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Living History

Enajite Efemuaye journeys to the Nanna Living History Museum in Delta State, Nigeria, to learn more about the life and times of Nanna Olomu, an Itsekiri chief and merchant who died in 1916.



The Journey to Warri

Squeezed into the back of a taxi with three other people, on my way to Warri, a city in the Delta State, I say a prayer. A prayer that it will not rain. Rain in these parts of Nigeria is notorious for going on for hours at a time without letting up and we have long to go.

Inside the taxi, an argument rages about why the government has not banned agberos, men who stand at bus stops and collect money from bus and taxi drivers. The woman sitting at the front of the taxi is louder than everyone, going head to head with a teacher on his way to Warri to negotiate the payment of a backlog of teachers’ salaries. I am sandwiched between an old man and an old woman who points out that the old man is wearing his clothes inside-out and so will have something good happen to him.

I am on my way to the Nanna Living History Museum, a place I have always wanted to visit to fill a gap in my education. In secondary school, the story of the chief and merchant Nanna Olomu was not in the curriculum. All I know about him is that he was an Itsekiri monarch, exiled by the British in the same way as King Jaja of Opobo.


My friend Mudi and I meet at a pre-agreed spot in Warri. Accompanying him are three of his cousins – they are great-grandchildren of Nanna Olomu on their paternal grandmother’s side. Joshua, the eldest, is the designated driver, while I sit at the back with the two teenagers. The drive to Koko is quiet, outside my window is the dark rainforest, broken by a few towns and palm-tree plantations.

Forty-five minutes after we leave Warri, we arrive at Ugbenu, where we turn left onto the Oghara/Koko expressway. It is Wednesday, Koko market day, and one lane of the road has been swallowed up by the market. Cars coming and going have to squeeze through the other lane, which the market has also taken small bites out of. The going is slow but I don’t mind.

Nanna Olomu: a brief history

Anthony Nanna, the 74-year-old grandson of Nanna Olomu and custodian/caretaker of the museum, meets us at the entrance. The museum is the palace of Nanna, built from 1907 to 1910 after his return from exile in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and turned into a museum by the Nigerian government in 1990.

Nanna Olomu was an Itsekiri chief and merchant who had his base of operations at Ebrohimi, his hometown, from where he ran a lucrative trade in palm oil with the British. He acted as a middle man, buying palm oil from the Urhobo people, who lived further inland, and selling to the British merchants berthed at Ebrohimi, a coastal town nearby. He was the fourth Gofune, Governor of the Benin River.


After the Berlin Conference of 1885, the British came up with new terms of trade, terms that included new prices that would cut the profit of the Itsekiri merchants to nothing. Nanna rejected the terms. Trade between Nanna and the British halted, but he continued to prosper. He had influence over areas around the Benin River and Warri, making it difficult for the British to penetrate and engage in trade directly with the Urhobos.

This led to him being falsely accused of disrupting trade within the Niger Delta, terrorising the Urhobos and engaging in inhuman trafficking of slaves and human sacrifice.

In 1894, a siege was laid on Ebrohimi, and Nanna’s capital fell on 25 September 1894. Nanna escaped capture with one of his wives and two sons and fled to Lagos, but he was arrested there, taken to Calabar for trial and exiled to the Gold Coast.

Courtyard of the Nanna Living History Museum in Koko, Delta State, Nigeria (photo credit: M. Ori-Jesu)

Nanna Living History Museum

As Anthony Nanna leads us around the compound, he shows us the spot where an iroko tree once stood, now occupied by a hall that is rented out to a church for their services. Nanna sat there and supervised the building of his house. After the buildings were completed, the tree was chopped down and the wood became material for his sons to build furniture. He takes us to the outhouses where Nanna’s wives had lived, now occupied by his descendants.

The courtyard of Nanna’s house is covered with paving stones, replacing the original sand hauled from Ebrohimi to Koko. ‘Koko’ is the Itsekiri word for ‘cocoyam’ and where the present-day town stands was once Nanna’s cocoyam farm, which was maintained by his slaves. On return from exile, Nanna returned to Koko and not to Ebrohimi, which had been completely destroyed in the Battle of Ebrohimi.


Before going into Nanna’s house, Anthony takes us to the back of the compound where Nanna dug a canal that connected with the Ologbo River, which converges with the Benin River before flowing out to sea. The canal was an escape route and also a berth for goods, especially palm oil transported from further inland. Anthony points out the places where gun boats had been mounted as further security measures. I try to imagine what a sight it must have been, but sadly, all I have to work with is a narrow channel, overgrown with weeds and water turned a coppery brown by dead foliage.

