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Why is the Kola Nut a Sacred Fruit?

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

“Ịwa Ọjị,” the Kola Nut Ritual, is a sacred tradition in Igbo land. It is one of the few traditions that all Igbo people uphold. The ritual is a constant feature at private and public gatherings. But what is the Kola Nut and why do Igbo people consider this produce sacred? Let me start by saying that the history of the Kola Nut, like many aspects of our Oral Tradition, is not clear-cut. The reasons for the use of Kola Nut as a spiritual emblem are also varied. Many versions of the reason and history of Kola Nut emerging as a sacred crop have been passed down the oral tradition. For example, there is a legend that when our earliest ancestors settled in Igbo land, they sampled the many fruits the land produced, each in its season. With the Kola Nut, they noticed something quite unusual: Any time they ate the fruit it supplied energy to a degree that was disproportionate to the quantity eaten. They also noticed that it warded off hunger for a greater length of time than similar fruits or foods, size to proportion. But then, if you had too much of it, it would keep you awake for longer than you would like to stay up. They theorized that these unique effects from this fruit must mean that the spirits meant to communicate something special. Over time, they decided that it was a special fruit that deserved special recognition.

Now, in this twenty-first century, we may take their experience for granted with the understanding that Kola Nut had those effects on them because it contains caffeine. But eons of years ago, they did not have the tools we now have, which tools put unlimited knowledge at our fingertips, literally. It is also noteworthy that our ancestors were not alone in that regard. Ancient societies made similar judgments about their interaction with nature. History has it that tobacco was used for religious rituals before it was a recreational drug. The same goes for marijuana. In fact, marijuana remains the “sacrament” for the religious movement known as Rastafarians. The Inca still use Coca leaves for religious rituals (cocaine is extracted from coca leaves). If you read this, I guarantee that you have consumed plenty of Kola Nut and plenty of Coca. The word Coca-Cola simply means that the original formula for that drink contains extracts from Coca and Kola (spelled Cola to rhyme).

I don’t know about Coca but if you have been shy to try Kola Nut, grab some the next time you come across it. You can’t be allergic to it if you drink Coke. Going back to the question, Why is Kola Nut a Sacred Crop, we can reliably say that our ancestors set it aside as a special crop because it affected their consciousness in a way that was recognizably different from your average plant produce. When we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and continue to keep Kola Nut sacred, we acknowledge their earliest experiences with our homeland, Igbo land; we recognize how far we have come from then to now; we acknowledge and honor their sacrifices and their relationship to the Land, Anị, Mother Earth. Generations of Igbo people have continued to honor the tradition of our ancestors by preserving the sacredness of the kola nut as a spiritual emblem. Usually, but not always, the invocation associated with the kola nut is a ritual is performed by a man. In many communities, there are exceptions for when a woman may perform the invocation. Do you know how to perform the kola nut ritual?

If you have been to any event where Igbo culture was recognized, you must have observed that there is some protocol and formality that is accorded the presentation of kola nut. These days, it usually happens in tandem with the Christian prayer at the opening of events. The presentation is a form of invocation in Igbo tradition but many also refer to it as "kola nut prayer." Here are some important questions about the kola nut ritual. Talk to the elders in your family and get the basics. After you learn the answers to the following questions, you will have gained some insight into something unique to Igbo culture.

What is the Kola nut?

Why do Igbo people use it for invocation (prayer)?

When is it supposed to be presented?

How do you decide who does the public presentation/prayer ritual?

Why is it that a man (almost) always performs the ritual?

When can a woman lead a public Kola nut ritual?

Are there some rules about how to perform the ritual?

What happens if any of the rules is broken?

Do all Igbo people follow the same set of rules?

Are there rules/protocols that are unique to my community?

Who can eat the kola nut after the ritual?

***There are different ways to describe the kola nut ceremony. It can be referred to as kola nut “offering,” “presentation,” “prayer ceremony,” “kola nut ritual” etc. They all mean the same thing. In Igbo, it is called, “Ịwa Ọjị.”

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