangerous game are preserved as relics, thereby qualifying their takers as sˇ us (“heroes”) to be thus honored. In recent decades big game has grown very scarce, and in several instances some of the small sections, tired of waiting many years for a member to bag the requisite game before holding a sˇ üa ceremonial have paired off with other sections to hold the ceremonial jointly thus making bigger and more frequent ceremonies possible for each.

After the climax of the sˇ üa ceremonial when the heroes are anointed and ritually cleansed while seated before the branyi, senior representatives of every section of the tribe sit down to a feast, and girls of the host section dance and sing songs of praise, honoring past and present heroes. Although the food and beer are supplied by the host section, representatives from guest female sections help make the final feast preparations, and elders from guest male sections actually distribute the food and drink. Then as they eat and drink, a spokesman from each section in turn comments on the skulls and their takers. As the speeches drag on and the beer flows, verbal skirmishes and sometimes fisticuffs arise over slights or departures from protocol. Finally peace and reconciliation is sought and usually achieved with shouted admonitions that all the sections are one family and that man and wife and parents and children should help and support each other.

Anyhow, by that time the elders are too full of beer to care very much, and the younger men and women, girls and youths, are dancing around the big drum (bí), or are off trysting. Thus we come at last to the principal focus of this paper, the Irigwe marriage system. During the dry season men bend their sporting energy to chasing down game; but the beginning of the planting season, when the rains are just starting, is the time above all times for making off with other men’s wives.


Religious Belief

The Irigwe people believe in a Supreme being called Nae. Nae is the God above all other gods. He created the world and all the things in it. He punishes the wicked and bless the good one. All the branyi (shrine) gods bow to Nae. The ancestral spirits that Irigwe worship are also inferior to the supreme being Nae.

The Irigwe people also have initiation like Dodo. Ogmjne of the Dodo Cult's principal aims is explicitly that of assuring the health and well being of cultists, particularly of their infants and small children. A secondary, but crucial, function of the cult is to decrease the tendency for wives to shift residence to other husbands, thereby increasing marriage stability. Irigwe men, when discussing the importance of the Dodo Cult, universally view it as a way of helping control disease, and some of them also say it helps keep wives in residence.

Nowadays, most Irigwe people are largely Christians with some taken into Islam. Very few of them are traditionalists.



Irigwe view witchcraft as being very significant in both tribal and local or family affairs. At the tribal level witchcraft enters into both ritual and political matters, and its practitioners are characteristically men. It may bring pestilence and other disasters, but it is also regarded as an important asset to be utilized in strengthening the tribe's offensive and defensive efforts in inter-tribal affrays (Sangree 1970, 1971). In the local arena, namely among members of the extended family compound (ari}, the lineage (enucie), and others living nearby, witches are often women. In both the tribal and local arenas a witch (krotu) may utilize various kinds of sorcery as well as witchcraft power (tsitsie) to achieve desired goals.

Particularly feared in local affairs is the witchcraft practiced by some older women who, jealous of younger women's fertility and healthy children, are said to have apprenticed themselves to a powerful witch (krotu) and to have learned sickness dealing techniques to use against younger wives and their offspring resident in their own and neighboring compounds. On a number of occasions people told me that individuals well-known to be witches were living right in their own compounds, but such pronouncements were never made publically in my presence nor were names ever given to me. Instead of open accusations or direct action, indirect palliatives and countermeasures are normally used against the purported depredations of these witches. Many adults wear leather clad anti-witchcraft medicine bundles around their waists that can be purchased from Hausa and other non-Irigwe practitioners living in Miango, other market areas, and the towns. Local Irigwe doctors (renevo) also regularly prescribe antiwitchcraft medicines and charms. The most highly respected and sought after anti-witchcraft practitioners in Irigwe are those who are surviving twins, and thus "good" witches. The Irigwe believe that twins are always witches (rekrotu), but that one twin is "good" and the other is "bad." In former times the "bad" twin was killed shortly after birth; the surviving "good" twin has the inborn capacity to recognize and neutralize the evil power of other witches (Sangree 1971). It is believed that witches seldom are motivated to trouble women and children whom they do not frequently see; thus it is common for a woman seeking safety from a witch's malevolence to move to another husband, taking her small children with her.


Irigwe Dance

"Among the Irigwe people, each ward of a village has a leading dance group. Dancers are selected on the basis of their dance ability. Senior members of the dance group now carry an axe in the right hand and a cowtail switch in the left. The dance uniform of short trousers and a moulded cap of red felt was introduced in the early fifties. The idiophones now in use are made of palm leaves woven into a series of pockets, containing pebbles attached round the lower leg.

Two drums lead the dance. A large double faced membranophone with a single snare, called biange and, a smaller membranophone, of identical design, called ishinge. Today the dances, together with a large repertoire within the same style are performed on three distinct occasions. The dance at its most vigorous remains an expression of the communal way of life at festivals celebrating the agricultural cycle. The second occasion occurs when a prominent member of the community dies and dances are performed as part of the funeral ceremonies. Finally the dances are performed to entertain important visitors." [Harper P., 1966: The Miango Dancers. Studies in Nigerian Dance number 2. Caxton Press Limited, Ibadan].