“The government is supposed to maintain this place,” Anthony says, “but their mismanagement of funds is affecting us.” He showed us a pile of paving stones earlier that have been there for years, relics of a project to cover the entire area around the museum that was abandoned halfway.

Nanna’s house was originally built with mud and thatch – one can see where repairs were done on the building in 1990. The walls have been painted over and some of the arches redone – they can be identified by their crookedness, while the ones from Nanna’s time maintain a perfect curve. (“They cannot do anything properly these days,” Anthony says.) In 1929 Nanna’s children replaced the thatch roof with zinc roofing and minor repairs are done when it sprouts leaks.

Anthony takes us to his grandfather’s reception area, which was used as a hall for community meetings when Nanna was alive. “The Nanna family can trace their ancestry to 1200, from the Obas of Benin,” Anthony begins, taking us back to the 15th century, when a plot to murder the heir to the throne led to the formation of a plan that brought the first sons of 70 chiefs and the heir to the place now known as Warri.

Enajite Efemuaye (left) with Anthony Nanna (photo credit: M. Ori-Jesu)

Contested territory

Anthony is a skilled storyteller and his eyes crinkle as he smiles, his wrinkles hiding the three tribal marks cut into each cheek as he tells us a tale spanning centuries. He constantly interrupts himself to make sure we are paying attention. He targets the teenagers particularly, asking them questions and teasing them about their knowledge of geography.


Ownership of Warri has for a long time been a bone of contention between the Urhobos, Ijaws and Itsekiris and has spawned several tribal conflicts, one of which made my mother move us from Warri to Lagos in 2003. The way Anthony tells it, the Itsekiris founded Warri but I am not about to interrupt him. My great-grandmother is Itsekiri and I feel a small sense of kinship.

This sense grows when he mentions that my village, Okpara Waterside, was one of the towns where Nanna bought palm oil. In my great-grandfather’s compound are remnants of machinery for processing palm oil and I grew up with stories of what a great trader he was. To think that my ancestor and Nanna might have crossed paths at some point is exciting.

We are not allowed to take pictures of the artefacts in the reception or the other rooms we visit. Nanna’s dining room is maintained as it was when he hosted dignitaries with the dishes and cutlery used in those days. The table is set and the brass and ceramic vessels for storing water and palm wine look like they are waiting for a dinner party.

Anthony ushers us into the room that holds artefacts of trade and war and pictures of the four ships that were used by the British in the Battle of Ebrohimi. Some of the artefacts are gifts from Queen Victoria sent to Nanna when he became governor.

The final resting place


In Nanna’s bedroom and final resting place we have to use the lights from our phones to illuminate the room. There is no electricity supply, and it is an inner room, so there is no natural lighting. There are unlit candles around the grave, which is covered with Ebrohimi sand and bordered by raised blocks. Anthony explains that 2016 marks the centenary of Nanna’s death and his descendants came together to have a memorial in his honour, which explains the candles. He tells my companions to make sure they return for the bigger celebration to be held in October.

Of all the leaders who refused to pander to the British and were sent into exile, Nanna was the only one who returned and died at home. It is, however, clear that he did not trust the British. Anthony shows us an escape route from his reception area. A passage is built between the outside wall that people saw and the actual wall of the building. There are two exits: one leads to the canal, where a boat was always waiting, and another to a thicket that also opens into the canal at some point.

While the cousins take pictures and Anthony locks up the museum, I ask if he is training anyone to take his place. “They are not interested, these young ones,” he says. “There is a curator from the government but it is not the same. No one knows this place like I do. When I go, that’s it.”

It has been four hours and several stories. Anthony takes us to see Ologbo River and a road under construction that will cut the journey from Delta State to Lagos by half the time. The project has been under way since 1966. Development in Koko is slow and is not helped by the persistent tribal clashes with the Ijaws. Politics also play a role. I see a signpost indicating that Total Nigeria has a lubricants blending plant in Koko and Anthony confirms that there are a few others, but outside this, industrial activity in Koko is next to nothing.

The journey back takes less time. Anthony rides with us for part of the way, pointing out interesting landmarks in Koko and extracting a promise from his younger kin to come visit again. Listening to him talk, I think to myself that while hundreds of books have been written about Nanna Olomu, nothing beats listening to the stories while you see history come alive before you.


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